7 Days, 1100 Ks - Koh Chang and East Thailand Beaches
May 15, 2005
by Jim CA2
Late March it was time for a little long overdue R & R, and the hot and dry outback adventures in Cambodia didn’t sound as appealing as hanging out on a tropical island with friends for a few days. Nine of us on six bikes set out for Koh Kong about 10 am on a Thursday morning.
Major road work is taking place again on National Route 48 from Srey Ambel to Koh Kong, but let’s just say it will be done when it’s done. The ferry operators know eventually their income will be eliminated when the bridges are in place. Instead of the normal 20 20 30 30 baht prices for the four crossings they all are asking one dollar. Quite steep when you consider our ferry from Laem Ngop to Koh Chang was only 40 baht. We were able to negotiate proper prices at a few of the crossings but the third crossing really sticks to their guns. Not worth arguing over 1000 riel. From Srey Ambel to the first crossing the road has been regraded and washboard conditions make for a bumpy ride. The mountainous road between the second and third ferry is as bad as I have ever seen it. Rain cut channels are very prominent and will only get worse through the next rainy season. From about halfway between the third and fourth ferry to Koh Kong major construction is taking place and a nice wide highway is going in. We were happy to see this at the tail end of our journey into Koh Kong. Travel time is about six hours.
All but one of us was on a 250cc dirt bike. The 750cc street bike was no match for the terrain as the front shocks were going fast. As our group became more separated, we later found out that the 750 bike was put on a truck and hauled to Koh Kong for a modest fee of 10 dollars. It would be fine once in Thailand.
Koh Kong has been experiencing some more economic growth since the last time I was there over a year ago. At least three more western run bars have gone in along the main road, and one along the riverfront near the PTT gas station. The Asean Hotel across the street from the Pich Koh Kong on the river has just recently opened and has rooms from 10 - 20 dollars (AC TV fridge hot water). Another hotel on the river is under construction and should be opened with in six months.
The next day we hit the border. Unfortunately the group got smaller here. One of our passengers was from Slovenia and neglected to get a Thai visa. Back into Cambodia they went. I almost didn’t make it in myself as my updated registration card had a typo for the license plate and without matching numbers I wasn’t getting in either. Fortunately I kept the laminated copy of my original registration card and it was satisfactory. The customs forms are computerized now and the Thais fill in most of the information. This takes a little longer than it did before. The process would have gone a lot smoother had we not arrived in a group. We lost about an hour at the border but the ride to Trat is only about 90 Ks and wouldn’t take long. Make sure you have your proper passports, visas, motorbike registration cards and make sure you check the amount of time the Thais give the bike in the country as it doesn’t always correspond to the 30 days you get in your passport. We weren’t required to get insurance as is done crossing from Poipet.
For those of us that live in Cambodia, the KFC, ATM and 7-11 in Trat are usually the first stops. We get our fix and head south to the ferry at Laem Ngop. There are 4-5 different ferry operators in the area and for our bikes the fare was 40 baht over and I paid 50 on another carrier for the return. (pedestrians pay 10 baht less) The ferries operate pretty much regularly all day long so you won’t have to wait long. The ride to Koh Chang takes about a half hour and there are concessions and restrooms on board.
When bringing your bike over make sure your brakes are in order as there are steep roads with tight hairpin curves. Once on the island we headed White Sands Beach on the west side of the island. This is the most developed area of Koh Chang. Two 7-11s, a few banks and ATMs, shops restaurants and hotels/bungalow line the main road. It is also a narrow strip sandwiched by the beach and steep mountains. We were losing daylight and were scrambling to find decent accommodations. Unlike Bangkok or Pattaya where 700 baht will get you Aircon, TV, hot water and Fridge, expect to pay 1200-1500 baht a night for these amenities. There are plenty of low end accommodations from 150 - 700 baht but that is usually a bungalow with a bed, fan, cold shower and not much more. A few in our group opted for that, one couple in our group got a room at the Alina resort for 1000 baht (another guy showed up with his Thai girlfriend and got the same for 800) and I happened to meet a guy who had a bungalow on the opposite side of the beach road with air and TV, cold water, no fridge - a room for 800 baht, which he discounted to 700. I was told I got a deal but really didn’t see the value. Arriving on a Friday night also made it difficult as many places were full with weekend travelers.
After we settled in we met up at Thor’s on the beach for a few drinks. This is a nice laid back place to have a drink, but the Katoey behind the bar wasn’t the most personable. I guess it was confused that it was working in the service industry and the confusion was evident by its feminine make up, with a shirt wide open to a masculine chest. Thor’s was a convenient meeting place for the group, but we had bikes and it was off to the beer bars. There is one Beer bar “Moon” located at the north end of White Sands and to the south a small complex typical of Pattaya where the loud music from the adjacent beer bars turns all the music into loud noise. Although there were a few diamonds in the rough, most of the talent has seen better days. Beer Chang can be had for about 45 baht. Still looking for more fun three of us headed south past a Thai Karaoke parlor with not much going on there then to Sky Disco which is a typical Thai Style concert hall with bar tables on the ground level. At 11:30PM on a Friday night I would have expected more to be going on but it didn’t warrant our business. One of my friends opted to call it a night at this point but my other buddy and I again continued south to see what else could be going on. Up over the hill through the quiet town of Klong Prao, we continued in the darkness past an occasional single shop karaoke stall then wound up in at the north end of Kai Bae where a group of girls at the Full Moon bar yelled at us to stop. It was a little premature as around the bend Kai Bae as we found out the next day appears to be the second most active town on the island with a small selection of beer bars and a 7-11. We had a few more drinks and joked with the girls and then called it a night. Small baht buses do run and fare to and from the ferry from White Sands is 30 baht, from White Sands to Bang Bao expect to pay about 50 baht. Step-throughs are available for rent.
The next day during the early morning hours we experienced rain as the Thais have been seeding the clouds in an effort to combat the drought. The group gathered for a journey south along the west end of the island. Though the clouds didn’t make for great pictures from a viewpoint along the way, they did provide for cool riding to the bay at Bang Bao on the southwest side of the island. Local villagers and fisherman only make up 10% of the population in Bang Bao. Outsiders have moved into the pier with their restaurants, souvenir shops and dive boats. As with many of the restaurants in Koh Chang, many Khmers are employed to work in the kitchens. This was a great as we had a few Khmer girls in our group and they were able to communicate their hunger (and remain happy). Divided by diverse palates, three of us pooled in for a seafood assortment. 1200 baht (about 10 bucks a piece) we shared crab, a type of a sea snail, a tray of clams, one shrimp dish, three giant prawns, rice and Bacardi breezers.
Along the way back one of our riders decided he had better hit a bike shop for some brake work. The mechanic there had trouble figuring out how to bleed the brakes and they don’t stock brake pads, so try to get your work done before you go and carry the necessary replacements you think you might need for your journey. I am told there is a Khmer bike mechanic in Trat who is pretty good, and was pleased when I made a stop at a bike shop on the return to have my chain oiled free of charge.
That night I had made a date and ended up meeting one of the couples in our group at Sabay Bar on White Sands beach for drinks. Sabay Bar has an indoor dance floor and live music that plays western cover tunes. Along the beach outside they set up low tables on mats. Apart from the live music, this is common for a few other beachside bars. KC Bar farther up the beach has a DJ/dance floor, though not too many people were dancing. Along with Sabay Bar, KC Bar has a fire show with three guys with no real group rhythm twirling flaming batons. The other bars appeared to do relatively little business.
Our second day the group became more divided. More motorbike problems plagued the 750cc bike and more rains until 1PM got into the spark plugs. He would be spending the day not far from the repair shop. One of my friends Sharky Al and Srey Mao and I still wanted to explore. We took off to the east side of the island. The east coast is flatter so getting to the southern areas was much faster than the day before. There are a couple of waterfalls along the way, but we didn’t make the stop as we get our share of falls in Cambodia for free. We took a small diversion off the main road through a coconut palm forest to a rocky cove that was breathtakingly beautiful. Continuing south we passed through rubber plantations and rural farming villages. We took the road to the dead end on the east side of Salak Phet Bay. Wisai, a 49 year old Thai whose land has been in the family for generations set up some small bungalows for 300 baht a night. He spent time with us recanting times in Cambodia and Burma with PTT gas and oil. He also told us of the development of Koh Chang and how some of his land near White Sands was stolen by developers when he refused to sell. He mentioned that developers and government are after his stake at Salak Phet. Sound similar? Hopefully he can hang on. He also told us about opposition to complete the perimeter road and how monkeys no longer come from the mountains to the bay since the paved roads went in about five years ago. Wisai’s insight was amazing. He told us of pirates who have a village on the east side of the mountain range accessible only by boat and the southeastern Long Beach which is more of a Rasta type hang out. He was the one that told us of the local population being replaced by the commercialism at Bang Bao. If you get to Koh Chang pay him a visit at his “Red Ant” resort. After having a few drinks at his resort, we set off for a late seafood lunch on the west side of Salak Phet Bay. Another 1200 baht for three included a seafood spread of raw shrimp and oysters, mussels, crabs, vegetables and plakapong. We also put away two large bottles of Tiger Beer Khmer style on ice. We lost daylight but we were able to make good time on our 40-minute ride from the southeastern part of the island back to White Sands.
The group decided to head for Aranyaprathet the next day and go back to Phnom Penh on roads more forgiving to the front shocks on the 750cc bike. I wasn’t done with Koh Chang and I hadn’t even taken a swim. I remained behind. I hooked up for lunch with my date. Gai Yang, Khao Nieow, Som Tom and a pork dish and drinks for two for 170 Baht. Afterwards we went to check out the Klong Plu waterfall. Foreigners pay 200 baht entry and Thais pay 20. It’s a gorgeous high waterfall with large rock lined pools. Though water levels were pretty low, the pools still offered a cool refreshing swim. After the falls I checked out the adjacent rocky coast line near the Enjoy Resort. The waters were crystal clear like those in Sihanoukville. While stopped to make a left on the main road a large cobra raced across the road faster than I could get out my camera. My landlord told me that there are plenty of cobras and king cobras on the island and will periodically come to his restaurant to scavenge. On the following day back to the ferry I ran over a luminous green viper that wasn’t as quick as the cobra. Not to put any fears into you, just be aware that we do co-exist with some pretty poisonous snakes in this region.
In the neighborhood of the Klong Plu falls there are a couple of elephant trek operators, but I think I would get more enjoyment hopping on the pachyderm at Wat Phnom and looking at all the astonished faces along the Tonle Sap riverfront. I made arrangements for dinner with my date and then headed to the beach solo for an afternoon beer swim and sunset. There are many restaurants on White Sands Beach that set up tables on the beach. Dinner this evening would include a Kloster Beer, a watermelon drink, plakapong, a shrimp plate, green curry and rice with a plate of pineapple for desert for about 10 dollars. More drinks later on the beach my last evening. For additional information there is a Canby Style guidebook available at hotels and restaurants as well as their website at www.whitesandsthailand.com.
I was on the 11 am ferry back to Trat the next day. I was curious about the thin strip of coastal land that the Thais occupy between the Gulf of Siam and the Cardamoms. My first diversion to the coast line on the way back brought me to a mangrove park with a platform walk through the forest. The mud below would pop as air escaped the grounds. The beach at Lan Sai had a beautiful shoreline but the waters were shallow and murky. Thai women walked in the shallow waters with inflated inner tubes and gathered clams by the bag loads. Sai Ngam Beach farther down the road not far from the Saphan Hin Waterfalls didn’t boast clear waters either for my afternoon swim. It wasn’t until I was about 2/3rds into my journey back to the border did I find a decent beach. This was Khao Lan where the Thai military “Black Shirts” detachment is based. Like the US military, the Thai military was occupying some prime real estate. They let you on base. There is a long thin beach with rocky cliffs at the north end that is open to the public. They do most of their business on weekends and also have air-con rooms for rent from 500-800 baht. I took a swim in the crystal clear un-refreshingly warm water and was happy to use the cooler shower facility to rinse off. A Thai marine from Trat and his girlfriend shared a coke with me and answered more questions about this part of the coast.
Ban Chuen Beach not too much farther south was another viable swimming option. The beach here is lined with gazebos for group picnics. Payear, a woman who once operated a business in Pattaya and has a guesthouse in Jomtien, rents rooms here for 500-800 baht. It looks great if you want a hermit’s vacation, but my curiosity was satisfied. Unless I was on a bicycle and needed to stop for the evening, this part of the coast didn’t have much on Koh Chang or even Kampong Som for that matter. Time and rain prevented me from doing a drive through the last town of Klong Yai prior to the border crossing at Had Lek.
I could have easily spent another day or two on Koh Chang and will probably make a return visit with my friends that abandoned the island paradise a little prematurely. I rolled into Phnom Penh on the following Wednesday according to schedule wondering where they might be. Thursday night I got a call from a Karaoke parlor in Kampong Cham perhaps from another found paradise of sorts? (10,000 riel for an air conditioned room for an hour). Jim CA2
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