A really quiet, peaceful and green place for people who are fed up with civilization is Ko Chang (also: Koh Chang, Thai for: Elephant Island) in Thailand. The American naturalist Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) might have enjoyed it to spend some time here. Only a few people live on the isle, and there are no real roads on it; it's merely a very few rather small concrete pavements. Most of the tracks are unpaved.
Sunset on Ko Chang's western coast, at the northernmost tip of Ao Yai, Long Beach. In the background, here barely to see, are a couple of larger, Burmese islands. The biggest of them is St. Matthew's Island. Image by Asienreisender, 2012
Well, no, it's not that Koh Chang, the famous tourist island in Trat Province, east Thailand, in the Gulf of Thailand. It's the unknown island with the same name in Ranong Province, in the Andaman Sea, Indian Ocean. It's rather comparable with Pangkor Island at the Malaysian west coast, some 1,000 kilometers south of here. But Ko Chang is defenitely the better choice to go, for those who like it remote.
Since so few people are living here and there is little electrical power, generated for the people themselves by diesel generators or small solar power panels, it's most of the time quiet here. The hills and mountains are covered with tropical rainforest. I did some jungle trekking here, and it doesn't seem to be much primary rainforest. It looks only as it were some decades old - maybe there was logging here in former decades. I at least can't see trees I would estimate really old. Though, now it's recovering, at least in the mountainous parts. On the plains there are plantations, much rubber, and some oil palms as well.
Ko Chang, Eastern Shore
The island's east coast seen from the pier in the southern direction. In the background is the only mountain on the island. In 2009 I tried to climb it, but failed. I ended up at steep rocks and had to go back. Maybe it's easier to make an approach from the western side. Image by Asienreisender, 2012
Ao Yai (Long Beach) - Western Shore
Ao Yai (Long Beach) is the largest of the few beaches on Ko Chang. It's about a kilometer or two down to a river which drains the island's forests further south. Behind the river, which is easy to cross by walking barefoot, the sand beach continues over a stretch and changes then into a rocky seam of the coastline. Image by Asienreisender, 2012
Clenched rubber on the ferry to Ranong. Image by Asienreisender, 2010
The parts of the coastline who are not one of the island's several beaches, are mostly mangrove swamps. At high tide most of it is under water, at low tide it's swamp. Three years ago I did a hike along a mangrove forest near the Moken village. It's not easy to walk into the swamps and honestly I wasn't angry when I eventually found my way out again.
A considerable part of the island's population is Burmese, coming from close by Burma (Kawthaung and around) and doing work here at the Thai owned farmland. They also do most of the work on the building sites. Although Ko Chang is a remote island, there is a lot of construction activity around. More and more little resorts are made up, the small roadnet is getting extended every year.
Plantation Worker's Shack
One of the simple dwellings in which the Burmese plantation workers live with their families. Image by Asienreisender, 2012
When I consider the islands demography, it seems pretty much to be kind of a colony. All the inhabitants (except some very few western ex-pats) have a house in Ranong or elsewhere and most of them stay only part of the year on Ko Chang.
Generally, most of the island's economy is generated by agriculture, followed by tourism. But there is only one tourist season per year, it's lasting from late October or rather November to March / April. In the rest of the year there are few Tourists here. Besides, Ranong Province is the Province in Thailand with the most rain. Sometimes it's raining for several weeks on Ko Chang without an interruption. Might be a little bit depressing sometimes for some people. Particularly when it's rainy day for day for day and there is little light; that means to sit in a dark bungalow much of the daytime, waiting for the sun. After washing, the clothes don't dry properly, everything get's dump, many materials start to get mouldy. Remember: there is no electricity in the resorts. They only start their generators at six p.m. and shut them down at 9:30 p.m.
Map of Ko Chang
Ko Chang is Thai for 'Elephant Island'. It refers to the shape of the island - do you recognize an elephant in it? If not, then you are not alone.
The western front of the island is the side with the heaviest storms, because there is the open sea. Land erosion happens along the western beaches, particularly along Ao Yai.
A few years ago there was no car on the island; meanwhile there are a very few. There is really no reason for having a car on such a small island, except a community car or better lorry to transport and distribute the goods coming from Ranong, but - well, a car is not only a vehicle. It's a fetish. However, walking on Ko Chang's paved roads means to encounter occasionally a motorbike, very seldom one of the cars, that's all.
Ao Yai Pier
The old pier at Ao Yai, Long Beach. It's abandoned since long. In the tourist season the two daily ferries surround the island and stop at any place a passenger wishes. But in monsoon season the waves here at the western coast are too high; the ferry only stops at the pier at the eastern side of the island. Image by Asienreisender, 2012
Tourists always tend to rent a motorbike, instead of using their feet what would be better for their health and the surroundings. The other day I met two tourists who even brought a motorbike with them from Ranong, driving on the only two roads without orientation - there is really no point to rush around here on a motorized vehicle.
There are a lot of other islands around Ko Chang. The only other better known and inhabited one is Ko Phayam, far more touristic than Ko Chang. All the others, smaller or larger, are almost uninhabited and green, completely covered with tropical rainforest. Also the opposite mainland consists mostly of mountainous forests. The Malay Peninsula north of here is divided into Thailand and Burma. Particularly the Burmese side, what is the western coast and part of the inland, is widely uninhabited. At the southernmost Burmese part of the mainland, is Kawthaung (formerly Victoria Point), a small town situated. North of that there are few and small settlements. The land there is also not save, means not under full control of the Burmese government. It's insurgency territory.
On one of the island's main roads, seamed by coconut palms. In some parts of Asia, by the way, falling coconuts are the most frequent cause of death. Coconuts are big, heavy and hang high. When falling, they reach high speed. That's why it is no good idea to have a nap under a coconut tree. They also damage roofs, tin vehicles and other facilities. Image by Asienreisender, 2012
Also the Thai side south and north of Ranong inhabit few people. Ranong itself is a small provincial capital. Some sixty kilometers south of Ranong is the village of Kapoe. One can stay there cheap in a small Muslim homestay. It's family owned and a younger, very friendly and helpful lady is managing it. She speaks a good English. Shame on me - I forgot her name. From there it's a few kilometers to the seaside where Laem Son National Park stretches out. Some seventy kilometers west of the coastline are the Surin Islands who are part of another Marine National Park. So, a wide radius around Ko Chang is green and little inhabited.
As more surprising it is to see all the masses of plastic litter on the beaches here. Generally there is a lot of litter in the sea, and every day it's getting more and more. Plastic does not disappear. Might be it lasts (almost) eternal. Although it's getting broken under sunlight (uv-radiation), it's not disappearing but breaking in always smaller units and particles, until they are so small, that they are no more visible. But, they still are. And they get integrated into the food chains. Smallest animals eat them, bigger animals get them into their organism due to inhalating or drinking water. Smaller animals are eaten by bigger ones; in their bodies the plastic particles are accumulating. They are eaten by other, bigger animals and, last but not least, man eats anything. It's not proved yet that it's harmful, but I guess it's much better not to have it in the system.
A Rubber Plantation
Inside a rubber plantation. It's monocultures are notorious. Image by Asienreisender, 2012
Plastic as a mass product is in circulation since the 1960's. Since then there is much more than a billion tons of plastic of very different kinds produced worldwide. The vast majority of this stuff is not burned after getting rubbish, what is the only way to get rid of it (should be recycled, but it's not profitable; one-way packing shouldn't be, but that is profitable). Therefore it's around in the environment, much of it ends up in the sea. If one takes a handful of sand of any beach anywhere in the world today, a certain part of it is plastic. Tell that Asian's. They listen and say nothing. And then, again, they drop their litter wherever they go. Many Westerners don't do any better.
And that's unfortunately so as well on Ko Chang. Particularly at the places with building activities they throw everything nearby into the jungle or just let it lie around the site. Many empty concrete bags, old shelfes and boards, hunks of former walls, plastic bags and more litter of all kind...
Nobody cares for that. There is no waste disposal site on Ko Chang, and nobody would ever lift a finger and pack the crap together and bring it back to Ranong to depose it there. By the way: I would suppose, there is no proper solution for waste disposal in Ranong as well.
A Mangrove Coast at Low Tide
Most of Ko Chang's coastline is covered with mangrove forests. Here we see a mangrove forest at low tide. Image by Asienreisender, 2012
An Old Pier
The old pier at the east coast, long since abandoned. The image was taken in 2010 already. Right: one of the huge, magnificent figtrees. Images and photocomposition by Asienreisender, 2010, 2012, 2015
The Artificial Lake
There is an artificial lake in the northern part of the island. It's dammed by the dam right side and framed by new dirt roads. Certainly it will be further developed. Image by Asienreisender, 2012
The nature here is still relatively rich. The two mountains give the remaining animals a refuge in which, however, locals go for hunting. West of Ko Chang are much bigger islands, belonging to Burma.
A beetle with a stately rostrum. When god created all beings, he favoured beetles. They make the verymost species on earth. Image by Asienreisender, 2012
All the many islands around give animals some refuge of human hunting, although it is not really save. Nevertheless, there are many kites on Ko Chang, there are hornbills, crows, wild boars, macaques, monitor lizards, snakes of various kinds including cobras, lizards, turtles and frogs and of course a great number of different insects including the notorious mosquitoes, to name a few species only.
I met someone who saw a monitor lizard (varan) and mistakenly thought it was a crocodile. The times of wild crocodiles are practically over; a crocodile skin 'brings' several thousand dollars and that's far too much to let them survive in wildlife. Besides, there are a permanent threat for people who live in and from the nature. Further north, along the Burmese shores of the Andaman Sea, there might be still crocodiles live in the wild. But, certainly not for much longer when Burma/Myanmar starts to develop now as rapidly as it is to see everywhere around in Southeast Asia.
Thais love keeping many dogs. These dogs are big trouble makers. They don't only trouble people and cats, but also more wildlife very much. The Thais don't care for their bloody dogs, so they stray around and go into the forests and kill animals if they get them. They kill also occasionally livestock of neighbours.
Ants and Termites
These little animals appear almost everywhere in Southeast Asia: ants and sometimes termites. Appearing in masses, being non-stop diligent, they immediately detect any food trace one leaves. Also in the forests they appear almost everywhere on the ground and on the trees. Image by Asienreisender, 2010
The island is not too big, so that for a tourist everything is within walking distance. A good deal of different hikes is possible.
A Flooded Road
After a heavy shower or storm the ways are partially under water. When hiking in rainy season an umbrella is very recommendable. By the way: there are no bigger roads than this here. Image by Asienreisender, 2012
A longer hike leads to the south of the island, to Ao Said, passing Ao Lek. At the village's crossroads the way is paved for the first kilometer, then it becomes a path. It's leading through rubber plantations, over a small bridge, parallel to the beach of Ao Lek. One has to cross a stream, there is no bridge anymore. Shoe's off and passing through. Now, in rainy season, the path is partially deep under water. That means every time shoe's off and passing through. Better to come in sandals. The path get's smaller and smaller and at it's southern part it's almost not used. The very few people who stay at the southern beach, Ao Said, use rather their boats to leave their place. There are two or so resorts one can stay as well, but only in tourist season.
Among the (almost) impossible hikes is the one between Ao Tadaeng via Ao Kai Tao to Ao Siad. I have heard in the past it were possible to hike along the coast, but I think it's not. Or at least it's quite a challenge and not without danger. Being at 'Mama's Restaurant & Bungalows' there is a small entrance into the jungle. It's a very small path. I went there every time when I was on Ko Chang, but it was always almost impassable. Almost. I saw it in the best condition ever just now, in August 2012; part of the path was cleared, probably by the rangers. But, it's still so, that one has rather to crawl through the green, and that for an estimated longer part of the path. I checked that for a few meters, but I didn't enjoy it. That's because I am not Indiana Jones. There might be too many monsters in the dense green. Besides, according to my maps the path anyway ends up at a ranger station at a small bay south (Ao Kai Tao). My maps do not show a continuation of the way further up to Ao Siad.
View over the Tropical Island World
Here and there the hiker get's rewarded with great views over the tropical island world around Ko Chang. Image by Asienreisender, 2012
A Mangrove Bay
Close by the Moken village one get's a great view over one of the larger mangrove forests in a bay of Ko Chang. It is possible to make a hike through the forest from the other side and coming out at the village, but it's no easy trip through the swamp with all the large roots. It's anyway only possbile in the time of low tide, and one has to be out of the forest when the high tide flushes the terrain again. Image by Asienreisender, 2010
A Hiking Trail Into the Rubber Plantations
Much of the island is transformed into plantation monoculture, mostly rubber. The ground is mostly clear, so that one can walk through the plantations easily. Here and there lead paths through them. Image by Asienreisender, 2012
Another hike leads to the Moken village.
The Moken Village
In the Moken Hamlet
Glance on the 'main road' of the Moken village. Image by Asienreisender, 2012
This place is at the seaside, at the northernmost bay of the island, Ko Aow. Coming from Ao Yai it makes a nice walk along the coastline following a small jungle path. It's a some fourty minutes walk to the Moken village. The Moken are so called 'sea gypsies' who settled down here for any reason. I guess they are encouraged or even forced to do so. Their traditional lifestyle was sea-nomadic. Further south around Krabi there are many of them living - the sea-gypsies there converted a long time ago to Islam.
The Moken here on Ko Chang are Christians, converted by American missionaries. They have a small church in their village. It's the only public building, and the only building which is not a house for living in. I counted fourty houses, small, simple wooden buildings.
A Moken House
A Moken house at low tide. Image by Asienreisender, 2009
There is electricity and they have water supplies. Though, the place looks not good. It's very dirty all around; they belong to the kind of people who through their rubbish literally out of their windows. They are probably used to do that since ancient times, but since there is so much plastic packing it's no more disappearing. Besides, the place is smelling for organic waste as well, and a look into the water around the small pier there gives a bad impression concerning cleanliness as well. When people live nomadic, leaving organic waste behind might be a minor problem, if any, but when once settled it accumulates and attracts vermin.
The Moken (Morgan, Mawken) people look somewhat like south Indians. They belong to the Austronesian ethnic family and also speak an Austronesian language which is different of the languages spoken in Indochina. I guess they still make most of their living like in the old times by fishing, because there is a number of fishing boats near the pier. It's always interesting to have a look for the village.
The surrounding of the village is coined at the coastline by mangrove swamp; to the landside it's a steep slope, mostly overgrown by forest and jungle, so far the villagers didn't slash it to grow bananas and other fruits and vegetables.
Moken Fishing Boats
The hamlet from the seaside. Moken are traditionally seafarers. Image by Asienreisender, 2012
Excursion: The Moken of Burma and Thailand
The Moken are one of the last few remaining hunter-gatherer populations in Southeast Asia. In difference to most of the others (see: Hill Tribes in Southeast Asia), they live with and from the sea. Living along the coastlines of Burma and Thailand in the Andaman Sea since centuries, they gather shells, fish and other sources from the sea and the coastnear forests. Their livestyle is self-sufficient and nomadic.
The Moken population is small. There are estimated 3,000 Moken living in Burma, mostly in the Mergui Archipelago, and another 800 live in Thailand. Besides Ko Chang are Lao Island, Ply Island and the Surin Islands places in Thailand where Moken go. They live in this region since at least the 18th century.
The Moken have developed extraordinary skills in diving and hunting under water. Spending a great deal of their time on their wooden boats, called 'kabang', they can spend more time under water without diving equipment than a usual trained diver.
The most Moken are stateless; they have no identity cards and nationalities as the Thai People or Burmese have. In our times of advanced modernization, statelessness is a serious problem. It deprives people from access to medical care, education and other privileges which state subjects enjoy more or less. It makes them also more vulnerable to human rights abuses. With ongoing modernization and development, border controls and restrictions grow, what is a problem for people who live traditionally in areas who are now more and more cut into two parts by an artificial state border. Also conservation restrictions hit the Moken and their traditional and sustainable livestyle hard, while resourceful companies and individuals find always ways to 'circumnavigate' the laws. Non-nationals are also often object of discrimination, particularly when they are poor. Since the migratory way of living get's more and more difficult, the Moken are increasingly inclined to settle down anywhere on marginalized islands in Thailand and Burma.
As stateless people the Moken need a certain work permit from the authorities. Their wages and working conditions are below the usual standards, who are often bad enough. They don't enjoy other benefits as standard healthcare. Now they are sometimes recruited to do dynamite fishing for third parties. This exploitative kind of fishing is desastrous for the sealife and particularly dangerous for the divers. When getting injured, they can not expect any compensation.
Particularly Burma gives a bad example of human rights abuses. Moken are often victims of threats, arbitrary arrests and sometimes violent attacks of the Burmese navy, who take money, food and what else they want from them. In many cases Moken try to flee when they see Burmese patrol boats appearing. According to a Moken man the soldiers always shoot after them. Often the soldiers shoot immediately without warning. Occacionally they injure or kill people.
On the Thai side it does not look so much better. After the improved nationality law of 2008, Thailand grants stateless children to gain nationality under certain conditions. These conditions are, however, so buerocratic and difficult that the people who should benefit from it, usually can't match it. In 2010 Thai authorities made up another severe restriction. Travelling outside the district now requires a so called 'zero card', emitted by the Thai authorities. For any journey, holders of the zero card need explicitly the permission of the authorities. This is a heavy impact for nomadic people, who's livestyle depends on free moving. Also the communication between different Moken groups is thereby impaired.
When not being on sea, Moken usually return again and again seasonally to the same places. In their society and mindset land can not be owned by individuals; it's a communal resource. In a modern nation state, however, private property is a holy cow. When certain spots like on Phuket Island, where Moken live, become valuable for the tourist industries, the Moken have no legal rights to stay there any longer. Even if they wanted to buy the land and provided they would have the money for, they couldn't, because of the lack of Thai nationality again. So it comes that Thai business man gain legal rights on land where Moken live since decades and most of them have born there. Eviction happens in the name of legal land rights and good business.
The Island's 'Capital'
There are two 'villages' on the island. Both of them are so small that I would call them rather hamlets. Apart from the Moken village, the 'main village' consists only of a fistful of houses. It's situated in the middle of the island. There is one shop with three tables outside to have a rest and a drink. The shop sells only some fruits, vegetables, cans and basic household stuff and not much more of interest. It looks neglected and the family does not speak much to strangers, but I found them always honest. Frequently local people hang out there for exchanging the local gossip.
Right: On Sundays one sees here and there villagers meeting, following their great passion: gambling. Here some Burmese plantation workers exchange their small sallaries among each other. However, officially gambling is strictly forbidden in Thailand, and they are suspicious of curious foreigners who make photos of them while doing so. Image by Asienreisender, 2012
If you come here in rainy season, there might be still good, dry and sunny weather. Sunny, warm, calm. Perfect, but no tourists. It's just that you can't rely on it. It might be quite rainy and stormy as well - that's even very probable. And if you are a little bit unlucky, you get it somewhat heftier. Have you ever witnessed a taifun? Well, you can get it here. Be warned in time before it happens. Be prepared and stay in a solid, stone bungalow when it comes. The light, wooden shacks are shaken through heavily. You are happy if the electricity is still working in the evening and you are at least not sitting in the dark. It's quite moving. Noisy. Rain is shattering on the building. Outside everything what's not nailed down firmly is disappearing in the speed of light. The doormates, the broom, your clothes who might still hang on the clothesline, the dustbin... Branches, leaves, sand, it's all whirling up into the air. Better not to walk around then if you don't want to get smashed by anything. If the bungalow is close to the beach, the water might come up to it at high tide.
Rainy, rainy Days...
Day after day of rain fills the lowerings of the forest with water. Image by Asienreisender, 2012
The western coast is the weather side of the island in southwest monsoon season. The fiercest winds and storms are coming from the west, what's the open sea side. Almost all of the resorts are on the western side of the island. The east side is the side facing to Thailand's mainland, and it's generally much calmer there.
Even when it doesn't come that severe, rainy weather can last for long here on Ko Chang. I have heared of a 41 days non-stop rain, not to speak about the 'normal' storms coming with it. That might be a little bit depressing sometimes. You can not move much around. The laundry doesn't dry anymore, all the clothes get dump. Is the ferry to Ranong still operating? What about electricity? The telephone connections might be interrupted. When not being prepared, food might run short.
The Next Storm Front...
A storm front is approaching Ko Chang's western bay Ao Tadaeng, bringing heavy rain. Image by Asienreisender, 2012
The Army Camp
It's said that Ko Chang once was a Burmese island. I don't know if that is correct or not, but the neighbouring islands west of it are Burmese. And there is Burmese military stationed on them. In former times they made sometimes trouble, I heared. There is a small Thai army base on Ko Chang as well. I guess that both sides keep pretty much an eye on one another.
A battleship at the horizon. Thailand is a highly militarized country. Image by Asienreisender, 2012
Near the army camp is a small telecommunication tower. That's the most reliable and maybe (over times) only source for an internet connection. Some places on Ko Chang hang out signs claiming to provide internet access, but when I asked for it, they denied. It's never working.
I bought an air card for an USB modem in Ranong, but it didn't work well here on Ko Chang. So, once I went to the army camp and ask them to use their wifi. After the guard, a very young man with a big gun, called an officer who had a look on me, it was granted. I can imagine the army being that helpful and generous only in Thailand. Everywhere else they are more restrictive. One is nowadays generally suspected everywhere in the world being a spy or a terrorist.
The connection was very good - the military is always well equipped. And they don't even use a password...
A Thai Navy Carrier
Supplies for the army camp are brought by a carrier. Image by Asienreisender, 2012
Long Beach Resort
Storm and rain, rain and storm, day for day for day, over weeks. The weatherforecast claimed improvement and even sun, but the weather didn't care for the forecast. A glance out of the restaurant (still under construction) on two of the bungalows of 'Long Beach Resort'. Image by Asienreissender, 2012
In the main season there is a huge choice of accommodation on the island. In the long rainy season there are very few resorts open. Most of the resorts owners don't live on Ko Chang, respectively they live here only seasonally. One of the few places which are open all over the year is 'Golden Bee' at Ao Yai (Long Beach). It seems to be the favourite here and most of the outseason guests, including some who stay here for a bit longer (some weeks) go there. Since Oi, the owner (or manager) of the place gave me three times an obscure impression, I personally see Golden Bee with distance. When I passed by there the other day, I saw some overweight Westerners in swimming trunks hanging out there. Since they didn't give me a good impression either it's a second reason to avoid the place.
A much better choice to go in my eyes is 'Long Beach Resort' at the very northern end of Ao Yai, the same beach. It's family owned, the family lives here since twenty-one years and they are honest and genuinely friendly. And they have always nice cats, but that's another story. They have good, solid bungalows, it's normally quiet (less visitors than in Golden Bee) and they just build a new, bigger restaurant than the small one they had before. I am pretty sure it will be nice when ready in November. Not to forget: they speak good English as well.
There are a few Westerners who live permanently on Ko Chang. Most of them seem to be Austrians. More come in the dry season to make business. Some offer also accommodation, food and drinks.
Talking about quietness - well, the times of quietness, as I know them from the very past, before anybody had funny devices to make noises with, are defenitely over. Whereever I go, there is almost for sure a building site. If there is not a building site exactly at the place where I stay, it's at least next door. The people here build and build and build... and that's because what they build is always cheap crap and it doesn't last long, so soon after it has to be repaired, renovated, improved, enlarged. That's so here in Long Beach Resort as everywhere - they just build a new restaurant.
Do you know how nice it is when sitting at a table, enjoying some food or reading a book and the unavoidable happens: somebody behind is banging a nail into a board: Bam, bam, bam, Bam BAm BAM, BAM BAM BAMBAMBAMBAMBAM BAMBAMBAMBAMBAM BAMBAMBAMBAMBAM BAMBAMBAMBAM BAMBAMBAMBAMBAM. And more of it. And still more.
The next part of the concert sounds like that: a worker is starting one of the notorious machines they all have now and love to use so much for cutting wood or, uglier, metal: IIIAAAAOOOUUUUWWWWWWEEEIIIAAAAAOOOO UUUUWWWWWWIIIIIIIAAAAAAANNG. IIIIIIIAAAAAAAAOOOOO UUUUUUUUUNNG AAAUUUUNNNGG IIIIAAAAOOOOOUUUUUWWWW IIIIIAAAAAOOOOOUUUUUWWWW AAAUUUUNNGGH EEEEAAAOOONG. And so on, and so on, and so on. And if they didn't die, they will be still notoriously noisy.
Though, not to be unfair, I have to add that the family here and even the workers seem to be aware of the noise pollution, they do care and try to avoid the worst. They are really kind and helpful and make me the stay here as pleasant as possible.
Map of the Surroundings of Ranong and Ko Chang
Map of Ranong and it's surrounding. Image by Asienreisender, 2012