A little over two hours from Bangkok and the closest island to the capital, Koh Si Chang receives less attention than the nearby (ghastly) resort town of Pattaya on the mainland and the white-sand island of Koh Samet further down the coast in Rayong. Yet it offers something unusual in an island destination; a rarely successful of the combination of a local town feel and the convenience of a tourist-geared resort.
Just 12km offshore from the city of Sriracha in Chonburi province, and taking 45 minutes by slow boat to get there, Koh Si Chang is framed by huge, rather ugly barges that sit stationed on their route towards the Chaophraya river and up into Bangkok. Thankfully, once you’ve safely landed on the island itself, these barges are largely out of sight, and the mainland isn’t visible from the island’s main beach, meaning you feel further away from Sriracha than is really the case.
While you won’t find high-end resorts here that dote on your every desire, Koh Si Chang does have just about all you might want for a comfortable few days at the beach within spitting distance of Bangkok. It also hosts a number of other worthwhile sights, though on our visit we focussed on the beach – given that Koh Si Chang was in itself a replacement for the island of Koh Kut near the Cambodian border, which we had given up on after a rather hideous weather forecast (and where there would, even in good weather, have been nothing but UTTERLY STUNNING BEACHES to see). Spots include the Chinese temple (with reportedly amazing views after the 300 steps to get there), Buddha footprint and a summer palace built for King Chulalongkorn; the highly recommended Charlie’s Bungalows (more later) have a comprehensive list and map of things to do and see around the island, including a number of hidden waterfalls worth seeking out.
Haad Tampang is the island’s main and seemingly only beach and, while far from pristine, with the tide out it fits the bill as a low-key spot to kick back and soak up the sun – or to enjoy some fresh seafood from one of the several beachside restaurants, sheltered from the heat by the lines of deckchairs and parasols that line the edge of the sand like just about every other beach resort aimed principally at Thai tourists. Here the beach is quiet enough that there is no pressure to eat and move on – buy something to eat or drink and the deckchairs are yours to use for the day as you please. And nothing quite beats sunbathing, swimming and then sitting back with a plate of somtum papaya salad or a whole pla neung manao, steamed seabass with lime.
Again, sadly the case with many Thai beaches that are largely the preserve of domestic tourists (though Koh Si Chang also attracts plenty of Germans, though fewer Brits than elsewhere) and poorly cared for, Haad Tampang boasts a line of discarded rubbish and flotsam that somewhat detracts from the pleasure of a swim when the ride is all the way in – wading through trash for the first few feet of seawater is less than fun. But when the tide is out the trash is washed up onto the sand and, with it out of sight and out of mind, the beach makes for a very pleasant place to take a dip – with waters far clearer than write-ups elsewhere have given credit for. The sand, too, at least when the tide is out, is on its way to white (further inland towards the deckchairs, it’s noticeably darker and rather grainy).
A single banana boat operator will take you for a ride if that’s your thing, the lack of large-scale operations a nod to the slower pace here, while a few local ladies wander the beach offering massages to anyone who’ll listen. As is the case elsewhere, including on Koh Samet, a whisper of ‘perhaps after I’ve had a swim’ will not get rid of them – they will come back – so be honest with them and either have a massage if you want one, or tell them straight if you don’t. I had a foot massage and a neck, shoulder and head massage on successive days – the first, while perfectly decent, was far inferior to the one the next day (with a woman I had promised a massage to the previous day and who had been most upset when, unable to spot her after my swim, had plumped for someone else); she said she was Wat Pho trained and I sure believed her, such was the medicinal feel to the sports-style massage she gave me, with the real sense that she both knew what she was doing and appreciated the true benefit of it.
The beach also has a resort tucked behind it, and the attraction of staying this close to the water is clear. But Haad Tampang is an easy walk from most of the accommodation elsewhere on the island – just be sure to take the turn-off for Ao Atsadang when you see it, rather than walking another hour or so right to the south of the island as we did on our first attempt (Ao Atsadang is the bay that shelters the beach at Haad Tampang).
Otherwise, the larger-than-life three-wheeled tuk-tuk-like vehicles that roam the place will happily take you here or back (though picking one up from the beach can be difficult on weekdays, so best to have the number handy of the tuk-tuk you got from the pier on arrival – the driver will usually give you his or her card when they try to offer you tours around the island). Tuk-tuk rides are one of the few things about Koh Si Chang that are relatively expensive compared to elsewhere – apparently pre-dating to the not so distant future when the roads were in far worse condition and the ride to Haad Tampang was a more treacherous and difficult one – you can try haggling, but generally expect a price of 80-100 baht from Haad Tampang back to the pier regardless of the number of passengers; try for slightly less if you are going to one of the guest houses that is closer by, though it’s likely that the fare initially quoted will also be in the 100 baht region. Motorbike taxis are cheaper and hover at the pier and around the main town area.
Charlie’s Bungalows, affectionately known locally just as Charlie’s, is without doubt the place of choice to lay your head on Koh Si Chang. A dozen or so sparsely furnished but spectacularly clean bungalows (hence the attraction in having little furniture to clean around) are nestled in the trees and bushes around a couple of central sala huts, perfect for relaxing – though beware of the mosquitoes, which seem to abound. The staff are friendly and things are pretty laid-back, in the week at least; when we showed up, we grabbed a woman tapping away at her laptop in the first bungalow which also serves as their reception area (which could be better signposted as such) and were guided to a vacant room. ‘Pay tomorrow, she said.’
Rooms, which are bright and crisp and feature air-con, hot water, a kettle, TV (you can rent DVDs and a DVD player if you wish) and even towels expertly crafted into swans and elephants to adorn the large beds, go for 1,000 baht during the week and 1,100 baht at weekends and public holidays – among the pricier options on the island, but worth every penny. Posters in the rooms also offer useful local info on things to see and places to eat, and staff are on hand, friendly and able to offer more advice. Things get a little more formal on weekends, when more staff appear and all magically start wearing uniforms – the whole island picks up with weekending Bangkokians and, while in the week you should have no problem just turning up and bagging a room, at weekends or over Thai public holidays you may want to call ahead to avoid disappointment. We contemplated staying another day, but found Charlie’s was full and the place opposite was also expecting about twenty busloads of tourists to pitch up.
Eating wise, you won’t go far wrong with the pick of the local seafood – just wander along Moo 2, the street housing guest houses including Charlie’s, and take your pick from any of the open-air restaurants serving up plenty of freshly caught and fried or steamed fish and as much squid, prawns and the like as you can eat. A couple of more westerner-oriented restaurants purport to offer the likes of fish chips and are probably best given a wide berth – that said, Pan & David’s seems to get good reviews and looked full most nights, so I may well have misjudged. Back in town, simple street-side curry and stir-fry stalls abound, including one particularly tempting looking hoy tod (fried mussel omelette) stall on the walk towards town from Moo 2, so you certainly won’t go hungry – just beware that, being small-town as it is, things close up pretty early of an evening. In daylight hours, there is food aplenty at stalls around the pier.
To get to Koh Si Chang, take a minivan from Victory Monument (departing from any number of ticket stalls beneath and around the BTS station) to Sriracha; the journey takes around an hour to an hour and a half depending on traffic, and costs 90 baht. Get the minivan to drop you outside the Robinson’s department store, from where you won’t have trouble picking up a motorbike taxi (30 baht) or tuk-tuk (60 baht) to take you to Koh Loy pier (ask for ‘tha rua bai Koh Si Chang’). Boats leave frequently throughout the day in both directions, from 06.00am-07.00pm, and cost 50 baht each way for the 45-minute ride. On arrival, motorbike taxis and tuk-tuks will be ready to scoop you up at Koh Si Chang’s pier; if staying at Charlie’s, it’s a 10-15 minute walk or a 2-minute ride for between 60 and 100 baht (cheaper by motorbike taxi).
Charlie’s Bungalows, 085 191 3863; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.kohsichang.net