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When U.S. travelers pack their bags for a first-time trip to Thailand, there’s a fairly good chance that Phuket is on the itinerary. Phuket, covering nearly 210 square miles and home to more than 500,000 inhabitants, is a mega-resort offering everything from sun-soaked beaches and adrenaline-pumping watersports to nightlife that just doesn’t quit. But Thailand’s second-largest island, Koh Chang, is still under-the-radar for most travelers and is an excellent alternative to the more popular — and more crowded — Phuket.
History buffs will recognize the island for its significance during the Franco-Thai War in 1941. The Battle of Koh Chang was an unlikely, yet decisive, victory for France over the Royal Thai Navy. During both World Wars, the Battle of Koh Chang was the only French naval victory in which French forces acted alone, without the assistance of an ally.
Today, Koh Chang is a peaceful, laid-back beach destination and a sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of Thailand’s big cities. For me, time seemed to slow down as soon as I stepped off the ferry. Local merchants sold their handmade crafts, from hand-carved bowls to jewelry woven right on the spot. Restaurants served the local fisherman’s fresh catch of the day. Long white-sand beaches, dotted with resorts, offered mountain views and lapping waves. My jetlag faded away as I stood in the ocean, cracked open a beer and allowed the sand to ooze between my toes like putty.
Koh Chang is idyllic for good reason. Approximately 70 percent of Koh Chang is a national park, and the archipelago offers more than 50 islands to visit as well as countless snorkeling and diving spots. What’s more, there are several waterfalls on the main island, some of which are accessible by hiking trails, and miles of tropical evergreen forest.
Adventure BoundIn Thai, “Koh Chang” literally translates to “Elephant Island,” so it’s fitting that the island offers several elephant experiences. At Ban Chang Thai, for example, visitors can spend a day with a mahout (elephant trainer) and learn how to care for the gentle giants. They can also learn how to ride like a mahout, go on a guided elephant trek and bathe with the elephants.
Ban Kwan Chang Elephant Camp, located in an inland valley on the north end of the island, is supported by the Asian Elephant Foundation, a non-profit organization that funds projects dedicated to the well-being and conservation of Asian elephants. Ban Kwan has high ratings on TripAdvisor, ranking as Koh Chang’s sixth-most popular attraction at press time. The camp offers an opportunity to bathe with elephants or embark on a half-day elephant trek that departs in the morning.
Other adventure activities on Koh Chang include gondola rides through the Salak Kok fishing community, ATV tours on rugged terrain, mountainside ziplining and more. I’ve ziplined about a dozen times on my travels around the globe, but never have I experienced a course quite like Treetop Adventure Park in Koh Chang. I went in to the excursion with the misconception that I’d be zipping along the trees, admiring the flora and fauna, as the wind tangled my hair. Boy was I wrong. The zipline course was a hard-core workout, more of an obstacle course with Tarzan swings, unsteady rope bridges, a “flying skateboard” station and other tests of balance and agility. To be honest, the excursion was too much work for my tastes, but it could prove fun for the physically fit or for teens who want to break away from mom and dad for an afternoon.
Where to StayAbout a 15-minute drive from Ao Sapparot Ferry Pier and located on Kai Bae Beach, Gajapuri Resort & Spa is a luxury beachfront resort that recently completed a renovation of its pool area and Private Pool Villas, which now feature new wooden decks and improved lighting. Private Pool Villa Suites come with more than 2,000 square feet of space and are ideal for families or couples traveling together. Two guestrooms in separate houses face a private garden area, complete with lounge chairs, a pool and a Jacuzzi.
Amari Emerald Cove Koh Chang, located on the secluded Klong Prao Beach, offers 165 guestrooms as well as ample meeting and convention space. Guests have a number of food and beverage options on site including an Italian restaurant, a breakfast buffet, 24-hour room service, a Thai restaurant, a pool bar for light bites and signature cocktails and Breezes Bar, offering live music and sunset views.
Rajadamnern Thai Boxing StadiumOpened back in 1945, Rajadamnern Stadium in Bangkok draws tourists and locals alike to witness the combat sport of Muay Thai. Ticket prices range from roughly $31 to $62. The bang is worth your buck since there are usually six to nine fights on a given night, with little wait time in between. Waiters come by the ring-side seats with drinks and popcorn, although the view from the second tier, where most locals sit, is just as good. The rowdy atmosphere makes for an unforgettable experience.
Phanom Rung Historical ParkPerched on the lip of an extinct volcano, this Khmer temple complex in the Buriram province dates back to the 10th century. Follow in the footsteps of Khmer royalty down the Processional Walkway, lined by sandstone lotus posts, to the three snake bridges that symbolize the connection of the earth to heaven. Phanom Rung Historical Park was once a Hindu religious site and then became a Buddhist site in the 15th century. It experienced a 17-year restoration and is now open to visitors. Make sure to stop by the main pagoda, constructed according to the Hindu understanding of the layout of Shiva’s heaven. Get there early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid heat and crowds.
Elephant Nature ParkElephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai isn’t just a sanctuary for endangered and rescued animals — the organization runs a rainforest restoration program, works to preserve the culture of the local community and educates visitors about endangered species. The park can accommodate young children as well as large groups. Guests can walk alongside the free-roaming elephants, feed them watermelon and bathe them, all while learning about the elephant’s personal journey (many elephants are rescues from circuses or have survived major land mine injuries). Visitors can choose from single-day visits, overnight stays or volunteering for a more immersive experience. The weekly volunteer program includes room and board, as well as opportunities to take care of elephants and explore the local village, all for around $373 a week.
Amphawa Floating MarketJust outside Bangkok, visitors can find one of Thailand’s more authentic floating markets, Amphawa, which has reportedly been in operation since the 17th century. Hire a river taxi or walk alongside the canals, taking in the sights and smells of produce and handmade crafts. Make sure to sample some of the shrimp, mussels and noodles cooked by vendors in longtail boats. Those that arrive early enough can visit two gorgeous nearby temples, Wat Bang Kung and Wat Bangkhae Noi. Stay until nightfall to get a glimpse of fireflies glittering among the banks and trees.
NEW AND NOTEWORTHY:
Photo FinishEarlier this year, the interactive museum Art in Paradise opened its third Thailand branch in Bangkok’s Esplanade Shopping Mall. Created by 13 Korean artists, the artwork is presented in an unusual 3-D format, which allows visitors to pose for photos in various dramatic scenarios. Be sure to bring a camera — you can’t resist getting snapshots of yourself balancing on a log or surfing gnarly waves.
Game OnIf lazing on Phuket’s many beaches isn’t quite exciting enough for you, try rooting for your favorite Asian country during the 4th Asian Beach Games — organized by the Olympic Council of Asia. Thailand will make its hosting debut from Nov. 14-23 at Phuket’s famous beaches, including Patong, Karon, Kata and Nai Yang, as well as at Bangneow Dam, Chaofa Mine and Saphan Hin Sports Centre. Visitors can watch just about any sport under the sun, from beach soccer and windsurfing to jiujitsu — all while working hard on their tans.
Back to the BeachPatong Beach, one of Thailand’s most popular beaches, reopened on July 11 after a comprehensive clean up and restoration. Massage huts, food vendors, umbrella hawkers and other illegal sellers were removed in an effort to return Patong to its natural beauty. The National Council of Peace and Order, currently overseeing the administration of Thailand, restored the space to attract tourists and affirm their safety. The move followed a series of related safety measures, including a clear-out of Pattaya Beach, Surin, Bang Tao Beach, Laypang Beach and Layan Beach.
Taking a BreakAnantara Phuket Villas is offering a sweet deal for short stays. With a two-night minimum booking, couples can enjoy a daily breakfast buffet for two, a signature cocktail (or mocktail), a 20 percent dining discount and a 90-minute hot oil massage. Guests are also eligible for late check-out (until 4 p.m.) and a complimentary room upgrade. Starting at $572 per night, the package is available through Dec. 31.
Getting the VIP TreatmentGet picked up from the airport in a BMW — with complimentary non-alcoholic drinks and a fruit basket — and roll on to the Chatrium like a VIP. The Stay, Drink and Dine at the Chatrium package includes a buffet breakfast, a dim sum lunch at Silver Wares, evening cocktails, two cans of local beer and all-day coffee, tea and cookies. Guests will also receive Wi-Fi connectivity, access to the Chatrium Club Lounge and three dry-cleaned garments per room. The package, based on double occupancy, requires a minimum three-night stay in a Chatrium Club Room with river views. Rates start at $193 per night. The offer is good through Oct. 31, 2015.
River Romance Package at X2 River Kwai ResortOpened in July, the X2 River Kwai Resort overlooks the Kwai Noi River in Kanchanaburi, Thailand’s largest western province. Guests can kick back at the on-site restaurant, bar, library and the infinity pool which offers sensational river views. With the River Romance package, guests receive champagne on arrival, a dozen red roses in their cabin and a romantic room set up with an aromatherapy bath and candle light. The offer, based on double occupancy, includes a champagne breakfast for two. Clients must book and stay before Oct. 31, 2014.
Buddhist Lent and Naga Fireball FestivalHead over to Nong Khai and join the alms-giving celebration known as Tak Bat Thevo that signifies the end of Buddhist Lent. Spend the day sampling street food and enjoying cultural performances. Clients will want to stay until nightfall to witness the red “Naga fireballs” that shoot over the Mekong River. The fireballs’ source is unclear. Some think the Naga fireballs are a natural phenomena of flammable phosphine gas while others believe they are the breath of Naga, an enormous sea serpent, who awakes from its riverbed slumber to honor the end of Buddhist Lent. Perhaps you won’t be able to resolve the mystery, but it’s sure to be a stunning sight. (Oct. 9)
Bua Tong Blossom FestivalBright yellow Tung Dok Bua Tong flowers bloom once a year for about 30 days in November. Also referred to as the Mexican Sunflower for its South American origins, Tung Dok Bua Tong was introduced to Thailand by missionaries more than 70 years ago. While the flowers are in full bloom, clients can take a hot air balloon ride over Mae Hong Son province to admire the golden hills from afar or wander the festival and snag some local produce. (Nov. 1 – Dec. 13)
The Kham Dolphin FestivalThe Bang Pakong River is home to Irrawaddy dolphins, which glide along the river’s surface. Efforts have been made to limit shrimp fishing in order to help these dolphins thrive as well as to promote tourism to the region. Visitors can get a glimpse of humpback whales and bottlenose dolphins, learn about the life of local fishermen and enjoy fresh seafood at the fair. (Nov. 1, 2014 – Feb. 24, 2015)
Krabi Bergfah Andaman FestivalDuring the Krabi Bergfah Andaman Festival in November, visitors can check out the town of Krabi on the west coast of Southern Thailand for three days of cultural shows, food booths, vendors, music and dance. Visit the Phra Nang Cave where fishermen and locals leave prayers and offerings. There’s plenty of seafood to sample, so travelers won’t be leaving on an empty stomach. (Nov. 13 – 15)
Amari Emerald Cove Koh Changwww.amari.com/emeraldcove
Gajapuri Resort & Spawww.gajapuri.com