While in Koh Chang last summer I found a Lonely Planet guidebook in our guesthouse from the 1990s. It described Koh Chang as an adventurous island for people wanting an off-the-beaten-path experience. It explained how Koh Chang had few paved roads and the best-preserved rainforest in Southeast Asia. The transportation options were limited, most of the tourists were Thai and the beach huts had no electricity.
How quickly things change.
I’ve got the syndrome that Owen Wilson had in Midnight in Paris. Golden Age Thinking. Especially when traveling, I am always nostalgic for the past, for the golden age of whatever place I’m in, whether it’s 1995 Koh Chang (I would have been 7 years old!) or my favorite, Budapest in the 1910’s (Art Nouveau heaven!). It’s not the healthiest way of thinking and I’m trying to let it go and appreciate the way things are right now. In time, people will look back at 2016 and declare it the golden age of a certain place too.
But back to Koh Chang. It’s true that Elephant Island is not the undiscovered wilderness it was in 1990 but it’s still a beautiful and adventurous place. It has rainforests and hidden beaches, and there are plenty of unpaved roads in the far reaches of the island that in the rainy season are empty (and muddy). The majority of tourists are European (especially Russian) meaning that good hotels, restaurants and resorts are everywhere. If you are traveling overland to Cambodia or not venturing farther south, Koh Chang is a great island to visit.
After a 5-hour bus journey from Bangkok, a ferry ride, and an hour in the back of a pick-up truck, we had made it to the popular and developed Western side of the island. We stayed in a bungalow just up the hill from Lonely Beach. In July it was quiet (but never lonely) and we met a variety of people; a single mom with her two kids from France, an American couple who teach English in Hanoi, solo travelers too. Regardless of the location we also seemed to run into groups of super buff Russian dudes with selfie sticks.
I don’t know if the vintage guidebook sparked it but rather than bum it on the beach the first day, we rented a motorbike and set off to explore. Luke did the driving and we went around the entire island, even down some brutal dirt roads where we had to get off and push through ankle-deep mud. We rode down to Bangbao pier and then all the way back up and over to the less developed Eastern side.
We found an empty resort, stopped at the scenic overlooks of the national park, cooled off in a waterfall, and stumbled upon the most beautiful boardwalk surrounded by mangroves. Getting gas was an adventure too; always from a whiskey or coke bottle.
We took it easy the next few days and didn’t wander too far from our hammocks on Lonely Beach. Although it was the rainy season it only rained twice in the 5 days we were there and only for a few hours at a time. The waves were big and we went swimming, despite several locals warning us of rip currents. We are strong swimmers but didn’t go out too far either.
Across the street from Little Eden was a smoothie and crepe stand that we visited every day, sometimes twice a day. One night while the woman was cutting up a mango, a monkey swooped in and stole it right out of her hand. It was hilarious but she explained that the monkeys have become more and more aggressive over the years because people feed them. There are signs all over Lonely Beach that say “do not feed the monkeys” but while we were there we saw tons of people doing it. Yes, they are cute and it may seem like a fun thing to do, but don’t do it. They are wild animals and can easily find their own food.
On our last day we rented a motorbike for one final adventure, a journey to the most secluded beach on Koh Chang, Long Beach, located at the bottom tip of the Eastern side of the island.
After driving for nearly an hour, the pavement ended and we crawled our bike down a huge, steep, and muddy hill. It soon became too dangerous so we pulled over and walked the rest of the way. We followed a sign and at last emerged on Long Beach, an empty and pristine stretch of sand with very shallow turquoise water.
We walked towards the rocks and dried up coral and thought it would be fun to walk along the cliff, thinking it would lead around to another beach. We saw a dirt road heading that direction on the way in, we thought this would be an adventurous short cut!
It was fun at first but the rocks eventually got too slippery and jagged and the cliff became too steep. The farther out we went the more powerful the tide became. Waves slammed violently into the rocks, soaking us from head to toe and trapping us on both sides. We tried to climb up after seeing a monkey do the same (STUPID) but then realizing that it was a thorny mass of jungle not fit for humans, fearfully slid down. We scrambled over the unsteady rocks with our hands and feet as best we could but I eventually had to jump off and swim back. The tide threatened to slam my body into the rocks and it took all the strength I had to stay far enough out but still swim towards the beach. When I finally hit the shallow water and soft sand I collapsed and cried from exhaustion.
It was undeniably the stupidest thing we’ve ever done and to top it off, the next day we learned that a dead body had washed up on shore not far from where we were. I still get chills just thinking about it.
We laid on the beach for a while but the joy and excitement we had felt on arrival was gone. We somehow found the strength for the long drive back, stopping only for gas, an enormous plate of pad thai and two Chang beers. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when the 7-11 of Lonely Beach came into view and couldn’t wait to jump off the motorbike and into my safe and electricity-filled bungalow.
Have you ever been to Koh Chang? Are you a golden age thinker too?