The Saturday City: Ko Chang

By Nomadic Matt | Published July 11th, 2009

Ko Chang ThailandLocated near the Cambodian border, I first heard of Ko Chang during my first visit to Thailand back in 2005. I was in Chang Mai and two backpackers were arguing over whether I should go to Ko Chang or Ko Samet. Back then, Ko Chang was a backpacker’s paradise. If Thailand had something close to “The Beach,” this would have been it. There were few tourists on it, no resorts, no organized tours, a dirt road, and only a handful of guesthouses. Since it’s over six hours from Bangkok, most people never visit. They go to closer, more developed locations. 

I never made it there in 2005. Or in 2006. Or 2007. But I did make it there at the end of 2008. I had heard rumors and stories about the island since 2005 about how tourism had exploded on Ko Chang and its neighboring islands. Now, there were resorts, package tours, paved roads, and overpriced taxis.  However, Ko Chang was not nearly as overdeveloped as the island of Ko Phi Phi, Phuket, or Samui. And despite the recent surge in tourists during the high season, it was still relaxing.

Ko Chang is the second largest island in Thailand so there is a lot of space to move around and get away from the crowds. The island has definitely seen a rise in tourism over the last few years and while it is a still a relative “secret” to most tourists, the word is out in the backpacking/budget travel scene. Prices on the island are much cheaper when compared to other islands and its relative size and location means that even when the island is busy, it’s still not that busy. However, there has been a big push lately to develop and promote the island and I suspect this peace will end shortly.

Ko Chang Thailand

Ko Chang is part of a marine park with the same name and there is a lot to do in the area. Since Ko Chang is so big, it’s heavily forested and contains quite a few mountains. The island itself is said to have broken off from the mainland many centuries ago, which would account for this type of terrain. There are a number of good waterfalls and vistas on the island. There are a few official hiking trails where you can go on your own and a few unofficial ones if you just want to explore, though I recommend getting a local to go with you. For divers, this marine park is excellent. There are a lot of reefs around and because Ko Chang is still “off the grid”, you’ll find most of these reefs still in tact and not overfished.

Most of the accommodation is on the left side of the island. The package/high end tourists end up at Hat Sai Khao beach (White Sands) on the top of the island closest to the mainland. This beach, along with the two below it, are were you’ll find most of the big resorts, expensive restaurants, and tourist centers. However, there are luxury resorts up and down the island.

Most backpackers end up in one of two places: Lonely Beach, where most of the guesthouses, bars, clubs, and loud music are. Here’s you’ll find cheap accommodation, decent shops, and a relatively nice beach. Or there is the infamous Treehouse Guesthouse located on the southern right tip of the island at Hat Yao. It’s the only place there and it’s very quiet. You won’t find any loud music or bars here. It’s just the Treehouse. The Treehouse is sort of an institution on Ko Chang and, thus, is always full. The beach is alright during low tide, though it can be a bit rocky. But it is a great place to relax. And if they are booked out, you can always stay at their second location on Lonely Beach.

Ko Chang Thailand

If Ko Chang is too touristy for you, you can head to the other islands of Ko Kood, Ko Maak, Ko Khlum, or Ko Rang. Luckily, most of these islands are undeveloped. Many are privately owned and can be rented out cheaply. The smaller ones have only a bungalow or two and if you looking to really get away from everything – skip Ko Chang and head to these little villages. Sadly though, the larger islands have not escaped development. One island that has become really overdeveloped is Ko Maak. I had heard this was a bit of paradise but was saddened to see that the island is ringed with expensive resorts and expensive prices. Ko Kood is slowly becoming that way too.

Yet despite its recent increase in tourism, Ko Chang still offers a lot of peace and quiet. How long that will last is not clear. I suspect pretty soon it will become a major destination for people- maybe as a half way point between Bangkok and Siem Reap. But eventually, the tourism that affected Ko Samui and Phuket will makes it way here. Take in Ko Chang now because, even at its current level of tourist development, it’s still a great place to go relax. But that might not last much longer.

comments 19 Comments

Matt, good post. Unfortunately, whenever places like this make the mainstream ‘travel’ shows, then it’s too late! I guess it’s becoming harder to find those ‘off the beaten path’ places anymore. I guess with any place, it’s what you make it.

Thanks, Matt. I’ve been to Ko Chang — in 2001. It was amazing — and quiet. Looking forward to returning! I’m going to start digging through my box of pictures — 8 years ago! Back before I had a digital camera!

Love Ko Chang! I spent a semester in Bangkok and we escaped to Chang a few times when we just really wanted to relax. Everyone is so friendly there. Actually, the first time a few of my friends and I went, we found that all the accommodation on Lonely Beach was full. So the people at Treehouse let us sleep on the hammocks in the restaurant for free! Of course, we couldn’t really sleep until the party in the main area died down a bit, and we woke up with the earliest risers at breakfast, but we slept on hammocks with the water rising and falling below us and it was quite nice. The second time a friend and I went we were really in need of some peace and relaxation. We intended to go to the treehouse at Long Beach, but it was rainy and not great weather, and we actually ended meeting a group of Thai principals on the ferry over who invited us to have dinner with them and stay at their hotel (we paid for our room, which was a bit more than the couple bucks we’d have spent at Treehouse, but it was well worth the huge feast they shared with us and the interesting conversation (with only one Thai/English speaker) and fun times we shared with them.

All in all, I definitely think Ko Chang is a place just far enough off the “trail” to allow for more spontaneity and random fun opportunities than more touristed islands. And great for relaxing on the beach, getting a Thai massage, and sharing evening smoothies, drinks and music with friends ;)

NomadicMatt

I agree. It’s sort of on that cusp- not very developed but a little too developed ya know? So you don’t get a complete isolated experience but you also aren’t overwhelmed like you might be in Samui or Phi Phi.

I heard many good things about the Treehouse. So…what’s the best way to get to Ko Chang from Bangkok?

NomadicMatt

You can fly into Trat but there is a 100 baht bus from Bangkok. Takes about 6 hours.

You bring up one of my greatest travel fears. With travel becoming easier, cheaper and more common there will not be many secluded and authentic experiences left.

Anyone who has returned to the same country over the course of a decade has been witness to massive upheaval and westernization. Cool places quickly become popular and then over-ran with commercialism and tourist kitsch. The better the location the more people recommend it and the worse it gets.

The time to see the world is now. In a couple of decades it will be difficult to find locations without American fast food chains and coffee franchises.

The first time I went to Koh Samui the roads were unpaved. I returned a few years later and witnessed brand new black top and a McDonald’s!

Ian

Some nice articles on your blog Matt, but a few things need pointing out with regards this one:

“There were few tourists on it, no resorts, no organized tours, a dirt road, and only a handful of guesthouses. ”

Sorry, but that’s nonsense. There were lots of tours, more speedboats than there are today, the road was paved and there were a couple of dozen large beachfront resorts plus all the guesthouses, mid range and backpacker bungalows etc. There were even 7-elevens in 2005 and ATMs.

“One island that has become really overdeveloped is Ko Maak. I had heard this was a bit of paradise but was saddened to see that the island is ringed with expensive resorts and expensive prices.”

You didn’t actually go there did you? There are less than 30 resorts on Koh Mak. Half of which are clustered on one beach. Most are small, mid range bungalow resorts. Can still get an AC room on the beach for 1000 baht or a fan hut for 300. Sure there are a handful of nicer resorts too. But you can easily find a kilometre of beach with no people on it in high season. Or explore the entire east of the island which, aside from a handful of small resorts and a couple of hamlets, is just rubber plantations, jungle, mangroves and beach.

“There are a few official hiking trails where you can go hiking on your own.”

Unlike other National Park’s in Thailand, there are no official hiking trails. Unless you count the paths to the waterfalls at Klong Plu and Than Mayom. You wont find any obviosu, signposted, easy to follow trails here.

“Or there is the infamous Treehouse Guesthouse located on the southern right tip of the island at Hat Yao. It’s the only place there . . .”

No it isn’t the only place to stay – that’s what your outdated guidebook told you when you decided to write this blog post. But, if you had actually been to Treehouse on Long Beach ( Hat Yao) on Koh Chang in late 2008, you must have seen Zion Bungalows at the southern end of the beach, 400 metres from Treehouse. They have slightly more upmarket rooms for rent and are currently expanding. They have been there for over 18 months.

NomadicMatt

Ian,

Thanks for your points. Let me address them all in order of your snippets:

1. As I said, I never went in 2005, 2006, or 2007. So really, I was reiterating what was told to me. As I said, they were arguing where I should go b/c that was what ko chang was described to me as. Obviously, if I didn’t go there until 2008, how would I know?

2. To me 30 resorts on such a small island is overdeveloped. Matter of personal opinion.

3. I was counting that waterfall trail in the middle of the island as “official” as it appeared on all the maps I got.

4. I did not know Zion bungalows were there. I stand corrected.

5. I haven’t been to Ko Wai but I heard good things. As for the other two, obviously you’ve never paid a guy to take you to thai islands overnight and pick you up in the morning! :) Also, there’s a hint of sarcasm in the original sentence.

Ian

One more

If Ko Chang is too touristy for you, you can head to the other islands of Ko Kood, Ko Maak, Ko Khlum, or Ko Rang.”

You do realise that Koh Klum and Koh Rang have never had any ferry or boat service going to them? And that they have no accommodation on the islands?

Koh Rang has a National Park ranger station on it and, that’s it. Some snorkelling trips stop on the north or southeast of the island for lunch of one of the small white sand beaches.

Yet, you forgot to mention Koh Wai which has four small places to stay and is connected by regular boat service to Koh Chang and Koh Mak. If you’d been to Koh Mak, from Koh Chang, you would have stopped on koh Wai on the way to drop off / pick up passengers

NomadicMatt

You should! I liked it there a lot!

I visited Koh Chang in 2005 days after the Asian tsunami. Since the south was off limits to tourists, much of the traveler traffic was diverted to this area. It is relatively close to Bangkok and certainly has a tourist infrastructure, but it seemed to me a less desirable to many people because it’s not really the “paradise fantasy” of your dreams that some of the other beaches are. Don’t get me wrong, the beaches are nice there and it’s a quiet retreat, but it wasn’t wow stellar and pristine like other parts of thailand.

Ben

Great post Matt, loving the banter! I’ve been doing a little research on Thai islands and I think the main thing i’ve taken from it is that peoples opinions of “touristy” are really different!

I’m hoping on visiting Ko Chang in November as it looked like the weather was the best in that area over the south. Hope it wont have been over run by then!

helena

Hi Matt,

I am planing to visit Koh Chang and would love to see a map of the hikes on the island, any chance you can scan it and post it here? cheers.

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James

Ah, Matt, The beach was filmed in Thailand mate, it was filmed at Koh Phi Phi Leh.

You forgot to speak about Bang Bao village in the South of the island it is really a place to see. I stayed there for 2 days and night, I really liked it.

Im thinking to move to live to Thailand a pair of months. I was looking for a place with few tourists, no prostitution at all and calm and very local. I think Ko Chang looks perfect. Nice post!

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