Just off the coast of Chonburi is a perfect island getaway – easy to reach, its sights can be toured in less than a day, leaving one enough time for the beach. Ko Si Chang’s main draw, however, is its sleepy vibe and smalltown charm that other Thai islands lost long ago in the drive to attract tourists. Getting to Si Chang is easy thanks to regular mini-vans to the port of Sri Racha. When you arrive, it’s worth taking a look around.
Because of the many Japanese companies based in the area, businesses cater especially to Japanese expats – every second shop is a sushi bar and most signs are in Hiragana. Boats to Si Chang leave hourly and aren’t for the faint-hearted. At first glance, they seem rickety and most are overloaded with day-trippers carrying fishing gear. Sri Racha is close to the Laem Chabang deep sea port, so there’s a lot of shipping and the ferry boats often weave between the bigger vessels. Jump ashore at Si Chang’s bustling pier and you’ll be offered (in the laid-back island way you’ll learn to appreciate) a Tuk-Tuk. These aren’t the cramped and view-blocking Bangkok versions, but large four-seaters with room to stretch out.
It’s cheaper to take the same driver if you want to see the sights. If you’re just here for a beach break, the island’s best spot is the bay of Tham Phang, on the west coast. There is a nice stretch of sand and sheltered swimming with no annoying jet-skis. I like to spend the day sitting under the beach umbrellas eating fresh crabs or barbequed shrimps, but there are other attractions if you can get out of your deck-chair. And it’s worth exploring Si Chang.
Despite being small, the island plays its part in Thai history. Thailand is justly proud of having never been colonised, but Si Chang was briefly taken over by the French in 1893 during a struggle over control of Laos. Until then, the island had been a getaway for King Rama V the Great, who built his teakwood home here: the Manthatratanarote Royal Mansion. After the Gallic incursion, the mansion was taken down and rebuilt in Bangkok where it’s now better known as Vimanmek Palace.
But the lovely landscaped gardens are still intact and show it must have been a glorious place in its heyday with inviting bathing pools under the trees, made up like natural grottos. While only the foundations of the palace are still in place, the sturdy teak homes King Rama V the Great built for people to recuperate from illness still stand, with grand views of the Thai coast. Take a walk out on the handsome wooden pier and you can see dozens of international ships at anchor.
It seems little has changed since the 17th century when the island was called Amsterdam due to the huge number of vessels belonging to the Dutch East India Company. Do visit the sprawling Chinese temple on the hill known as San Chao Pho Khao Yai, with its colorful dragons, mystical murals and ancient statues. A cute cable car is there to take you up the hill. Further above the temple is a replica of a Buddha Footprint in its own shrine. The view from the top will take your breath away, if there’s any left, as it’s an exhausting climb. Top tip: there is a back road to the top where your driver can drop you off.
The relic was brought from India by Prince Damrong Rajanuphab in 1892 and is now a pilgrimage site. When staying overnight, enjoy the sunset views from the Tham Phang point before visiting the old town to eat. There are seafood places by the roadside cooking freshly caught produce. There’s no nightlife on the island, other than watching the locals wandering round chatting in their pajamas. It seems a long way from partying Pattaya, down the coast. But this little slice of yesteryear offers the perfect break.