Michael Batson

Travel Writer

Vietnam

Cambodia

Other

Travelogue

Lady Boys, Viagra and Elephants - 4 October 2011

That's got your attention...
 
Someone once called Koh Chang “the last paradise islands in South East Asia” though I think it’s too late for that.

I first came to Koh Chang when there was nothing here but a few places where bamboo huts with thatched roofs were strung along the island’s western beaches. Access was by fishing boat and you walked from one beach to another through the bush. There were no roads, no electricity and no mains water supply.
 
Generators roared into the night, marijuana was plentiful and the island was famed for the strength of its rice whiskey, a milky white fire water pitted with a dubious black sediment, and served in recycled Mekong Whiskey bottles at 50 cents a pop.
 
The communal showers were primitive, and a midnight trip to the toilet by torchlight could be downright dangerous. The restaurants were flimsy constructs with rough bench seats and blighted by dogs in such appalling health and condition, they were ruinous to your appetite. Some things haven’t changed then, I thought casting my eye about the roadside where this year’s breed was loitering with intent.
 
One expat, a long-term resident in Thailand once advised me to avoid Thai dogs after dark least you be set upon, as they can turn aggressive when roaming in packs. Hell, they’ll even go for you during the daytime when you’re passing by on motorised transport.alt
 
The jumping off point for Koh Chang is the sleepy fishing settlement of Laem Ngop, 16 kilometres from Trat. From Phnom Penh you can buy a ticket all the way to the island. The lady at the Centrepoint ticket office wanted to sell me pre-booked hotel rooms on the island. The last time I did this I was royally ripped off by the ticket mafia at Ban Phe, near Koh Samed, another of Thailand’s popular resort islands. The experience rendered me deeply suspicious of advanced offers, and I explained this to the lady, declining her offer. Basically, if I haven’t seen it, I’m not going to pay for it.
 
She explained that she was not like the people at Koh Samed, and had heard of the rip-offs perpetrated there. I was appalled to hear that the people running these scams were seemingly still in business, a telling indictment of the lack of business ethics in Thailand’s tourist industry.
 
Koh Chang is Thailand’s second largest island after Phuket, and located in the very east of the country near Cambodia. So close in fact, that on viewing a map of the Gulf of Thailand, you could be forgiven for thinking that it belongs in the land of the Khmers, but don’t tell the Thais that. The island is eight kilometres from the mainland, covers 217 square kilometres, and is the largest of the 52 islands in the Koh Chang archipelago.
 
The island can be reached by car ferry, vessels that run every 45 minutes starting before breakfast and built for neither comfort or for speed. Aside from the master, he who steers the ship, they seemed crewed by lady boys. Everything on the island comes this way, which leaves tourists rather vulnerable to the pick-up taxis at the port. They don’t leave until full, so there can be a long wait, and prices can vary. Like many things in Thailand, there can be a dual pricing structure, one for the locals, and a higher one for tourists.alt
 
Koh Chang is pretty rugged. The main tourist areas are on the western side of the island and accessible from the two ferry ports located on the opposite side. The main road is sealed, but contrary to some tourist maps, doesn’t extend all the way around the island. The highest point on Koh Chang is over 700 metres, and the hinterland is covered in jungle and well watered with many large waterfalls especially prominent in the wet season.
 
Prior to World War Two, the island was little known by anyone. Thailand, then Siam, was the only land in the sub-region never colonised, and was occupied by the Japanese in 1941. The island was the scene of a naval battle between the collaborationist Vichy French and the Royal Thai Navy, who were decisively beaten. There’s a memorial to the battle on the south-eastern corner of the island.
 
The island remained underdeveloped longer than many other Thai tourist destinations. Malaria was only eradicated in 2000. Since infrastructure has improved, tourist numbers have increased, with over half-a-million visitors annually now visiting the Koh Chang and surrounding islands.alt
 
Now there’s Paddy’s Irish Pub with all the motor sport and football beamed in live and selling roast dinners. There are banks, ATMs and the internet. Thanks to the relentless march of tourism, there are girlie bars, massage shops including one called Viagra. There are tailors, who in Thailand all seem to come from the Indian subcontinent and who accost you walking down the street “suit mister, fine shirt for you” and all willing to shake your hand and be your friend if you’re buying; about as disingenuous as it gets.
 
You can order pizza delivery, and get tattoos, and now apparently buy condominiums. All on an island which is part of Mu Ko Chang National Park.
 
Laurie from London first came here seven years ago. His stays move in cycles, seven weeks on, seven weeks off, a bit like a fly-in, fly-out oil worker. He stays in the same guest house every time, and leaves his motorbike out the back of the restaurant when back in the UK.
 
This time round he was having trouble getting it started due to all he rain on the island. “There were dirt tracks back then, not roads” he said. He reckoned Koh Chang was a paradise but three-quarters of the island is up for development, as it’s 75 percent is owned by the Thai Navy.
 
“They’ll probably sell some of it off soon” he said “but not for the state, for themselves. No one here sells things off for the good of the country, they do it to line their own pockets.”

altSince tourism has increased property prices on the island have skyrocketed, almost doubling in recent years, now many locals can’t afford to buy.
 
Next door to Laurie’s favourite crash pad is the Sofia Resort. Judging by the photos on the wall it’s owned by Finns.
 
Lots of Scandinavians come to Koh Chang during the northern winter. Danish flags fly outside hotels on the main road. There are Germans too, who come and stay in German –owned hotels with other Germans, and listen to German rock music and drink German beer, served by Cambodians.
 
At Sofia’s several heavy set men with diminutive Thai women and speaking some Scandinavian language eyed me over their beers. There were lots of tattoos and short cropped hair cuts. With the large Buell motorbikes parked room side, I imagined they were either bikers or members of some Viking raiding party.
 
Motorbikes, at least the smaller ones popular all over this land, are cheap to rent starting at about 150 baht per day.
 
The best way to see the island is to hire one of these. It pays to be careful when riding as there many steep descents and not a few dangerous hair-pin bends to negotiate, so make sure your bike has good brakes, as you will need them.alt
 
However, the biggest traffic hazard on the island aren’t the roads, the rain, or the other drivers no, it’s the dogs. A motley collection of mutts who sleep roadside, scabby and aggressive unbridled by birth control and who cause more accidents than all other conditions combined.
 
The authorities’ efforts to promote rider safety through the wearing of helmets have come to nought. I only saw one local wearing a helmet and he wasn’t wearing it properly. The only motorcyclists obliging were farangs, like me.
 
Officially, the population of Koh Chang is about 9,500 but is reckoned to be as high as 16,000 with all the aliens added, those legal, and those not so legal. Many Cambodians work on the island, attracted by higher wages, and authorities happy to turn a blind eye to encroachments on Thailand’s strict labour laws provided the right palms are greased.
 
Thailand issues work permits for 10,000 Cambodians to work in the kingdom annually, but it’s estimated as many as 200,000 Cambodians work there illegally.
 
Tourist pursuits abound with all the usual water sports including diving and snorkelling expeditions to the surrounding islands like Koh Kood and Koh Mak. The island is home to 51 elephants –Chang is Thai for elephant - and the beasts can be hired for trekking near White Sand Beach.
 
Despite the ratings in foreign guide books, two-thirds of the 655,000 visitors annually to Koh Chang are Thais. The island is about 5-6 hours from Bangkok, 315-kilometres away, so the island is popular during holidays and long weekends for visitors from the capital or nearby Trat, the nearest provincial centre. The island is also a day’s trip from Phnom Penh, so tourists travelling from Cambodia often make Koh Chang a stop off on their way into Thailand.alt
 
Aside from tourism, a number of other industries thrive including traditional fishing and fish and shrimp farms on the eastern side of Koh Chang. They also grow pineapples, coconuts and dragon fruit and the island is home to some rubber plantations.

Hotel rooms range from as little as 350 baht to, I heard, 100,000 and no, that’s not a typo!

Comments  

#3 Guest 2015-08-13 14:09
I have been exploring for a bit for any high-quality
articles or blog posts on this kind of area . Exploring in Yahoo I at
last stumbled upon this website. Studying this information So i am
satisfied to express that I've a very just right uncanny feeling I discovered exactly what I needed.
I most definitely will make certain to don?t fail to remember this web site and give it a look regularly.
Quote
#2 Guest 2015-05-23 01:31
I am regular visitor, how are you everybody? This post posted at this web site is
genuinely fastidious.
Quote
#1 Guest 2014-03-02 20:40
Hey very interesting blog!
Quote

Add comment


Security code
Refresh