Some ‘Great Island Escapes’ just a short drive from one’s doorsteps in Bangkok!
Words and Photos by Dave Stamboulis.
If you don’t want to shell out for a plane ticket to Phuket or Samui and you’ve got your own wheels, where can you go for a decent weekend island retreat not too far from Bangkok? The Eastern Seaboard remains a popular option for Bangkokians, with masses heading down to Pattaya and Rayong for some R & R. Problem is that neither of these places really have that nice beaches, and they just don’t quite have that island feel; the one of getting onto a ferry and being off the mainland. Not to fret though as there are some excellent choices without having to drive all night.
Koh Si Chang
Sleepy Koh Si Chang gets bypassed in favor of the white sand on Koh Samet, but this is a great spot to see a real local slice of Thai life, and the small isle is steeped in local history.
At the southern end of the island is the Phra Judhadhut Palace, the former summer home of King Rama V, surrounded with immaculate terraced gardens, streams, fountains, and ponds, and is a superb spot to while away the hour, picnic, and watch the goings on of the Thai fishing industry in the Bight of Bangkok. The palace that used to be here was relocated piece by piece to Bangkok where it is now the famed Vimanmek Mansion. The island also features some very colorful temples, the best of which is Wat Tham Yai Prik, with its giant golden Buddha welcoming visitors, perched on the limestone cliffs above the sea. The temple is home to a series of cool meditation caves, and is inhabited by monks and nuns. The west coast has one small beach, Hat Tam Phang, which has clear waters for swimming.
Places to stay include Malee Blue, (www.maleeblue.com), which looks like a Moroccan palace, suitable for all your Arabian nights fantasies close to home. Koh Si Chang takes 45 minutes to reach by ferry from Sri Racha.
While only seven kilometers away from each other, Koh Larn and Pattaya feel like centuries apart. Pattaya is neon, nightlife, dirty water, and every inch of spare silty sand taken up by beach umbrellas and vendors. Koh Larn meanwhile, makes you feel like you are down in Phuket.
The small island, reachable both by speedboat and ferry in less than an hour from Pattaya’s Bali Hai Pier, has excellent white sand beaches and turquoise water, more reminiscent of Koh Lanta or Phi Phi, and once the day trippers go home, if you stay overnight at the handful of THB 1200-bungalows that are available, you’ll have the island almost completely to yourself. Koh Larn is mostly mountainous jungle, and is extremely lush. There are several viewpoints from the top of the island that are well worth visiting, and the island’s narrow brick roadways make for some nice motorcycle or bicycle touring, although the grades in some areas are quite steep. The largest beach on Koh Larn is Tawaen, a beautiful crescent of white sand, which is packed with cafes, shops, and an abundance of watersports and other activities, including banana boats, jet skis, and parasailing. Tawaen gets extremely crowded on weekends, but there are a few coves on either side of the bay that are a bit less hectic if the main beach is too busy.
For something a bit quieter, head to Samae Beach on the west side of the island, or the even quieter Hat Tien (Candle Beach), which is tucked into a beautiful bay ringed by verdant hills.
Not to be confused with the small sand strip off of Koh Mak by the same name, this small island is the one that many travelers see from the air after taking off from Bangkok, and wonder what island the beautiful white sand beaches are part of.
Also known as Koh Kham Sattahip, this island is a marine park with a fragile ecosystem, and is managed by the Thai Navy (www.navy.mi.th/coast_guard/under_sea_park_kham_island/novels/), and is only open for ecotourism, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays and public holidays from November to April. You’re not allowed to spend the night on Koh Kham, but you can take the Navy boat out in the morning and come back at either one or four in the afternoon. The island is very well-managed, with only 300 visitors allowed per day, and there are glass bottom boats to go out on to check-out the coral reefs and abundant marine life.
While this is the darling of many island lovers from Bangkok, with a selection of white sand beaches and a real Koh Phangan or Koh Tao vibe to it, you might want to save Samet for a weekday. It gets really packed on the weekends, not to mention that prices go up, but if you do come during the week, it really is an excellent spot. The oil spill here in 2015 did some major damage to the beautiful west coast beach of Ao Phrao, but the east coast beaches and water are unscathed. Activities range from mountain biking, heading down to the unspoiled southern tip of the island, where one can see some gorgeous sunsets (the island is much wider up north and it takes a bit to cross from east to west, whereas down south the land narrows to just a small strip), and just lazing on the beaches, which are the best you’ll find this close to Bangkok. Most of the east coast beaches have some nightlife, with excellent fire twirling shows taking place on Hat Sai Kaew, the island’s most happening beach hangout. The best and most romantic resorts are over on Ao Phrao, with luxury hideaways such as Le Virmarn (levimarncottage.com) an excellent choice for those seeking intimacy and ambience, but again, the oil spill has minimized swimming and you may want to wait awhile. There are also some lovely national park islands off the coast of Samet, which can actually be reached by boat charter from Ban Phe in the mainland pier where boats to Samet leave every 30-45 minutes.
Koh Kudi, Koh Kruai, Koh Kham, Koh PlaTin, and Koh Thalu
These islands have no development on them, and really are great spots for Robinson Crusoe escapes, but you will need to camp and check in with the national park, as there is no accommodation other than tenting, and you’ll need to bring your own food.
If you want the whitest sand and a dose of full on island escape choices, you’ll need to go further east, to Koh Chang or Koh Mak, but both of these require a four to five hours drive from Bangkok, so it’s almost easier to fly to mainland Trat and go from there, and thus we didn’t include those islands here. At any rate, there aren’t too many capital cities in Asia like Bangkok, which boasts “Great Island Escapes“ just a short drive from one’s doorsteps.