Backpackers. (Or ‘Travellers’ to be politically correct.) Love ’em or loathe ’em but you can’t avoid ’em. You’ll be sitting in a beachfront restaurant enjoying your steamed sea bass, a large plate of BBQ prawns and sunset Mojito when from somewhere behind you you’ll overhear a voice ordering a fried rice and bottle of water and an extra plate so Miss. Backpacker can share. 20 minutes later the voice will be heard again complaining that he has been charged 15 baht for the water when it only costs 10 baht in the 7-eleven. “50% mark-up, rip off or what??? ” And then outrage as their threats of an irate posting on the Lonely Planet discussion board and promise to never eat in this restaurant again as it’s “Double the price of a lovely little place down a backstreet by the bus stop in a village 30km east of Luang Prabang where we had lunch that time with the Laos locals”, go ignored by the bemused waitress.
Having done the backpacking thing (My trip was quite a few years ago , in the time before internet travel guides, and consisted of riding my bicycle for about 15,000km – this how I first came to Thailand . I am one of the few to arrive for the first time in the country by bicycle rather than by plane.) I’m regularly less than impressed by the lack of travelling many travellers do – remaining in one spot for a month or so is just plain boring and hardly opens your eyes to a new country & culture.
No, taking in full moon parties on different islands doesn’t really count as an adventure. Fortunately, there are a new breed of backpacker, those who don’t mind budgeting $30/ day for living expenses and can therefore afford both the extortionate rates local laundries charge (30 baht/kilo) and a pair of flip flops, so walking barefoot isn’t necessary. With a handful of exceptions, going barefoot anywhere other than in a temple or on a beach isn’t big or clever. Hippy wannabe’s take note, tarmac roads that have been baking in the sun aren’t one of the exceptions.
Bank Accounts. If you plan on moving to the island or working here then having a Thai bank account certainly helps when it comes to having a place to deposit any hard earned cash or to transfer monies into. Unfortunately, Thailand now has an annoying rule which prohibits anyone who doesn’t have a work permit from having opening a bank account. As least that’s the theory
Some banks on Koh Chang adhere to this rule, other’s don’t really care so long as you’ve got some cash to deposit. Fortunately, staff at Siam City Bank or bank of Ayudya, both on White Sand Beach, will open an account, with ATM card for you in a matter of minutes. Either they’re just very nice folks or are desperate for new accounts. Kasikorn Bank is a better option and they will also open an account and even get a member of staff to fill in all the forms for you. They’d be a better best especially if you want an internet banking option. Bangkok Bank are also flexible as they opened their branch after most people who needed bank accounts had already got one. Get to know the staff and call in at the weekend for the best chance of opening an account if you don’t have a Work Permit. Siam Commercial Bank adhere to the rules for some bizarre reason.
Bars. Koh Chang has only one brand-name bar ‘Sabay Bar’, on White Sand Beach, which is relatively well-known off the island and boasts a mock rock cliff face as a frontage, a Balinese themed interior and prices higher than many city centre Bangkok bars. There’s a very nice beach bar on White Sand Beach, just south of Sabay Bar in front of Tantawan bungalows called ‘Tapas Bar’, situated under a large tree and is cheap, quiet and serves very nice snacks & nibbles. An antidote the to fire twirling and loud music from most beachfront places ‘Ting Tong Bar’ in Lonely Beach, is where you’ll meet partying backpackers, and is well known for parties and good live music. Or head up the road 100 metres to ‘Magic Garden’ if you want to meet yet more ‘chillaxing’ backpackers..Both Kai Bae and Lonely Beach both have their share of roadside & beachside bars all offering the same leafed roof, late night, Bob Marley, cheap vodka-redbull bucketed ambience that discerning travellers favour. In Kai Bae, Porn’s bar at Porn’s Bungalows is a longstanding old favourite. On Lonely beach, ‘Nature Rocks’ at Nature Beach bungalows is a good spot for people watching by the sea. Down in Bangbao, ‘Barracuda’ , which relocated from it’s spot on Klong Prao beach to midway along Bangbao pier, is a friendly place with great food and cocktails. At the southern end of Klong prao beach is ‘Pilot Bar’ handy if you are staying in the nearby luxury resorts and want to pay a sensible price for a beer & meal by the beach
Bar names. Maybe it’s just me but I have an aversion to western owned bars/restaurants/resorts named after the owner or the owner’s girlfriend. It shows lack of imagination and a desire to run the business as a boost either your or your totty’s ego plus the lack of imagination and thought in naming the place is carried over when dealing with customers who aren’t on first name terms with either of the owners. (I’ll give purely Thai owned places a break here as it’s not always easy to think of a good Thai name that’s translatable into a good English name backpackers can pronounce but farangs should know better.) Shoot me if you see me in a place called Leks, Noi’s, Oui’s, Nui’s, Nok’s, Moo’s etc and if, in years to come, I’m the owner, remind me it’s time to take the cyanide capsule.
Baht. The correct way to spell the name of the Thai currency in English.
Bakeries. Not much in the way of fresh bread available on the island if you don’t fancy sliced bread or sweet Thai bread. Two options for those in need of a baguette or decent attempt at a croissant are ‘Papa’s Deli’, mainroad just south of the KaBae Hut turnoff in Kai Bae and ‘Crust’, opposite the temple in Klong Prao. In high season both have a good selection of freshly baked breads & pastries to eat in or take away and also do good coffee.
Bart. Microsoft Word’s spellchecker’s suggestion for the correct spelling of the name of Thai currency.
Bath. The way to spell the name of the Thai currency in English if you’re a Thai signwriter.
Beaches. A quick summary:
White Sand Beach – The first beach you will come to after hopping off the ferry and therefore the busiest and first to be developed. The central stretch of beach has featureless concrete bungalows crammed and mid-price package tour hotels crammed as closely together as possible. The far northern end is sandy, quiet and has a similar vibe to Lonely Beach, the southern end is devoid of sand, on the plus side it is nearer the beer bars and the only decent Italian restaurant on the island. Good swimming and very good sand at the very north end, loads of stones at the south. A good option in low season, when it’s quieter but a bit like the Costa del Sol during high season.
Klong Prao Beach – A very long long sandy beach and, unlike most other beaches it actually has sand virtually along its entire length. As with most beaches on the island it only slopes gently into the sea which means you have to wade a hundred metres out in order to swim at low tide. Nowhere near as many resorts here as the other beaches – the main places to stay being several 3 star resorts, a handful of up-market luxury resorts and KP Huts, The Hut and Tiger Bungalows – three backpacker hangouts for backpackers who don’t want to mix with too many other backpackers and who don’t require an onsite Internet cafe with wifi and a sideline in wicked Frozen Caramel Macchiatos in order to survive.
Kai Bae Beach – A popular beach has about a dozen places to stay on the seafront which are often full during high season and very good value in the low season. These are mainly in the mid-price range – no wooden shacks here with the exception of Siam Cottage and the long standing Porn’s bungalows. Recently two high end boutique resorts, The Chill and Gajapuri have opened to good reviews. All the usual necessities (internet / coffee shop / bars / dive shops / 7-eleven minimarts / ATMs etc) are on the stretch of road behind the beach. The beach isn’t as good as others on the island but does have some very nice views – especially from Coral Resort in the centre of the beach and Siam Bay Resort at the far south.
Lonely Beach – The backpackers’ mecca . . . unless of course you’re a Muslim backpacker. Until a few years ago it was quite desolate and then the powers that be extended the road, put in electricity and the chances of finding peace and quiet evaporated overnight. Still the place to be seen for any self respecting world traveller and the place to avoid for everyone else. Nice, clean beach which is very good for swimming. Steadily going upmarket now with more flashpacker bungalows being built, such as Warapura Resort, one of the nicest mid-price resorts on the island. ‘The Treehouse’, the bungalows that made the beach famous over 15 years ago, are still there – or rather the restaurant & bar are but the actual bungalows were bulldozed in 2008.
Bailan Beach – Mostly narrow with a lot of stones at low tide with the exception of the beach directly outside the luxury Dusit Princess which is awash with powdery white sand – as it is man made.
East coast beaches – There aren’t any. Or at least nothing as good as those on the west coast. Some areas of reddish brown sand do appear at low tide but the sea bed is pretty stony and the beaches are quite short. Head to the west coast if beach-life is important. However, one notable exception is Long Beach in the far south-east of the island – a beautiful crescent bay with sunset views but not easily reached with two basic bungalow resorts Treehouse’ and Zion Bungalows.
Beach Access. All beaches in Thailand are in the public domain, however what you often find is that this means nothing if you can’t actually get to the beach.
Thais tend to enjoy going to beach resorts where the beach and the hotels are separated by a road, this allows easy access to the beach for both somtam vendors, the deck chair mafia and tourists. Foreign tourists prefer to stay as close to the beach as possible, leading to the land next to the beach being private property which is occupied by a resort. Koh Chang’s beaches are of the farang style, great if you are staying on them but getting to the sand can be a hassle if you’re not.
On White Sand Beach the National Park office designated three spots as public walkways down to the beach so visitors could avoid having to wander through a resort car park or past bungalows to get to the sand. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the walkway at the northern end of the beach, adjacent to the 7-Eleven, also serves as a storm drain which during high season collects garbage and tends to stink a bit. The one in the centre of the beach near BanPu Resort was washed away in a flood in 2006 and is now a pile of rubble and also serves as a storm drain which during high season collects garbage and tends to stink a bit. And finally the footpath at the southern end of the beach, adjacent to Baan Thai Resort, which is fine – just look for the sign saying ‘Publics Access Beach’.
There’s only one obvious way to get from the road to the beach on Klong Prao, which is good as it helps keep the beach much quieter than Kai Bae or White Sand Beach. At the far north of the beach, take the paved road leading to Chai Chet Resort, this heads to a small harbour where you can also easily park a car or motorbike and then walk onto the beach. Elsewhere, a public walkway to the beach was constructed at the end of 2005. It’s located midway between Klong Prao Resort and Koh Chang Resort and was built with quality as a secondary consideration. The builders didn’t anticipate the lack of foundations would have an adverse effect on the longevity of the structure, and , you guessed it, it partially collapsed when the tide came in too far. Damn you moon and your pulling effect on water! But it can still be used with care. Alternatively, to see the middle of the beach – take the track leading to KP Huts, Tiger Huts & Panviman Hotel, take any of the rough tracks that lead off to the left after you pass KP Huts.
To reach the sand on Kai Bae, it’s easy to park a bike beachside at the informal campsite adjacent to The Chill Resort. Alternatively just follow the road signposted to KB Hut and you’ll find you end up in a car/boat park next to the beach, from here it’s easy to walk along the , far nicer, southern stretch of beach.
To reach the sandy areas of Lonely Beach you have to go through one of the bungalow resorts on the beach itself or walk from the Treehouse. The security guards at Siam Beach Resort and Bhumiyama Resort won’t like you using their carpark for free, so head to Nature Beach or Siam Hut to park your motorbike or car and wander down to the sand.
Bailan Bay is a bit of a hassle to get down to, and, as the only real beach is the artificial one outside the new Dusit Princess Resort you may not want to bother. But if you head down to Bailan Hut you’ll see a narrow, slightly stony beach nearby.
Klong Kloi Beach, on the southern shores of Koh Chang is by far the easiest to reach, head about 1km past the Bangbao turn off and just park by the roadside after you go round a sharp right hand turn, you’ll see the beach in front of you. Walk over a rickety wooden footbridge and onto the sand.
Beachwear shops. One word to describe them ‘identical’. There must be forty or fifty small shops on Koh Chang that sell identical souvenir t-shirts, sarongs, fisherman’s trousers and bikinis. A bit of variety wouldn’t go amiss, that’s for sure but I guess there are still some people on the planet for whom the ‘McShit’ t-shirt is a ‘must have’ item of clothing. If you’re buying from these shops, do like the Thais and haggle. Thanks to my partner’s extensive research into shopping on Koh Chang we’ve discovered that Lonely Beach is the place where you’re most likely to be asked to pay way over the odds for clothing, the shops in Bangbao seem most willing to discount to normal Thai market prices and the vendors on White Sand Beach would rather sell their first born child than discount more than 10 baht from the asking price of a t-shirt ( and you’d stand more chance of getting a discount on their child). I buy my sandals at the local markets, for 250 baht you get well made Thai brands that will easily last 6-12 months without requiring constant use of superglue to hold them together.
Beer. There’s only one place you can get a decent pint of draught beer on Koh Chang and that’s the ‘Oirish’ Pub – Paddy’s Palms on White Sand Beach. OK, so it’s about as Irish as the staff who work there and has all the ambiance of two knocked together shophouses – which coincidentally it is, but they are the only place that has Guinness and Kilkenny on tap and beggars can’t be choosers. The food can be pretty good too.
For imported German beers with names ending in ‘-brau’ head to the deli at Top Resort, White Sand Beach, VJ Supermarket in Klong Prao or try the Wine Gallery, by the roadside in the centre of Kai Bae.
Beer Bars. The main Pattaya-esque beer bar enclave is situated at southern end of White Sand Beach, just past the 7-Eleven and is known by the highly original name of ‘Little Pattaya’. As with the big motorbikes that are available for rent nearby the girls are Pattaya rejects, the majority of whom have had several previous owners, have seen better days but are still good fun to rent for a day or two. For a real eye opener drive by the small roadside bars in Chai Chet during daylight hours where even the most ardent feminist would struggle not to agree with the diplomatic assessment that the girls are “more than a bit rough”. (But there’s always a few expats and lobster red tourist propping up the bar from late morning onwards. Proof indeed that beauty is in the eye of the beholder . . . or should that be ‘beer holder’?)
In Oct 2006 the new ‘Koh Chang Entertainment Plaza’ opened in Chai-Chet just north of Klong Prao. A load of beer bars, each adorned with more fairy lights than an Oxford Street window display at Christmas, in what used to be a covered market. Most bars have long since gone but I think it’s still open. It’s hard to tell. Worth a visit only to see if there really are more bars than there are customers.
Wander around the centre of Kai Bae and you’ll find a few dimly lit roadside bars with bored looking girls perched on stools just dying to engage you in a lively debate on world affairs and the current state of Thai politics or, if you’re not in the mood for some mental stimulation, maybe just a game of Jenga and a friendly chat about the respective sizes of your willy and your wallet.
Bird Flu. And all other flu scares of recent times. No outbreaks were reported in Trat or on Koh Chang. In reality, everyone has more important things to worry about such as job security, falling house prices and disappearing pensions than catching a cold. A few dead birds and a pig with a headache and runny nose is the least of anyone’s worries. Just avoid exchanging bodily fluids with any strange wildfowl or farm animals and you should be fine.
Bookshops. A couple of minimarts on White Sand Beach have new English language novels for sale direct from Asia Books in Bangkok, as does VJ Supermarket in VJ Plaza, Klong Prao which also has second hand books.. English language books tend to be pricey in Thailand so if something to keep you busy on the beach or whilst waiting for your girlfriend to get herself tarted up for a night out is what you’re after then a visit to a second hand bookshop is in order. Most backpacker places have a good selection of books for exchange. If you’re staying in or passing through Lonely Beach then a stop at Lonely Books at Nature Beach bungalows, is a must. This is the best you’ll find on the island, a very well stocked used book shop with something for all tastes. Tantawan restaurant on White Sand Beach save you the expense of buying a book by having a library service which is worth making use of if you can read quickly. Internet cafes sometimes have books for sale too Reckon on 100 – 200 baht/book. Recently a new second hand book shop – Books Thailand opend by the Post Office in pearl beach, you can browse their collection online at www.booksthailand.com
Booking accommodation in advance. In brief. Something simple to do if you’re staying in a large 4,000 baht/night resort. Something nigh on impossible if you’re staying in a small family run resort or a 300 baht/night flophouse. Small places aren’t geared up for the information age, as dealing with walk in guests is far easier than figuring out how to register with Paypal and far less hassle than and expense than signing up for a e-commerce package from a bank. You’ll find that many resorts with websites rarely answer emails as the person designated to answer emails doesn’t know how to or doesn’t have good English skills, therefore any emails containing anything other than an amusing flash animation of a cartoon kitten dancing to the latest hit from some Korean boy band on Youtube will end up in the Junk folder.
In high season book in advance if you can, and you’ll almost certainly save yourself a lot of hassle finding a room once you get here as many of the places mentioned in guidebooks will be booked up already. Advance booking, in the case of some hotels at least six months in advance, is essential for any beachfront resort from Christmas to mid-February, when the island is at it’s busiest. You will find rooms available if you leave it late, but if you want the best located , best value or cheapest then book early. On the plus side, there are plenty of new resorts on the island which aren’t in guidebooks or well known yet and so will welcome your custom. Many of these are off the beach, by the roadside, but some do offer much better value of money as they have to compete on price and not location for guests.
During Low Season you’ll find plenty of good deals on rooms in mid-range resorts and guesthouses advertised on roadside signboards.
Booze. If you start to tire of having to choose between Singha, Chang, Heineken and over priced table wine every evening, take a look at VJ Supermarket on White Sand Beach & Klong Prao or Koh Chang Wine Gallery in Kai Bae. They both have a large stocks of imported beers, wines and spirits in all price ranges. Aana store, just before the International Clinic, south of White Sand Beach is also worth visiting. Many restaurants and resorts on the island buy their alcohol from here. Avoid any wine bottle with ‘Koh Chang wine’ on the label and a picture of a bunch of grapes. Read the small print, it’s fruit wine and tastes like your Grandfather’s home brew. If you are a wine aficionado then bring your own to Thailand as you’ll be shocked by the prices – wines that cost a couple of Euros in Europe sells for nearer 10-15 Euros here. All due to the high tax on wine – both domestically produced and imported. It’s a drink for the rich.
Boring Facts. If you’ve been doing a bit of searching for Koh Chang related information you’ll have found that the main page of virtually every site mentions that it’s the second largest island in Thailand, and many will even give you the area in square kilometres and population. Who cares? Or are there really people out there saying:
“Ooooohhh Bob, let’s go to Koh Chang. It’s the second largest island in Thailand with a population of approximately 6,000 according to the 2000 census.”
“Yes, dear. And it’s part of the 52-island Mu Koh Chang Marine Park archipelago to boot. Status that was granted as long ago as 1982. Now, where’s my Visa card?”
If you really want to bore people to death at dinner parties, on the subway or in the pub you’ll be pleased to know that as of 2008, there were a total of 1,757 registered addresses on Koh Chang. You probably knew that already . . .but did you know that, according to the National Statistical Office website there are 28 people aged 85 or older, of which 23 are women and 5 are men? Why not see if you can spot them whilst on the island? Spot all five, take their photos, email them to me and you could win a prize. (Or you could have just wasted your vacation.)
Bottles of Gasoline. As you drive down the west coast you’ll see stalls piled high with old whisky bottles that are two-thirds full of gasoline. A lot of people prefer to fill their motorbikes up from these stalls rather than from gas stations. I could understand that if there wasn’t a gas station for miles. but there are three on the west coast of Koh Chang. What’s more for some reason many people believe that fuel sold in bottles is cheaper than buying it from the same place that car owners use. And where do you think the stallholders get their petrol from? A private oil field in their garden or the gasoline station? Filling your rental bike up at a gas station will save you about 40% – 50% compared to filling it using the bottles sold on roadside stalls.
Builders. There are a lot on the island. Some are locals, some from the Trat area and many from elsewhere in Thailand. Prices for building work vary a lot depending on who you speak to, by a lot I mean 50 – 75%. In addition to finding someone to do the work for you at a good price it also helps to find a builder who specialises in the type of work you want doing.
If you want a two story concrete construction then you don’t hire a guy who makes his living putting up wooden huts – his workers won’t have the experience needed to do a good job of finishing concrete etc. Likewise if you’re planning on using wood then you’ll need to do some research first on the types of construction materials available and find a builder who can talk knowledgeably about his trade, for example the benefits/drawbacks of using different types of wood; and can estimate prices without having to be on the phone to the builders’ merchant for half an hour.
If you want a good construction company who can do everything for you from drawing up plans to completing the work on time and within your budget then K.E.C in Klong Prao, on the inland side of the road 100 metres north of Ramayana Resort, is your best bet. They aren’t the cheapest but will do the job professionally.
Bungalows. If you’re Thai then you’ll probably check into a dimly lit, concrete, airconditioned hotel room or bungalow, the darker and colder the better. You’re here to sleep until lunchtime, eat seafood and catch the latest episode of your favourite soap opera. If you’re not Thai then the notion of doing that seems a mite bizarre. Aircon is more of a luxury than a necessity if you have a good sea breeze. Nights are usually quite cool, except in summer – March / April / May – and a good fan is all that’s really needed. But all fan rooms are not created equal.
To been honest I’m surprised by the number of travellers who are happy to stay in rooms which are barely big enough to swing a cat in. Yes, they’re cheap. Of course they’re cheap, they have no windows, bamboo mat walls , a plywood floor, a 40 watt light bulb and ceiling fan that does little more than constantly rattle all night. Why not spend 100 baht/night more and staying in a room with windows, a bed, mozzie nets, running water and space to swing a cat should you desire?
Buses. None on the island, but you can buy tickets at most hotels, bungalows etc for minibuses to Bangkok, Pattaya, Koh Samet etc. Alternatively you can take big buses from the ferry piers back to Bangkok, without having to go into Trat first. make your way to Trat from where you can take a full size bus. Minibuses are quicker but unless you’re Douglas Bader or a fully fledged, card carrying dwarf you’ll find the lack of legroom stifling. The best deal on getting to & from back Bangkok is the government run bus service which runs between Ekkamai Bus Station in Bangkok to/from Koh Chang Ferry and Centrepoint piers on the mainland. Cost is around 250 baht/person. Both routes run services leaving Bangkok at 6.30am, 7.45am & 9.45am with returns back to Bkk, leaving at 12pm, 2pm & 4pm. There is also a direct service between Bangkok Airport to Klong Son on Koh Chang. Departs Suvanabhumi at 0730 and from Klong Son at 1330. Price 308 Baht including ferry ticket.
Butchers. There’s only one place to go if you want real sausages, bacon, pies or other meat based delicacies and that’s ‘Slim Jim’s ‘ in Klong Prao, located behind the temple. James sells his pies and produce to resorts and restaurants on the island as well as through a couple of local supermarkets. As good as you’ll find anywhere.
Buying Land. Unlike other large islands such as Phuket and Samui the vast majority of land on Koh Chang lies within National Park boundaries and as such is off limits to developers . . . . unless they happen to be: a) rich b) related to members of parliament or c) both a) + b) in which case flattening a few thousand trees to make way for concrete can easily be overlooked. For us mere mortals the lack of available land on Koh Chang means that if you’re looking to buy land then you’ll have to dig deep into your pocket, especially if you’re relying on adverts in English or fellow farangs that you meet in bars to help you with your land search.
Speak to the local noodle stall owner, the guy in the hammock who sells overpriced litre bottles of petrol to passing motorcyclists and anyone else who doesn’t appear to be awash with cash – that’s how to find the cheap land. Better still get a Thai friend, (not a bar girl, as even the most buxom will invariably fall into the ‘breast size larger than IQ’ segment of the populace) to help you and steer clear of the businessmen who promise that the land title papers will be upgraded ‘soon’ or that they can give you a 99 year lease on some land. One final thing to remember is to choose your friends, don’t let them choose you. Word quickly spreads and if people know you are looking for land you’ll find yourself with lots of new friends all eager to show you the same plots of land. It pays to be cautious.