KOOL KOH CHANG

VICTOR PAUL BORG REVEALS THE THAI ISLAND’S RISING STYLE STAKES

THIRTY YEARS AGO, Konchai thanasrikul was the first one on the beach at Had tha Nam, and he immediately envisioned its potential, purchasing a cheap plot of beachfront property and building the Siam Beach Resort’s cluster of rustic bungalows.

“there was nothing at the time,” says Natrapee Somnam, the manager of the resort and Konchai’s confidante. “No road, no water, no electricity, and no cold drinks. Guests had to come from the mainland on a long-tail boat that docked on the beach.”

And come they did: Western escapees seeking virtual exile on a tropical island, enchanted by this one’s strips of brilliant-white sand, towering coconut palms and inviting sweeps of blue sea.

the Westerners changed the beach’s thai name – which means “Beach Pier Water” – to one that was truer to its character, Lonely Beach, a name still in use today.

“Konchai realised that Koh Chang would be as successful as Phuket,” adds Natrapee. Not quite another Phuket, at least not yet, but not far behind now either. Still one of the quietest beaches, Had tha Nam now boasts five resorts, and last year, Siam Beach felt compelled to adapt to the times by tearing down the rustic bungalows and rebuilding swankier residences complete with air-conditioning, TV and parquet floors.

the island was on the up – bothin terms of visitor numbers and in style of accommodation.

THE RISING TIDE

Elsewhere on thailand’s second-largest island (aft er Phuket), the development has proceeded even faster. Koh Chang – whose thai name translates as “Elephant Island” as it is shaped like an elephant’s head – is the largest of an archipelago of 52 islands which were designated a National Park in 1982. At the time, it was home to a few thousand fishermen and a rugged backpackers’ hideaway; rapid growthin tourism only came in 2001 when the government tarmaced the road that skirts almost all of its coast and improved the ferry service from the mainland.

The introduction of Bangkok Airways flights a few years later made it all the more accessible – flight time from the capital is just 40 minutes – and the proximity to Bangkok ensured that it became a viable weekend getaway for city slickers looking for some fun in the sun.

Visitor numbers have climbed to around 800,000 annually, and the transformation from a backpackers’ escapade to an upscale destination is now almost complete.

this new influx of higher-budget tourists spurred the construction of several plush resorts on some of the west coast’s beaches – best of which are the Amari Emerald Cove Resort and Spa; AANA Resort and Spa; Ramayana Resort and Spa; Aiyapura Resort and Spa; Panviman Resort; and the SPA Koh Chang. All come kitted with luxuries set among tasteful designs and boast impressive spas offering all types of exotic therapies – traditional or modern massages, as well as many rejuvenation treatments.

More new resorts are sprouting up with at least two openings expected in March: the Dewa, from the same owners of the upscale Ramayana, and the swanky Princess Resort Koh Chang by the Dusit chain, whose 96 rooms are a study in sublime thai contemporary design.

Now, the island is also due to get another first in the form of two separate private luxury residential developments – Tranquillity Bay Residence near Bang Bao and Siam Royal View in Khlong Son village – to be sold as holiday or retirement homes, bothcomplete with private yacht marinas.

SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE

Not all resorts are high-end, however, and different types of visitors will find something that suits their tastes and budgets in the three main beaches. Broadly-speaking, these house expensive designer resorts at Had Kai Bae; cheaper backpacker bungalows at Had tha Nam; and mid-range accommodations at Had Sai Khao, the longest beach in Koh Chang.

Yet, all of these beaches hold the three quintessential Koh Chang experiences: a Thai massage under the coconut palms right on the sand; a dinner of fresh grilled seafood on tables set out on the beach; and shows by the famous fire jugglers.

It is also possible to choose from a multitude of water-based activities such as snorkelling or diving tours to explore coral reefs filled with barracudas at a cluster of off shore isles in the south, or fishing trips to reel in a variety of marine life, including the night-time catching of squid.

DAY TRIPPING

the finest diving and snorkelling in the archipelago can be had in a cluster of islands about 45 minutes southof Koh Chang – the best are Koh Rang, Koh Yak, and Koh Laun – where the coral is least degraded and the fish most abundant. Operators all over the island offer half- or full-day tours to these corals, although the ones in the southern village of Bang Bao have the shortest distance to travel. Among these, a reliable operator is Scubadive-thailand (tel +66 (0)39 558028, www.koh-chang-divers.com).

Likewise, many operators offer fishing expeditions. there are day-long trips using rod and tackle for largish game fish such as barracuda, and night-time tours for squid – either using tackle or nets (in which case the squid are attracted by a powerful lamp and then netted). Many companies offer fishing tours, most of them based in Bang Bao village – one of the best is Sea Hunter Fishing and Tour (tel +66 (0)47 782234), who also operate two-night live-aboard boat tours.

the Ban Kwan Chang elephant camp is found in the village of Klong Son – look out for the large signs if hiring a car or ask your hotel to help with transport. the camp offers a half-day tour which includes elephant bathing, feeding, performance, and a one-and-a-half-hour elephant trek into the forest. A shorter 35-minute trek with a 15-minute performance is also available.

EMERALD ISLAND

Everywhere else, Koh Chang largely remains gloriously natural.

the new developments are limited to small pockets along the west coast. Every vista is dominated by the interior spine of mountains, which meet the clouds at the higher summits, and are covered in impenetrable old-growthjungle.

Indeed, the island is one of thailand’s greenest spots, and it is a joy to explore on a moped and make fascinating little discoveries – waterfalls and lagoons, tranquil creeks or streams, and a handful of quiet undeveloped beaches.

the tastes of nature are all around: fresh watery wind, massive trees looming overhead, birdsong in the mornings, cacophonies of toads at night, short-tailed macaque monkeys dashing across the road, and cobras hissing in the grass.

the easiest way to get closer to the forest is on an elephant at the elephant camp called Ban Kwan Chang in Khlong Son village.

The camp’s 10 elephants and 10 mahouts (elephant masters) – one mahout for one elephant – all hail from Surin, the northeastern province where mechanical tractors have yet to supersede the trunked workers in farms.

“We buy all the elephants when they are old and no longer strong enough for the farm,” explains Somsri Saiyot, who runs the camp with his mahout colleagues. “Elephants typically live until about 80 years old, and we only have females here, as males can be violent at times.”

The docile giants are playful with tourists, joyfully frolicking and trumpeting when fed, and splashing in the river like excited children during the treks that take visitors up the river and into the virgin jungle on elephant back.

BACK TO BASICS

Even more untamed nature exists on the eastern side of the island where there is only a handful of small resorts. Most interesting to explore is an intact grove of mangroves at Ban Salak Khok, one of two fishermen’s villages that have changed little despite the swelling number of visitors coming to explore the area.

At Ban Salak Khok – which consists of a cluster of wooden houses built on stilts among the mangroves – fishermen mill about, mending nets or tinkering in their colourful boats whose brows are laden with striking talismans, ribbons of cloththat give protection according to Buddhist tradition as well as bundles and garlands of flowers that appease the sea and mangrove spirits. there are also kayaks for rent, in which you can spend an aft ernoon prowling among the mangroves, an eerie watery maze where the only sound you hear would be the splash of your oar.

A few miles south, Ban Salak Phet is another quaint fishermen’s village set on the western scoop of the large bay called Ao Salak Phet. the houses in this commune are bigger, their back terraces facing the shimmering sea. Yet, few tourists make it to the village (it is a 45-minute drive from Had Sai Khao), and it is possible to sit almost alone on the back terrace of the southernmost house of the village where an entrepreneurial family serves drinks.

It is a timeless spot – the endearing view revealing an azure sweep of sea, a big blue sky, and thickly forested mountains across the bay. the silence interrupted only by the faint rustle of the breeze and water lapping the stilts underneath. A place made for reveries.

this is what makes Koh Chang so special or “cool”: luxury, nature, and solitude all contained in one small island destination.

WHERE TO STAY – TOP FIVE HOTELS

1. AMARI EMERALD COVE RESORT AND SPA
At the time of writing, the island’s only five-star resort has the best service and the plushest rooms – massive dens in pastel creams and browns, full of exquisite fixtures such as handsome lampshades, masculine writing desks, and wooden TV cabinets in traditional East Asian style. Th e grounds also hold the island’s largest swimming pool and the best Thai restaurant. Khlong Prao, tel +66 (0)39552000, www.amari.com

2. AANA RESORT AND SPA
A great location on a bend of the Kzhlong Prao river, the view is best enjoyed from the cluster of romantic igloo-style bungalows scattered in a dense tropical garden. Although on the small side, the bungalows are full of light, all set in whites and creams, including minimalist cream furniture and a high-pitched rattan ceiling, as well as plunge pools on the terraces. Khlong Prao, tel +66 (0)39 551539; www.aanaresort.com

3. AIYAPURA RESORT AND SPA
Offering a variety of styles of bungalows nestled in a secluded location, complete with attentive service, Aiyapura Resort and Spa also features a great French restaurant, and lots of facilities that include all manner of watersports and tours, and a yacht available for charter. Among the bungalows, the Private Pool Villas have many luxury fixtures, including an oval bathtub large enough for two, a digital piano, and a private pool – so much so that you might forget there’s a world outside. Klong Son, tel +66 (0)39 555111, www.aiyapura.com

4. SIAM BEACH RESORT
An informal and friendly place, with open-style minimalist rooms featuring wooden floors, cement bathrooms and funky yellow walls (that are also rigged with air-conditioning and TV). Common facilities are limited to a small pool behind the beach, a beach bar that reverberates with dance music, and a Th ai restaurant that serves fresh, plain grilled seafood. Had Tha Nam, tel +66 (0)81 922-4495, www.siambeachresort.in.th

5. THE SPA KOH CHANG RESORT
By a mangrove in the island’s quiet east side, this place is a veritable inland retreat. Here, everything is deliberately rustic, mostly built of aged wood scavenged from farms. Th e bungalows – which nestle in a tropical garden complete with water cascade – have wooden floors, palm-frond ceilings, tasteful furniture, artistic bathrooms and spacious terraces. The restaurant serves Thai staples and healthy Western food. Baan Salak Khok, tel +66 (0)39 553091/2, www.thesparesorts.net