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I didn’t have high expectations for Koh Chang, Thailand’s third largest island located in the Gulf of Thailand near Cambodia. For some reason, I thought people only went there when they had limited time since the island’s relatively close to Bangkok – it’s less than a 5-hour minibus ride from the capital plus a short 30-minute ferry. It seemed like the consolation island – if you couldn’t make it down to the more popular islands in the Andaman Sea, then you could at least visit Koh Chang.
I was wrong.
In fact, out of all my island trips – I’ve visited Koh Phangan, Koh Phi Phi, Koh Maak, Koh Muk and Koh Samui – I enjoyed my time on Koh Chang the most. Going through a difficult time in Chiang Mai, I escaped by myself to Koh Chang and after five and a half days, I still didn’t want to leave. Here’s why:
First of all – it was by far the easiest island to get to. Even if you’re considering flying down to Sura Thani or Krabi (two major jumping off points for islands such as Koh Tao, Koh Phangan, Koh Samui, Koh Phi Phi and Koh Lanta) from Bangkok, it’s still going to take you longer and cost more than heading to Koh Chang. Busses to each of the other regions will take you 9-10 hours and, either way, you still have long boat rides to the islands themselves. It’s a trek.
For Koh Chang, you can easily take a bus or minibus from Bangkok to the Ao Thammachat ferry pier in Laem Ngop, Trat province (about five hours) and then a 30-minute ferry ride to the island saving you time and money. It’s also relatively easy to get around with one main road running (almost all the way) around the island. Sonthaews (shared truck taxis) go along the main road and, of course, there are plenty of motorbikes to rent. If you do plan on renting a bike, however, be warned that the road has some pretty narrow, steep and twisty (including hairpins turns and switchbacks going up a hill) sections and you should be pretty confident with your driving skills.
Koh Chang isn’t quite as striking as other islands and doesn’t have the mesmerizing aquamarine blue waters that you see photos of, BUT it’s still really, really beautiful. There are excellent white sand beaches, the water (while not blindingly turquoise) is still clear and blue, and the vast majority of the island is undeveloped rainforest.
There are waterfalls and mangrove forests, along with banana, pomelo and rubber tree plantations, plenty of places to lie out on the beach, trek up in the hills and and catch the sun setting over the ocean.
All of the Thai islands have development issues. Development has outgrown the local infrastructure and it is more and more difficult to find ‘hidden’ slices of paradise. That said, while Koh Chang is definitely developed with hundreds of accommodation options, it’s not nearly as built up as some of the other giant islands like Phuket and Koh Samui.
Koh Chang is still home to many of the kinds of spots you dream of for an island getaway. The pace of life is slower and there are plenty of hammocks – my favorite! I actually found several restaurants with hammocks (like Porn’s Bungalow Restaurant right on the beach in Kai Bae, pictured below), and the places I stayed or ate at tended to have an open, communal feel with pillows on the floor and views of the ocean – Just what I was looking for.
If you don’t want to drink your Leo while sitting on a mat looking over the ocean, you can still stay in a resort, party all night and eat international cuisine. The different beaches all have their own feel and tend to cater toward different types of travelers – Haad Sai Khao (White Sand Beach) is the island’s longest beach filled with resorts, shops, restaurants, bars and your usual tourist amenities, while Lonely Beach still has a backpacker vibe and is home to a tight cluster of bars, guesthouses and tattoo shops.
Activity-wise, you can do just about anything as well – lie by the pool, swim in the sea, kayak, hike, go on a day cruise, dive, visit elephants, take a cooking class…it’s all there.
Koh Chang was the first island where I saw Thai visitors. This sounds funny, but many of the other islands are more expensive, catering more to foreign tourists and foreign money. You go on the beach and only see other foreigners. On Koh Chang, there was more of an obvious mix of visitors enjoying a vacation and it was really refreshing to see – it had a (relatively) less ‘Westerner’s playground’ atmosphere. I’m assuming this is partially because of the island’s proximity to Bangkok and range of prices and accommodation…
Over all, the Thai islands are more expensive than Bangkok or the north. Food, transportation, accommodation – all the prices have been jacked up. This is understandable, and to be expected, but what’s frustrating is when it seems like you have no option or choice in what you pay for things. I was surprised by the range of prices available for everything from a bottle of beer at a convenience store to a private bungalow.
You could buy a burger at Western prices…or you could get a plate of noodles for 40 baht (just over a dollar). Some of the prices in the private convenience stores were raised quite a bit…but I could still find items for just a few more baht than what I normally paid at 7-11 in Chiang Mai. You didn’t feel like you were completely stuck with inflated prices and rates.
Same with accommodation – not only could you find anything you wanted, but you could find anything to fit your budget as well…and your money could go a surprisingly a long way. I stayed at Oasis Bungalows, which I highly recommend, on Lonely Beach. For about $12 USD I had a bungalow in the garden. No air con or hot water, but I didn’t need either of them at all. Even in the highest ‘peak’ season, December 1 – January 31, this bungalow is only about $16. If you wanted a room with more amenities, they had those too – options!
Koh Chang surprised me in the best way possible and I have no doubt that I’ll be making a return visit at some point.
If you’re thinking of heading to Koh Chang, Travelfish has a useful overview of the island for more information as well as outlines and accommodation suggestions for the different beaches. If you’re still trying to decide which of the Thai islands to visit (there are a ton!), check out this post.