Hi all. Stef’s working again today so I’m filling in for her. Hopefully you enjoyed my last edition (Southern Laos) so you aren’t too disappointed. If you are, however, deal with it:). For Songkran, Thailand’s New Year which is celebrated officially over 3 days (but really more like a week) with a country-wide water gun fight, which happens to coincide with the hottest time of the year, Stef and I visited Koh Chang, Thailand’s 3rd biggest island after Phuket and Koh Samui. Unlike Phuket and Koh Samui which are to the southwest of Bangkok, Koh Chang is to the southeast. It’s also about a 5 hour drive (plus 30 minute ferry) as opposed to a 12 hour drive (or 1 hour flight) so it’s much easier to get to from Bangkok than the more well-known (by Western standards at least) Thai islands.
Ever since we’ve been here, we’ve heard great things about Koh Chang so we were exited to check it out. The two things that most people have said about Koh Chang which make it stand out from the rest of the Thai islands are 1) its interior is completely filled with jungle meaning the only way to access it is by hiring a local guide to take you trekking through it; and 2) unlike the typical Gulf of Thailand/Andaman Sea islands which are filled with farangs (foreigners), Koh Chang is a much more local island (still touristy, but mostly Thai tourists).
We set off on Saturday morning from the Eastern/Ekamai bus terminal at 7:45am and arrived at the pier which takes you to Koh Chang around 2pm (the trip is supposed to take about 5 hrs by bus but our driver made a lot of stops so it took about 6). As soon as we got to the pier, we bumped into some other teachers from our school who were also headed to Koh Chang for the weekend/week. They were staying on the same beach as us (White Sand Beach, the biggest, most developed beach town on the island, and also the most upscale) so we made plans to meet up later that night for drinks. By 4pm or so, we had settled into our guesthouse (a bunch of bungalows set back about 100 meters from the main street which runs parallel to the beach; they typically go for about 500/baht per night but because it was Songkran we paid 1,000 baht/per night). After dropping our bags off, we do what we always like to do whenever we get into a new beach town: we walked all the way down the 5 kilometer or so beach, taking a few dips along the way, and then we came back on the street so that we could check out the town as well.
After our 1st glimpse, we really liked Koh Chang (or at least White Sand Beach). On the beach walk, we saw a bunch of restaurants which looked like would have seafood bbqs set up right on the beach for dinner, one of our favorite things to do in the islands. And a couple of them even looked like they would have fire shows and/or shishas/hookahs, two of our other favorite nighttime island activities. On the town walk, we saw numerous cute-looking Western restaurants (mostly Italian but also a good-looking steakhouse) and of course tons of shops selling the typical souvenirs. Best of all, there was a food night market opening up just as we were heading back towards our hotel. There wasn’t really any place to sit down, but it was a perfect place to stop for a snack (various meats on a stick, fruit shakes, spring rolls, etc.) before dinner. We would repeat this pattern every night before dinner. Lastly, we stopped at a very fancy hotel and took a quick dip in their pool/a ride down their fun-looking slide.
After our standard 30 minute shower/change (as discussed in numerous prior posts, we’re typically only in our hotel room for an hour or so in the morning , 30 minutes before dinner and then at the end of the night before bed, so we rarely stay in nice places as we prefer to spend our money on food and activities), we headed back to the beach for dinner. After perusing the scene once again, we settled on a seafood bbq restaurant that also had an unlimited salad bar. In addition to the salad bar, we ordered a whole red snapper, a huge chicken kebob, a plate of mussels (my dad, who once force fed me mussels when I was a little kid until I threw up, would have been proud:) and a baked potato, for about $20 total. It was delish and a perfect start to our island vaca. The fire show, however, was a little disappointing (about 5 minutes compared to the other shows we’ve seen in Koh Samet and elsewhere which typically last 30-60 minutes). Quick aside-another island tradition that Stef and I have is when we’re on an island for 3 nights, we typically eat seafood on the beach one night, Thai (or local food) one night and then a nice Western meal (Italian, Mexican, Greek, bbq, etc.) the 3rd night. Koh Chang would be no different.
The next day, we set out to do what we typically love to do whenever we visit a new island: we rented a motorbike for the day (for $7) and drove around the whole island exploring. We were a little nervous this time around because 1) Koh Chang is very hilly and the roads are very steep/windy in certain parts) and 2) with Songkran beginning the next day, we knew the locals (and tourists) might begin partying a day early which meant getting buckets of ice cold water poured on you as you drive through the towns. Songkran, not surprisingly, is actually the biggest time of the year for road accidents in Thailand (a country already notorious for its road accidents), but after talking to the locals, we thought it would be safe enough, primarily because Songkran didn’t technically begin until the following day and also because we planned to be back by sundown when the revelry really picks up.
Koh Chang is a very big island. White Sand Beach (where we were staying) is located in the NW corner of the island. The East Coast is very remote and is filled with mostly a few local villages and not many beaches. The West Coast, on the other hand, is where most of the beaches and tourist towns reside. Thus, we thought we’d start on the East Coast in the morning (we were told it should take about an hour to drive from the top to bottom if we went relatively slowly but also didn’t stop, so we allocated 2-3 hours figuring we’d make a few stops along the way) and then hit up the West Coast in the afternoon.
It was a lovely drive along the East Coast. We stopped for breakfast in a local town (a sausage and chicken skewer on a stick; we didn’t want to take the time for a sit down breakfast), at a par 3 golf course which I was hoping we’d have time to revisit on the way back but unfortunately didn’t, a waterfall (Than Mayom) with a nice swimming area at the base (the farang price was 200 baht but we negotiated for the local price of 40 baht), and a bunch of scenic camera shots. We were hoping to visit the only beach on the East Coast (Long Beach) but at one point the road literally dropped off (we went around it though) and eventually became too difficult to negotiate on a motorbike.
By 1pm or so, we were back in White Sand Beach for lunch. The day before we saw a perfect spot for a lunch: a local Thai place grilling whole and half chickens and som tam (papaya salad). There’s actually a husband/wife (we think) team right by our city home that serves this same meal on the side of the road right near where we live. We get it almost every single weekend for lunch (a perfect healthy lunch after a good workout; Ann Meyers, if you’re reading this, see, that’s how we stay so trim!:). The lunch in Koh Chang was very good, but still not as good as our local husband/wife team!
After lunch, we started driving down the West Coast, and almost immediately, you could tell that this is where all the action happens. The entire coast is filled with town after town of cute restaurants, fun looking bars and an array of activities to keep you entertained for weeks (or probably days for us) (eg, elephant camps, more waterfalls, a monkey school, etc). Also as we were driving, we saw the beginnings of Songkran, as evidenced by a few bars getting an early start on their foam parties (very popular for Songkran) and of course the obligatory little kids standing on the sides of the roads pouring buckets of water on the vehicles/pedestrians passing by and shooting them with an arsenal of water guns. At one point, I even ran into one of my students and a few of his friends. Not surprisingly, they were staying at one of the fanciest resorts on the island (for those not in the know, our school is often referred to as the rich kids’ school).
We made two more stops on the West Coast before returning to White Sand Beach for dinner: Klong Kloi at the SW most tip of the island for a quick swim and Lonely Beach, the notorious backpacker area that supposedly parties very late into the night. Though we typically like to stay in the backpacker areas (mostly because they’re the cheapest places to stay and have the best variety of nightlife food/activities), we booked our hotel on White Sand Beach before we learned about Lonely Beach. After checking out Lonely Beach, I think we made the right choice by not staying there as it’s a little grungy (especially compared to the more upscale White Sand Beach) and we likely would have had a hard time sleeping at night because of the late night parties (contrary to popular belief, though Stef and I love to party, we typically like to party early-eg, from 6-10pm so as to make the most of our days; by way of comparison, one of the other teachers from our school said he slept until 4pm the day we rented a motorbike; by 4pm we had literally seen the entire island). In hindsight, there’s another town in between White Sand Beach and Lonely Beach (Kai Bae) that seemed to be the perfect mix of upscale amenities and debaucherous fun. It’s also right in the middle of the West Coast so it has a perfect location. If/when we come back to Koh Chang, we’ll likely stay there next time.
After returning to White Sand Beach just before dark, we returned our motorbike, showered/changed, and went back to the beach for another great meal (this time a traditional Thai meal but right on the beach and with a shisha/hookah to boot).
The next day (our 2nd full day on the island and the 1st official day of Songkran), we arranged to go on a boat tour, stopping at 4 different islands for snorkeling and lunch along the way. We were debating between hiking, doing a snorkeling/boat tour, playing the par 3 golf course, or just relaxing in the morning and preparing for the debauchery of Songkran in the afternoon. In the end, we opted for the snorkeling/boat tour because we hadn’t been to an island for some time and likely wouldn’t be visiting one again until the Fall. It was a nice tour, but not as nice as the one we did with my parents in Koh Phi Phi (mainly because that one stops at Kho Phi Phi Ley, made famous by the movie The Beach with Leonardo DiCaprio, which is breathtakingly beautiful). This tour was nice though, especially the lunch which consisted of green curry with chicken and rice, stir-fried glass noodles with vegetables, a Thai omelette and fresh pineapple and watermelon. We opted for a slightly more expensive boat trip (on a speedboat with about 20 other people as opposed to a slow boat with about 100 other people; definitely worth the upgrade, especially since it was only about $5 more). The snorkeling was nice too, and even Stef partook, a rare feat for her (though she loves scuba diving, strangely, she typically hates snorkeling and even swimming in the ocean unless she can see the bottom; having been stung by a jellyfish and sea urchin before (me, not her), I guess I can’t blame her.
After the tour, instead of returning to White Sand Beach, we had our songteaw (large pickup truck that serves as a form of taxi/bus for about 10-15 people) drop us off at Lonely Beach so we could get our Songkran on with the locals and rest of farangs. Before we could even get to Lonely Beach, we could sense the revelry had begun, with locals and farangs dumping buckets of cold water into our truck at every juncture along the way. Once at Lonely Beach, we found a nice little spot to view the action without actually being in harm’s way. We stayed there for about an hour or so while chatting it up with another couple from France and Germany who had been traveling for 2 years with a 4 month stop in Thailand. They’re heading back to Bangkok in a couple of weeks so we exchanged info and said maybe we’d meet up for a drink there. After an hour or so of people watching, we got back into the action for a little bit more before taking a break to dip in the ocean.
By the time we were done, it was almost getting dark, which for Stefanie, meant it was time to be done with the water fights. Remarkably, the Thais celebrate Songkran all day/night, but for me and Stef, once the sun goes down, getting cold buckets of water dumped on you just isn’t that fun anymore. So instead, we headed back to White Sand Beach (a thirty minute songteow drive that felt like driving through Cabrini Green back in the day or the equivalent–eg, South Central, Harlem, etc.), only using water guns instead of real guns (joking aside, it strikes me as odd that some people, albeit ignorant ones, think Thailand is dangerous when in reality the Thais celebrate holidays with water guns while in “Chiraq” the locals often celebrate with real guns–eg, I recall a 4th of July a few years ago when several dozen people died from gunfire in a single weekend in Chicago; similarly, I read an article recently that said most of the fights that occur during Songkran take place among foreigners, not Thais). It was actually very fun, and I greatly enjoyed holding down the fort (or truck as the case was) for our group while others ducked for cover.
Once back in White Sand Beach, after cleaning up, we went out for our last meal of the trip, this time for Western at a very cute Italian place just off the main strip (which was key so as to avoid the locals still partying into the night). We had a delicious carbonara pizza (a trending pizza topping in Thailand), a pesto pasta (though not as good as my mom’s of course), bruschetta and garlic bread (we thought we were ordering regular bread which looked like it came for free, but oh well). It was delicious and made all the more memorable by this fancy Thai couple sitting next to us with this adorable looking dog that I had never seen before (a pomeranian; I made several attempts to buy it from them but to no avail).
All in all, it was a great little vaca and the perfect way to start our Songkran celebration. Now we’re headed back to Bangkok (an all day affair) and will likely go out tomorrow again to celebrate Songkran in Bangkok once more, either in Siam or Silom (last year we celebrated on Khaosan Rd so this year we want to mix it up). As for Koh Chang, it may be the best all-around island in Thailand. Though I’d still recommend Koh Samui (and Cheweng Beach in particular) for the typical 2 week honeymooners (mainly because you’re so close to all of the other Thai islands–Phuket, Phi Phi, Phangan, Koh Tao, Krabi, etc.), for anyone in Thailand for an extended period of time, or for anyone living in Thailand, Koh Chang might be your best bet given its breadth of activities (water and jungle) and accommodation (ie, fancy or budget), proximity to Bangkok (5 hrs as opposed to 12) and most importantly, relative lack of farangs as compared to the other Thai islands. We’ll likely be back sometime, and next time we’ll likely hire a guide to explore the interior jungle and/or play the par 3 golf course.