Islands in southern Thailand have a certain appeal, what with all the azure waters, white sand beaches, excessive sunshine and palm trees. Yet, closer to the capital, you can find the Central Thailand version of an island getaway – an inexpensive, easy-to-execute island trip that rings true to Thailand's unofficial tagline of "same, same, but different".
Koh Si Chang, under normal circumstances, is a 2.5-hour journey from central Bangkok, if you literally start in the center (around Sukhumvit 21) and hail a cab. The drive takes 1.5 to two hours, (add two or three hours if you're attempting this at 5.30pm on a Friday), and costs around 1,000 THB (USD 30), a tariff which is, naturally, subject to the bargaining skills of you and your driver.
Conversely, the buses from Ekkamai station, located right at Ekkamai BTS, to Sri Racha's Ko Loi jetty take roughly an hour and forty-five minutes and cost around 90 THB. They leave every half-hour to forty minutes between 5am and 9pm and terminate right at the waterfront. The ferry to the island takes 45 minutes and costs 50 THB. That's an all-in fare of 135 THB (USD 4) to get to your Thai island getaway!
Despite its proximity to Bangkok, Koh Si Chang remains sleepy. Only half the island has been developed and accommodation options are understandably limited. There are no shopping malls or gyms or go-go bars or even traffic lights, just shophouses, mom-and-pop stores, guest houses, bungalows, a singular hotel, a Family Mart and a dozen or so sealed roads leading off into different directions.
A modest selection of waterfront seafood restaurants means you can keep yourself affordably well-fed, while small family-run noodle shops and street food stalls scattered about the island provide cheap, easy meals any time of day. The area between Family Mart and the 24-hour Seven Seas convenience store (a span of about 100 meters) is the liveliest part of the island after about 8pm, so it's not a destination for party animals.
A prominent pagoda-style lighthouse welcomes visitors to the pier, where you can rent your scooter (200-300 baht per day, no deposit or ID required), pick up a map and self-drive to your bungalow or else cruise around until you find accommodation. Rooms along the coastline with sea views range from 800 THB up to 2,500 THB (Paree Hut). Guesthouses in 'town' near the pier start at around 500THB, while various resorts and guesthouses are scattered throughout the hills. You can find a cute, new bungalow room with tiled floors, air-conditioning, hot water and satellite TV for around 800THB – there's no need to go rustic here, unless you really want to.
There are a few places to check out on the island – you can easily see them all in a day – two days if you really stretch it out. The main tourist attraction is Phra Chudadhuj Palace, built by King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) – located in a pretty park space with colonial houses, shrines, paved walkways, view points and the remnants of old baths.
There's the main beach Ao Atsadang. This is a miniature version of your usual urban Thai-style beach: a carpet of deck chairs and parasols tended by food and drink vendors, packed with lots of people, while inflatable swimming tubes, banana boat rides and children occupy the water. Get there early on a long weekend if you intend to find a seat; weekdays are deserted by comparison.
There are also temples, caves, a vipassana meditation center and various deserted beaches to discover. The undeveloped green spaces – some scattered with shale boulders, some inhabited by herds of goats, some lush and green and full of frogs, are cool and fragrant and fun to explore by bike.
The most popular offshore activity is diving. There are several artificial reefs in the waters around Koh Si Chang that you can dive or snorkel around, or you can book a boat ride to one of the tiny neighboring islands. Settle on a round-trip price before you go, quotes can be as high as 1,000 THB. Fishing is also a popular pastime, either from the rocky coastlines, the piers or private boat.
- Hire a motorcycle and explore the island at a leisurely pace. The island is hilly but the roads aren't treacherous in dry conditions if navigated with care.
- Find a little cove or beach and enjoy the sea air for a few hours. Take water and snacks, and fishing gear if the mood strikes.
- Stop at a street-side stall for noodles.
- Enjoy the views around Phra Chudadhuj Palace.
- Watch sunrise on the east coast, then make your way around the island for sunset.
- Climb up to the Chinese temple Saan Chao Pho Khao Yai.
- Spend a full day lazing in the deck chairs at Ao Atsadang/Tham Phang Beach, having fresh food and drinks brought to your table and getting foot massages from mobile massage ladies.