The little island I visited today, known as Koh Si Chang, has been on my list of places to visit for a long time. It is not that I have heard spectacular things about this island. It is certainly no Koh Samet. You also cannot really label it “Unseen Thailand” as you will find it in the Lonely Planet, amongst other guidebooks. However, what intrigued me the most is its attractions of historical importance and the fact that not that many people have been there! Certainly not many of my Thai colleagues have been there.
To reach the island, you need to first catch a bus down to Siracha (sometimes written Sri Racha). From the bus station you can catch a tuk tuk to the pier for Koh Si Chang. The boat leaves hourly between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. However, as it was a long holiday weekend there seemed to be more boats available. We just missed one boat that didn’t seem to have a scheduled time. The next came 30 minutes later and soon was filled to capacity. To be honest, I don’t really trust boats in Thailand. The 45 minute crossing was relatively calm though there were a few swells that rocked the boat. We made a point of making sure we sat in the open area at the back. I didn’t fancy being inside if the boat capsized. Each of the seats had a lifejacket wrapped around the back. But, most of these had worn thin and the stuffing was either exposed or had fallen out.
Back in the days before the Chao Phraya River was dredged to allow big container ships to go up to the port in Bangkok, Koh Si Chang used to be a major destination for ships arriving in Thailand. Their cargo was offloaded onto barges and then transported to Bangkok. However, it would seem that there is still a lot of shipping commerce going on here. Apart from the fishing vessels, I counted at least 50 large freight ships between the mainland and the island. As we approached the island, I could see a couple of massive silos that was a backdrop to a white chedi on the hill. Nearby, there was a ship docked at a deepwater pier. In a way it is a shame to spoil this holiday destination. However, it has been this way for over one hundred years longbefore tourists started to arrive.
When we landed at the pier, we were met by rows of songtaews, motorcycle taxis and some very beefed up tuk tuks called “sky labs”. An announcement on the PA system assured us that we wouldn’t be cheated if we took a sky lab tour of the island. There was a fixed price of 250 baht for a long tour of the island. They said we could spend all day for this one price. That seemed to be very fair and I wondered how they could survive on that amount with oil prices being so high. Our sky lab driver was a friendly person who showed us on a map where he would take us on the tour. We agreed but said we wanted to get something to eat first. He said no problem and took us to a nearby restaurant where he waited for us. The second surprise of the day was that the prices of the meals weren’t that bad. It averaged about 30 baht per plate. Obviously the islanders had made a decision that they didn’t want to have a reputation of cheating tourists.
Our first stop on the tour was the nearby Khao Yai Spirit Shrine which was situated in a Chinese Temple. Our brochure, which incidently you can pick up for free at the pier, told us that the shrine becomes very crowded during Chinese New Year. Even if you are not interested in the temple itself, there are certainly some fine views that give you a good introduction to the island. If you are feeling fit enough, there are steps behind the temple that lead up to a viewpoint which houses a replica of Buddha’s Footprint. This was made during the reign of King Rama V from a sacred stone that was brought from the birthplace of the Buddha. The extra 300 hundred or so steps are worth the effort as you will pass by wild monkeys and will see some wonderful panoramic views of the township below and the hills beyond. At the foot of our hill we could see Wat Chutharthistham Sapharam Worawihan which was built by King Rama V in honour of his son who was born on the island. Further in the distance, on another hill, we could see a large seated Buddha with two standing Buddhas behind. This is a famous meditation temple called Wat Tham Yai Prik which is worth a visit if you have more time.
We descended the steps back down to the road nearly an hour later. The sky lab driver had said he would meet us back in 30 minutes. He didn’t seem to mind that we had taken longer. Our next destination was only five minutes away on the other side of the island. Chong Khao Khad seemed to be an excellent place to come in the evening to enjoy the pleasant sea breeze. In fact, I should mention that in despite the heat of the day and blue sky, we were certainly enjoying the cool sea breeze. There were several places to eat and also a hotel with fan rooms starting at 590 baht. My intention was to come here to check the place out for a future visit. But, I was already falling in love with the island. I wish I had brought a change of clothes so that I could explore the island in a more leisurely manner.
Back in the car park, our sky lab driver was just arriving with what looked like another tour party. It then dawned on us that the guy was two timing us. While he was waiting for us, he had gone back to pick up another tour! We later found out that he had at least four tours going on at the same time as there were other people ahead of us! We didn’t really mind as 250 baht is quite a good deal for an all day tour. He seemed to be juggling us very well. The island is only 7.9 sq km and as the roads are in excellent condition he was able to get around quite quickly with his powerful engine. As we drove to our next destination, we picked his brain about places to stay. As we passed by guesthouses and small hotels, he told us the prices. Fan rooms seemed to start as low as 450 baht. I was starting to like the slow pace of life here a lot. It was so different to Koh Samet. This was a real community and it felt it. There were shops, markets, temples and schools.
Touring Koh Si Chang Island
Although Ko Si Chang is the nearest major island to Bangkok, it doesn’t really get that many visitors. Sure, on holiday weekends it can get a little crowded, but not like other tourist destinations. If you like peace and quiet, then just make sure you come here during the week. For 250 baht (about $6) our sky lab driver was giving us a tour of the island. Even if we were going to stay the night, I think we would have still done this tour as it was turning out to be a good introduction to the island. I am sure the driver would have taken us to a hotel first to drop off our bags before continuing with the tour. Then, on our second day, I think we would have probably rented motorcycles (also 250 baht per day or 80 baht per hour) in order to explore the island at a more leisurely pace.
For our third stop of the tour, our sky lab driver (they use this name in Thai) took us Phra Chuthathut Palace. What is fascinating about this island is that three past kings (Rama IV, Rama V and Rama VI) all came here with their wives and children for a holiday. King Rama IV came here in the mid 1850’s for the fresh air and beautiful views. Though he never actually slept on the island, opting rather for sleeping on his boat. It was Rama V who built the palace as a kind of convalescence home. In fact, one of his sons, Prince Chuthathut was born here and so he named the palace after him. Rama VI came here as a child. A number of the buildings still remain today. However, a teak wood mansion was never completed due to border incursions by the French in the 1890’s. It was considered to be too dangerous to vacation on the island any more and the building was shifted to Bangkok in 1899 where it became the famous Vimanmek Mansion.
You could easily spend a few hours wandering around the grounds. There is a museum inside the buildings and also a restaurant. If you are feeling adventurous, you can climb to the top of the hill where there stands a white chedi. Normally these religious buildings are solid and you cannot go inside. However, this was the first one I had seen that had a small chamber inside. It was here that King Rama V came to meditate. So, it was an honour to stand on that spot. And also, to be the only one there. I think it is probably a great place to meditate as it is so peaceful and there air is so fresh compared to what we have back in Samut Prakan. On the way back down I passed a “bell rock” which indeed sounded like a bell when I hit it with a stone. Nearby was an old stone pagoda that had been renovated. I counted about seven gardeners that were working on the grounds. Cutting grass and clearing weeds. It is worth staying here longer and maybe having a picnic on the lawn in the shade of the trees.
The final stop for our grand tour of the island was Hat Tham Phang (Tumbled Cave Beach). I had read that there wasn’t really any beaches to speak of on the island, so I was pleasantly surprised to see so many people swimming in the sea in this bay. The water looked very clear and very inviting. Unfortunately we hadn’t brought any of our swimming gear with us. So we could only relax on the deck chairs and soak up the atmosphere and the fresh sea breeze. If you like, you can eat on the beach as there is a restaurant here that will bring food to your deck chair. The hotel rooms in this bay are fan only and cost about 500 baht each. The island isn’t really that big and I guess if you are going to rent a motorcycle for the day then it doesn’t really matter where you stay.
Our sky lab driver came back to pick us up at the agreed time and whisked us back to the pier just in time for the 5 p.m. boat. It had been a really good, though a little exhausting, day out on the island. There was a lot of climbing involved, though like I said before, not everyone bothered to climb up to the viewpoints. Depends on how much energy you have. You really need to take your time when you come here. I would suggest that if you can, you should try and spend at least one night. But please, don’t come here expecting white sandy beaches and parties all night. You will be disappointed. This is a great place to come and unwind and just relax. We will certainly be coming back to spend a few nights here in order to explore this fascinating community a bit more.
The drive from Samut Prakan to Siracha is quite quick and straightforward. The 100 km trip took about 90 minutes to the pier. From Bangkok, take the elevated highway above Bang Na-Trad Highway until you reach the end. Then turn off onto the Chonburi Bypass following signs for Pattaya and Bangsaen. After a while you will see a sign for Siracha and Bangsaen which will take you back to Sukhumwit Road. As you reach Siricha, you will come to traffic lights with some school buildings on the left which are shaped like ships. There is a blue tourist sign before the lights which clearly tells you to turn right for Koh Si Chang. A short while later you will reach a roundabout. Turn right here and you will see the road leading out to the pier. It is a popular relaxation area for locals as well so it can get crowded. If you are coming from Bangkok, catch a bus from Ekamai to Siricha. They leave every 30 minutes and will take at least two hours if not more. From the bus stop you can catch a tuk tuk or motorcycle taxi to the pier. Just say you want to go to Ko Si Chang (pronounced “goh see chang” ).