By Ole Damkjær
Until a few years ago, the backpackers had all the glory for themselves. It's not like that anymore. Not least after the tsunami, travel companies have also spotted Thailand's second largest island, Koh Chang, which still has elbow room and tropical idyll.
SONGKRAM CAN STILL remember what it was like before the tourists started arriving. But the 48-year-old Buddhist monk is not complaining. The tourists have given the local islanders more money between their hands, which means that more alms will fall to the crowned monk in the orange robes as he leaves his primitive hut in the mountains from time to time and moves down to the village of Hat Sai Khao, which in recent years has been expanded with hotels, bars, restaurants and even a small air-conditioned supermarket.
Songkram asks us to taste the delights - bowls filled with rice, various strong sauces, fried vegetables and juicy fruits as we pass his small board shed on piles on the way up the mountain of Chom Prasat
Ahead, hours of walking await on steep, narrow paths that twist like a snake on the rainforest-clad mountainside. In truth, an uninhabited wilderness with giant trees that have been battered by old age and block the often invisible path that only the wizard Tok knows and clears with his machete.
Here are 30 meters high bamboo and man-made ferns and in the right season, rushing waterfalls. Here are large termite dwellings and here and there the sound of wild animals in the otherwise absolute silence of the jungle. And then it is humid as in a sauna, but at the same time pleasantly 'cool', because the sun can only glimpse through the jungle's thick carpet of leaves, vines and other growths.
THE RAIN FOREST IS ABOUT ANY CHARACTERISTICS OF THAILAND'S LAST FINAL PARADISE - Koh Chang Island in the easternmost part of the Gulf of Siam. No less than 75 percent of the tropical island, 30 kilometers long and 14 kilometers wide, is covered by dense, virgin rainforest, which has far better chances of survival than many other places where tourists set foot. For the jungle on Koh Chang, Thailand's second largest island after Phuket, has gained the status of a national park and goes on to be one of the most unspoilt in all of Southeast Asia, which is a major reason why Koh Chang is also called Southeast Asia's last paradise
That this nickname is not entirely undeserved is confirmed as we reach the top and are rewarded with a magnificent view. The coastline with the white beaches to the west and the tropical rainforest as far as the eye goes to the east, where the sun has now risen so high in the sky that the heat strikes like a hammer. later again at the foot of the mountain with a direct course towards a dip in the turquoise sea at White Sand Beach.
White Sand Beach is the northernmost of Koh Chang's many sandy beaches. The hotels are located next to the beach with the narrow country road - which makes it off the 'main street' of the small towns along the coast - to the other side. Where there is space, hotels and small shops are listed here and there on the other side of the road - but there is not much room, because then the jungle and the mountains come, and therefore there are limits to how many tourists the tropical island can absorb.
Indeed, not so many years ago, Koh Chang - also known as the Elephant Island because it has the shape of an elephant - was only visited by young backpackers who fled from mass tourism to Thailand's more well-known destinations. Backpacks are still here, but most have moved further down the coast - towards the southern and more desolate part of the island. But the backpackers also mingle with travel agency travelers farther north, where the hotels in several places are an unusual blend of five-star resorts, small family-run pensions and beachfront grounds with primitive first-floor cabins to the sea for only THB 300.
"Koh Chang is today what Phuket and the other destinations in western Thailand were before these places became popular," says travel agent Kuoni's local guide.
KOH CHANG got serious on the charter tourists' world map after the tsunami on Christmas Day 2004. The tidal wave spread death and destruction in the well-known destinations of western Thailand, while paradise on Koh Chang in the eastern corner of Smile's Land remained untouched. Since then it has gone strong, but there are still elbow room, which is not only related to the fact that the protected and impassable jungle sets a natural limit on the number of beds.
There are a few other explanations. The first is that the sun-hungry tourists want beach and water, and it is found mainly on the west coast of Koh Chang and to the south, where one of the island's most picturesque excursion destinations is: The small fishing village of Bang Bao, which stands on poles in an unspoiled bay, and where the restaurants serve the island's best grilled fish.
The eastern part, on the other hand, is a rocky coast and therefore not immediately suitable for tourism expansion. But the east coast is both beautiful, interesting and definitely worth an excursion or two, and the transport takes place in a song thaw - a pig car or pick-up, which is pretty much the only cars driving on the island. You sit on the barn, which is often covered with a sunroof, so you don't end up being roasted like a piglet before reaching the island trip.
Alternatively you can also rent a motorcycle or moped, but it is only recommended for those who feel safe on a two-wheeler, as the road is both twisted and steep. In contrast, the asphalt is ok in most places, as it is not so long ago that Koh Chang got its first proper road. It runs along the coast, but not all the way around. In the middle of the South Island, the road stops abruptly as a highly visible proof that Koh Chang is probably being picked up by globalization - but at its own leisurely pace.
The other explanation that Koh Chang has until recently been allowed to look after itself is that the tropical island is more difficult to reach than several of Thailand's other tourist magnets. You have to fly to the capital Bangkok and from there about 400 kilometers further by a local plane or car to the city of Trat in the south-east corner of the country. From there by ferry for half an hour to the northern tip of Koh Chang.
The island is first and foremost for people with a need for peace and quiet. There are no discos, nightclubs or other such establishments where you can unwind in the wee hours. It should just be the backpackers' full moon parties on the beach down south.
On the 'main street' in White Sand Beach, you can get rid of any insects and cover their need to be in the internet cafe, and there is a diving school with equipment rental. The sea right near Koh Chang is not particularly suitable for scuba diving and snorkeling, but it is easy to hop on one of the boats sailing out to the many small islands to the south, where the opportunities for underwater experiences are far better. At several of the small neighboring islands, you can spend the night in a simple bungalow, while the island of Ko Kood - Thailand's fourth largest island - also offers more luxurious resorts.
If you want to use your stay on Koh Chang to sniff to the latest destination on the world map of mass tourism - Cambodia - the locals stand on their toes to help. Thailand's neighboring country is just east of Koh Chang, and Cambodia can be reached in five to six hours by car. The area that can be explored on a two day trip is not only interesting because of its nature - a large river delta with massive mangroves. It was also here that Cambodia's mass murderers - the Red Khmer - continued to hold their ground not so many years ago. Only in 1998 did they surrender to the government forces, and only then did the area become safe to move into.
BUT maybe the need to relax first and foremost - especially if the trip to Koh Chang is combined with a stopover in southern Bangkok that offers a fascinating hybrid between exciting sightseeing and hoarse powershoping.
Then it is a balm for the soul to arrive by ferry to Koh Chang, where the sea is calm - when it is not rainy, where the waves can be insidious - and therefore Koh Chang is a hit for young children. And that with the tranquility does not only mean that it is small with waves. There are also no alarms from watercraft or speedboats, which the authorities have banned along Koh Chang's beaches.
The tide is strong, and as the sea recedes in the late afternoon, the servants begin to carry tables and chairs out onto the damp beach sand. For those who prefer to take the evening meal in a supine position, there are mattresses.
The sore legs after the mountain tour recover after a game of Thai massage, and after another magnificent sunset, the darkness subsides, and today's catch of seafood is enjoyed to the cut from a small kerosene lamp, while the kids have the beach as a large playground.
It is, as it is with the monk Songkram in his little hut on the ground: You do not complain ...