1 June, 2009 (Daily Telegraph, UK)
It’s a hot sticky morning as traffic streams southeast out of Bangkok for the cooler sea air of the Gulf of Thailand.
Scattered among the tangle of trucks, coaches, cars, motorcycles and the occasional elephant are tourists on packaged holidays, backpackers on a shoestring, well-heeled expatriates and local families.
Ahead for this daily cavalcade is a fascinating mix of pristine coastline, tropical jungle, national parks, mountains and islands, white-sand beaches, sparkling seas, scrubbed-clean villages and busy little towns, cheap bungalows at the water’s edge and intimate five-star resorts.
This is Thailand’s emerging Crystal Triangle, a multifaceted region still relatively free of mass tourism, stretching about 400km from the Thai capital to the wilds of the Cambodian border.
For years, this slice of Thailand – in essence a snapshot of the kingdom itself – has been the escape valve for Thais and young adventurers from the more popular boom resort islands such as Koh Samui and Phuket. Unable to hide the secret any longer, the Crystal Triangle is committed to finally flexing its tourist muscles.
With Bangkok as the apex, the base point on the triangle is the island of Koh Samet (or Samed) 220km southeast of Bangkok. The third point is the island of Chang (Koh Chang) another 180km further east along the gulf, hailed as the next Phuket.
To take the direct route would be to miss experiencing bustling, brassy, bright-eyed Pattaya, two hours (165km) south of Bangkok and an easy detour on the road to Koh Samet and Koh Chang.
Pattaya has morphed into an international destination in its own right. The beach is spotless, trees and flowering shrubs line the streets, bougainvillea cascades from balconies and there’s talk of a rail line from Bangkok and an upgraded airport.
In Pattaya, there’s 19 world-class golf courses within a 40km radius; diving, snorkeling, sailing, windsurfing and kite-boarding; boat trips to nearby islands; an elephant retirement sanctuary (with trekking); Waterworld; a Ripley’s Believe-It-Or-Not museum and the Nong Nooch Tropical Garden, one of the finest theme parks in Asia.
Pattaya has all levels of accommodation, topped by the Royal Cliff Beach Resort, a four-hotel (and convention centre) complex that has acquired 78 international and Asian awards. A 90-minute drive east from Pattaya is Ban Phe pier, where ferries make the 30-minute crossing to Koh Samet, a narrow, T-shaped, 8km-long island with 14 beaches and a string of resorts.
Most places are accessed by unpaved roads and many still cater for Thais and foreign backpackers – bungalows from $10 a night, rice and noodles for $2, beer $1.50 and daily motorcycle hire from $12.
Bucking the downmarket trend is the five-star-plus Paradee Resort on a prime, narrow neck of land between east and west-facing beaches on the southern tip of the island.
The Samed resort group has cornered the middle market with the Le Vimarn and the Ao Prao resorts at half-moon Ao Prao Bay and the Sai Kaew resort on the northeast coast. Koh Chang, the final, sparkling jewel in the Crystal Triangle’s crown, is a further two-hour drive from Koh Samet along the Gulf of Thailand.
The second-largest island in Thailand (next to Phuket), most of Koh Chang is a national park of which 75 per cent remains virgin rainforest teeming with wildlife.
In the crystal-clear waters of the Koh Chang archipelago comprising the Koh Chang marine national park are 52 islands, only 19 of which have accommodation.
In recent years Koh Chang’s winding ring road has been paved, opening up resorts on the west coast, including the new Dusit Princess.
The final link in the Crystal Triangle is a 40-minute Bangkok Airways flight from nearby Trat Airport to Bangkok.
The writer was a guest of the Tourism Authority of Thailand.
(Somehow I doubt the writer ever stepped foot on Koh Chang.)