Koh Chang National Park

As you set sail from the mainland across the glittering seas, Koh Chang (Elephant Island), covered in thick, verdant forest and with a vivid, sweeping skyline, rises up to meet you. This 40-km-long and 16-km-wide island is Thailand's second biggest (after Phuket), and the teeming wildlife, rustic appeal and wonderful beaches have long attracted the more adventurous traveller.

Things are changing. Koh Chang has now been earmarked as Thailand's next big destination. Hotel chains and tour operators are moving in and the beaches are now almost entirely colonized by Thai and European package tourists. It's not all upmarket; odious 'monkey schools' (where monkey's are forced to perform degrading tricks) and that definitive marker of tourist saturation, the 'girlie bar', have now made their home on Koh Chang. Any recent visitor has to work harder to find the best parts of the island.

Elephant Island also forms the fulcrum of the Koh Chang National Park - an archipelago
of dozens of smaller islands that stretch to the south. Many of these are also being taken over by mass tourism/backpackers and the recently pristine environment is suffering. If you do visit these outlying islands be very aware of your impact, some of them are overwhelmed with mountains of plastic water bottles and other detritus.

Koh Chang

Khlong Son, near Koh Chang's northern tip, is the largest settlement on the island. Even so, there's not much here: a health clinic, a few small noodle shops, a monastery, a post office and a school. Many of the other islands within the national park have villages and a fair amount of land, particularly around the coast, has been cleared for agriculture - mostly coconut plantations.

Koh Chang is now well on its way to being another 'international resort island' similar to Phuket. Local tourism operators have expressed their enthusiasm for the plans, tempered with concern that this type of centrally planned development may only benefit big businesses from Bangkok, etc. All of the outer islands have now experienced some sort of development with numerous luxury resorts appearing where before there might have been just the occasional cluster of bamboo bungalows. Some of the islands are very small, so it does raise the question of where the resorts get their water supply from and how long the demands of five-star resort guests can be satisfied.

Ao Khlong Son
is at the northern tip of the island. Further south on the western side is
Hat Sai Kaew
(White Sand Beach).
Hat Khlong Phrao
, 5 km south of Hat Sai Kaew, and 2 km long, is spread out each side of the mouth of the Khlong Phrao canal and is a beautiful beach but the water tends to be shallow.

At
Ao Khlong Makok
there is almost no beach at high tide and just a couple of
bungalow operations which are virtually deserted in the low season .
Ao Kai Bae
is the southernmost beach on the west coast. It is beautiful but swimming
is tricky as the water is very shallow and covered with rocks and dead coral in places.

Haad Tha Nam
(Lonely Beach) is an attractive stretch of coastline and much more quiet and relaxed than the more accessible northern stretches. However, most of the well-run, cheap operations have been pushed out to be replaced with awful bungalows or dull generic resorts - it may be best to pass this beach by. A short
songthaew
ride south of Lonely beach is
Bailan Bay
, another relaxing, peaceful spot where people come to get away from it all.

Ao Bang Bao
and
Ao Bai Bin
are lovely beaches on the south coast of the island. The bay dries out at low tide and it is virtually inaccessible in the low season when the accommodation tends to shut down.

Although there is a scattering of bungalow operations on the east coast, very few people choose to stay here even in the high season. The only beach is at
Sai Thong
.

Than Ma Yom Waterfall
is on the east side of the island. King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) visited this waterfall on no less than six occasions at the end of the 19th century, so even given the Thai predilection for waterfalls of any size, it counts as an impressive one (in fact there are three falls). To prove the point, the king carved his initials (or had them carved), on a stone to mark one of his visits. Rama VI and VII also visited the falls, although it seems that they didn't get quite so far - they left their initials inscribed on stones at the nearest of the falls. The falls are accessible from either Ban Dan Mai or Thaan Ma Yom, both on the east coast and getting to the first of the cascades involves a walk of around one hour; it is around 4 km to the furthest of the three falls.

Khlong Phu Falls
, at Ao Khlong Phrao, are perhaps even more beautiful than Than Ma Yom waterfall. There is a good pool here for swimming as well as a restaurant and some bungalows. Because this is a national park it is also possible to camp.

Koh Chang's forest is one of the most species-rich in the country and while the island's coast may be undergoing development, the rugged, mountainous interior
is still largely inaccessible and covered with virgin rainforest (around 70% is said to be forested). There is a good population of birds, including parrots, sunbirds, hornbills and trogons, as well as Koh Chang's well-known population of wild boar, although the chances of seeing any are slim.

Around Koh Chang

While the waters around Koh Chang are clear there have been some reports of a deterioration
in water quality connected with coastal gem mining on the mainland. Nonetheless, hard and especially soft corals are abundant. Fish are less numerous and varied than on the other side of the Gulf of Thailand or in the Andaman Sea. During the wet season visibility is very poor, due to high seas, which also makes diving dangerous. The months between November and March are best for diving. Generally, diving is better in the waters to the south of the island. Notable are the wrecks of two Thai warships, the
Thonburi
and
Chonburi
, sunk here in an engagement with seven French ships and the loss of 36 lives on 17 January 1941. One Thai ship escaped unharmed, the
Songkhla
. A memorial tablet (in Thai) has been erected on the beach and the wrecks are marked with buoys off the southeasternmost point of Koh Chang. The raised coral reefs seen around parts of the island extends out into the sea, where soft and hard corals, including massive, columnar and stags' horn varieties can be seen. The best diving is between 5 m and 25 m where blue-tipped rays, moray eels, trigger fish, grouper and batfish can be seen. There is a fantastic vertical dive but even more adventurous dive sites are found off Koh Man Nok and Hun Sarn Soa. If you are lucky it is possible to spot turtles and whalesharks.

Islands off Koh Chang

Koh Kood
is the next largest island after Koh Chang. This island has lovely beaches, especially on the west side, and a number of small fishing villages linked by dirt roads. So far it has managed to escape the ravages of development; there aren't any 7/11s, banks or girly bars, making this an ideal place to escape and relax. There is an impressive waterfall and the coral is also said to be good. For further information, see www.kohkood.com.

Koh Mak
is the third largest island in the archipelago after Koh Chang and Koh Kood. It is privately owned by a few wealthy local families and a little over half of the island has been cleared for coconut plantations. There is still a reasonable area of forest and the coral is also good. The best beach is on the northwest shore. It is said that many of the prime pieces of shorefront have been sold to Bangkok-based developers, so it remains to be seen what happens to Koh Mak.

Koh Kham
, a tiny island, is well known for its swallows' nests and turtle eggs, as well as good coral and rock formations for divers.

Koh Ngam
, two hours from Laem Ngop by boat, is a very small island with lush vegetation and beautiful beaches. It has two upmarket resorts.

Koh Whai
has two resorts but these are better value than those at Koh Ngam.

Many of the more sophisticated bungalow operations on Koh Chang organize day trips to
Koh Lao Ya
,
Koh Phrao
,
Koh Khlum
,
Koh Kra Dad
(which has exceptionally beautiful beaches and lush vegetation) and
Koh Rayang Nok
during the high season, when the seas are calmer, the visibility greater and there is generally more demand.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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