‘Bang! – Bang! – Bang!’
After an interval of 5 seconds, I caught it again – the brief and strange metal banging noise that sounded like two pieces of sheet metal hitting each other. I could hear nothing else than that. It was peacefully quiet and hot like in the middle of a desert. Sweat was oozing out of my pores.
I followed the tone and found myself in front of a motorcycle, parked at Koh Chang’s old jetty on the eastern side of the island.
The Fisherwoman and the Pier
And there it was, the fish trying desperately to jump out of the front basket. The well-fed angler who cast her line again had put it there and covered it with a number plate, preventing the fish from leaping out of the container.
If I hadn’t spotted that fisherwoman, I would’ve started to wonder whether this place was totally abandoned. I mean, this was the pier, and it was April – a month when the monsoon had yet to kick in.
Taking in the surroundings, I slowly walked along the platform and realized there was life on the island: ‘beeeeeeeeeeep!’ A faint sound came from so far away that I had to prick up my ears to hear the cicadas. There was something soothing about that low, well-rehearsed chorus. It matched the scent of salty sea air, the small lapping waves, the gentle rocking of a longtail boat, and the relaxed Thai dreaming of another catch.
‘Sawadee kap,’ I said to the darkly-tanned fisherwoman who’d pinned up her hair. She was wearing crocs, ragged shorts and a way too long, worn-out tee that covered her butt and her elbows, hiding her flabby body.
‘Sawadee ka,’ she replied in an unperturbed but not unfriendly way that I hadn’t come across before, as if nothing could ever disturb her, and didn’t turn her head to greet me.
In the shade of a cashew tree, there was another easy-going soul – a Thai sitting lazily on his scooter, radiating the same mellow-life attitude as the beached whale.
‘Are you a moto taxi driver?’ I asked the guy whose bike didn’t have a number plate.
‘Yes,’ he replied indifferently, as if he couldn’t be bothered to lift a finger.
‘Can you bring me to a nice deserted beach?’
He gave me a puzzled look, so I said, ‘aow pai talae suai mai mee kon.’ (I’d like to go to a beautiful beach where there are no people.)
He studied the island map that’s just as large as the human-sized hornbill statue next to it and suggested going to Aow Yai (Long Beach) – some 3 miles of sand and sea in west Koh Chang.
‘Ta-oh rai kap?’ (How much?)
He held up his index finger, which meant 100 baht ($3.20).
That was just the beginning of my exploration of this secluded, little-known island in southern Thailand, a promising start to get away from it all.
The Landscape and its People
Narrow, paved roads ran through deep green woodland on the way to the west coast, perfectly aligned rubber trees that stretched away as far as the eye could see.
I was marveling at those flourishing forests that looked like cemeteries of inverted chicken legs, aside from the verdant color, and took invigorating breaths in the oxygen-rich setting.
As we were riding across the island, the odd family and rarely a foreigner approached us on one motorbike, using a third of the street’s width and the maximum capacity of a motorcycle. That didn’t worry me though, rather than drive fast, people played it safe here.
Ranong’s Koh Chang is a slow-life islet, a far cry from the hustle and bustle elsewhere in the country. Many tourists consider the larger and more popular Koh Chang in the eastern part of the Kingdom a quiet haven. But in terms of serenity, Trat’s Koh Chang is no match for Ranong’s Koh Chang – a tiny island some 165 miles north of Phuket.
When my moto taxi driver stopped to have a chat with his friends, it didn’t surprise me in the slightest. Nobody was pressed for time here.
Golden agers as decrepit as the wooden huts they were sitting in did nothing all day – they were just too weak. They were only watching their younger relatives burning trash and tending their cashew orchards.
Koh Chang, on the other hand – which means elephant island – remains strong. This island will soldier on for a while and keep crowds away.
The Masses Haven’t Arrived on Koh Chang Yet
I didn’t see many minimarkets, and I didn’t hear any 7-Eleven dingdong doorbells at all. I was glad when the driver stopped at a small shop. Running out of water on an empty beach in the off-season, which apparently starts here at the end of March, wouldn’t have been fun. Most resorts are already closed at this time of the year.
ATMs haven’t found their way to Koh Chang either, so it’s wise to bring enough money, preferably not only 1,000-baht bills. I did see a handful of massage ads, but none of the parlors were open. And rather than a hospital – although its name is ‘Koh Chang Hospital’ – there’s only a small medical clinic.
Ranong’s Koh Chang has clearly not undergone mass tourism yet, and that suits the islander’s fine. They place value on keeping the place simple and preserving the beauty.
‘700 meters of this beach area belong to me. Maybe I’ll build more bungalows because there is so much land, but I’d like to keep the natural beauty,’ Yongyuth said, the owner of Cashew Resort at Long Beach.
‘So you’re not planning to open any bars and the like?’ I asked.
‘No, no!’ he said firmly and waved it off.
On my way to Long Beach, I’d stumbled across ramshackle concrete houses with tin roofs and an upper story that consisted of a wooden framework. There were either no walls at all, or makeshift walls made of past election placards and paintings.
And close to Long Beach, I’d spotted Watpa Koh Chang – the forest temple. This wat (temple) wasn’t one of the dazzling, jewel-encrusted ones that are so common in Bangkok or Chiang Mai. Its simple look with its gray walls and old white railings that had turned black, they matched Koh Chang’s lack of development. Well, at least there was a tsunami radar tower a stone’s throw from the temple.
On a stone wall nearby, it read Kohhaidoenthangdoey sawadeepahp, which means ‘bon voyage’, or ‘have a good trip’.
I wasn’t about to leave, I’d just arrived at Long Beach, and set out to bask in the marginally cooler shadow under a casuarina tree rather than the sun. This would be the perfect place to linger and enjoy nature in solitude, I figured.
Nature Sounds and the Island of Koh Chang Peculiarities
There wasn’t a single human soul in sight for some 3 miles, the distance the arc-shaped beach stretches like a smiling giant. But this time I knew instantly I wasn’t alone. ‘Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep!’ The inbound nuclear alert was now loud and clear. I couldn’t fail to hear the hypnotizing cicadas that had a field day.
The moment they shut their trap or their tymbals, I was watching the fallen leaves flying above the beach. I sat down, sank my toes into the fine gray sands, listened to the sounds of the leaves rustling in the warm wind, and pondered. This island is so small, and yet so grounded in its own identity that it’s determined enough to keep package holidaymakers at Phuket’s Patong bay. I didn’t mind; I was enjoying my privacy to the full.
Apart from one foreign backpacker, the only tourists that arrived were a handful of Thais. Relaxing Thai music announced their arrival as the longtail boat approached the beach. Petite women wearing long-sleeved clothes were holding their wide brim hats as they got off the cockleshell. They clearly loathed the tan.
I, for one, was fine with tanning, but I needed the shadow too. And that hadn’t been difficult to find, thank Buddha. The endless expanse of Long Beach is lined with Casuarinas, coconut palms and a few cashew trees. They alternate with each other as if jockeying for position.
I was staring at all the trees, daydreaming, when a large red fire ant brought me back to reality. It stung like a wasp and reminded me that this island wasn’t mine. ‘Coo-croo-coooooooo,’ a pigeon sneered as if to confirm that I’d got the ant’s message. A dip in the sea would do wonders, I was convinced, but it didn’t look very inviting.
Koh Chang’s waters aren’t the clearest in Thailand, though people come here for other reasons: to immerse themselves in nature and enjoy long walks on the beach; to take a break from the crowds, the jet skis and all the beach vendors. Above all, to find the old Thailand and relish the laid-back atmosphere.
This became apparent to me when I was studying a bald, bearded guy over 40, clad in a tee and three-quarter length pants. He was walking barefoot along the blackish water’s edge, alone but visibly happy, enraptured by the place. Radiating the same poise as all the locals I’d met here, he gave me a friendly smile and waved as he walked past, remaining silent.
At the blackish water’s edge, I couldn’t stop thinking about it and asked Yongyuth.
‘What’s that black substance in the sand?’
‘Oh, that’s a mineral,’ he replied and smiled.
‘Are there any sea urchins at Aow Yai?’
He looked baffled, so I added, ‘the spiky creatures in the sea,’ and used my hands to describe their shape.
‘No, here only sand. You can swim.’
’I used to live in Koh Phangan, and I was the first one who began to build bungalows here about 27 years ago. I started with 4 bungalows and now I have over 40,’ Yongyuth added.
‘How did you hear about this place?’
‘My cousin lived here at the time.’
‘Such a long time ago. Back in those days, what was island life like?’
‘People had cashew orchards and sold nuts to the factory in Ranong. And they grew vegetables on their land and ate fish. Very easy,’ he said and grinned. ‘People still do it; life has barely changed here.’
‘Why did you leave Koh Phangan?’
‘I went to study science in Bangkok, but I never use it,’ he confided to me and laughed mischievously. ‘And when I visited my cousin in Koh Chang…,’ he paused, fishing for words.
‘You fell in love with the island.’
‘Yes,’ he said, truly enamored with Koh Chang. ‘I had money and decided to buy land and start a business, but slowly. Many people stay long time, 3 or even 6 months. From December to March my bungalows are all rented out.’
I thanked him for the chat and to my surprise, he didn’t press his palms together in a prayer-like fashion to say bye. Instead, he extended a hand.
I happened to meet another Thai before going back to Koh Phayam, Koh Chang’s neighboring island. Born and raised in Koh Chang, Chaow was sitting on his motorbike at the pier, smoking a sweet-scented ciggie, and confirmed that Yongyuth had been the first who started to build bungalows in Koh Chang.
‘Why has Koh Chang not seen such an increase in visitors as Koh Phayam, which isn’t outrageously touristy either?’ I asked.
‘Koh Chang still slow, we don’t change the owner of the land. Because also we get paper from the land. You’re not allowed to sell that paper that’s the problem, only can give. One way still good, because keep the island slow.’
‘Why are you not allowed to sell the land?!’
‘This kind of paper we give to our child or our family. Move to generation. Koh Phayam start to grow faster than Koh Chang because here they don’t want someone they get same kind of paper like in Koh Phayam, you know,’ he explained. ‘But someone they buy with the friendship, like they say for rent but they buy, but only small. They build the house because they like island and quiet. Yeah, someone they still sell.’
‘Why did selling the land become possible in Koh Phayam and not here?’
Chaow explained that the old major from Koh Phayam had put pressure on the powers that be so that people could get that coveted document in some other way.
‘Go see Buffalo Bay, not many the old people from Koh Phayam land business. All the new from Bangkok, from south, from everywhere. Even tourist from Sweden, from Germany. One way nice, people living, moving, you open business. More people come, more this, more that. Here different, because the law still the same,’ he added with a hint of relief.
I also wanted to know where I could find the nicest beach in Koh Chang. Chaow recommended Aow Lek for those who liked it quiet and cheap, and Long Beach and Aow Kai Tao – the Ranger Beach – for those who were after the beautiful ones.
‘You go north, you start to see rock, beach, rock, beach, also nice. In the northeast we have Gipsy village and stones, northwest more beaches and bungalows, but more expensive. You cross only the rock and then you go Aow Lek. In the south they also start more open, maybe the one is famous they call ‘Green Banana Bar’, that’s the Ranger Beach.’
‘Is it true that life on the island hasn’t changed much? How do people live?’ I asked.
‘Yes. Many bungalow, but even local for live on the island, for land for live nature. Land with family. Cashew, rubber, coconut, vegetables, fishing. Simple life.’
‘What about electricity?’
‘I use solar power. Normal generator they use battery.’
‘And what about motorcycles? A friend told me I couldn’t rent one in Koh Chang.’
‘You tell taxi to bring you to crossroad to village, they have. Here not many like Koh Phayam, only 3-4 people rent out about 20 motorbikes. Not far to the crossroad from east to west.’
I thanked Chaow for all the information, and he also extended a hand, symbolizing friendship. A nice gesture.
Well, as long as the sales ‘with the friendship’ don’t attract too many customers, and no major makes it possible for big hotel chains to move in, this island may stay quiet for a while longer.
Be that as it may, I was glad I didn’t leave it too late to experience the beauty of the peaceful life. You never know when something suddenly makes a boom happen here.
Written by: Philipp Meier
Philipp is a freelance travel writer / English German translator. He’s particularly passionate about Thai culture and traveling off the well-trodden tourist trail in the Land of Cheeky Smiles. His work has been published at BootsnAll.com, Phanganist.com, and a couple of others. Find him at www.writerphilippmeier.com or shoot over an email to email@example.com.