Koh Chang, Thailand

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“Do not expect a robust nightlife, other than the occasional fire show on the beach, while in Koh Chang,” Vogl says. “It’s a chill out destination for those who want to get away and enjoy true, home-grown Thai hospitality. The restaurants are excellent in all resorts and the island is full of delicious street food, especially fresh seafood.”

Goway’s Koh Chang package (a 4-day adventure with prices that vary depending on the season) offers two categories: moderate and first-class. According to Vogl, this attracts a wide category of travelers, most who come delighted after having visited the island.

“After all,” he says, “this destination’s most appealing asset is its natural beauty.” Indeed, some have likened a trek on the island to being on the set of an adventure movie. Whether traveling on foot, bicycle or on the back of elephants, Koh Chang’s unspoiled beauty will unfold in myriad, unusual perspectives.

And very few outings are as exhilarating as exploring a Southeast Asian tropical paradise from the back of a lumbering elephant. Enter Ban Changthai, a Koh Chang tour operator that works exclusively with elephants and earmarks much of its profits for the preservation of the species. For about $30, Ban Changthai will take trekkers on elephants over mountains and rainforests and into pristine rivers where visitors have the rare opportunity to bathe alongside the beasts. The trip takes approximately two hours and is one of the most popular attractions in Koh Chang.

Here, you’ll find yourself crossing rubber plantations one moment and suddenly be magically surrounded by pomelo orchards the next. There are wild trails down valleys crisscrossed by rivers and an astounding variety of plants and wildlife on their banks.

A plus for travelers is that Koh Chang has no lack of accommodations. Here, modern, airy resorts are surrounded by banyan trees and wild orchids, and guests are greeted in the traditional and charming Thai gesture of clasped hands and lowered gaze.

One of the finest example of such sterling accommodations is The Dewa, a sprawling tropical wonderland abutting the Klong Prao beach on the island’s lee side. It offers 40 rooms, 17 villas and two grand villas measuring nearly 1,400 sq. ft. Rates at The Dewa run approximately $230 dbl for a standard room, to about $660 for a grand villa.

The resort’s two waterside restaurants and bar feature mouth-watering American, European and Thai specialties. In keeping with long-established Thai tradition, The Dewa has one of the finest spas in the area. It’s a sanctuary for the senses where holistic treatments, aromatherapy, body treatments, beauty care and, of course, classic Thai massages are de rigueur after a strenuous day at the beach or hiking in virgin rainforests.

The growing number of resorts portents that Koh Chang’s tourist map is rapidly changing. Sure, the beaches are the main attraction, but visitors would be remiss not to see first-hand the ancient beauty of Thai rural life as exemplified in Salakkok, a water soaked village rising from the mangroves on the south side of the island where the relaxed atmosphere belies the arduous life of its residents who mostly live life as their ancestors did centuries ago.

Salakkok is perfect for those who come to Thailand to get a taste of local culture—Salakkok is the real thing. Most of the houses are built on stilts and there’s a row of modest restaurants on the canal banks where the delights of Thai food bloom as brilliantly as the wild orchids sprouting from the trunks of coconut palms all around. The dishes here aren’t for the fast-food crowd.

English is seldom heard and tourists are still considered a rarity here. You can rent a kayak or canoe (about $2 an hour) to explore the maze of canals that give the area the flavor of a primitive Southeast Asian Venice. It’s quite an experience to paddle to your heart’s content through channels and mangroves following water markers. More faint-hearted travelers can hire sampans propelled by expert paddlers using the typical Thai method of crossed oars.

Salakkok is a model for sustainable tourism (it won an award from TAT for eco-tourism), as villagers share profits from restaurants and other enterprises organized after the community recognized the feasibility of profiting from tourism with minimal harm to their habitat.