June 15, 2004
In 2001 the government set up a task force to come up with a cunning plan to make money out of the still relatively undeveloped island of Koh Chang.
Developing Koh Chang would lead give a big boost to the economy of the Trat region, and also provide tourists who were getting a tad bored of hitting Samui or Phuket for their beach holidays another option . . . an option that would be for well-healed tourists only, none of those pesky backpacker types who clutter up the place and stay in huts that cost less per night than a small Heineken in a 5 star resort.
At the time the task force was doing whatever task forces do when they have to come up with a report to please their bosses, the governor of Trat politely asked the P.M. if it wouldn’t be a better idea to focus on increasing cross border trade with Cambodia. That was, and will always, play a bigger role in the local economy than that contributed by a few rich folks living it up on Koh Chang. You can probably guess what the P.M.’s response was.
But there were some savvy investors who beat the Bangkok politicians to some of the best land on the island. The first entrepreneurs were businessmen who already ran tourist related outfits in Pattaya & Rayong. It was the opening of a car ferry service between the mainland and Koh Chang that led the way for new investment in the island. Without a link to the outside world that was convenient for middle class Bangkokians, resorts on the island would struggle to make a profit.
“Bicycles will be the main form of transport on the island” Sakol Sunet, president of Trat Tourist Association and a member of the government’s Koh Chang development committee – Jan 2002.
It didn’t take long for allegations of dodgy dealings to emerge. Less than three months after the plans to develop Koh Chang into a paradise for the rich were confirmed it came to light that members of the government, their families and friends had been buying up land on the island for around 200,000 baht/Rai. Land prices quadrupled overnight as soon as the plans were made public and now even land away from the beach can cost 7 million baht/Rai or more in the White Sand Beach & Klong Prao areas. Land near the beach starts from 5 million/Rai in the north of the island.
Once certain members of the government had got the development bug there was no stopping the flow bright ideas. The Forestry Department Chief, who is responsible for the Koh Chang National Park, put forward a plan to invest 4 billion baht to turn Koh Chang, Koh Kood and selected other islands into a “Lost World” where visitors could go back in time and gawp at locals doing traditional upcountry activities such as fishing and, presumably, selling souvenir T-shirts emblazoned with elephant and “Oriental Eden of the East” TM logos.
I’m not too sure how the locals would react to being told that they would now become exhibits in a living museum and would be actively discouraged from setting up their own doing their own tourist related businesses as they wouldn’t be able to do it to the standard the hundreds of thousands of jet setters due to arrive on the island would expect.
“Tourists with lots of money will enhance Koh Chang’s economy. It will also give Koh Chang a unique selling point. It will be totally unlike Koh Samui where backpackers are everywhere.” PM’s Office Minister Somsak Thapsutin – June 2002
Gambling is illegal in Thailand, except for the government lottery which doesn’t count as gambling because skill and divine intervention, not luck, are all that are required to predict the correct numbers. However just over the border in Cambodia a dozen large casinos opened their doors between 2000 and 2002. As the border is only a few hours drive from Bangkok this meant that high rollers, the type that should be spending their cash in Thailand. If only Thailand had a casino . . .
Hey why not give the guys who run Sun City a call, for no other reason than to say “Hi”, of course, as you can’t build a casino if gambling is illegal. Turns out that Sun City were interested in building something resembling a casino, but obviously not one, on Koh Kradad, a privately owned island just off Koh Mak. Although noting has been set in stone it appears that Thailand’s first casino will be on Koh Kradad, nothing will be announced officially until after the 2005 general election, which will also act as a referendum on whether gambling should be legalised in Thailand.
And so 2003 rolled around and Bangkok Airways began flying virtually empty planes into it’s brand spanking new Trat mini-airport, about 20km from the ferry terminals to Koh Chang. About 20 major resorts were constructed costing in the region of a billion baht or so. Despite all this tourist numbers didn’t shoot up overnight as the government had predicted and the desirable Samsonite lugging visitors were still easily outnumbered by unwashed primitives who shunned aircon rooms to live in huts many of which lacked running water. Not quite what was envisaged.
The first signs that one of Thailand’s & S.E. Asia’s largest conglomerates, the C.P. Group, had bought up large tracts of land also began the be evident with the opening of 7-11s on the island and a couple of CP run hotels just for starters. Construction of the island’s first two luxury resorts, Aiyapura, owned by proxies of PM Thaksin, and Panviman hotels was completed and plans for several more were approved. Large package tour hotels were also started to be built, these include the Amari hotel on Klong Prao .
However, backpackers who frown at the idea of handing over money for a night’s accommodation if it goes into the hands of a politician or super rich guy, rather than a small businessman or local family, should remember that more than a handful of backpacker resorts on the island are now owned by this section of high society – especially those on Lonely Beach.
The pace of change shows no signs of running out of steam just yet. In 2004 it was estimated that 1.5 billion baht would be spent on building new resorts, followed by the same amount in 2005, and these are just the large hotel projects. Also, the same type of attractions that took Phuket 20 years to build are now being considered for Koh Chang. On Klong Prao beach an dolphinarium/aquarium is being constructed. The owners always refer to it as a hotel but everyone in the area refers to it as the aquarium.
At the time of writing this article, June 2004, the most recent bright idea for the island was to ban all visitors from bringing cars onto the island beginning in 2007. “Let them use boats and electric trains” was the paraphrased quote from Environment Minister Plodprasop Suraswadi, who just happens to be the same former Forestry Dept Chief who had the “Lost World” idea a couple of years earlier.
“In fact it’ll be just like the Barardi advert from a few years back where the well-chiseled, tanned, rich guy in white suit goes is having a night out in the Bahamas and, come closing time, hops on a private speedboat to take him back to his waterfront residence. Then the voiceover says ‘Catching the last bus home . . . . if you’re drinking Bacardi.’ What a legacy that would be to leave.” The Environment Minister probably didn’t actually say this to reporters but was almost certainly thinking it when he came up with the ‘boats, not cars’ idea.
The real problem with the governmental bodies in charge of the Koh Chang plan is that they do not give much thought to the real tourism-induced impacts or local people’s right to be involved in how they want their island developed. Instead, they appear to focus solely on the perceived desires of a tourist stereotype i.e. air conditioned rooms, minibars, HBO, water taxis, hovercraft service to the island, a museum island, a golf island plus the proposed casino island.
Oct 2004 update – As fate would have it the aforementioned Khun Plodprasop has now been put in charge of running Koh Chang after being embroiled (not for the first time) in an unproven corruption accusation this time involving a hundred tigers which were exported from a private zoo to China for ‘research purposes’. Why the Chinese needed a hundred of them to do research on was never fully explained. “Is that a big cat penis in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me, comrade?” was definitely not how Plodprasop greeted his Chinese counterpart. All aboard the gravy train. . . .
Part 2 Jan 2005
Jan 2005 and the face of the island is changing even more rapidly than I thought possible. Roads appear to be the future. There’s a new road being built at the rear of Kai Bae. This is being done as the existing road through Kai Bae actually belongs to Chang Park Resort and they plan to block the road off at some unspecified future date. The start of the new road can be seen near Klong Plu waterfall. Just as soon as a track across the island from Than Mayom waterfall to Klong Plu waterfall was finished the local govt. is apparently considering plans for a road to follow almost the same route right through the middle of the island. Should be scenic.
Down in the south, the almost completed bicycle / motorbike route from Bangbao to Salakphet will be widened to take two lanes of traffic. And over in the far South East the route of a new road looping round the coastline from Hat Yuthanavy to Salakkok has been drawn on a map currently adorning the wall of the chief planning officer.
Not too far away in the hamlet of Baan Jek Bae a new road is being built out into the sea that be a small island will take visitors out to what used to be a small island only accessible at low tide. From this vantage point you’ll have a great view over all the bay – especially the land at the head of the bay which is known locally as “Thaksin’s land” the Thaksin may well be the P.M. or it may just be Bob Thaksin, a migrant labourer from Isaan. Who knows? But it’d be a cracking place to have a huge marina, yacht club and/or luxur resort that’s for sure.
We’re now into the third quarter of 2005 and work on widening the road from White Sand Beach down to Klong Prao has begun . . . just in time for the start of high season. How’s that for timing?
However, the real shocker in the ‘permanent scar on the landscape’ stakes is the huge amount of roadside shop units ‘hongtaews’ that are being built down the west coast road. The way things are going the whole length of the road will be lined with hastily built concrete units each housing a beachwear shop. It’s a real shame but it’s not surprising. When it comes to any business idea or type of development the best bet always seems to be to copy what your neighbour is doing. Landowners see their neighbour build a few units and rent them out and simply do the same. Shop owners see their neighbours selling certain goods and sell the same.
The difference between Asia and the West is that here, if you have a shop and you earn one carrot a day, someone will open up an identical shop next to yours and now you’ll both earn half a carrot a day. In the West half a carrot a day isn’t enough to live on, but here people seem to be happy with that.
The one good thing to come out of all the awful roadside development is that the few remaining, quiet areas on the west coast which are off the main road and free of souvenir shops seem more and more attractive. Fortunately, I live in one of these areas :-)