There’s not too many islands left in Thailand that haven’t been slowly discovered by adventurers and then secured their spot on the Banana Pancake Trail for every other backpacker looking for an island escape. That’s why I was surprised to hear of a place that had yet been taken over in the same way that, say, Koh Samui had been (which if you’ve had the chance to visit it is rather an overrun resort metropolitan than a relaxed tropical island).
I headed south from Bangkok to the island of Koh Chang, on the Gulf of Thailand's eastern seaboard. I wanted to get a taste of some of Thailand’s island life and explore this place that so many people had recommended for a semi off-the-tourist-track experience before I headed into central Cambodia. The taste of island life came prematurely when the ferry from the mainland to the island was one of the slowest ferries I’d ever been on in my life, far from the speedboats that crowd Koh Tao and Koh Phangan’s harbours. In fact, Koh Chang has a ban on jet-skis and longboats are not allowed on the islands beaches, helping to preserve its picturesque views and landscapes.
As you arrive at the jetty a number of taxis are awaiting to take you to your accommodation. I opted to stay on Lonely Beach, which has over the years become a haven for backpackers and hippies looking for a slice of relaxed paradise. The island is quite large and it will take you about 45 mins by taxi (and a fixed price of 100 Baht per person) to get to the other side of the ferry docks.
I arrived at Lonely Beach knowing why it had become a backpacker’s haven. Small, rustic looking bars lined the streets, fruit shake stalls on every corner, beach huts scattered the coastline and, by night, the town came alive to the sounds of reggae beats and live music. It seemed like I had certainly found a piece of the old Thailand, a bit of the old Koh Phangan before the full moon parties started and the world tuned in.
I met a group of travellers on the ferry and they immediately became my Koh Chang family. An aspiring musician from California, a Master of nursing from Ireland, and a free-spirited Brazilian girl who, like me, had traded her life in the corporate world for freedom and the chance to see the world. The three of them had too become a family while travelling solo, and collectively ended up trekking Nepal together. I love those kinds of travel stories you hear when strangers become friends and experience some of life’s most exciting adventures.
I spent the next few days with them. Our first night out exploring Lonely Beach’s infamous nightlife was unintentionally on a Monday, which was the quietest night of the week so we strolled into one of the rustic wooden bars and decided to grab a drink. My Californian friend barely parted from his Ukulele, which was great for us as it generally grabbed most people’s attention (except those wanting too much quiet time, which in that case the main strip of Lonely Beach is not the place for you). The owner of the bar, Dandy, took an instant liking my friends talent and decided to let him be the night’s entertainment and perform some of his own music. On any other day the bar features musicians from all over the world (this week is was a talented lady from Russia – check out her YouTube channel). Dandy also runs an open mic night for any others feeling like some time in the spotlight. I remember sitting listening to the sweet sounds of the ukulele, dim-litted lights, Chang in hand, thinking ‘this is the life’.
The rest of my time in Koh Chang was exactly that, chilling out to the sounds of live music, eating amazing Thai food, drinking $1 fruit shakes, swimming at the beach and hanging at the bar. I could have spent months here without even noticing time go by, sinking myself into this island until it swallowed me whole and never let me go. I thought about the others that had come here and had never left, or those that had lost their sense of time and found their slice of magical paradise. That couldn’t be me just yet, I had things to do and places to see, I had to give in to the hands of time, which to this island do not exist. So for now my time here was short lived but I knew it wasn’t the last time I would feel the magic of this place. As my dear friend at the Thale restaurant said to me as I said goodbye – “it’s not goodbye, it’s see you later”.
On my last night in Koh Chang I fell asleep to the echoes of the lyrics of the preceding dreamer’s of the world, Bob Marley’s ‘One Love’ drumming in the background. If I only had one hope for the island is that it preserves this ambience, and somehow maintains it’s natural beauty and atmosphere that makes it what it is. I’ve seen what kind of destruction the tourism industry can bring to an island like this. With people comes infrastructure, with infrastructure comes overcrowding, with overcrowding comes pollution, and the cycle continues. I hope that Koh Chang stays beautiful and somewhat untouched, and hopefully with the help from groups like 'Keep Koh Chang Clean', preserves it’s natural beauty for many years to come.
Stay: We stayed in the KLKL Hostel on Lonely Beach. It was a great location right on the main street, but if you’re looking for a more silent feel check out Siam Huts, a little bit closer to the beach with a more relaxed vibe.
Eat: I loved Thale Restaurant. They have some of the best Thai food in the whole of Thailand at good prices.
Do: Take a boat tour and snorkel the island. The more people, the cheaper it is.
Drink: I have to shout out to my favourite bar Banana Leaf. They have an open mic every night and play chilled out reggae tunes when open mic isn’t running. You can notice the bar from the number of country signs put the front. Look for your country, you’ll be sure to find it.