Ranong's Koh Chang: A mellow-life island under the tourist radar.

by Philipp Meier

A backpacker on Long Beach.

A backpacker on Long Beach.

“More basic, simpler, freakier!”

A 40-something dreadhead who’d been coming to Koh Phayam for more than a decade was raving about Koh Chang, Koh Phayam’s neighboring island in southern Thailand.

“In the last three years, package holidays have become so popular in Koh Phayam, this place is no longer as it used to be. But Koh Chang is still the same. You won’t meet foreign families there, no babies, arm floats and other things we don’t like to see here in Koh Phayam,” the traveler with the pieces of rope in her hair moaned.

Apparently, times had changed. It was April 2019, a month in Thailand’s high season, and I did indeed struggle to find Koh Phayam’s rumored low-key vibe. I wanted to experience just that – the beauty of the peaceful, simple life, even if only for one day: no ATMs, no luxurious hotels, no selfie-takers here and there, no Songkran water festival bedlam. Koh Chang came right on cue. 

Eager to get away from the tourists, I was looking for the slow ferry to Koh Chang but found only tour operators that sold speedboat tickets.

“Sorry, sir. Today only speedboat, and tomorrow no boat at all, because it’s Songkran,” they’d say.

I’d ended up forking out, but the speedboat curving across the water, coupled with Inna’s tune “Amazing” coming out of the speakers, lifted my spirits quickly.

The five-km boat ride barely lasted as long as Inna’s piece of music. “Hey, you. Koh Chang,” the captain said to me and stopped me abruptly envisioning pleasant things. I was the only one who got off the boat at the island’s north-eastern jetty.

“See you tomorrow,” one of the speedboat guys bantered and laughed mockingly as if their plan was to leave me stranded for the night.

It did seem that I was stranded.

If it hadn’t been for the ample angler who cast her line, I’d have thought this was an abandoned island. Cicadas were screeching in the distance as if rehearsing for a ceremony, and there was something soothing about those chorusing insects. It matched the scent of salty sea air, the small lapping waves, the gentle rocking of a longtail boat, and the relaxed Thai dreaming of a catch.

It was peacefully quiet, sunny, and hot like in the middle of a desert; I was oozing buckets of sweat and was happy. This was a promising start in terms of getting away from the tourist hustle and bustle. I knew I was in for experiencing the mellow lifestyle on this tiny, little-known island in the province of Ranong, 165 miles north of Phuket.

“You can’t rent a scooter in Koh Chang,” the contemporary kind-of-hippie with dreadlocks had told me, “and you need to decide which beach section you want to visit. Wherever you’re planning to go to, you’ll need to do everything on foot.” I’d bought into this idea at the time.

But then I saw this guy at the end of the pier in the shade of a cashew tree.

He was wearing a moth-eaten, army green tee with elbow-length sleeves, knee-length orange shorts, and flat, worn-out flip-flops that were as dark as his tanned complexion. Boredom was written all over his face; he was sitting lazily on his scooter as though he’d been waiting for a long time. No wonder he was jaded, the heat must’ve wearied him.

Money was the livener that got him going, eventually. He held up his index finger, which meant 100 baht ($3.25). I wasn’t sure whether that was the price for the ride to Long Beach and back to the pier or just a one-way journey, but I agreed. I didn’t have a choice after all. It wasn’t very likely that the well-fed jelly belly wanted to give me a lift. Not now that she was fishing for sure.

Heading for Long Beach on the island’s west coast, we rode across Koh Chang at a snail’s pace and passed sand dunes as white as coconut meat. Just as eye-catching as the sandy hills were the sight of deep green woodland, perfectly aligned rubber trees that stretch as far as the eyes can see.

Verdant rubber trees.

Verdant rubber trees.

I took invigorating breaths in the oxygen-rich setting and chuckled. Those flourishing forests, the shape of those hard trunks and branches reminded me of inverted chicken legs. More so because I saw clucking hens crossing the narrow, paved streets carelessly.

They obviously felt safe as there weren’t any road hogs around. Local families were driving slowly, using a third of the street’s width and the maximum capacity of a motorbike.

Everyone was chilled-out. My driver stopped to have a chat with his friends who were lounging in hammocks, strung between their bamboo shacks’ poles. Even the dogs were relaxed; they didn’t run after riders or bark at them aggressively. It was as if the easy-going bug had attacked them before.

I enjoyed the absence of 7ELEVEN dingdong doorbells and the crowds anyway. There was scarcely a foreigner around, not a single non-Thai family, no ATM and no luxurious resorts.

The couple of hours I had left, they slipped past gently. The three-mile Long Beach was deserted, and I did little but relax and daydream in the shade of a Casuarina. I sank my feet into the fine gray sand that crunched between my toes and relished the quiet atmosphere.

Listening to the still waters lapping the shore, pleased with this moment, I was wondering why Koh Chang didn’t attract more people.

Deserted Aow Yai

Deserted Aow Yai

Then, a freaky dreadlocked Thai who was clad in nothing but brown batik pants came out of nowhere. Puffing at his sweet-scented ciggie, he walked casually to his motorized cockleshell and started the engine. I watched the tattooed, darkly-tanned guy leaving and listened to the puttering sounds of his rickety longtail boat. Sensing my curious looks, he responded with a light-hearted smile, confirming that a mellow lifestyle can be beautifully simple.

A smiling captain at Aow Lek

A smiling captain at Aow Lek

Philipp Meier is a freelance travel writer and English/German translator with a passion for Thai culture and traveling off the well-trodden tourist trail in the Land of Cheeky Smiles. You can find him at writerphilippmeier.com or via email at pm@writerphilippmeier.com.

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