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Koh Chang, Thailand


Exploring Elephant Island


Story by Eric Madeen



DAY 1


In the distance stood a cluster of smokestacks. In their uneven heights and threads of smoke sent up, they resembled birthday candles — on the cake of a giant. Bound for the mountainous island of Koh Chang near the Cambodian border in Eastern Thailand, I was half an hour out of Bangkok, in an outer ring of economic zones, where factories and warehouses gave way to wider swatches of greenery. Palm trees, fish farms, and swamps preceded a fanning out of rice terraces. Farther down the road an ox lifted its great horned head to watch us pass, the image of a bus no sooner gone from its consciousness.


Closer to the town of Trat, where I'd jump a boat over to the island, I felt a rush of anticipatory pleasure, watching the terrain turn lush and mountainous, the rounded peaks pushing up a ceiling of cumulus. Indeed, I had much to look forward to. Koh is Thai for "island" and chang means "elephant," symbolizing the massiveness of Thailand's second largest island after Phuket, but, unlike Phuket, Koh Chang has only recently opened up to tourism development, which is limited to coastal areas due to forest protection and mountainous terrain. After the airport in Trat opens this year, five hours, or the bus trip from Bangkok, will be hacked off the trip, leaving the pleasurable 30-minute boat ride to the island intact.


Once there, there's much to do, including the obvious — diving or snorkeling over coral reefs, sunbathing on superb beaches, exploring the islands by kayak, bicycle and motorbike, elephant trekking in the jungle, visiting any of the island's numerous waterfalls, getting Thai traditional massages, eating incredible seafood in a fishing village built on stilts, island hopping, raving, chatting with backpackers from all over the world, or simply relaxing in a hammock and reading novels. If you're like me, though — adventurous, reasonably fit, agile and into eco-tourism — you'll want to hike across the island (more later) or at least part of it.


A rain forest occupies some 80 percent of the terrain and is said to be one of the best preserved in all of Southeast Asia, boasting a wealth of exotic flora and fauna, including stump-tailed macaque, small Indian civet, Javan mongoose, monitor lizard, barking deer and wild pig. "The rich fauna and flora of Koh Chang are the reason the Thai government protected this island and others surrounding it, creating a national park in 1982," said Steve Johnson of the International Tropical Timber Organization. "The park is home to over 100 different tree species, from mangroves to tropical evergreen forests."


"Roughing It"


The sun setting, we chugged over to the northern tip of Koh Chang on a fishing boat fitted out with benches, the pier behind us shrinking as before us the island rose majestic, half of her mountains veiled in cloud. What with all the hills, the taxi ride to the beaches along the western shore had the thrill of a roller coaster.


Just after passing White Sands Beach, sheets of rain slapped the jeepney's canvas roof and whipped in under the flaps. At bungalows along the way backpackers were left off to run out into the rain and darkness. Near the end of the line on Lonely Beach I ran through the downpour, slipped through the rain flaps into the restaurant pavilion of Sunset Huts. Soaking wet, I stood there in a rage, looking around at everyone looking at me. Oil lamps, burning on rough-cut coffee tables, illuminated a varied cast of characters, including a pirate, sprawled out propped up on elbows on lopsided cushions (the kind that help keep the islands many masseuses in business — either that or wait to have your spine realigned by your chiropractor back home). Grin. Welcome to Backpacker City on the Asian Trail, where "roughing it" is grand adventure.


In contrast to Koh Samui and Phuket, Lonely Beach is still fresh, in the process of being discovered by the advance agents of global tourism. Generally cross-cultural and eco-sensitive good backpacking — of the adventure variety — is about getting there first, something I failed to do in this high season, and making fast friends. Kao, the owner of Sunset Huts along with his wife, Tau, reported that all of their bungalows were full but assured me I'd be accommodated there. Awaiting a seat on a long sawhorse of a bench before the bar, I stood in the center of the room, leaning against a massive trunk of a tree growing up out of soft light into shadows of a deep roof onto which rain thundered.


There I drank my Tsingtao, sympathizing with a Swede as he recounted having to spend a night in a pup tent before being rotated into a bungalow at Treehouse Lodge next door. Seminomadic, communicable, and with a mode of travel quickly moving into the mainstream, backpackers bond through sharing information, usually about the trail. On that note, a bald German man with tattoos and an earring (the pirate) duly reported a mysterious lack of electrical outlets in guest houses in Bangkok. When the downpour let up, the crowd cleared out, and I plopped down a line of cushions then lay there in the common room. In the quiet after the storm the sea spoke in murmurs, lapping under me against stanchions, loosening my grasp on my belly bag with all its treasure (loot, passport, air ticket) and transporting me into dream.


DAY 2


The storm flaps had been rolled up as dawn broke calm and clear. I could now see why Lonely Beach was becoming popular. A gentle breeze brought the palms to sighs. The sea was right here, and out there a giant turtle, under scrutiny, turned out to be an impostor, unmoving under the roll of waves over its back. I was joyous when accommodated in a hut with electricity, toilet and shower for only 500 baht. A simple bungalow, the kind on stilts with mattress and electricity, fetches 150. At Sunset Huts the honor system prevails. Guests write in their orders in a ledger then square up upon checkout. For cash transactions, change is made from a plastic bucket suspended from an elastic band over the bar. The family-run environment has a good neighbor in Treehouse Lodge, whose restaurant-pavilion space has been well designed, with hammocks and plants breaking up the table areas. On Lonely Beach, Treehouse is the happening place to hang out, Sunset Huts the place to stay, and Jah Bar the place to party.


Occupying high ground up a jungle path and completely ensconced in nature, Jah Bar centers Lonely Beach. The place is run by a hip group of Thai boys from Koh Pangang and rocks with a supreme stereo system. Its raves, or moonlight parties, are well attended. Resonating with my childhood was a series of tunes by The Doors and Neil Young.


DAY 3


Up at 5:00 a.m., I roll my clothes then slip them in plastic bags in my day pack along with a collapsible umbrella, two liters of water, packs of mineral refreshment powder, sun screen, mosquito repellent, pen flashlight, and note cards. I take a motorcycle taxi around to the other — eastern — side of the island where, as planned, our guides await. Forest rangers, Kai and Gem look official in their camouflage uniforms. Gem carries a pump-action shotgun, and they both tote machetes and backpacks loaded with provisions, since we'll be camping out tonight. Kai tells me that he originally blazed the "trail" with a fellow ranger and has since guided eight groups of foreigners across the 10 to 12 kilometer width of the island. He motions the universal safe sign with both hands, "No have accident. Never."


We hike into the forest and up to Than Mayom Waterfall, which flows over four levels of black granite. The water is crystal clear, so I enjoy diving in for a swim. King Chulalongkorn the Great (Rama V) visited here many times and subsequently carved his insignia. Rama VI and Rama VII visited as well. We hike on through a rubber tree plantation with its uniform lines of mangled trunks and burrs of black at even heights before passing through a small rubber press camp where an old man sits, all kneecaps and elbows, twisted up on a raised platform. He tells us that one kilo of pressed rubber fetches 16 baht. Since only a few sheets of white rubber are draped near the press, a trip to market is a long way off.


We walk through a field of ferns and listen to birds chirp. Identifying them, Kai points to the word "finches" in his guide book. The bird list for the park currently numbers 74 species, of which 61 are resident, including the nightjar, green imperial pigeon, white-winged tern, blue-winged pitta, hooded pitta and three hornbill species. A beam of sunlight slips through the canopy and shines like a spotlight on a cagelike spider web. When the crowns of the trees shake, Kai says, "Loam" — wind.


Poachers


Deeper into the rain forest Kai peels off his camouflage shirt and wraps it around his head, bandana style. Feeling very much alive in the spirit of the wild I strip down to the bare essentials, the rationale being that nothing dries faster than skin: rafting sandals, a bare chest (no sense in sweating through t-shirts), quick-drying nylon shorts and a baseball cap. Since there isn't any trail to speak of now that the blazes — little more than chop marks on tree trunks — are few and far between, I feel that this is good backpacking, enjoying the thrill of getting there first and often walk ahead of Kai, even when the terrain turns rugged, steep and thick with saplings grasped for leverage and balance. At times we rappel using what's already there, vines and roots, and at others have to grab onto the tops of logs and make our way hand over hand, much like a monkey. We chug on, but Gem, is lagging, cramping up. Taking a breather, he lies at the base of a tree with a leg in the air, which Kai massages.


When we come to a mass of plumage on the forest floor, where a wild foul has been cleaned, Kai utters one word, "Cambodians." When we come across a pile of wood chips, he pronounces the same verdict. When I ask why Gem brought the shotgun, I get the same utterance. When we come to a rare break in the trees Kai points across the water to a body of land, saying, "Cambodia." Then I get it. The elusive Cambodians are poachers who cross the water to where the hunting is better, and my forest ranger guides also serve as border patrol agents.


We come to another stream and follow it. The surface of a brackish pool is fluorescent green streaked with a tapestry of spirals. I step over a very long vine that droops like a jump rope over the stream and concentrate on finding a purchase on moss-covered, slippery rocks through which water gurgles. Whenever we come to a certain kind of thicket along any stream Kai, as he does now, hacks off a long thin sapling to tap the ground ahead to scare off snakes, namely king cobras, which are sensitive to vibration. This brings to mind the three dangers that the photographer clicked off back in Japan in answer to my fiancee's question as to the hazards on Koh Chang: falling coconuts, snakes and girls. A little farther on I watch Kai reach down to pick up a rock then hold it as if to throw it while pointing at a... "Snake!" I watch a two-meter black and brown snake slither up from the river bank then disappear into the trees of a rocky slope. Gem's behind me now, identifying the species, "King cobra." Thank god they're vibration sensitive and scared off by our lumbering.


High Hammocks


We're hiking up — way up — an eastern slope then finally traverse around to its western face to where a patch of rocks opens up a stunning vista over mountaintops to the setting sun smearing the seam of sea and sky. We only have a moment to marvel at the view because we're in a hurry to get to camp before darkness falls. It's dusk now, and the way is worsening. I'm doing the daddy longlegs, the spider walk, on hands and feet to reduce the risk of slipping down a steep, slippery slope of loose rock speared with saplings. Farther down a mad tangle of roots and vines tries to trip me up, and near the bottom I'm running and pinballing off of trees. In a smidgen of clearing we drop our packs on either side of a stream and quickly make camp. Wet clothes are hung over branches, sticks gathered, fires (one for food, one for light and smoke) made, cans opened, food prepared and food — delicious food — wolfed down in a feverish rattle of mess kits. A pup tent is pitched, and between trees hammocks are strung high, as learned in ranger school, in case of boar. A bottle of whisky is produced. Much bonding felt.


As if cupped in the palm of a giant, I lie there dazzled, staring up through trees to a sky of brilliant stars, noting the big dipper's at a different angle over Thailand. The hand of the giant is squeezing me, though. The problem's my size — too tall for the hammock. In the pup tent I take all the clothes out of my backpack and put them under me to level the playing field. I finally make peace with twin boulders in the small of my back as my thighs find the grooves between rocks, belly bag as pillow. Before drifting off I listen to the stream gurgle, a single frog croak — perhaps it's the aptly named Ko Chang frog (Rana kohchang), which is found here and nowhere else — and from just over me in his hammock outside the tent Gem snores.


DAY 4


Dawn. Patches of fog creep along the stream through our camp. Before every meal an offering is made. This morning a little pile of noodles is placed on a leaf and laid on some rocks. Hands are pressed together before the face — a moment of grace. We break camp and start down.


A downpour comes, and the rain forest very much becomes itself. Ferns glisten. Leaves shine. Kai bows his way under my little umbrella and unwraps his shirt and snatches out his cellular phone. He motions Gem over and from his backpack digs out a mess kit into which he buckles his phone. We walk in the rain, and the photographer is ecstatic that we're having some weather. Under the drop of a sheer cliff we come to a deep dark pool into which the photographer wades with a waterproof camera before splashing in and shooting up across its surface.


We finally emerge victorious at the falls — Nam Tok Khlong Phu — on the western shore. A group of girls are sitting on the bank. After two days of thrashing around in the jungle with men, the girls smiling and waving at me swimming by are a welcome sight. I keep swimming hard into the current all the way up into the crevice where water tumbles down on my head, making me feeling very much alive.


DAY 5


I check into Siam Bay Resort on Kai Bae Beach, satisfied that I have earned its luxuries. The bungalows are spacious and immaculate with running water, shower, flush toilets, AC and ceiling fans. The menu boasts a wonderland of delicious dishes, and I can't get enough of the papaya-yogurt shakes. In the evening I devour very reasonably priced grilled pork, salad and baked potato then sit with other guests before the television and watch videos.


DAY 6


I'm on the boat for Trat now and a lovely Thai girl, Yai, gives me a few postcards of Koh Chang. "For you, free." I thank her then look back at the island, knowing that I'll return some day.


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This article first appeared in Wingspan, the inflight magazine of All Nippon Airways.