It’s not just a name – there actually are elephants on Elephant Island. Koh (also written “Ko”) means “island” and Chang means “elephant”. Despite it’s namesake, we think you should bring the family to Koh Chang (เกาะช้าง in Thai) for the beaches and not pachyderms.
Let’s address the elephant in the room. There are several elephant operators on Koh Chang. In Kai Bae Village (more on that below), there is one of these camps and it’s a sad little place. From there, the baby elephants were marched down the road to the beach where mahouts (elephant handlers) would begin negotiating with tourists. With money exchanged, the tourist hops on the elephant and heads into the ocean for an Instagram sesh and at some point the mahout gives the signal and the elephant bends a knee, launching the rider into the waves. The tourist’s friends and family laugh and one inevitably declares they caught the whole thing on camera. Everyone heads back to shore and the mahout finds another tourist to rinse and repeat. Don’t be that tourist. Your tourist spending can create positive change and sinking a few bucks into pics for the gram isn’t worth perpetuating this kind of life for these beautiful creatures.
If you want an elephant experience, then drink a large Chang Beer whilst on Elephant Island. That’ll be all the elephant you need.
Moving right along – Koh Chang has earned it’s glowing reputation. With easy access, good infrastructure, a variety of eateries and accommodation, and crucially, lovely beaches – this island is set to welcome you and your family.
HOW TO GET THERE
There is no airstrip on Koh Chang, but there is an airport in Trat on the mainland. If you choose to fly, your choice of airline is made for you as the airport is owned by Bangkok Airways – the high-end option of Thailand’s low-cost airlines. The airport is about 15 minutes by car from the pier.
By Bus and Minibus
From Ekkamai, Bangkok’s eastern bus terminal which is located on the BTS line, you can hop on a minibus or bus. From Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK) you can also snag a seat on a minivan or coach bus. Be sure to ask questions before buying your ticket. Some coach buses will go directly to the pier while others go to the bus terminal in Trat and leave you to find your own ride to the pier. Most of the minibuses go to the pier and some may even do the sailing to Koh Chang. Ask around before you buy.
The drive from Bangkok to the Koh Chang pier is mostly done on modern motorways with clear signage in Thai and English. Armed with your maps app (or GPS for those so inclined), this is not a challenging drive. The drive time is around 5 hours if the Thai roadway gods are for you.
Decisions time – how do you decide plane, bus, or self-drive?
The drive time from Bangkok to the piers can be anywhere from 5 to 8 hours depending on when you leave and traffic. This is true for cars and minibuses (and often buses as well). When looking at timing, be sure to look at when your transit departs. Though true that the flight is only 50 minutes, if you’re trying to get to Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK) from central or western Bangkok during rush hour, once you factor in drive and airport wait times, you may not be saving yourself that much time.
The two ferry operators are Koh Chang Ferry and Centerpoint. Their piers are about 5 kilometers apart in Laem Ngop. Ao Thammachat (Nature Bay). is home to Koh Chang Ferry’s pier and is closest to the motorway from Bangkok. Koh Chang Ferry has a more robust sailing schedule, a shorter sail time, and a better reputation. They’re the only one we’ve sailed with. Be mindful of the pier you are headed to as Krom Luang Pier is in this area too but sails to the gorgeous island of Koh Mak.
Koh Chang Ferry sails to Ao Sapporot (Pineapple Bay) on the island while Centerpoint sails further south to Dan Khao. With either ferry company, you are most likely going to have a smooth ride as the waters between Koh Chang and the mainland are sheltered. The two companies seem to price match, so at the end of the day, the choice is yours.
Sailings are so frequent and reliable that you don’t need to buy a round trip ticket. Leave yourself the flexibility to head back when and where you want.
The Koh Chang Ferry had a small shop on board where you can buy snacks and basic food. It’s munchies for the sail and not grocery shopping for the island.
Songtaews, covered pick-up trucks with 2 benches in the back, are the go-to option for transport around the island. Think of them as taxis with a breeze. On larger corners of bigger settlements, you can find some waiting around. If not, speak to your accommodation about hailing a ride.
Scooter rentals are horrifyingly common on Koh Chang. Put aside your wishful thinking and instead reach for your realism. The roads on Koh Chang are well paved (playing on many a travellers’ bravado) but they are steep, winding, and full of switch-backs. At one point, we saw our 6 year old son following a small scooter posse of ladies with his eyes. Unsure as to what he found so captivating, he turned to us and expressed concern for their safety as they drove their scooters in a, “shaky twisty way”.
If you’re driving a car, stick to your side of the road and be confident you know it is clear to go. Local drivers will corner in ways that gift visitors with stories to tell their friends. The scenery is stunning, but be sure to keep your eyes on the road (especially when you come around a corner and are greeted by a scenic vista). If a corner is so blind you cannot see around it, a light tap of the horn to warn others of your approach is wise.
WHEN TO GO
High season, when the tourists are as bountiful as the grains of sand on the beach, spans from November to March. It’s also the driest time of year ensuring you’ll be able to make all of your outsides extra crispy in the sun. Once you start pushing from March into April, you’re in Thailand’s hottest time and you may even cook your insides. Come May through to October, Koh Chang puts on her rain poncho with September being the wettest of all. These storms don’t ruin your day, but it may be grey skies and at least one major daily downpour. Also, Koh Chang is close enough to the mainland to be hazed over by the smoke and smog which is trapped by low pressure in the cool season. January can be hard on the lungs of sensitive group
WHERE TO STAY
Koh Chang’s beaches have boatloads (beach pun – yeah, we made it) to offer, but when it comes to family travel, nothing compares with Kai Bae, baby!
With great sandcastle-building sand and clear water, this beach is lined with a variety of accommodation. Most of it is locally owned and options range from bungalow to a few 4-star digs. The beach has been develping it’s tourist offerings since the 1980’s and some places look like that era still while most continue to evolve and upgrade.
Kai Bae Village has row shops. minimarts, and an eclectic mix of eateries (more on that below). If you’re looking to beach during the day, dine out in the evenings, and book an excursion or two, then this is your spot.
We like the Kai Bae Beach Resort for it’s value, location, and the water-slide. Their website is lack luster, but don’t be put-off. We rented an “Air-Con Sea View Hotel Floor 1” room for the grandparents and an “Air-Con Garden View Bungalow” for our tribe. The hotel room was well appointed, had a small yard / garden off the deck, and the birds nest swing was made better by the ocean view. The bungalow really is garden view as the bungalows are in rows. If you’re hoping for a sea breeze then be sure to book a beachfront option.
The breakfast buffet was generous and the staff were helpful and pleasant. The pathways between buildings are well paved and it made life with a pram (stroller) a very smooth ride. The hotel was updated a few years ago and the multi-level hotel block was added. The beachfront restaurant and pool area were part of this update too. Our kids loved the water slide, but the pool sits behind the restaurant and does not have an ocean view.
Kai Bae Beach Resorts sits right in the middle of Kai Bae Beach and the shops and restaurants are about a 5 minute stroll from the hotel. There are many walkable options that you can explore from here. The hotel stretches out onto the beach so you can saunter from your room to the sand in no time at all. With shady palms and white sand, you’ll saunter often.
One note about children and safety, the road to the hotels further south from Kai Bae Beach Resort goes through the hotel property. There is not much through traffic and it is slowed by a roundabout, but do be mindful of your little ones.
WHERE TO EAT
Kai Bae Village has so many food options that are great for families. You can eat out as adults and not feel like you’re lost in a sugar-coated children’s wonderland or play place that serves fries. If you’re not sure where to eat or what to eat, then simply stroll the main road through the village and let your eyes do the leading. Most places have menus posted outside. Before making a selection, look for a crowd – where there are people, there is good food!
The Thai food offerings are endless and you should eat as much as you can. If you’re feeling overly Thai-erd of local eats, then there are international options too.
We adore Mexican food and don’t understand why this cuisine is not beloved by all. El Barrio is one of the best places to eat on Koh Chang (and maybe some of the finest Mexican food we’ve had in Thailand). If, for some strange reason, you’re not a fan of Mexican dishes, then come for the cocktails. THEY. ARE. GREAT.
Papa’s Greek Diner was a hit with our kids and us too. Some of it was the wall art, but most of it was the food. Order souvlaki and transport yourself from an island in Thailand to an island in Greece.
Above the shops and hotels of Kai Bae Village, there is a viewpoint which provides a sweeping view of the island and sea. There are signs along the road to guide you to the Kai Bae Viewpoint. It’s walkable, but it is an uphill journey. If for some reason you cannot make it there, you can find that vista on postcards.
Besides the Kai Bae Viewpoint, there are other views worth exploring on Koh Chang. Head to the southern tip and explore the Naval Shrine commemorating sailors who died in WWII. You’ll have to park / be dropped-off at a small bungalow hotel at the end of the road. It’s a short walk from there. Our kids enjoyed the mini-trek and scrambling on the rocks.
Admittedly, Kai Bae is not the most stunning beach on Koh Chang. The proverbial grass may not be greener elsewhere, but the northern beaches do have whiter sands. Take an on-island day trip and check out White Sand Beach or Klong Prao Beach.