Koh Chang – Whatever Happened to this Paradise Island?

By | September 7, 2013

It is a rather unfortunate fact of life that the vast majority of visitors toThailand and particularly Koh Chang do not appear to have any real concerns about the environment and the effects that tourism is having on all the islands of the Kingdom.

Koh Chang is a classic case of unregulated tourist development gone wrong!.

I first visited Koh Chang around 7-8 years ago, and have been back regularly since. My first visit was around the time that the government was trying to promote the development of the island – and was rather disturbed by what I found and even more so about what has happened in the subsequent years.

Thailand’s record of preservation and conservation is best described as flawed and Koh Chang is showing the classic signs that nothing has really been learned from the past lessons of Phuket, Pattaya, Hua Hin & Koh Samui and that it would appear that nobody really cares.

Koh Chang is the second largest island in Thailand.It is located on the North-Eastern seaboard of the Kingdom some 5-6 hours by car from Bangkok.

The island was given an unexpected boost by the post-tsunami unpopularity of the west coast namely Phuket & Krabi, having got this lucky break there are now ever increasing numbers of western tourists heading for the island,unfortunately completely to the detriment to the natural beauty of the island that existed just a few years ago.

The fundamental problem with Koh Chang is that it’s being developed very badly, it’s overpriced compared to its services & facilities versus Phuket,Samui & Krabi, and it appears to be going downhill rather quickly !!.

If you’re arriving on the island from either Europe or the United States you’ll find that the cost of living is still relatively cheap, a room is still less than half what you would pay at home, but it is no so cheap when you compare it to other tourist spots elsewhere within Thailand.

Sure, you will love the sunsets and the lovely white sand, and you won’t wonder or worry where all the sewage is going and whatever happened to all the mangroves,farmland or the fishing industry that gets smaller catches every year, or the fishing villages being turned into souvenir arcades-cum-hotels.

The fundamental probem appears to be that just as soon as Koh Chang was earmarked for development as the “new Phuket” large swathes of land was all bought up by the “priveleged, rich & famous” at rock bottom prices, leaving it almost impossible for Joe the average bussinessman to buy land and set up a business, as they now have to pay through the nose for the privelege.

Almost all the west coast is now covered with badly designed & executed “luxury” self-contained resorts, built without consideration for the environment, conservation or island infrastructure.

Apparently, unlike Koh Samui & Phuket there are no building codes harmonizing construction with the natural surroundings.

They also appear to be allowed to restrict access to the beach for others. They are for the most part badly designed and ill conceived. Appearance is all, the places are little more than decorated concrete blocks.

Health and safety has simply not been heeded or addressed – some of thepool designs look positively lethal. Slippery tiles adorn pool-sides and bathrooms throughout. And building work never appears to stop, quite often guests will find that their rooms are within audible distance of a building site.

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.

This goes against the principle that EVERY beach within the Kingdom is the property of the the King and is therefore free to be accessed & used by EVERYONE.

The other area of concern regarding this kind of concrete construction is that it leaves a huge carbon foot-print as it inevitably requires lots of air-conditioning to keep it cool, uses lots of power for hot water, and uses ever increasing amounts of fresh water for showers,toilets & drains etc, etc.

The centre of Koh Chang is a dedicated national park, but unlike all of Thailand’s other National Parks, it is not open to visitors, 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 trails in the park as you might find in countries such as Australia or the USA, all the other National Parks in Thailand do make an effort in that direction.

There is only one road around the island of Koh Chang and even that doesn’t go all the way around, it’s a horse-shoe shape, there was a dirt track that connected the two ends but it wasn’t for the fainthearted and now impassable as parts are being constantly washed away.

The roads were originally built for the logging & construction traffic.The main road is barely more than an asphalted single track but cannot cope with the ever increasing load of cars trucks, pickups and Songtaews pouring onto the islands roads.

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, please beware of hitting these at night or on a motorbike.

In short the roads are just not substantial enough for the volumes of traffic that attempts to navigate them.

As the second largest island in Thailand, walking around it in a day is not an option. Koh Chang 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, so you will typically have to rely on the baht taxi service (songtaews) but this is still very haphazard, so it’s really useful to hire a motorbike or a car,but you will find that this is typically 50%+ more expensive than on the mainland.

It might even be worth hiring a vehicle on the mainland and driving there. Koh Chang does not have its own airport,so if you want to fly, you will have to land at Trat airport which is on the mainland quite near(20 minutes)to the ferries to Koh Chang.

Get a taxi to the ferry – it will only cost you 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 minutes, depending on which ferry you take.

The ferries can now be very over stretched during the high season and week-ends coming back from the island to the mainland, even though there is a new car-park the queues can still extend back up the hill for quite a long way.The ferry services are reasonably priced and are among the best organised aspects of the islands tourist industry.

Once you arrive on the island where do you stay ?. The best known “town” that most people arrive at is White Sands, which is probably the largest conglomeration of buildings on the island, it’s an increasingly crowded long strip of hotels, resorts, restaurants, gift shops, tailors and bars about 3kms(2miles) long built between the sea and the mountains.

The construction work that has taken place over the last 3 years has completely filled the space between hills and the 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 or two with it!.

For family resorts 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 the available strip of beach.

If you are looking for a more isolated place with less frantic development you need to go round to “Long Beach” on the far South-East side of the island.This side is far less developed but there are limited beaches of any quality, the best one being Long Beach itself, but even it is not that good. It’s accessible by dirt road sections of which get regularly washed away every rainy season, but its quite a pleasant drive with lots of good views. Accommodation is basic & laidback.

Booking ahead is definately suggested especially on beach resorts during the high seasons – Christmas, New Year and Songkran (mid-April).

You might think that I actually do not like Koh Chang, that is completely wrong, I really LOVED the natural, unspoilt island that I first visited only literally just a few years ago, what I find so frustrating is that ALL the Islands only have limited resources and – water, space and natural habitat are always 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 the natural 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.

I just hope that the lessons learnt from Koh Chang, Koh Samui & Phuket are heeded, but somehow I don’t think so, what do you think ?