The Guardian, January 17, 2018
Nice feature from a UK newspaper on the islands. And most of the information is surprisingly accurate as well.
The island of Koh Chang and its satellites – which include Koh Mak and Koh Kood – are the eastern-most islands in Thailand and, while they can’t really be referred to as undiscovered, they do lack the brand-name recognition of Phuket. The contrast with their better-known cousin is obvious: outside the built-up beaches on the west coast of Koh Chang, hotels and guest houses are mostly small and family-run. Infrastructure has been slow to follow demand and the islands have no commercial airport (though there are up to three flights daily from Bangkok to Trat on the mainland).
However, therein lies their appeal: the quiet southern and eastern coastlines of Koh Chang, part-hippy, part-hipster Koh Mak, and Koh Kood’s incongruous mix of ramshackle bungalows and luxurious resorts offer a slice of blissfully peaceful paradise. You can island-hop, mix and match pampering with long walks on sandy beaches plus a day of exploring the odd uninhabited island, too.
There are a number of bus and minivan services from Bangkok but, if using public transport, the most reliable way to reach the islands is the comfortable government-operated coach number 999 that runs twice every morning from Ekkamai bus station in central Bangkok (243 Thai baht, about £5.50, 5½ hours each way). The same coach service also collects passengers at the bus terminal of Suvarnabhumi airport. It is advisable to book tickets, including the return journey, in Bangkok or run the risk of not finding a seat on the way back.
The 999 runs to Ao Thammachat pier where it’s possible to catch a ferry to Koh Chang (£1.85pp each way, frequent departures throughout the day until 7pm). Thirty minutes later, when you reach Ao Sapparot (ao is Thai for “bay”) on the northern tip of Koh Chang, you’ll see the fleet of minivans and foot traffic pour off the boat and turn right towards the party beaches. That is reason enough to turn left, for a drive down the island’s sparsely populated east coast.
Shared “taxis” (two-bench pick-up trucks converted into local buses) wait outside the pier gates but down the less-travelled east coast, there are only three scheduled services a day (£2.30pp). Outside of scheduled times, see if other passengers want to share a ride and use your best negotiating skills, but drivers will expect £20 a ride or more, regardless of the number of passengers or the destination along the 25 kilometres of coastline.
Those who don’t want to be reliant on public transport and plan on exploring beyond resort tours, should consider hiring a motorbike (£3.50 to £23 a day, depending on what and where you rent). Car rentals with or without drivers are also available (from £28 a day) and can be booked through hotels, as there are no car rental offices.
There are almost no beaches on the this side of the island but there are spectacular sunrises and tranquility. I make a beeline for Salak Phet Seafood and Resort (from £26 a night, three-day, two-night full board and activity packages from £80pp for up to four people sharing one room). The resort is popular with Thai families, many of whom have been regular visitors for more than a generation. Crispy garlic squid, stir-fried clams and three-flavour fried grouper (most dishes £3-£10) are all tasty menu items. Rooms and the restaurant itself are built on stilts over the water. The resort can organise boat tours to private beaches on Lao Ya Nai and other uninhabited islands of the Mu Koh Chang national park, which covers the region. More demanding treks to the dramatic Khlong Neung or Kheeri Phet waterfalls are also close by.
For an invigorating alternative on the same side of the island, the Spa Koh Chang Resort (rooms from £41 a night) is known for its detox programmes and yoga retreats. The cuisine is fresh and well-balanced and the spa treatments and herbal steam bath are indulgences open to everyone. A third hotel option for those who want the quiet of the east, but don’t want to be too far from the action of the west coast, is Amber Sands Beach Resort (from £60 a night). Just a couple of minutes from the ferry, guests are within 20 minutes’ drive of the closest nightlife, at White Sands Beach, and it is only 30 minutes’ drive from Salak Phet in the south.
As the crow flies, Bang Bao and Salak Phet, both in the south, are not that far apart, and, indeed, the plan was for them to be connected by a road that would ring the island. The road was never finished, so the only way to drive from one to the other is to circle the whole island through the north. Without hiring motorbikes, it will take two “taxis” with a connection at Ao Sapparot (about £6pp, a little over one hour travel time, plus waiting time at Ao Sapparot). Or check prices for a private transfer at your hotel or with Explore Koh Chang (see below).
In the south-west corner of the island, Bang Bao was once a sleepy village that was the island’s first port. Now there are shops filled with T-shirts and trinkets, and seafood restaurants serving nearly identical, and largely unremarkable, menus. Despite encroaching on mainstream tourism, Bang Bao still has lots to recommend it. It’s the starting point for many of the beach and scuba diving tours to islands such as Koh Wai. Book through one of the resorts featured here to avoid excursions that follow the day-tripping crowds and make multiple stops designed to sell passengers beer and soft drinks.
The beach of Khlong Kloi is about 2km from Bang Bao proper. The plush Chivapuri Resort (low-season promotions from £35 a night) shares the seafront location with the tidy, but somewhat more modest, bungalows at Bangbao Beach Resort (from £18 a night). The latter may not have a gorgeous pool and gardens but both hotels share the same white sandy beach – great for sunbathing or paddling off to explore by kayak. On my last trip, I chose Resolution Resort (from £28 a night) on the other side of the bay. At the edge of the water, the hotel offers a view of the Bang Bao lighthouse, a small pool and a free shuttle boat to Bang Bao.
In season, Bang Bao is the pier for speedboat services connecting to the other main islands of Koh Mak and Koh Kood.
Speedboats run twice a morning from Bang Bao to Koh Mak (Bang Bao Boats, £14, one hour, November to April only). The speedboat from Koh Chang will arrive at Koh Mak Resort pier on Ao Suan Yai, which has one of the nicest beaches on the island. On the same bay, one of the island’s oldest resorts is the Cocoscape Resort (low-season rates from £28 a night). After 20 years, the wooden bungalows were in serious disrepair and many were replaced last year by new rooms and villas.
Compact and relatively flat, Mak is well suited for cycling (hire at the resort). Much of the island is still covered in plantations of rubber trees and Areca palms that produce betel nuts (actually seeds) – the mak that give the island its name. Scattered around the island are odd statues depicting anatomically improbable women and whimsical animals, the work of late sculptor and local legend Khun (Mr) Somchai, who produced an oeuvre praised as art brut by some, dismissed as raunchy by others. His now-overgrown house and garden – known as the Kingdom of Somchai’s Affection – are a testament to his life’s work (Ao Suan Yai near Koh Mak Resort, no website, free entrance).
White sand beach on Koh Kham. Photograph: Nukorn Plainpan/Getty Images
Popular, eco-friendly Kohmak Seafood (dishes from £3) in Ao Nid serves fish from the surrounding waters and grows much of its own produce, as do many places on this green-minded island. Try the raw prawn salad or a fiery clear curry.
Take a kayak or a long-tail boat to Koh Kham in Ao Suan Yai. A luxury resort project ground to a halt recently, leaving a haunting, nearly completed, construction site to explore. The (imported) pristine white sand beach is yours to enjoy for a fee of £2.30, including a cold drink served by the beach attendants, resourceful Burmese builders who are waiting around to see if they have a job to finish. The views looking back at Mak from your own private island are worth every penny. Sail over to Koh Kradat to see wild deer or dive in the coral reef of the Marine Park around Koh Rang. Go night fishing with local fisherman (from £22 with a group to £90 for a private tour). All activities can be booked through your resort.
The speedboat from Koh Mak Resort Pier (£9, about one hour depending on destination, November to April only) can drop you at your closest beach but arrange to be met by someone from your hotel or guesthouse. No drivers will be waiting, particularly at the smaller piers. Koh Kood is the second biggest island in the region after Koh Chang and fourth (or sixth, depending on whom you listen to) largest in Thailand. Yet huge chunks of it remain undeveloped. The entire east side has just two quaint fishing villages: Ao Salad and Ao Yai. Ao Salad has recently added a few restaurants but that’s the extent of development.
All the beaches on Koh Kood are public, even in front of the exclusive resorts of Khlong Chao Beach. I prefer to stroll along the waterline, timing it so I can enjoy a sunset gin and tonic from a beachfront resort such as Me Dee (cocktails from £4). Walkers will enjoy the old coastal road now closed to vehicle traffic but that still connects the villages of Ao Phrao, Ao Jak and Khlong Hin. It’s a pleasant hour-long stroll. There are also three beautiful waterfalls on the island, including Khlong Chao waterfall, famous because of a visit by King Rama VI in 1911 that was interpreted as a stand for national identity in the face of European colonial expansion. Climb to the top tier for a soak in the natural plunge pool in the rocks.
All accommodation is within striking distance of Koh Kood’s west coast and the island manages to offer something for everybody, from Soneva Kiri, with villas at an eye-watering £1,000 a night. Spacious rooms at the newly built Koh Kood Beds (from £38 a night) or the older Baansuan (from £29 a night), both near Koh Kood’s Bang Bao Beach – not to be confused with Bang Bao town on Koh Chang – stand out because of their knowledgeable owners who can arrange for all your needs on the island. After seven years working in other people’s hotels, Jay, the owner of Beds, welcomed his first guest last November.
“Making this place is my dream and it’s come true now,” he said over dinner at Chiang Mai Restaurant (on the main road near Bang Bao Beach, no website), a roadside shack he recommended for its generous servings of northern curries packed with bamboo shoots and jungle herbs and local seafood at rock-bottom prices (dishes from £1.50). Some visitors I met at the restaurant had returned every night of their stay and even brought in their day’s catch for the kitchen to cook.
I discovered that the personal touch is nothing surprising on the island. “Koh Kood is my home and you are my guest,” smiled Lili, the owner of Baansuan as she escorted her guests on to the pier to catch the speedboat back to Koh Chang (£20 each way, in season). “I want you to have a good time.”