TRAT, 27 August 2018: Trat province in the far southeast corner of Gulf of Thailand bordering Cambodia queued patiently to capture the imagination of international travellers for literally decades.
Most travellers headed in the opposite direction along the Southwest coast of the Gulf of Thailand to more famous spots such as Samui Island and across the narrow peninsula to the Andaman Sea coast where Phuket enjoys premier status.
But it was inevitable that Trat’s day in the sun would arrive mainly due to its awesome archipelago asset; 52 islands led by Chang Island, the third largest in Thailand.
The day dawned in early 2002 when Bangkok Airways opened the privately owned airport and the first flight from Bangkok took off for Trat. During the peak season, October to March, there are four daily flights between the capital’s Suvarnabhumi airport and the tiny rustic airport, which means with a little planning travellers can enjoy a snooze in a hammock, or a cool dip in a swimming pool on their favourite hideaway island by early afternoon.
The airport serves around 90,000 passengers annually and most passengers head for Laem Ngop, the main pier 20 km from the airport, where they board the 30-minute ferry ride to Chang Island.
Trat province is all about breath-taking island locations and the three largest in the archipelago — Chang, Mak and Kood — draw most of the visitors to their white sandy beaches.
Boasting some of the clearest waters in the Gulf of Thailand, Trat’s islands are opening up fast, but conservation experts say they are confident that national park status alongside supervision of sustainable tourism policies the province’s natural assets can be protected and the mistakes made at other island destinations avoided.
Trat town itself is on the sleepy side. It’s a typical provincial town that plays second fiddle to the islands as far as tourism is concerned. It’s narrow lanes, wooden houses near the town’s river and a compact, but busy market and commercial district can be explored easily on an afternoon’s walking tour. There is even a lake close to the town’s centre where you can hire a bike for a leisurely 10-km ride around its grassy banks.At the market, an open-air street food business flourishes in the evenings. This is the best spot to dine. One of the popular dishes, ‘clams cooked in roasted chilli curry sauce’, reminds you are close to the sea, while fried fish cat fish with sweet basil is popular and a break from the daily fried rice and chicken routine.
Street food dining wouldn’t be complete without a delicious desert and one of most popular in Trat’s market is the mouth-watering pumpkin with egg custard. Then there is the vast variety of fruit grown in Trat and neighbouring Chanthaburi province to round off the dinner.
Most of the town’s visitors arrive on buses having travelled 315 km from the Thai capital a journey that takes around five hours. By the time they arrive in Trat it is too late to head for the border with Cambodia, 90 km southeast, or transfer to Laem Sok pier to catch the last ferry to Kood island, the southern-most island, that departs around 1400. They stay over and resume their trip to Kood island after breakfast.
Chang island’s massive silhouette dominates the distant seascape; craggy, forested and hilly with its highest point 744 metres above sea level, but hardly in the shape of an elephant as the name might suggest.
Covering an area of 212 sq km it’s the largest of all the islands that make up the Mu Koh Chang National Park that stretches from Laem Ngop in the north to Klong Yai district in the south close to the border with Cambodia.Chang is famed for its stark contrasts. It is blessed with steep densely forested mountains and cliffs, the highest being Khao Salak Phet, 744 metres above sea level. Then there are dramatic waterfalls and quiet almost deserted beaches at the eastern tip of the island overlooking hideaway islands, Man Nok and Man Nai. Chang’s fishing traditions live on at Bang Bao fishing village where traditional wooden houses on stilts are built out into the sea linked by narrow wooden walkways.
Here the sights and smells are those of a traditional fishing community, industriously going about its business producing shrimp paste, dried shrimp, fish sauce, and salted fish. The fleet is at anchor, waiting for sunset and the call to cast anchor and fish for squid under the powerful gaze of arc lights.
Chang’s western beaches, where most of the up-scale resorts are located are busier than those on the east coast. The latter are chill-out spots for visitors who want to touch base with local communities and trek jungle paths and explore waterfalls.
Exploring the eastern side of the island introduces “the authentic and traditional Chang experience”. Take time out to explore Klong Son a village surrounded by mangrove forest and a centre for the island’s rubber plantations, then board a boat or kayak up close to explore mangrove forest before heading for lunch at a traditional Thai seafood restaurant at Salak Khok.
The best time to visit any of Trat’s islands is during the cool season from November to the end of February but this is the busiest time. There are also peak holiday weeks in April and May when Thailand’s schools take a long break.
Usually, the islands are quieter in May to October during the rainy season. Resorts drum up bookings with discounted rates and some will even give a rebate if it rains for more than four hours at a stretch to compensate for the leaden overcast skies and the not so infrequent squall from sea that brings a heavy downpour in its wake.
Kood island, covering 127 km, is Thailand’s fourth largest island. It is known for the contrasts of its resort accommodation. On one hand the ultra luxury of villas served by butlers offer exclusive locations and the promise of anonymity, while on the other cosy, family- run resorts share white sand beaches make Kood island so special. Celebrities transfer by private jets to the small airstrip carved out of a small island, while the rest of us take the ferry from Laem Sot pier.
The third largest in the archipelago, Mak Island stands between Chang and Kood. It’s a flatter island with a coastal plain where coconut and rubber plantations flourish. About 95% of the land on this island is private property belonging to five families who have occupied the land for decades.
Unlike Chang, the close-knit community that owns most of the island has been able to set a course to establish the island as a low-carbon model of green or sustainable tourism.The eco-friendly directives have made the island one of the few that has adopted a waste management system, recycling and the use of even battery driven carts to replace petrol driven vehicles.
Trat may have waited decades to roll out its tourism assets and promote its vast diversity for island hoppers, but considering its strong ecotourism credentials and the lead role that Mak island now commands as a low-carbon holiday option it has been worth the wait.