Guest blogger John Borthwick finds a tiny island surprisingly close to Bangkok.
Like all good islands little Ko Si Chang has a story. Being only 120 km from Bangkok, it was a favoured hangout for Siam’s aristocracy in the late 19th century. Kings Rama IV, V and VI used it as a weekender, often for pretty long weekends. By the way, Ko Si Chang (aka Ko Sichang) is not to be confused with Ko Chang, the much larger resort island further south in the Gulf of Thailand.
The royals built palaces and gardens, with Rama V — King Chulalongkorn — being the most prolific constructor. And today you can wander the beautifully restored terraced parklands, ponds and gardens that he created around his (now-demolished) Chudhadhuj Rajthan palace.
During the 1890’s the neighbourhood’s French colonials were in an expansive mood. Adding a few more Gulf islands to their Indochine collection, which already included Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, appealed. They only briefly occupied Ko Si Chang, but thereafter the Siamese court largely curtailed their sojourns.
The local mutation of Thailand’s famous, three-wheeled tuk-tuk is known here as a “Skylab”, suggesting a pile of motorised space junk — which they’re not. They trundle along Si Chang’s narrow concrete paths with no worries about cars or trucks because there are none, just Skylabs and motorcycles. My pilot drops me at Chudhadhuj Rajthan amid the pavilions and walkways where kings once strolled and Thai romantics still do. Nearby, facing the sea is Mai Rim Talay (“Wooden House by the Sea”), a photogenic green and white pocket palace that was probably a royal guesthouse.
“This used to be a fishing island,” says my driver. “But the Gulf has been fished too much.” Like many among Si Chang’s 5000 residents he now looks to tourism for his income. There are numerous home stays cross the 25 sq km island. I’m staying somewhere called — yes — Somewhere, Si Chang’s newest and most stylish little hotel. With louvres and tiles in blue, and white marine architecture, it has just 20 rooms, pool, restaurant and the best Skylab on the island, a customized goer that you’d never call space junk.
Surprisingly, given the island’s proximity to Bangkok, there is no escarpment of glitzy beachfront resorts. Si Chang has been “saved” from becoming a tropical tourist 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.
I hire a motorbike and continue exploratory orbits of the craggy island. The sea is everywhere. Monitor lizards and free-range pigs wander the road. 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. From here one can see survey a grand panorama of islands and a flotilla of cargo ships adrift between here and the mainland, 12km away.
So, what’s there to do on Koh Si Chang? Rattle around in a Skylab or motorbike. (Everyone leaves their keys in the ignition — with nowhere to run, there are no bike thieves.) Dine or have coffee in town or a sunset beer at the Chong Khao Khad viewpoint. Chat with the locals (there are few foreigners). In short, there are no big deal, gotta-do-see-buy imperatives on snoozy Koh Si Chang, a living, working Thai island.
Weekend escapees from Bangkok briefly swell the island population but, come Monday, this fragrant island is yours again. Tamarind trees instead of bling bars, one 7-11, one bank and a fleet of Skylabs. What less could one want?
Information: Get to Koh Si Chang by ferry from Sriracha, Chonburi, 100km southeast of Bangkok. The ferry takes around 45 minutes, costs 50 baht and runs hourly. See www.kohsichang.netWords and photographs © John Borthwick 2020