Thailand, one of the few countries in Asia to have never been colonized, may possess unlimited cultural wonders, but let us be honest: most tourists come here for the beaches. Beaches usually mean islands, that is limited territory versus unstoppable development. Many famous resort islands are covered in tourist infrastructure so thoroughly there is simply nothing else left there. The Big Ko Chang (thus distinguished from its "small" twin in a totally different part of the country and a different sea) near Trat has not escaped this dubious fate, but due to its size, most of it is still jungle. Generally, the ambiance here is more relaxed than in Samui or Phuket, less like a conveyor belt pumping out regular sea, sun and sand satisfaction for throngs of vacationers shuttling in and out. Not a remote or unknown destination in the slightest possible sense, it at least retains a certain hippie vibe, partly expressed through the ubiquitous reggae playing in beach bars.
Ko Chang literally translates as “Elephant Island”, but the only pachyderms you are likely to see are the domesticated variety kept for fun rides. Some consider such entertainment unethical, but either way, this is far from natural experiences. Hiking through the jungle covering most of Ko Chang’s hilly interior is much more fun, but do not expect any large wildlife – your sightings will be limited to monkeys and aviafauna, of which the most interesting is perhaps the great hornbill. Much of the forest on Ko Chang is officially designated as a national park, but this is more of an excuse for the irrationally high entrance fees to the waterfalls up in the hills. Klong Nueng and Kongoi are the most popular cascades, but even they cannot compete with much taller and more voluminous waterfalls on the mainland.
Most of the tourist development is concentrated on the west coast of Ko Chang. The east is still relatively unspoiled, with forest and plantations alternating along the shoreline. A couple of waterfalls here can be reached without traversing the jungle: Than Mayom and Khiri Phet. None is exceptional, but again, it is something to do. Salak Kok Bay has a protected mangrove forest where one can kayak or walk at low tide. Compared to similar mangrove areas on the mainland, near Trat, for example, it is less impressive. A few fishing villages still survive in the southeast, but their authenticity is declining, victim to the same mass tourism effect.
Whether you try to twist out of it or consider it your primary goal, beach bumming is what such destinations exist for. The usual vacation routine – an assortment of marine sports for the active types, a towel on the sand for the lazy souls, bars for the party buddies, fancy resorts for the posh and choosy, and bamboo huts with hammocks on a veranda for those in search of the good old hippie vibe. This is not DiCaprio’s “The Beach”, do not expect solitude (or easy marijuana – Thailand, in fact, has death punishment for any drugs), but an evening with a book and a bottle of the island’s namesake beer may be relaxing enough. This can be arranged in the old-school enclave on Lonely Beach or in little secluded bungalows on the east coast. Most of the west side is more upscale, although reasonably priced and sufficiently chill guesthouses can be found anywhere with a bit of effort. Most places can also arrange kayaking tours, diving and snorkeling, and organized treks in case you do not feel at home in the jungle on your own. In general, Ko Chang is less of a place to explore deeply but to hang out and relax.
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