For 2013

Why is Koh Chang called Koh Chang?

Koh Chang

Koh Chang a.k.a. Elephant island – the name sounds pretty cool.  But why call it elephant island when there are no indigenous elephants on the island?

There’s no 100% definitive answer as to why this island is called ‘Elephant Island’. A couple of ideas put forward in guidebooks suggest that: it was because elephant’s used to live here; it’s due to the shape of the island when seen from an orbiting satellite or it’s due to the fact that part of the silhouette of the island looks like an elephant lying down.

Theory 1 – If it was solely down to the fact elephant’s lived on the island at one time then why aren’t there more ‘Koh Changs’ or towns / villages with ‘Chang’ in the title in Thailand? A hundred years ago there were elephants everywhere in Thailand, they weren’t unique to Koh Chang, and, if they ever actually lived here at all as this would have required them being shipped here by locals at some time – rather than being indigenous.  So, I think we can rule that one out.

Theory 2 – Koh Chang was called ‘Koh Chang’ well before the island was accurately surveyed, let alone photographed from the air.  On the earliest maps of Thailand, produced by Portuguese and French cartographers, the island is marked as Koh Chang.  I doubt they mapped the island, came across an unnamed island and then decided after a few glasses of  brandy that it looked a bit like part of an elephant.  Named it.  Then expected the locals to go along with this.  Bottom line is that places are very rarely named after the shape they appear viewed from above on a map and you need to be smoking something stronger than menthol cigarettes to believe that the shape of the island resembles an elephant’s head or it’s silhouette that of a sleeping elephant.

Theory 3 – Perhaps local folklore can help explain how the island got it’s name. Not being an expert on local folklore I contacted people who should know. People from an organisation who I had previously equated with the invention of the chocolate teapot in terms of usefulness. Yep, the Tourist Authority of Thailand.

After a couple of emails getting sent back with replies that didn’t answer my question but did helpfully point out that Koh Chang was a beautiful island and there were some beautiful resorts in which to stay all of which could be booked through my local TAT office, it was time to get tough. I pointed out that the information was required for my PhD in Thai Culture which I was currently undertaking and it’d be a pity if the TAT couldn’t get their act together and find someone who could answer my simple question.

That actually worked. And below is the official TAT supplied reason as to why Koh Chang is called Koh Chang.  ( You may notice I have embellished it a bit.)

As with all tales from bygone times it involves sex, death and a curse but doesn’t stand up to scrutiny by common sense:

Locals believe that long time ago a Buddhist saint came to Koh Chang and raised a herd of elephants on the island. He employed an old couple to look after the herd. The old lady was called ‘Yai Mom’.

One day an elephant called ‘Petch’ escaped from the herd onto the forest, met a wild elephant and had three baby elephants out of wedlock

The saint found out about the matter and sent an old couple to look for the elephant and its babies. The old man went up north. The old lady went down south.

With the pachyderm equivalent of a cry of “You’ll never take me alive!” , Petch the elephant ran to north coast, leapt into the sea and doggy-paddled to the mainland where she landed at the present day Ao Thamamchat. Being an unfit mother, Petch forgot that her kids couldn’t swim or at least not far enough to complete the 6 or more kilometres to the mainland. The three babies drowned and were transformed into huge rocks on the northeastern tip of Koh Chang near the entrance to Klong Son bay. Today, the locals call it ‘Three Elephants Rock’. 

Talking of transformations, whilst swimming to the mainland ‘Petch’, the elephant, needed a toilet break. Her bowel movements were also transformed into a rocky outcrop, now known as ‘Hin Kee Chang‘ ‘Elephant’s Shit Rock’ – you’ll see the maker buy for this rock from the ferry when you come to Koh Chang. (Obviously, Petch was extremely fortunate that her shit turned to stone after it exited her body.)

But that wasn’t the end of the totally unexplained transformations, the old lady followed the elephant onto the mainland, but fell into a mud pool and died. Her body transformed into a rock called ‘Yai Mom Rock’. Her hat fell on a rock at the end of the cape where there is now a lighthouse. The cape has since been known as ‘Laem Ngob’ (Hat Cape) and was the original departure point for passenger boats to Koh Chang.

The saint somehow knowing that ‘Petch’ would come back onto the island, asked for tenders for a project to build a large trap towards the southern coast. (This is one of the first recorded examples of a pointless project costing an obscene amount of money being instigated by an individual in a position of power who is the only real beneficiary is the person who commissioned the project in the first place.  However, there are plenty of modern day examples on Koh Chang.)

The two islands from which the trap is made are called ‘Koh Lim’ and ‘Koh Salak’.  Petch the elephant did come to the island, but being streetwise and spotting what must have been a rather obvious trap strung between two islands went into different direction. The saint therefore sent his men to catch the elephant.

In the end, the saint has cursed the island to prevent any other elephants from coming to the island. Since then, there has been no elephant living on the island. (Until the advent of elephant camps for the tourists.)  and, errrr, the name ‘Koh Chang’ is ironic.

And that’s it. Not a clue what ever happened to ‘Petch’. Did she reunite with the wild elephant herd or was she hunted down? This tale must have a sequel but if the Tourist Authority have knowledge of the plotline, they aren’t giving it away.

Interestingly, the entrance to the temple near Centrepoint Car Ferry has a mural depicting an elephant, possibly Petch, swimming across the sea between Koh Chang and the mainland.  So the story may just be true.  And even if it isn’t , it’s probably the reason why Koh Chang is called Koh Chang.