Koh Si Chang
Check your travel guides. Tear through the destinations section of the major papers. If you have ever found anything written about it, you have accomplished something already. If you have ever found anything written positively about it, then you must be reading economic rather than travel literature. For Koh Si Chang is an important business locale but not such a prominent vacation destination. However, if you live in Bangkok or find yourself "stuck" here as so many people do, you will find it the perfect weekend getaway. An easy escape from the smog and crowds.
I learned about it almost by accident. I took a map and a ten baht coin (roughly the same size as a quarter). I placed the center of the coin on Bangkok and then I traced a circle around the coin. That gave me roughly a 100 km radius of the area around Bangkok. See, I desperately wanted out of the city but I only had two free days. I did not want to spend a great deal of my free time in a vehicle. I wanted to spend the better part of my weekend in a hammock. I needed a nice quiet locale that could be reached easily and quickly. There were many places on the mainland within the radius of the coin but one small island smiled at me. An island weekend seemed a nice idea at that moment.
The larger and more famous (possibly infamous, depending on your tastes) Koh Samet is a very popular weekend island getaway. Bangkokians will often say that Koh Samet is your best bet for a two-day weekend. "So nice" and "so close" are phrases they are fond of using. They will then tell you "only three hours away." Three hours is what the bus schedule says, that is true. However, the three-hour estimation does not include many factors that cannot be ignored when the weekend is short and time is precious. First you have to consider getting to the bus station. Unless you have the good fortune to live near the terminal, actually getting there can be quite an ordeal. Then when you get there, you will most likely have to wait. You probably won't have to wait too long as there are many buses going to Koh Samet. However, a ten-minute wait at a Bangkok terminal can feel more like an eternity in an airtight chamber as it is slowly filled with black choking smoke. Then, at the end of your wait you are rewarded with the three-hour bus trip you expected. That part is usually right on. Three hours, as advertised. The bus will let you off at Bang Saen. A quaint coastal town with little more to do than wait around for the boat to Koh Samet. So, you wait again. Finally, the boat comes and 45 minutes later you arrive at the island. You will then have to take a long, bumpy taxi-truck ride to a series of bungalows that may be full. If not, they are most likely overcrowded. So, you continue farther south most likely on foot until you find an acceptable place to hang your hammock, so to speak. At last you made it. The easy weekend getaway just took you around five or six hours. If you left Bangkok, after 2pm you missed the sunset. You arrived just in time to greet the waking mosquitoes. Well, alright, it's not that bad but there is an alternative.
In about two hours, from your front door to the front porch of a scenic bungalow, you can be as far from the city as you need to be. You can hang your hammock, polish off a couple chapters in a good book, all just in time to drink in the sunset. Time could be less depending on how long it takes you to get out of the city. That is something you can never determine accurately. Koh Si Chang is not as popular for numerous obvious reasons. However, if your goal is a quiet relaxing island weekend away from the funk of Bangkok, then Koh Si Chang is a perfect setting.
Koh Si Chang is a small island of the coast of Si Racha. Si Racha is a compelling place in its own right. It is mainly a fishing and shipping town. Those industries have naturally migrated to the nearby island as well. This is patently obvious on the ferry ride from mainland to island. Large rusty tankers and carrier ships are anchored sporadically in the waters off the coast. Some are filled and waiting to ship off. Some are empty and waiting for cargo. They are so numerous that at some point it seems conceivable to simply jump from ship to ship all the way to the island. This certainly is not the most scenic part of the weekend getaway. Where the ships aren't monopolizing space, fishermen in small boats are checking their nets and fish traps. Later, the larger fishing boats will set out with their large lights for a night of fishing squid. The waters off the coast of Si Racha and surrounding Koh Si Chang are as busy with life as the city streets of Bangkok. However, once the island is in sight, all remembrances of Bangkok will drift away. Well, almost. There are still the tuk tuks to contend with.
The first unique aspect of Koh Si Chang is the tuk tuks. Tuk tuks are a common public form of transportation around Thailand. They are three wheeled circus carnivals that squeal like a pig as they gain speed and miraculously don't tip over on the curves. Usually. Many are familiar with the tuk tuks for Bangkok. However, many may not know that the Bangkok brand of tuk tuk is almost exclusive to Bangkok and Chiang Mai. All other sizable towns and cities have their own distinct brand of tuk tuk. Many are similar but none are the same. The tuk tuks in Si Racha are not the same as the tuk tuks on Koh Si Chang. The tuk tuks on Ko Si Chang are unlike any I have ever seen. If a Bangkok tuk tuk is like a coffee stirrer, a Koh Si Chang tuk tuk is like a high-speed blender set on puree. The driver sits atop a large car engine. The engine is fully exposed so as to see the raw size and power. The handlebars are high and wide like on a classic desert Harley. The passengers sit in a carriage large enough for five. Most roads, as carefully designed, are just big enough for the tuk tuks. Which came first, the roads or the tuk tuks? Of course, there are places that lie well within walking distance from the pier. Still, to really get away from it all, the other side of the island is quieter and more scenic. The tuk tuk ride is an experience in itself. After a bus ride, then a boat ride, why not a tuk tuk ride? After all, this is a weekend getaway right. Leave the walking for the weekdays on the way to work.
The tuk tuk ride will traverse the small town in a flash. It is an enjoyable little settlement complete with bank and convenience store. So there is no need to worry about a forgotten toothbrush or candy bar cravings. This is not a desert island after all. Past the town you will turn down little alleyways past brightly painted houses and shops. These stretches seem to have more of a Mediterranean feel to them. The island is quite hilly and largely undeveloped. The open areas are brushy and dense but there are good roads and trails that make the island wholly accessible. Of course, if a hammock is your goal, accessing the interior of the island is not much of a concern. You want a bungalow with a view. The western side of the island awaits you.
After the short tuk tuk ride to the other side, a number of cliff side bungalows await. Swimming is easy when the tide is out, revealing small, hidden beaches at the base of the cliffs. When the tide is in, there are safe places to jump for a little exhilaration. Most of these bungalows are built amongst the bush and trees so there are plenty of good hammock sights. After all, that is what we came here for, right? Is there anything else to do? Actually, there is.
If the hammock gets boring, perhaps you should lie in it a little longer. I have never become bored with a properly placed hammock. On the other hand, I understand life in a hammock isn't everyone's idea of a good time. Don't worry, there is plenty to do and see. You can hike or bicycle your way around the island. You can hire a tuk tuk to tour you here and there. Or you can rent a motorcycle. The roads are hilly but very smooth and safe. Friendly people are always willing to point you in the right direction. Once you've chosen your mode of transportation, there is much to see. Small beaches are a great place to relax, take in some sun. Small stalls offer fresh seafood and cold drinks. Lounge chairs and umbrellas offer a welcome reprieve to sunburned skin. Snorkeling is possible as the water here is very clear. Although there is not much to see other than thousands of sand dollars and a large puffer fish that has always been under the same rock every time I have gone to say hello. These are beaches under development set up along the rocks. The beach extends a little farther every month. They are expanding. I am not sure why. I have never seen a crowd.
Koh Si Chang has some interesting sights. On a hill, overlooking the city is an old, Chinese temple. Large Buddha statues shine in the sun atop it all. They gaze toward the mainland keeping a watchful eye on all who come and go. This is a great spot to take photos and get your bearings on the island. This temple also features a cave you can climb down into. This is a special place where monks meditate. When the light is right, it is easy to see why. Fingers of sunlight penetrate the cave from above filling the chamber with surreal illumination. Meditation almost takes care of itself.
If you want total emersion meditation, the island features a meditation center where laymen can go and meditate with the pros. Signs request silence as you pass the large Buddhist complex but the resident dogs must be exempt from the rule. They will bark at any passerby at any time. Perhaps it is part of the dogs' personal meditation techniques.
A large footbridge was built in one cove. Its size seems to out measure its function and it is quite something to behold. At the end of the bridge is a long, high cliff, good for adventurous exploration. This is where I once saw a white garaw, a small squirrel like animal. The white ones are rare and good luck if you spy one. Maybe the big footbridge was built for the garaw. Or perhaps the bridge was built solely for the magnificent sunsets that come each night.
By nightfall, the boatmen are off after the squid. Their boats will light up the entire horizon of the night sea. Of course, plenty of stalls are open with loads of great food options. The breeze is usually stirring up nicely near the cliffs. You are ready for total relaxation. There is plenty to see and do on Koh Si Chang. Perhaps a hammock is all you need, perhaps not. Either way, this island is a quick and easy getaway. Make of it what you will. The locals are friendly and shining. They will help you find whatever it is you are looking for. Bangkok is only two hours away but it might as well be on the other side of the world.
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Published on 6/4/02