Category Archives: Trat

My Ko Chang

Reading these reminiscences of a Phuket ages back (ok, ages for me, I started talking in sentences at that time, approximately), the feeling of impermanence struck me. If you start a long-term relationship with a place, you need to get used to seeing it develop. Or decay. It’s the two sides of the same coin I guess. If you’re just a one-time visitor, then you get the nice “still photos” of a moment in time and space. It’s been over four years now that I first set foot in Thailand, and I’ve started to perceive changes – even from a distance of a 12-hour flight…. and it’s caught me off guard, I cannot deal with it as yet.

Ko Chang’s Treehouse is closing down in December….

When I bought my first and last Lonely Planet (inevitable, isn’t it?), there were no paved roads reaching all the way down to the fishing village on the southernmost tip of Ko Chang. The Treehouse was only accessible on dirt roads or by boat. When I first visited, the break-neck serpentine road was already there, and along came the electric cables. And goodies to be bought. A small petrol pump. Maybe even a few atm’s and internet since then as well…

At that time, Treehouse was still stuck somewhere in the 70s or 80s. Not that I remember the 70s so clearly, but I heard my impressions echoed in those memories of one-time Phuket. I didn’t really like the usual clientele of hippi-like travellers though, I have always had a hard time mixing and blending in with other farangs. Many of them were soooo keen on being casual and as hippi as possible, it took them considerable time and effort to look ragged. There were meditations at the beach, and someone told me she could smell ganja – I couldn’t identify the smell myself. But I just loved the place and didn’t care about anything else. I loved having the kilometer-long beach all to myself when it was raining, or right before sunset – others were having a drink at that time, usually.

Playing with the Thai kids in the sand for hours or just watch them play. Lying all day long in my hammock, listening to the easy music at the Treehouse restaurant, ordering coconut milk rice for breakfast, fruit salad for lunch, fried red snapper for dinner, and putting the flowers coming with my shakes in my hair (oh yes, stone me but I do love those stereotypical banana shakes).

Making friends with the local cats. Watching the waves and take in their smell. Jumping in the waves at high tide, even with that very, very strong sideways current. I never washed away the touch and smell of seawater, it made my skin soft and young. And when the night fell, the twelve-hour downpour started. I was lying on my bed in my small hut, blew out the oil lamp, opened the window, and the stormy sea almost rolled in. Sometimes I could feel the foam of the huge waves in my face. I dreamt about the water rolling the stones back and forth, and the waves smashing against my tree – my hut was sheltered and virtually hugged by an ancient banyan tree.

(I have only found this photo – I don’t have one of my hut….)

I was feeling truly blessed, at peace with the world and with myself – I had become part of an irresistible, all-encompassing ONE that took care of me and took away my fears, instead of fighting and fighting my dragons. And then one night it didn’t rain, and a million stars appeared. I had never known so many stars existed. I stared at them and they stared back, and I realised that it’s not just me looking for my own personal star for years and years, but there is also a star looking for me out there. The key is that we must catch each other’s glance simultaneously…. I felt it was hopeless. I had never felt so lonely in my life, I was crying for a long time that night. But the waves rocking the pier muted my crying.

(out there, but with the sun off and the starts on….)

I rented a motorcycle, and that was the first time I had ever tried a non-automatic. I learnt to deal with the pedals and gears on that very serpentine road that scares the hell of people when they see it for the first time. I went along all the roads and accessible dirt paths on the island. I just love that feeling, riding for miles and miles slowly, feeling the breeze in my face, and taking in the moments. Waterfalls, an elephant conservation centre, villages, beaches with nothing but palm trees and nobody but me. The crowded tourist hangouts were really limited to a few kilometres on the Western side of the island, otherwise it was deserted, at times almost haunted.

When I went back to the mainland and looked into the mirror for the first time in weeks, a stranger looked back. A stranger that was the most me ever.

That’s me and my brother on a later visit, at the entrance to the “Haunted palm valley” leading to a waterfall, as we called it. We got drenched on the one-hour ride back home, caught in the darkness, with fallen wire posts and trees on the serpentine road, and all hell broken loose. I really thought we were all going to die that night.

It’s hard to swallow that it’s slowly disappearing. At that time, there were rumours that the government only wanted to allow five-star luxury spas and resorts and intended to do away with the backpacker scene. I have no idea about the latest plans and the current situation. I don’t know if I want to go back once more. After all, the Treehouse is closing down, and moving from Lonely Beach to Long Beach, trying to escape development and higher rents. Maybe I should look around and find a new getaway for myself, another Ko Chang of a few years ago and Phuket of the 70s. Surely there must be some more islands out there with a road or two to ride along, a few reefs to snorkel, a simple lamp to be blown out before going to bed.

You know, I just really hope that my ancient banyan tree will be spared at least.

Last day at Koh Chang

Koh Chang is south-east of Bangkok. Most people just go to Pattaya along the eastern seaboard for a beach holiday. However, if you keep driving you reach better beaches. First Rayong and Koh Samet. And then towards the Cambodian border you will find Koh Chang. That is where we went for our holiday last week. Things didn’t really go to plan because there were storms and then the power went out. We almost checked out in the morning but we decided to wait until noon.

The power finally came back on at 10 a.m. It was also a lot brighter by this time though no-one was swimming. We decided to stay for one more night so that we could do a bit of exploring. As I told you yesterday, we were staying on Gai Bae Beach on the West coast of Koh Chang. As we walked along the beach we soon discovered some more bungalows that were even better situated than our own. They were literally on the beach. I am not sure how much they were, but I will guess if it was fan only, they would be 500 baht upwards. The back of the bungalow had concrete to the ground so it looked like even these had toilets and showers despite being right on the beach.

In the distance we could see some people walking over some rocks and others doing some fishing. Obviously fish is a big item on the menu. We decided to go and take a closer look. However, a few more steps and we reached an open sewer – this was rather smelly and was staining the beach black. Yuck. I was going to give this beach three stars out of five, but I was now tempted to downgrade it. Obviously paradise comes at a cost to the environment. Here we are insisting that we get a bungalow right on the beach, but we don’t realize that in doing so we are encouraging the resort owners to pollute the water. If the bungalows were only built further back then they could build proper sewage pipes.

We made a big diversion around this environmental disaster and carefully washed our feet in the sea. As we got closer we could see that the people clambering over the rocks were using hammers. I guessed straight away that they were looking for shellfish – possible mussels. I had seen them doing something like this when I visited the beach in Bangkok the other week. On closer inspection I could see it wasn’t really rock. On the outskirts I could see a lot of broken coral on the sand. It looks like this used to be a coral reef. The locals hammering away were wearing thick rubber boots. We decided not to join them as we were barefoot.

Instead we walked back to the bungalow and rested up. We spent the rest of the afternoon swimming and sleeping! Well, it was a holiday and we deserved a break. We had decided by this time that we would leave in the morning. The weather hadn’t really cleared up that much. What I was interested in doing now was heading back to the mainland and then driving up the coast towards Rayong. This province is famous for the resort island of Koh Samet. However, this wasn’t our intended destination. What I wanted to do was explore the beaches on the mainland as I had heard that they were quite good. Lonely Planet doesn’t give them much of a mention though they have been popular with Thai tourists for a number of years.

The next morning we checked out and caught the car ferry back to the mainland. [Continued…. ]

Holiday on Koh Chang Island

Gai Bae Beach on Koh Chang

From Samut Prakan, it took us about three and a half hours to reach the car ferry for Koh Chang. We then had to wait about 10 minutes for it to leave. The trip across the water then only took about 20 minutes. So, in all, it was about four hours door to door. Not too bad. However, as our journey took us further south-east, the weather deteriated. We were having scattered showers. Not the best of weather for a beach holiday! But, according to the teachers at my school, I already had “na dum” which meant I shouldn’t be trying to get more of a tan.

I must admit my first impressions of Koh Chang weren’t that good. We disembarked from the ferry and immediately drove up a steep and winding road. A short while later we passed through a small community. It looked like a dump rather than a slice of paradise. I was thinking they should make some effort to “beautify” the area but then I guess that people were trying to live their normal lives here before the tourists started to arrive. It is not really fair of us to judge the state of their front yard.

I wasn’t sure what I really expected to see. Some friends had told us that the first beach called White Sands is quite crowded and that there were many shops lining the road. They weren’t wrong about that. There were pubs and restaurants, convenience stores, motorcycle rentals, a post office, massage parlours and even internet cafes that were charging a staggering 2 baht per minutes. In Samut Prakan it is only 20 baht per hour! We stopped briefly at a book store to buy a map and then continued onwards. Our friends had suggested that we checked out Gai Bae Beach first and then Lonely Beach next door.

I think my expectations were a bit too high. I was thinking I would drive along this road and “oo aah” at the beautiful palm fringed white beaches and sparkling blue sea. I thought I would be choosing the beach from the car! As it turned out, the car journey was more like a roller coaster ride and we were all soon feeling rather car sick. We passed through a number of communities and before we realized it, we had reached the end of Gai Bae Beach! We weren’t getting any views from the road at all. Well, hardly any. Leading down from the road were these small dirt tracks. Some better than others. We soon realized we had to go down these in order to reach the beach.

Lonely Beach with lots of tourists

Our first view of a beach was rather disappointing. It was a nice hotel, but the beach was just rocks! I could see sand in the distance but not here. Good job we didn’t book a hotel in advance! So, we got back into the car and continued on our rollercoaster ride to the neighbouring Lonely Beach. Maybe this was lonely once upon a time, but not now. There were a lot of foreigners here. However, the beach looked much better. The bungalows were also very quaint looking. We inquired and were told that basic bungalows with a big bed, own bathroom and fan was only 500 baht. There were also cheaper smaller ones for about 200 baht with shared bathroom. This wasn’t bad. But we were looking for something a bit bigger and also with a fridge! We had brought a lot of shopping. Beer, soft drink, bottled water and lots of snacks!

So, we decided to head back to Gai Bae Beach. This time we went down a dirt track at where we thought the middle of the beach was. This was much better. There was some good sand here and even some palm trees. There were still some rocks but not so much. I think it probably added character. The first place we inquired said their bungalows were 1800 baht a night. A bit too expensive. So, we just kept on walking down the beach. It was actually quite difficult to know where one beach resort ended and the next one started. Soon we found another beach bungalow with hot water shower, air-conditioning, tv, fridge and two king-sized beds big enough for four people. The price was 1,200 baht. Probably more than I wanted to pay but the location was pretty good. So, we moved in.

The bungalow where we stayed

Our bungalow was built on stilts. Out front there was a spacious balcony with table and chairs. It was good that I could park the car right next to it. At high tide, the water lapped against the rocks that you can see in the picture above. It was literally about four metres away from our front door. Perfect. As we were all pretty tired and hot from the long journey, we decided the best way to cool off was a dip in the sea. This was so excellent and so relaxing. You know what the best thing was? When you normally go to the beach you are always worrying about your valuables while you are swimming. However, we didn’t have to worry. Our “hotel’ room was just a few metres away!

That night we dined in the restaurant attached to this resort. We weren’t actually that impressed with the food so we decided we would walk the 50 metres to a neighbouring resort and eat there the next day! That is the best thing about this kind of place. There are always plenty of places to eat. However, the prices were a little high on average. Take breakfast as an example. The Thai breakfast of rice porridge was 45 baht when it is only 10 baht in Samut Prakan. The American breakfast was a whopping 80 baht. For this you got one egg, two slices of ham, three tiny hot dogs and two slices of bread. I reckon the ingredients for that meal would have cost them only 20 baht at the local 7-Eleven. I made a mental note to bring my barbeque hot plate next time and do my own cooking for breakfast and lunch. I had only brought the kettle so I could make coffee and of course pot noodles.

The first night there was a really bad storm with thunder and lightning. It poured for most of the night. I was a bit worried about the car. I had a bad experience during a road trip to Sukhothai a few years back. We stayed in a nice guesthouse by the side of a river. It was a wide river but only half full. The weather was clear when we went to bed. In the middle of the night, we woke up to the sound of lapping water and people shouting. Apparently, a big storm further north had produced a surprise flash flood where we were staying. The water was already up to the mattress. Ten minutes later the bed was under water. By morning the waters had receded a little. We were quite lucky where we had parked the car. There was only about a foot of water inside. So, when I looked out of the window at Koh Chang and saw the waves splashing the car wheel, I decided to get out and move the car to higher ground!

It had stopped raining by morning. When we woke up it was even starting to get brighter. However, there was then a power cut! We decided to hang around to see if it would come back on and also to see if the sun would come out. Check-out time was mid-day. If things didn’t improve by then, we decided we would head back to the mainland and maybe drive up the coast to the beaches at Rayong. At the moment it looked like Koh Chang had a different weather pattern compared to the rest of Thailand. Maybe Rayong would be better.

[The next story is “Koh Chang to Rayong” ]

Road Trip to Koh Chang

Every year, during the summer holidays, I usually go on long road trips around the country. The two biggest trips I have done were to Phuket in the south and Chiang Mai in the north. Since moving into my own home last year, I haven’t been away for longer than one night. This was partly due to the fact that it was like a holiday being in my first home. I was living at the school before and during the summer holidays I wanted to get away. But, this year I was comfortable in my own home and didn’t really want to do more than day or overnight trips. Actually, I think the main reason at first was that I was worried to leave the house all alone. I thought maybe there would be a fire or a thief might break in! So, it was a bit of a surprise to everyone that I agreed to go on this four day road trip.

Traveling by car in Thailand is not really that difficult. They drive on the left like we do in the UK. Most road signs in the cities and on major highways are bilingual. Most cars are also automatic. The only difficulty is sometimes with navigation. Even the best map book of Thailand isn’t really that good. If you stick to the main highways you won’t get lost. But, if you are looking for something in the middle of no-where, you will have to keep stopping to ask the locals.

It is also best to make sure you fill up your petrol tank before you leave the main roads. It is quite easy to do this. You don’t need to know much Thai. All you have to say is what kind of petrol you want and how much petrol. I use “95 petrol” which is slightly higher grade. I just say “gao haa” and “dtem dtank”. The latter means full tank. They might then ask if you want a “bi-set” which means a receipt. Just shake your head. Sometimes they will offer to clean your windscreen and empty any rubbish bins. You can also ask them to check under the hood and fill the tyres with air if needed. All for free.

Our road trip to Koh Chang was quite simple. The length of journey was about 300 kms. I started the trip on the Bangna-Trad Highway. Here I chose to go on the elevated road which runs above the normal road for about 55 kms. It is a lot faster up there as there are not so many cars. This took us all the way to Chonburi in less than an hour. This is where we came before to visit Bangsaen Beach. This is the nearest beach resort to Bangkok. We then followed the signs for the “Pattaya and Rayong” bypass. After a short distance we turned off onto highway 344 towards Klaeng.

This was the slowest part of the trip as there weren’t so many lanes and there were also some traffic lights. Even though I was traveling much slower, I got pulled over by the highway police for apparently speeding. I am not sure how he would have known that as he didn’t have one of those laser guns. But, then I saw them pulling over other motorists behind me, even the ones driving in the slower lanes. Then it became obvious what was happening. A modern version of highway robbery.

The policemen said that he was going to take my license and issue a speeding ticket. I would then have to go all the way back to Bangsaen to pay the fine. Then started the song and dance routine. Can I not pay here, I asked. “Not really”, he said, “you have to go back to Bangsaen.” But I don’t live around here. I am on my way to Koh Chang. “Well, maybe I can let you pay your fine here,” he said. I asked him how much it would be. He said that 100 baht would be enough. I gave it to him and he quickly put it into his pocket.

I don’t really like bribing policemen as it just encourages them to pull this scam on other motorists. I have only been stopped twice before by policemen in Thailand and on both occasions they wanted a bribe. Admittedly, the first time I was at fault as I had gone down the wrong way on a one way road. That is quite easy to do in Bangkok. Anyway, the policeman pulled me over and took me into his police box. He did exactly the same routine of trying to emphasis how difficult it would be to pay the fine. He said it would be easier to pay him 300 baht. The actual fine would have been 500 baht.

I got the money out and flashed it around and asked him if I could have a receipt. He then started panicking and told me to put the money down on the bench. Obviously he didn’t want people to see me giving him cash. Then a kind Thai gentleman saw what was going on and came to my assistance. He told me in English that I shouldn’t bribe the policeman more than 100 baht. By this time the guy was so nervous that he decided to write me a ticket! It was a bit of a pain as I had to go back into Bangkok the following day to pay the fine and pick up my license.

The second time I was stopped I just played dumb. The guy tried to speak to me in broken English so I decided not to understand him. It was obvious by his sign language that he wanted me to give him a bribe. But I ignored it and continued my pretense of not being able to understand him. Finally he got bored and waved me on. When I got stopped this time, I decided I had no choice. He could have made it difficult for me and it would have spoiled our holiday.

At Klaeng I turned left onto highway 3. For those who don’t know, this is actually Sukhumwit road which starts in Bangkok and goes all the way to Trad near the Cambodian border. The length is about 400 kms in total. This was a better road and so I could now speed up. However, I had to put my foot on the brakes when I saw two more police checkpoints up ahead. I got my one hundred baht note ready but these ones seemed to be more honest and weren’t really that interested in me.

Near Chantaburi we started to pass many fruit orchards and pick-up trucks full to the brim with fruit such as rambutans and durian. Chantaburi is famous for its fruit and at this time of year they have a popular fruit festival. I have passed through Chantaburi once before and the thing that I remember the most is the large white cathedral in the city centre. I remember noting that it looked strangely out of place. We stopped to buy some rambutans. They were less than half Bangkok prices and much more delicious.

About 30 kms later we decided it would be wise to fill the tank up with petrol. We weren’t sure about the availability of petrol on the island. Then, just before entering Trad, we turned right onto road 3156. This then took us to the car ferry at Ao Thammachat. There are other ferries along this road but we went with this one because there was only ten minutes before it was due to leave. From here it was a 30 minute boat ride to Koh Chang. I will tell you more about what we found on the island soon.

[The next story is called “Holiday on Koh Chang Island”]

Koh Chang Ten Years Ago

Koh Chang in 1994

As you are reading this, I should already be swimming in the sea or lying on the beach on Koh Chang. I will be away for about four days so I hope everyone will behave in my absence! At this moment in time I am not sure what to expect. It has been ten years since I last went to Elephant Island. I am sure things have changed but I wonder how much? Surely they will have electricity by now and not just generators. Maybe even some shops. I hear they have a proper road now. I wonder if they have an internet café? That would be cool. I could write a blog for you from this tropical island!

Today I thought I would share with you my diary from my previous trip ten years ago. That was back in the days when backpackers sent letters home the slow way and had to wait three months for a reply. I would have loved to have been able to write a blog back then. I never really liked writing by hand. I would have written so much more on a computer. It is funny now reading these words that I wrote ten years ago. How naive I was when I first landed in Thailand! I thought I was only going to stay a week or two! Anyway, here are some extracts from my journal written all those years ago:

Friday 4th March 1994: In Trat we were met by a pick-up truck taxi who of course knew where we wanted to go. It was about 25 minutes to Laem Ngop which is the boat jetty for koh Chang (Koh is Thai for island and chang means elephant). By a stroke of luck, there was a full boat waiting to go. It was then an hours journey to the east side of the island and a half an hours drive on a rough dirt track to the beach resorts on the west side.

I am staying in a small beach hut at the top of a palm-fringed beach. The sun was going down as we arrived so I cannot really give you a better description than that. So, I will tell you more tomorrow.

Saturday 5th to Monday 7th March 1994: I have had quite an enjoyable three day break on Koh Chang. People have been telling me that this island is like Koh Samui and Phuket (pronounced booket) 10 years ago. So many foreigners (farang to the locals) visit the latter two places that you are apparently tripping up over them all the time. I won’t say the population on this island is sparse but certainly there are not that many people on my stretch of beach. Probably less than half a dozen. Quite often the restaurant is empty when I eat there.

I have a small hut to myself which has a balcony with a table and bench. It is shaded by a coconut palm tree. So, it is important not to park oneself under one of those trees for a prolonged period of time otherwise you might pay the consequence. At high tide the sea is literally five metres away. I don’t have my own bathroom but what do you expect for only 50 baht.

I have occupied my time by walking along the beach in either direction, walking inland through forests, reading my novel, learning Thai with the locals and of course doing a bit of swimming. In the early evening I quite enjoy finding a deserted stretch of beach to watch the sun go down below the horizon. The light projecting a golden path on the sea.

All very good and comfy for a while, but once the novel ran out of pages I knew it was time to leave. I have noted that some farangs seem to be permanent fixtures here. Apart from the ones that seem to own the resort I am in, there are also several restaurants with farangs running them. Another example is an Irish guy who is here with his five year old son. You will have some indication of their length of stay when I say that the kid can speak elementary Thai! This is not actually uncommon as I have been to a number of places now where I have seen people who have decided to make an extended stay in the Kingdom of Thailand. I can see what the attraction is.

[The next story is called “Road Trip to Koh Chang”]