Edged with a chain of long, mostly white-sand beaches and dominated by a broad central spine of jungle-clad hills that rises sharply to over 700m, KO CHANG is developing fast but still feels green. It’s Thailand’s second-largest island, after Phuket, but unlike its bigger sister has no villages or tourist facilities within its steeply contoured and densely forested interior, just a few rivers, waterfalls and hiking trails that come under the auspices of the Mu Ko Chang National Park. Some of its marine environment is also protected, as the national park extends to over forty other islands in the Ko Chang archipelago. Ko Chang’s own coast, however, has seen major development over the past decade, and the island is now well established as a mainstream destination, crowded with package tourists and the overspill from Pattaya, and suffering the inevitable inflated prices and inappropriate architecture. That said, it’s still possible to find accommodation to suit most budgets and though the beaches may be busy they’re undeniably handsome, with plenty of inviting places to swim, stroll, or snooze under a palm tree.
At 30km north to south, Ko Chang has plenty of coast to explore. The western beaches are the prettiest and the most congested, with White Sand Beach (Hat Sai Khao) drawing the biggest crowds to its mainly upmarket and increasingly overpriced mid-range accommodation; smaller Hat Kai Bae is also busy. Most backpackers opt for so-called Lonely Beach (officially Hat Tha Nam), with its roadside village of travellers’ accommodation and famous beachfront party scene; those in search of quiet choose the more laidback Hat Khlong Phrao, a long and lovely sweep of sand that caters to most pockets, or Bang Bao, which has a village on a jetty with fine views, and its quiet neighbouring beach, Hat Khlong Gloi. Every beach has currency exchange and most have ATMs, along with minimarkets, tour agents, dive shops, internet access, clothes stalls and souvenir shops. White Sand Beach and Hat Kai Bae have the densest concentrations of facilities.
During peak season, accommodation on every beach tends to fill up very quickly, so it’s worth booking ahead. The island gets a lot quieter (and cheaper) from June to October, when heavy downpours and fierce storms can make life miserable, though sunny days are common too; be especially careful of riptides on all the beaches during the monsoon season.
Sandflies can be a problem on the southern beaches (see Other bites and stings); watch out also for jellyfish, which plague the west coast in April and May, and for snakes, including surprisingly common cobras, sunbathing on the overgrown paths into the interior. The other hazard is theft from rooms and bungalows: use your own padlock on bags (and doors where possible) or, better still, make use of hotel safety boxes. After a local eradication programme, Ko Chang is no longer considered to be a malaria-risk area by health authorities in the US and the UK.
Tour agents on every beach or at your accommodation should be able to sell you tickets for most of the activities described below. There are spas at Ao Bai Lan and Ao Salak Kok; you can also snorkel and dive in the archipelago.
Ko Chang or “Elephant Island” is named for its hilly profile rather than its indigenous pachyderms, but there are several elephant camps on the island that have brought in their own lumbering forest dwellers so that tourists can ride and help bathe them.
East of Khlong Son village (not to be confused with Baan Chang Thai in Khlong Phrao). Based in a quiet, forested area in the north of the island, this is the camp with the best reputation. It was set up by the man behind the Asian Elephant Foundation and is staffed by Suay mahouts and their elephants from Ban Ta Klang village in northeast Thailand, which has for centuries been a centre for working elephants. In the morning, visitors can either do a 40min elephant ride through adjacent plantations or extend the ride to an hour and bathe and feed the animals as well. Return transport from your accommodation is included. You could extend your trip to this part of the island by making the easy 300m walk to tiny Nang Yom falls, 500m beyond the camp, though Khlong Phlu falls in Khlong Phrao are more satisfying.
Kayak Chang is a well-organized, safety-conscious, British-run company offering half- and full-day local trips and expeditions around the archipelago of up to 7 days, as well as kayaking lessons and rental. Return transport from your accommodation is included.
Baan Zen offers private, 90min yoga classes and short courses, as well as reiki courses.
The amiable chef who runs the recommended KaTi restaurant teaches well-regarded cooking classes (Mon–Sat; B1200, including recipe book and transfers as far as White Sand Beach and Hat Kai Bae).
Because there’s just one main tide a day in the inner Gulf, the reefs of the Ko Chang archipelago are much less colourful and varied than Andaman coast dive sites, and they can get very crowded, but they’re rewarding enough to make a day-trip worthwhile. The main dive and snorkel sites are west of Ko Mak, in the national marine park around Ko Rang and its satellite islets. These range from beginners’ reefs with lots of hard corals and anemones at depths of 4–6m, frequented by plenty of reef fish – including a resident ten-thousand-strong shoal of yellow fusiliers – and the occasional moray eel, to the more challenging 25m dive at the Pinnacles. There are also some technical wreck dives of Japanese boats from World War II and even some centuries-old Chinese trading ships. The coral around Ko Yuak, off Ko Chang’s Hat Kai Bae, is mostly dead, though some operators still sell trips there.
From about November to May, several companies run dedicated snorkelling trips to reefs and islands around Ko Chang, Ko Wai and Ko Rang. Tickets are sold by tour agents on every beach and prices range from B600 to B1500, depending on the size of the boat (some take as many as a hundred people in high season) and the number of islands visited. In general the more islands “featured” (sailed past), the less time there is for snorkelling, though nearly all the actual snorkelling happens around Ko Rang.