Koh Chang - A Paradise Lost…
It is unfortunate that many travellers to Thailand are rather uncritical about their environment and the effect tourism is having on the islands of the Kingdom. Koh Chang is a ghastly case in hand of unregulated tourist development gone mad.
I first went to Koh Chang in 2003 just as the Thaksin government was trying to open the place up” - and was rather disturbed by what I found and what has happened in the subsequent years I find even more disturbing.
Thailand’s record of preservation and conservation is to say the least, chequered, and Koh Chang is showing no signs that anyone has learned from the past or even cares.
Koh Chang is the second largest island in Thailand. It was given an unexpected boost by the post-tsunami unpopularity of the west coast (i.e. Phuket). Now an ever increasing number of western tourists are heading for this island...here is my polemic on why this is not so good....
I visit Koh Chang several times each year, largely because it's near to where I live, and every time a friend comes to stay this is the most convenient "paradise island” to take them to... My brother even got married there.
So what’s wrong with this slice of “bounty” advert?
Koh Chang is a tragedy....it’s being badly developed, it’s overpriced and it's going downhill at a rate of knots......
Why? If you're coming from Europe or the States you'll find that the cost of living is still relatively cheap; a room is less than half what you’d pay at home.... but it is no so cheap when compared to elsewhere in Thailand. You'll love the sunsets and the white sand, you won't wonder where all the sewage is going and what happened to the mangroves, farmland or the fishing industry that gets smaller catches every year, or the fishing villages being turned into souvenir arcades-com-hotels....
When Koh Chang was earmarked by the first Thaskin govt as a “new Phuket”... the land for development was all bought up by bigwig friends of the "great and powerful" and those “in the know”. In fact the amount of land suitable for development is very limited as the centre of the island is very mountainous and a National Park – this just leaves the flat land around the rim of the island, and this is getting very crowded. As a result of this, anyone who wants to set up a business there has to pay through the nose for it. All the hotels are overpriced even when you compare with Phuket and Samui. Whether it ever appeared for sale on the open market I don’t know. Post tsunami Koh Chang has seen the island’s desecration continue with increased vigour as developers realise the new potential. This insensitive despoiling of the island which had started before the Tsunami is now reaching fever-pitch. Most locals never saw any benefit from this... ...they were either bought out early or have land not sought by the developers. Anyhow land may have changed hands several times and most has ended up in the hands of wealthy developers.
Almost all the west coast is now covered with awful “luxury” self-contained resorts, built with no thought for the environment, conservation or island infrastructure. Apparently there is no building code harmonizing construction with the natural settings. They also restrict access to the beach for others. They are for the most part badly designed and ill finished. Appearance is all, the places are little more than decorated concrete sheds. Health and safety is simply not addressed - some of the pool designs look positively lethal. Slippery tiles adorn pool-side and bathroom alike. The building never stops; frequently you can find your room is on a building site. It is unlikely the hotel will warn you of this. All these new resorts are now greatly restricting the amount of good beach that is accessible to the public; it can only be a matter of time before all the good sandy beaches/sea fronts become resort owned or dominated.
Furthermore, this kind of concrete construction leaves a huge carbon foot-print as it inevitably requires lots of air-con to keep the place cool, uses power for hot water, uses more fresh water for showers and toilets, and drains....well WHERE does all the new sewage go? Unlike many of the other islands Koh Chang does not have the infrastructure to deal with this kind of development either...roads are washed out by rains and power and drainage is added on in a haphazard fashion as development occurs. Rubbish collection (and disposal) is sporadic at best.
Now it seems that local Thai officials, “encouraged” by the hotels, have begun lobbying Bangkok for a water pipeline to stoke the island’s growth even more.
As said before, the centre of Koh Chang is a national park, but unlike all of Thailand's other National Parks, apart from the odd waterfall, no-one is allowed inside, you can get a guide who will take you in but strictly speaking that's against the law. There is virtually no effort made to set up a good system of eco-tourism or even trials in the park as you might find in countries such as Australia or North America... even other National Parks in Thailand make an effort in that direction. “Jungle Trekking” is now increasingly offered at the numerous travel shops; without proper regulation and planning, this will be anything but eco-friendly, and yet another part of the island is under threat.
In fact it is very likely that illegal logging is taking place in the park especially on land that is being encroached upon by unscrupulous developers. In 2005 the Koh Chang National Park chief was suddenly removed from office; this has been attributed to the fact that he tried to enforce the laws regarding encroachment and incurred the wrath of influential developers. The national park covers about 85% to 75% of the island, rising from a narrow coastal strip, which means that the development on the only available land is extremely concentrated and pressures to encroach are immense.
There is only one road around KC and it doesn't go all the way round, it's a horse-shoe affair. There was a dirt track that connected the two ends but it wasn’t for the faint of heart and now impassable as parts have been washed away. The roads were originally built for logging traffic; the main road is barely more than single track (asphalted) but cannot cope with the ever increasing load of cars trucks, pickups and Song Taews pouring onto the island. Patchy attempts have been made at road widening in parts. Most of the bridges have been washed out and are replaced by drains covered over with rubble – beware of hitting these at night or on a motorbike. In short the roads are not only too narrow for the most part but also subjected to wear and tear they were not designed for.
As KC is the second biggest island in Thailand, walking around it in a day is not an option. KC is also very mountainous and the roads are very windy and hilly and the resorts can be a long way from any shops, night-life etc, the baht taxi service (song taew) is still very haphazard and patchy and any where you want to go is further than you want to walk, so it’s really useful to hire a motorbike or car; these are about 50% to 100 % more than on the mainland. It might even be worth hiring a vehicle on the mainland and driving there (Pattaya is about a 4 ½ hour drive to the KC ferries - fare).
If you arrive on foot with no hotel booked a baht taxi will take you from the ferry to Whitesands and drop you there. (So long as he has a full load at the ferry or he may want you to foot the extra money before he sets off.) You will then have to find somewhere to stay this is impossible on foot and with luggage so book in advance at least for the first night. Then get some wheels, car/Jeep or motorbike and look around the next day for a place you like.
There is no airport on KC itself – (no room!) - , if you go by plane you'll land at Trat airport which is on the mainland quite near (20 minutes) to the ferries to KC. Get a taxi to the ferry - only a few baht. A more comfortable alternative is to take the airport minibus to any resort on Koh Chang - a convenient way to get to your hotel with the minimum baggage re-handling. Ferries run every 30-45 minutes from 6.30am - around 7.30pm. There are several ferry crossings, they take from 30 to 60 min, depending on which ferry you take. On one ferry I paid 30 e/w for me and my car, on another I paid 360 baht for my car an five people return. The ferries can now be very over stretched at high season and week-ends – coming back on the island side, even thought there is a new car-park the queues can extend back up the hill for quite a way. The ferry services are basically reasonably priced and are among the best organised aspects of Koh Chang’s tourist industry. Getting people onto the island is relatively smooth and efficient, what happens when they get there is a different matter.
Warning! As it is extremely hilly, and the surface on the hairpin bends has been polished by years of scrubbing tyres and little maintenance. DON”T rent a room near any of the steep hills as the squealing of tyres around the bends will keep you awake all night.
Where to stay? The first “town” most people come to is White Sands, is the probably the largest conglomeration on the island, it’s an increasingly crowded long strip of hotels, resorts, restaurants, gift shops, tailors and motley bars about 3 km long built between sea and mountain,. The building over the last 3 years has completely filled the space between hills and shore. The developers have now started to dig away at the hills behind and are erecting buildings wherever they can - between the mudslides. One wonders how long it will be before a cliff collapses and takes a building with it. Look at the land above and behind the buildings to see evidence of land-slip....
For family resorts (mostly concrete) with a beach, Klong Prao Beach is probably as good as it gets, there are several resorts there actually with beach frontage, The Paradise is all nicely built new concrete bungalows, very tightly packed, Coconut and Royal Coconut are next to that and Klong Prao resort has a long beach front and good pool beside the sea. All are constantly redeveloping to increase the density of accommodation within a given strip of beach.
Now you may think I hate the place, well I don't, I just get very disappointed in the direction the powers-that-be have taken KC, it's lack of infrastructure and any forward planning will mean that sooner rather than later this place will become a collection of overpriced resorts bad customer service and nothing else.
For example, the last time I stayed at Klong Prao Resort in (August 2005); the place was a building site. I wasn’t informed until the day I arrived even though I was a regular guest there. Someone who recognised my name phoned me whilst I was driving there. This is a typical way in which a problem is sidestepped by the tourist industry on Koh Chang. If you do book in advance you must ask about this sort of thing because you will very likely not be told by the staff. Building also precedes a hike in prices.
If you want a more isolated place with less frantic development you will have to go round to “Long Beach” on the far South East side of the island. This side is less chopped about as there few beaches of any significance, the exception being Long beach...it are not that good either! It’s accessible by dirt road sections of which get washed away every rainy season, but quite a pleasant drive with lots of good views. Accommodation is “basic to good hippy” – but not so much “laid back” as incompetent.
However if you head to Salak Kok Bay & Salak Phet you’ll find some really beautiful views and quite deserted coves.
Wherever you decide to stay –
Booking may be necessary especially on beach resorts during high season – e.g. Christmas, New Year and Song Khran (mid-April)
BEFORE YOU GO, CHECK ABOUT BUILDING WORK.......ESPECIALLY IN THE WET SEASON!
The problem with Koh Chang is that it is changing and changing rapidly for the worse. Hotels are constantly building and encroaching on the environment. Prices are rising and beach access is getting more and more taken over by private resorts. The days of a hut on the beach for 200 baht are in fact, virtually gone. The scuba divers are going further and further a field in search of clear water and fish, and don’t be kidded that so long as the hotel claims to be by the sea that it has a beach! (v. Ramayana!!)
Untrammelled development is occurring all over the islands of Thailand and visitors to the country should be aware of the unsympathetic, unregulated development that is taking place here. It is happening everywhere; Samui has suffered in particular at the hands of unscrupulous “developers” and the same thing is happening on Koh Chang and it is now beginning to spread to the rest of the islands in the archipelago.
However, I think that Koh Chang is unique, not only because it’s the second largest island in Thailand. (Phuket is the largest but connected to the mainland by road) but also the most recently developed. Even as you lie on the beach, an opportunity is being missed here to avoid all the mistakes made on the other “paradise” islands.
Anyone will tell you that their favourite island has changed beyond recognition in the last few years, but Koh Chang still in my opinion has a chance of changing its ways especially if people are made aware of the situation before they go. Business interests on the island will react to market forces, there is little hope for swift and effective government intervention, as this is almost without precedent in Thailand. During a 2 week stay it is unlikely that the average visitor will become aware of the larger issues surrounding the conservation and development of the island, so I would hope that some at least will think before they go, and ask questions like...
Where does the sewerage go?
Where are the mangroves?
What’s happening to the local agricultural industries?
What do the fishermen do now?
Where are all the fish?
Where does the fresh water come from and where does it go?
What is the sea water quality on my beach?
How is the coral?
Who is looking after the marine and forest nature reserves?
Why is there no satisfactory public access to the nature reserves?
Who owns the land, locals or big business?
Islands have limited resources - water space and natural habitat are all at a premium– they cannot survive unregulated development, the like of which is taking place on Koh Chang. The ecological ramifications of this development are now beginning to show in such things as sea-water quality, damage to coral air pollution from roads and traffic and encroachment onto the national park. This will spell the end for the wildlife there. The massive increase in use of electricity, and water by the hotels and other businesses are putting a huge strain on the infrastructure and the extra traffic to carry both people and goods is more than the road system was ever designed to cope with.
It is quite possible that in the future Thailand could run out of islands to develop and lose one of its main attractions as a tourist destination. All this will be achieved with your money…you are paying for the development on these islands; it is your money that makes these short term goals achievable.
PS - If you want up to date local info on KC, try this site: IamKohChang.com
a good site for info on Koh Chang and sounds like an interesting place to stay too!
PPS – I cannot recommend the Ramayana resort......no beach!
As a foot note, it might be worth bearing in mind that the isle of Koh Kood is the 4th largest island in Thailand, and has yet to be attacked by the developers.
However, its days are numbered, as it is outside the national park, owned by the government and is a lot less hilly than nearby Koh Chang, meaning that development an easily rum rampant throughout the island
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Koh Chang - A Paradise Lost…