Koh Chang – it’s been a while.
We were last on the big elephant-shaped island a thousand years ago in 2019, but a recent visit to the dreamy next door neighbour island of Koh Kood rekindled our appreciation for this eastern corner of Thailand.
That trip to Koh Chang back in 2019 was mad – we met our travelling companions on Sunday and were off to Lonely Beach with them by Friday; one of those quirks of living abroad where friendships are wildly accelerated. My liver is still recovering from that trip.
The great thing about Koh Chang, though, is that there’s something for everyone. You want backpacker fun and boozy adventures, there’s a beach for that. You want kids clubs and water parks, there’s a beach for that.
This time around, with family visiting, we wanted some relaxation and serenity – and on Koh Chang there’s a beach for that – Kai Bae.
Getting to Koh Chang in 2022
Before we talk about Kai Bae beach, let’s take a look at getting to Koh Chang from Bangkok
The usual driving option from Bangkok is still a good one – expect about 4000 baht for a taxi each way based on prices we saw.
It’s a long old drive – about 5 hours – but it’s a good economical private option. For the cheapest route, the trusty bus is your friend and the excellent Iamkohchang site has good info on current options.
We flew, because it’s quick and it’s one of the most fun journeys in the country. The little turboprop plane bounces along at about 15,000 feet and you get a lovely view of the transition from pan flat, arid Bangkok surroundings into the mountainous greenery of Trat province.
Trat airport is also up there with Thailand’s best cute airports. At time of writing there’s just one flight per day leaving Bangkok Suvarnabhumi at 11.40am and taking just shy of an hour.
From the airport, you can hop into a songthaew to the pier for Koh Chang, or take a shared minivan which will take you all the way to your hotel for 550 baht per person. You’ll need to pre-book via your hotel or via Krungthep Limousine.
The songthaew will drop you either side of the ferry so if you have luggage there will be some lugging to do.
Koh Chang’s car ferry is an institution in itself – you’ll see full on car Tetris performed by the loaders, people (hopefully not drivers but let’s be honest…) cracking beers from the back of pickup trucks, and most of all the mountainous silhouette of Koh Chang rearing up ahead over azure waters.
We took the minivan, piloted by the classic Thai driver – smiling and softly spoken while driving like a total maniac through the vertiginous Koh Chang hills.
It’s worth noting that we weren’t asked for any vaccination proof until we got to our hotel, although vaccination or an ATK test is an entry requirement of Trat province at time of writing. Do remember to bring the appropriate documents.
Kai Bae Beach, Koh Chang
Soon enough – perhaps too soon – we screeched into our hotel and base for a few days at Kai Bae beach, the luxurious Gajapuri Resort.
Gajapuri is an upscale resort consisting mainly of cute bungalows set among wooden walkways and ponds running down to the sea.
The staff are excellent; welcoming, helpful and quick to resolve any issues. The bungalows are lovely, all dark wood and comfy beds, and we were lucky to get ones closest to the beachfront.
As with all Thai beach resorts, a dog will make itself known to you within five minutes of arrival and wait patiently for you to feed it until you leave the island. We called this one Pumpkin. We didn’t name the mynah birds because they’re hateful creatures.
The beach at Kai Bae, certainly this part, is nice if quite rocky going out into the shallow sea. A five minute stroll up the beach takes you to a stretch without rocks that’d be best for swimming. If not, Gajapuri has an excellent swimming pool plus a dedicated kids pool.
The beach at Kai Bae is an interesting illustration of Koh Chang and Thai tourism in general over the past couple of years.
Whilst some places like Gajapuri have clung on and seem to be picking up again – The Chill hotel next door looked brand new in fact – further along are the dilapidated remains of other resorts that haven’t fared well. This being Thailand, they could have been abandoned for ten years, but there are certainly a good number of overgrown properties on the beach front.
The same is true in the main strip of Kai Bae – compared to our last visit in 2019 there are unsurprisingly a lot of shuttered shops and businesses. Fortunately there are still a lot of excellent options here with some notable new places.
Mordi e Fuggi served up some truly delicious Italian food, heavy on the cheese and with good value wine. The burrata salad was a real standout here, so much so that I’m going to put a picture of it in a round frame.
Wine Gallery had a nice selection of tapas that looked quite pricey but turned out to be huge portions.
Fig Cafe, just off the main strip and set in a beautiful garden, was a great spot for a coffee and cake with a charming host.
A surprising highlight was the Thai restaurant Khao Kwan. Not your average beach resort Thai restaurant, this is Thai food made fancy and utterly delicious. The owner comes and explains all the dishes – she used to run a renowned cooking school on the island before choosing to set up a restaurant mid-pandemic – fair play.
Khao Kwan is turning out picture-perfect, flower-laden dishes which taste great – I loved the scallops, crab curry and the miang kham cups. Prices are also exceptional for this kind of food, we ate and drank heartily for around 400 baht per head.
Standard Thai food is harder to come by on Kai Bae itself, but an advantage of Koh Chang is the many songthaews that will ferry you around for 50 baht per person – your hotel can order one or you can flag one down. It’s definitely worth heading the short five minute drive up to the next beach to check out Kati Culinary for delicious Thai food, especially the curries.
Before stuffing your face, be sure to stick around on Kai Bae beach for the otherworldly sunsets, which I think are the best I’ve seen.
The small beach bar to the right of Gajapuri is a simple, relaxed place to enjoy with a good value cocktail and an eclectic clientele – I overheard one guy apologising to somebody for taking too many mushrooms the previous evening, god knows what he had done.
Activities on Koh Chang
No generic Thai island trip would be complete without both a cooking class and a snorkel trip, and luckily Koh Chang has good options for both, even now.
For snorkeling, our group trip on a wooden boat with Mr Khai tours was a surprise hit. A snip at 800 baht for a full day including transfers, 5 snorkel spots and food. The boat departs from the long floating village at Bang Bao bay which is fun in itself, and the old boat was a gentle creature pootling around the seas.
The sea life in this part of Thailand is extremely rich, the water is clear and there was a lot to see beneath the waves. The rest of our group consisted of Thai holidaymakers, a frightening amount of whom couldn’t actually swim but we’re totally content to be dragged around in lifejackets on the end of a rope.
They all survived, thankfully, and they were all very friendly and insisted that we have a fourth bowl of tom yum at lunchtime (it was tasty in fairness).
It was a lovely day out for very little money.
Another high point was our cooking class at Napalai Cooking School.
Run by an irrepressibly cheerful lady called Bunny who has opened up the front of her house as a cooking class, we had a lovely time making Thai food from scratch over about four hours. We arranged it at very short notice via WhatsApp – message via the page here.
Bunny is very knowledgeable, speaks fantastic English and it feels like going to cook at your friend’s house – her husband and their two lovely kids were pottering about and helping out. I say helping, their little girl is about three so she mainly sat quietly, practised her English with us and occasionally fell off things, but it was cute.
A lot of the herbs we used came straight from the garden, and we had to go and forage for some of them, leading to me taking far too much holy basil. That poor plant may never recover, sorry Bunny.
Their son of about eight was dispatched off to the local shop for supplies a couple of times, once because he himself had eaten all the plum sauce.
The dishes were delicious and plentiful, we cooked our way from scratch through pad gaprao, pad thai, various spring rolls, som tam and laab, green, red and panang curries and of course mango sticky rice. All this before lunchtime left us in need of a serious afternoon nap.
The whole day only cost 1200 baht each – a steal really.
It’s not a great time to be a cooking school on Koh Chang – while the island is fairly popular, many of the visitors are Thai and Thai cooking classes aren’t super high in their priorities, understandably. We were the first group at Napalai in a month, and none of the other schools were running at all. So if you are on Koh Chang, do give Bunny a shout and cook some amazing food at Napalai!
We were on Koh Chang for five days this time round, and I was surprised at how different the experience was vs last time – we were one beach along but it was a completely different vibe. Same island, different world. And because it’s easy to get around, you can change that experience as you want.
I think that’s the beauty of Koh Chang – it genuinely does have something for everyone and has a whole host going for it, even after the pummeling it’s had through the pandemic. It’s also easy to get to and not wildly busy, unlike say Phuket which has suddenly become heaving with tourists again.
Whatever your preferences on beaches, scenery, activities and atmosphere, you’ll probably find it on Koh Chang, and for a touch of luxury, Kai Bae is a great choice.