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The Life Aquatic—Secret Thailand, Trat

With white-sand beaches, crystal waters great for diving, and blue skies for days, no wonder the 52 islands of Trat province are sometimes called the Maldives of Thailand. They’re also some of the country’s best-kept secrets. Come sail away to Koh Chang with a local pirate king who just wants to make paradise a better place. 

trat

By Jeninne Lee-St. John
Photographed by Jan De Rycke

Oct 28, 2022

I LOOK AT THE SKY AND I KNOW what’s going to happen,” says Chaiwat ‘Leo’ Ainthachot on a stunningly clear-blue morning on Koh Chang. “We look at the sky, stars, wind. We check the moon. We check the sun. If the sunset is orange, it’s going to be very beautiful, like today. If the sunset is red color, one-million percent a storm will come in the next one, two, three days. Tourists look at that and feel very happy. But fishermen, we see it and we know to run away.”

He (fisherman) and I (tourist) are sitting in the bow of his bar, which is shaped like a boat, and overlooksbobbing in the shallow bay belowhis actual boat, both of which he made with his own hands out of found and upcycled materials. His hair is tied up, freshly washed after spearfishinga skill his father taught him at age sevenusing a wooden spear, also handmade.

Secret Thailand, Trat: Orange sunsets at Koh Chang
Orange sunsets predict a beautiful tomorrow, according to Koh Chang fishermen’s lore.
Secret Thailand, Trat: Koh Chang
Koh means “island” and Chang means “elephant.” The place takes its name from its shape not its wildlife.

Leo hails originally from Trat, on the mainland just north of us, the namesake city of this province in the southeastern-most corner of Thailand on the Cambodia border. Trat contains 52 islands, all of them lush, fringed by white sand, and scarcely populated, if at all. They’re also, compared to Phuket and Samui, scarcely visited, making this region one of the best places to channel that castaway vibe I’ve always romanticized for my Thai travels but rarely found. While mountainous Koh Chang does have a decent amount of tourism infrastructure with great places to eat, drink and explore, the beaches are lined with independently owned small hotels (no international brands), immersion in nature is practically unavoidable, and nightlife is mellow. “It’s an island for slow life,” Leo says. “You cannot find many people in one party here like on the ‘full-moon island’ in the south.”

Secret Thailand, Trat: Koh Kood
FROM LEFT: Best known for its famed luxury resort, Koh Kood also boasts boutique stays in secret nooks; Koh Kood is the southernmost island in the Trat archipelago.

Other islands in this archipelago include Koh Kood, home to a collection of boutique hotels tucked on small coves as well as pioneering barefoot-luxury resort Soneva Kiri (doubles from US$1,080), which has its own pair of private planes that land on a baby island next door, so that’s fun. The newly developed vegan menus here are persuasive, the pool villas are inside-out treehouses, and you get to drive your own golf cart. Turns out this is not exclusive to #resortlife.

If you head to Koh Mak (population 900), the slow life is deeply and purposefully a sustainable. The community has banded together to become a low-carbon island. Foam packaging and motorized water sports are banned, there are recycling bins everywhere (unfortunately still a rarity in this region), and, in addition to the standard motorbikes, you can rent much greener e-bikes and golf carts to tool around in. This is an especially fun proposition during Fly to the Moon, an annual music festival with an eco and equality ethos that takes place over New Year’s. Whenever you go, be sure to visit Koh Mak Seafood for grilled fish with crispy garlic, soft-shell crab also with crispy garlic, squid steamed in garlic and celery, and giant prawns. Then have fun waddling back to the beach. It’s a 40-minute speedboat ride to Koh Chang from Koh Mak; stop at the Hin Raab coral reef for snorkeling along the way.

Secret Thailand, Trat: Koh Mak Pier
Koh Mak is a low-carbon isle where you can rent electric golf carts and e-bikes.

FROM BANGKOK, TO GET TO Koh Chang, I’ve taken a 45-minute flight on a prop plane so small that the luggage goes in front and the passengers load from the back, a 20-minute drive to the pier at Trat, and a 40-minute ferry ride across a sliver on the Gulf of Thailand. That it’s a five-hour drive from the capital perhaps helps explains the lack of mass tourism here (though that’s actually how long it could take you to get to much-closer Hua Hin on a bad-traffic day), but whatever the reason, the sense of serenity is sweet relief.

Secret Thailand, Trat: Fishing boats
Fishing for both sustenance and commerce is a way of life in the Gulf of Thailand.

The first time I visited Koh Chang, a friend who’s been to the island a dozen times brought a group of us for lunch at Flora I Talay (doubles from Bt1,300), a cute seafront resort with a large restaurant and bar on the long stretch of sand on Klong Prao Beach. The bay is so shallow that at low tide you have to walk 50 meters out for the water to reach your hips. We posted up on a stilted bamboo table, made friends with the waiters who quickly learned our drink orders, and spent the day throwing a frisbee in the ocean and tossing a baseball on shore. Or, I should say the days, because during that week we returned to Flora nearly every day, and I went back again once on this most recent trip.

On Klong Prao, the sun sets over a promontory and watching a fisherman wade through the waters to place his nets in the tangerine (beautiful tomorrow predicted) glow is truly cinematic. But don’t leave yet. Afterwards is the nightly fireshow with a twist you’ve probably not seen: it stars two dads and two sons who couldn’t be more than 10 years old, and who come out swinging flames with fierce looks of determination and pride. No such thing as overtipping at this show. 

Secret Thailand, Trat: Salak Phet Mangrove Walkway
Salak Phet Mangrove Walkway, an immersive ecosystem.

It’s tempting to just laze on Koh Chang, but there’s nature to explore and you’ll be rewarded if you make the effort. The east side of the island is full of ecosystem-enhancing mangroves. Salak Phet Mangrove Walkway is a pretty red boardwalk that meanders through the trees to an inlet of the ocean. At low tide, keep your eyes peeled for the black crabs scurrying around in the mud. Salak Kok is a village collective: together the residents bought several ancient gondolas that date back to the reign of King Rama V and row tourists through the mangroves for a small fee. It’s romantic and calmingonce you get past the rickety stilts that act as a pier, that is. 

There are a handful of waterfalls to hike to on Koh Chang (and, importantly, the water is potable), but I like my hiking to come with a reward, which is why I am delighted when Leo, walking barefoot up a steep mountain, detours via a red-clay path to Kangplaeng Secret Garden (ask a Koh Chang local how to get there; it’s secret on purpose). This cafe and bar is hidden high in the jungle and eclectically decorated in a strong 1970’s-basement vibe. We fortuitously arrive just before a storm rolls in, so find ourselves looking down on a thickly wondrous mist. After waiting out the rain here for more than an hour and then attempting a return descent to our car in the mud, we help the owner, A (no more name given), achieve what he says his goal is: “When guests are drunk, they can roll back down the mountain.”

Secret Thailand, Trat: Bang Bao lighthouse (left); The village at Salak Kok (right)
FROM LEFT: Bang Bao lighthouse, in southern Koh Chang. Ferries to nearby isles should resume soon; The village at Salak Kok owns ancient boats to tour visitors through the mangroves.

If you do find yourself in such a state, you and your hangover will be delighted to know that there’s an American diner on Koh Chang for your comfort-food pleasure. A hole-in-the-wall on the side of the road, Annie P (66-6/1768-1194) makes authentic barbecued ribs, pulled pork, pastrami on rye, chili cheese dogsand, if you’re lucky and they’ve managed to procure the right beef, French dip and Philly cheesesteaks. Goodbye, bikini body.

IN WHAT I LIKE TO THINK is less a sign that Koh Chang is going upmarket than that upmarket food is going everywhere, there’s now fine dining on the island and it is beautiful. Chef Nongrat ‘Yaa’ Noppawan used to run a cooking school before the pandemic stole her customer base, and led her to open Khao Kwan (66-8/1940-0649). Named after an old method of cooking rice in coconut milk then combining it with tamarind sauce (khao means “rice” and kwan means “spiritual”), the open-air restaurant on the main strip of Kai Bae serves 80-percent-locally sourced dishes presented in a parade of hot pinks, purples, bright oranges, verdant greens. It’s all fresh seafood (mmm, the scallops!) and fresh veggies, adorned by pretty, edible flowers. Girly, sure, but not too precious, and certainly like no other dining experience on the island. Get the tasting menu. 

Khao Kwan, which just opened during Covid, is the first fine-dining restaurant in Koh Chang. Courtesy of Khao Kwan

Across the street is Koh Chang Wine Gallery, which has a convenient bottle shop and a restaurant turning out tasty pan-European food. Down the road, you will want to book ahead in high season for authentic Mexican food, a lengthy margarita menu and a surprising selection of mezcals at El Barrio. At neighboring, newly renovated Fin, the live music and elevated comfort food make the buzzing resto-bar the closest you might get to city-style nightlife here. 

For that classic island-style nightlife, though, it’s Lonely Beach, where you’ll find a cluster of laidback drinking dens, reggae music, Jenga on tables to while away the night. Many of these bars look handmade, and some of them, like Cafe del Sunshinea community hub with murals on the walls, smoothie bowls and quality Thai and foreign foodand of course Leo’s own Rude Boy, actually are. 

AS LEO STARTS A FIRE AND PLACES the fish he’s caught on the grill, then starts to prepare his own firedancing equipment for his show at his bar tonight, I’m feeling deeply useless in terms of my own life skills.

Secret Thailand, Trat: Leo, owner of ude Boy Bar
Chaiwat ‘Leo’ Ainthachot at his Rude Boy Bar, which he built by hand, on Lonely Beach.

We had spent much of this glorious day on his toy boat, puttering out to little Koh Man Nok, which you can see from Lonely Beach. We collected litter from the beach (Leo recycles plastic for money, although I think he deserves a better rateit takes about 100 bottles to make one kilogram, for which he gets paid one Thai baht) and swam in the impossibly clear blue water. I was keeping my eyes peeled for the blue-spotted stingrays and whale sharks Leo had seen earlier in the morning, but he said they usually stick to the strait by Koh Man Nai, alas.

With his teardrop tattoos on his cheekbone, I want to call Leo a pirate. But he’s not a plunderer; he’s a preservationist, one of many on Koh Chang who’ve shown me all the ways in which this is a way of slow life worth savingand a secret worth keeping, if only at least a little while longer. 

Secret Thailand, Trat: Koh Chang Sunset
It’s very difficult to find a boring sunset on Koh Chang.

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