10 October 2009
IT’S like hiding an elephant: not easy, but the Thais have managed to keep Koh Chang, or Elephant Island, largely to themselves.
This is an achievement given that Koh Chang, in the east of Thailand, in the province of Trat on the Cambodian border, is the second largest island in the kingdom after Phuket.
But whereas Phuket has more than three million visitors a year, Koh Chang has a fraction more than 500,000, two-thirds of whom are Thai.
The mountainous interior is covered with tropical rainforest, and cliffs plunge to white sand beaches protected by coral reefs. About 85 per cent of the island was declared a national park in 2000, along with the surrounding marine areas.
There is no airport and tourists arrive from Trat by ferry at the northern tip of the island, which is 30km long and about 14km wide. The busy road to our hotel is crowded with hotels and restaurants, called the likes of Riverview, beside dusty ditches (which I guess live up to their name during the rainy season).
Because of the mountainous terrain, particularly at the southern end, there is no round-the-island road. The western side, with white sandy beaches, has the hotels and resorts; locals live in the east.
The road from the ferry is dauntingly steep. This worries me because my intrepid travelling companion has persuaded me we must bring our bikes. I am a veteran of the Swiss and New Zealand alps and the Pyrenees and, believe it or not, this looks worse, with short climbs but ridiculously steep gradients.
Our hotel has a beautiful location with coconut palm-framed gardens and bungalows perched directly above the rocky foreshore. Yet the price is modest (about $100 a night in the high season) because it is on a quiet part of the coast, halfway between the two main swimming beaches of White Sands to the north and Klong Prao to the south.
The first 10km on our debut bike ride south is plain sailing. It’s quiet and pretty and the road undulates pleasantly. It’s as we are climbing the first real hill that I realise the error of not fitting a so-called granny gear.
Mercifully, there is a stunning lookout to break the climb. A vendor with a varnished barrow sells chilled coconut water straight from the shell and a topiary elephant rears on its hind legs in front of the sea, the waters a variegated turquoise, azure and aquamarine.
We return to the road with renewed vigour but the hills are not only too steep to ride up, in some cases they are too steep to ride down.
It is midday as we crest the last hill before the descent to Bang Bao, a fishing village of traditional houses built on stilts above the water and connected by little bridges. Some of these dwellings have been converted into guesthouses and restaurants, and there’s a lively market, also on stilts.
Several of the seafood restaurants feature large tanks containing a variety of fish. We feast righteously, after the exertions of the morning, on blue swimmer crab fried in fresh black pepper, fried mackerel, yellow mango salad, morning glory and rice, and finish with fresh watermelon and pineapple. Washed down with three bottles of beer, it costs $40 for two.
On the ride back, in the cool of evening, the hills that seemed almost unconquerable this morning are surprisingly manageable. But we accidentally pass our turn-off and, as dusk turns to dark, the road north, which earlier was crowded with T-shirt and trinket sellers, has turned into a strip of bars. The painted faces of lady boys leer out of the gathering gloom.
For those who prefer to get their exercise without the sweat, go elephant trekking. Koh Chang doesn’t have an indigenous elephant population; its name derives from the elephant shape of its headland, which is not particularly apparent as you approach by ferry.
But it does have an elephant camp supported by the Asian Elephant Foundation. It’s a sort of retirement village for fortunate jumbos.