Travel Story A taste of the royal life on Thailand's Koh Si Chang

Like all good islands, sleepy Koh Si Chang has a story. 

I’m orbiting Koh Si Chang in a Skylab. Thailand’s famous tuktuk has mutated on this island not far from Bangkok into an odd beast. Its new-found name fits, with my ride bearing a fair resemblance to a recycled 1970s NASA space station.

A typical Si Chang-style Skylab is a stretch three-wheeler that sports the front end of a motorcycle and the heart and lungs of an old Toyota. It goes like the clappers, although there’s never any need to rush here. Koh Si Chang (aka Sichang), incidentally, is not to be confused with Koh Chang, the larger resort island also in the Gulf of Thailand but farther south.

Like all good islands, Si Chang has a story. Being only about 120km from Bangkok, it was a favoured hangout for the country’s royals in the late 19th century. Thailand then was known as Siam and its kings, Rama IV, V and VI, plus others, used the island as a weekender. It was their Si Chang sea-change, so to speak.

They built palaces and gardens with King Rama V — Chulalongkorn of “The King and I” fame — being the most prolific constructor. To borrow from Coleridge’s poem Xanaduyou might muse that, “In old Si Chang did Rama V a stately pleasure dome decree ...” And today you can still wander the terraced parks, ponds and gardens that he created around his Prah Chudadhuj Palace. In recent years the government has beautifully restored the area.

During the 1890s the neighbouring French colonials were in an acquisitive mood. Adding a few more islands to their Indochine collection, which already included Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, appealed. They only briefly occupied Koh Si Chang, but thereafter the Siamese court largely curtailed their sojourns. 

The ever-practical Rama V, however, wasn’t about to abandon his fine summer palace, the world’s largest golden teak wood mansion, to a bunch of farang riff-raff. He had the beautiful 72-room structure dismantled and reassembled in Bangkok, where today you can visit it as the fascinating Vimanmek Mansion museum.

We trundle along the island’s narrow concrete roads with no worries about private cars or trucks. There are none on Koh Si Chang, just Skylabs and motorcycles. My pilot, Wan drops me at the Xanadu of pavilions, glades and walkways where Siam’s kings once strolled and Thai romantics still do, posing where they may, especially on the Asdang Bridge that thrusts into the Gulf.

Nearby is Mai Rim Talay (“Wooden House by the Sea”), a photogenic green and white mansion that was probably a royal guesthouse. Back then, the occupants of this pocket palace would have gazed out across an almost empty bay towards the mainland. Fast-forward to today and I’m looking instead at a marine parking lot, a flotilla of bulk carriers, container ships, lighters, scows and barges. Tranquil Koh Si Chang sits in the middle of Thailand’s busiest shipping channel, just off Sriracha town and Laem Chabang port.

“This used to be a fishing island,” says Wan. “In fact I’m still a fisherman but the Gulf has been fished too much. Not enough left.” Like others among Si Chang’s 5000 residents he looks to other sources of income, including tourism.

Across the 25sqkm island I see numerous home stays popping-up, as well the one long-established, multi-storey hotel. I’m staying at Somewhere, Si Chang’s newest and, I’ll guess, most stylish little hotel. Plenty of louvres and tiles in blue and white evoke Caribbean marine architecture. It has just 20 rooms, a pool, the neat Verandah restaurant and the best Skylab on the island, a slick customised goer that you’d never mistake for space junk.

Surprisingly, given the island’s proximity to Bangkok (only 90 minutes away), there is no escarpment of glitzy beachfront resorts. Si Chang was “saved” from becoming a too-popular tropical purgatory by its lack of good beaches. 

Its lone decent stretch of sand, and by Thai standards not a particularly flash one, is the narrow west coast strand of Tham Pang. It is about 200m long and well served by a slew of beachfront eateries but during rainy season flotsam from the mainland rivers washes onto it. The rest of the year, however, its sands are clean. 

I hire a light motorbike and continue orbiting the craggy island. The sea is everywhere. Monitor lizards and pigs wander the road, unhurried. There’s a constant fall of ‘leelawadee’frangipani flowers. The streets are rubbish-free and the homes brightly painted.

I head up to the white “Buddha Footprint” temple perched on a ridge overlooking the sea. Long before estate agents ever did, and like holy men the world over, the island monks honoured the mantra, “location, location, location” when seeking a temple site. I scan from their ordained perch across a panorama of islands and bathtub toy ships towards the Thai mainland 12km away. Further south, the gleaming resort towers of Pattaya and Jomtien bristle on the horizon.

So, what’s there to do on Koh Si Chang? Rattle around in a Skylab. Cruise on a motorbike. (Everyone leaves their keys in the ignition — with nowhere to run, there are no bike thieves.) Check out a Buddhist temple or two — Chinese-style or Thai. Dine or have coffee in town or a sunset beer at the Chong Khao Khad viewpoint. Chat with the locals (there are very few foreigners). In short, there are no big deal, gotta-do-see-buy imperatives on snoozy Si Chang, a living, working Thai island. And that’s the real attraction. 

On weekends escapees from Bangkok arrive on the ferry and briefly swell the island population, with accommodation costs rising a little. But come Monday, this fragrant island is yours again. Tamarind trees instead of bling bars, old teak coffee shops, one 7-11, one bank and a fleet of Skylabs. What less could one want?

Laem Mae Phim, The Gulf’s Best Secret Shore

Unsung Laem Mae Phim sits on the same Gulf of Thailand mainland coast as Koh Si Chang but much farther south, in Rayong province. With a shoreline of empty beaches, shade trees and food stalls, the Mae Phim peninsula is popular with weekend visitors from Bangkok (a four-hour drive away) but largely off the radar for foreigners. There are good offshore island dive sites and a small selection of mid-range and up-market resorts.

One stand-out spot in Laem Mae Phim is a kilometre-long beach adjacent to Ao Khai (“Egg Bay”) fishing village. It offers, in the wistful words of Professor Henry Higgins, “an atmosphere as restful as an undiscovered tomb” — although a whole lot sunnier. The four-star Centara Q Rayong resort and its cheekily named Quicksand restaurant look out onto this balmy bay where two fishing boats, a kayak and one brown dog might constitute a crowd.

When you’ve done with siestas, beach strolls and the Booker Prize finalists, Mae Phim allows a couple of good excursions. In nearby Klaeng town there’s a memorial to hometown hero and Thailand’s Shakespeare, the prolific 19 century poet Sunthon Phu. His epic poem, Phra Aphai Mani follows the romantic adventures of a Byronic hero across ancient Siam, including to Samet Island just north of here.

Also in Klaeng, pay a visit to the unique KruKung Museum, a superbly curated, private collection of mid-20th century Thai daily artefacts. The museum’s faithful, period recreations of, for instance, a whole grocery shop, a 1960’s hair salon, school room, village cinema or complete rural cafe, all hitherto “unremarkable” environments, are now remarkable indeed.

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