Koh Chang, Thailand

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After only a few minutes in Thailand’s delightful Koh Chang Island, an 83-sq.-mile emerald green tropical speck looming from the Gulf of Thailand near the Cambodian border, you feel like you’ve crossed into a different dimension endowed with Southeast Asia’s timeless, pastoral serenity. Koh Chang is where you come to get away from it all. The hubbub of the kingdom’s capital lies less than 200 miles away, but as far as ambiance and color are concerned, Bangkok’s noise and vexing traffic could lie in another galaxy.

Koh Chang has only eight villages within it, making it a restful semi-rural getaway and it isn’t hyperbole to say that if you could capture the island’s peaceful and soporific ambiance—its main attribute—and bottle it, you’d have a potent product brimming with beauty and tranquility that would be envied by lesser destinations. This isn’t the place for high-rise resorts, as the island rigidly adheres to a building code that forbids any building higher than the top of a palm tree.

Koh Chang is a mountainous wonderland with rainforests full of waterfalls and feral beauty that delights hikers and day-trippers, while its coral reefs and beaches are highly popular with divers and sun worshippers. In short, it has everything a traveler could want who’s seeking a destination where natural beauty seamlessly blends with solitude.

According to the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), which held its fifth annual travel mart in Bangkok in August to spotlight the splendor of the country, more than 356,000 Americans visited Thailand between January and July this year, proving that the old kingdom’s reputation as a first-rate “value” destination remains robust.

A good portion of those came specifically to bask along the beaches of Phuket, Thailand’s largest island and most popular destination. But those coming only to experience Phuket miss the option to unwind in Koh Chang’s relatively undiscovered wonders. TAT hopes that this will soon change, since Koh Chang seems to be gaining a firm foothold in attracting visitors. As an ingenious local witticism has it: “Say ‘Phuket’ and come to Koh Chang instead.”

The best way to reach Koh Chang is on board one of Bangkok Airways’ two daily flights to Trat Province, only 45 minutes away from the capital. Bangkok Airways bills itself as “Asia’s Boutique Airline,” a tag that may not be far off the mark. It’s a delightful, clean and fun airline. A roundtrip flight to Trat costs approximately $120.

In the old days, Trat was a focal point of trade between the Khmer and Siamese kingdoms. Today, it’s the gateway to Koh Chang, considered by many old Thai hands to be Thailand’s most beautiful island resort.

About 14 miles from Trat Airport while awaiting a ferry to cross into the island, it’s obvious to see how Koh Chang got its name, literally meaning, “Elephant Island” and a small islet on the starboard side of the main island, looks exactly like a gigantic elephant half-submerged in the ocean.

As far as American tourism is concerned, Koh Chang is off the radar, although the island is very popular with Europeans. Russians particularly seem attracted to it. According to Kedsarin (Kate) Hasenfus, public relations-marketing officer for TAT in New York, “Koh Chang is not well known among Americans just yet. As a result, many tour operators do not offer itineraries that include Koh Chang in their packages, but most certainly will plan private tours.”

One of the few USTOA-affiliated tour operators that arranges visits to Koh Chang is Goway Travel, a firm with long experience in Southeast Asia. Doug Vogl, Goway’s product and marketing manager for Asia, says, “Koh Chang is definitely not Phuket and never will be. Because of its status as a Thai national park and marine sanctuary, there are stringent construction criteria for hotels, resorts and so on. The diving there is extraordinary and it is a perfect, although little-known, spot for honeymooning.”

Koh Chang is such a promising, upcoming romantic destination that Goway has partnered with the Tourism Authority of Thailand to promote the island early next year to coincide with the spring, summer and fall honeymoon season. Vogl adds that it is also an eco-tourism haven for adventure seekers who delight in activities such as hiking, elephant trekking and ziplining.