Do you need a little serenity in your life? After a full-on day in Bangkok kicking off a two-week trip to Thailand, I certainly did… and I found it on a pretty little red-sand beach on the east coast of Koh Chang.
While Bangkok was certainly an eye-opener, in many respects, from its infamous bars to its stunning temples, this review will focus on a quieter side of Thailand.
Suffice to say, however, that much fun was to be had in the capital, taking our life in our hands scooting around in tuk-tuks, sampling street-food delicacies such as grasshopper, negotiating the quite excellent Sky Train to the Grand Palace (incredible) and coasting along the canals in a fascinating long boat tour.
But we were heading to Thailand for some R&R, eager to feel its soul-soothing sand between our toes.
Think Thailand and you picture immaculate beaches, edged with turquoise sea and adorned with the odd quaint-looking longboat.
Koh Chang has beautiful beaches in abundance; its west coast dotted with picture-perfect stretches of white sand, and the east boasting more rustic amber bays and a rockier coastline.
Seeking a generous slice of the quiet life, we chose a new resort on the eastern side for our 10-day stay; English-run and positioned in a small yet perfectly formed bay, Serenity Resort more than lives up to its name.
It’s hard to picture a more polar opposite to the non-stop, scooter-whizzing, tuk-tuk-chugging, street-food-smelling craziness of the capital.
It’s also difficult to imagine a warmer welcome. The minute we stepped out of our air-conditioned minibus from Bangkok (arranged by the resort for 5,500 baht, around £110 – not bad for a six-hour journey) we were made to feel firmly part of the Serenity family, headed up by father and son team Keith and Steve.
The resort offers a clever fusion of rustic luxury. As you wind your way among the seven rush-roofed bungalows scattered among the grounds (none are more than a few hundred yards from the beach), the large French doors hint at the quality of the rooms beyond.
The bar, a stunning central focal point, is slap bang on the beach and dotted with modern yet cosy furniture with splashes of ice-cream colours adding a bright and cheerful twist.
Our party of five was lucky enough to score the best spot in the resort. From the shared veranda of our double bungalow it is just a step straight onto the beach – just right for that first early-morning swim in the tranquil, sheltered bay.
Being on the edge of the property (but only a few strides from the beach bar) meant we felt as though we had a private little slice of beach, complete with picture-perfect egg-shaped swing seat, ideal for curling up with your holiday read, hanging from a shady tree.
Inside the bungalows you’ll find everything you need to relax and refresh after a tiring day of lounging on the beach. The beautifully appointed bedrooms boast super king-size beds (with the option of an extra sofa bed) and efficient air conditioning, a mini-fridge with complimentary water, safe and tea and coffee-making facilities.
And the bathrooms – well, let’s just say we all rushed out of our bungalows to rave about the rainforest showers and glass-block windows (I loved how these created the effect of hundreds of tiny little views of the beach scene outside).
It’s worth remembering that laundry costs are extremely low here, a real bonus if you like to pack light; just ask a member of staff and after 24 hours your clothes will be beautifully pressed and smelling amazing. What a treat!
Likewise, another luxury too good to pass up is a Thai massage, either on the beach bar decking or on our very own veranda. For just 350 baht (£7) you can enjoy a full hour and, take it from me, you’ll feel like a new woman (or man) afterwards.
Safe to say, it’s not exactly a soothing massage – a few more ouches than oohs and aahs… but the deep muscle work pays huge dividends. Prepare to feel slightly dazed, boneless and completely rejuvenated. Bliss!
The resort is also planning to open a pool next season; I’m sorely tempted to return just for this.
Serenity is neighbour to two other resorts, Souk and Amber Sands, both just a brief stroll along the beach, and offering easy alternatives if you feel like a change from happy hour cocktails back at base.
And what cocktails! Barman Tree with his infectious smile and cheeky sense of humour is a genius with a cocktail shaker; it’s impossible to choose a favourite from the extensive menu, but mojitos and killer cosmopolitans featuring high on the list. And his home-made snacks do a great job of soaking up the margaritas.
If you’re not dozing off a bit of a morning-after headache after all that, there’s plenty to keep you amused at Serenity – including free use of kayaks and stand-up paddle boards, an absolute must on that glassy water. We enjoyed gliding around on the SUPs, soaking up the scenery; a true feeling of serenity.
All this aside, there’s so much to explore around Koh Chang.
We found Keith more than happy to book our activities and ferry us to the other side of the island, where taxis are also freely available at a very reasonable cost.
A word of warning – taxis here might not be what you’re used to. Koh Chang is very hilly; 4×4 vehicles are the preferred method of transport thanks to the vertiginous slopes, hairpin bends and frankly questionable road surfaces. Expect to be thrown in the back of a converted pick-up truck and cling on for your lives. Probably the most fun you’ll ever have in the back of a taxi!
The taxi drivers will also maximise the amount of money they can make from each trip, so expect them to pick up extra fares along the way until the taxi is full. It’s cosy… but it’s also an excellent way to meet people; we spent a fun drive back from Bang Bao sharing a cold beer with a couple of divers from Holland and Sweden.
Serenity is around 15 to 20 minutes’ drive from White Sands, the nearest large settlement on the west side of the island.
If you fancy a change from the red (and, it must be said, rather shingle-y) sands, or you’re looking for a lively bar for a sunset cocktail, this is your first stop. Its deeper, bluer waters and waves offer a nice alternative to the calm waters of the east coast. There’s plenty of nightlife here to keep you amused, with live music bars and restaurants aplenty, not to mention lots of shopping opportunities.
But exploring only begins here; there are many lovely beaches and resorts along this coast – we spent an enjoyable afternoon at Shambala, between Serenity and White Sands, a resort hidden away off the main road, boasting a stunning infinity pool and swim-up bar for a real taste of luxury, with the added bonus of being situated on a beautiful stretch of white sand.
But it’s not all beaches and sun-loungers on Koh Chang; you can’t travel all that way to miss out on some real treats the island has to offer.
Snorkelling on the island is a definite must-do; we headed to BB Divers at Bang Bao for a day trip around some of the reefs and islands at the southern end of Koh Chang. With all equipment, lunch and refreshments included in the 1100 baht price (£22), it’s a full day well spent, with plenty of opportunities to get in the water with a dedicated guide to help you discover the plethora of colourful life under the sea.
Take the time afterwards to wander the market which runs the length of the pier (the village is built over the water). There are many bargains to be had, and some great seafood restaurants to stop for a beer and a bite.
Another highlight is the elephant trekking. While there are a number of camps on the island, Ban Kwan Chang is its only dedicated elephant sanctuary, with trekking through the verdant jungle, rather around dusty tracks next to the main road.
We spent a wonderful two hours at the camp, first meandering along a shady, well-worn path – if you’re lucky, your guide disembarks to allow you to sit on behind the elephant’s head and ‘drive’ it yourself. I had a rather mischievous youngster all to myself, aged 14 years and still in training – a little nerve-wracking at first but an amazing experience. And then, to top it all, a long dip in a cool, deep pool with one of the elephants. I never imagined I’d sit astride an elephant in my swimwear, scrubbing its ears with a brush as a thank you, and I can’t recommend it highly enough!
And, of course, you can’t talk about Thailand without mentioning the food. For a spice fiend like myself, it was the perfect destination to learn how to make some of its famous dishes.
The cookery school at the Blue Lagoon resort offers an incredible experience; our six hours flew by as teacher guided us through pad thai, green, red and massaman curries, blue sticky rice coloured with butterfly pea flowers, and sweet and savoury spring rolls.
All the while, we were fed with lots of fascinating titbits on the history and tradition of Thailand and, of course, enjoyed all the delicious food prepared by our team of nine, served up in this picturesque setting of rustic wooden structures over the river, shady trees, and colourful quirky sculptures dotted around the resort.
Eating out in Thailand is wonderfully cheap; most dishes between 100 and 300 baht (£2-£6), which makes exploring the different soups, and curries even more of a pleasure. Everywhere we ate (and we ate a lot!) we were served fresh, delicious food with a healthy serving of that famous Thai hospitality.
At Serenity, meals are provided by the next-door Souk, although breakfast and some lunch items are made fresh on site. The Souk’s extensive Thai menu offers everything from pad thai to green and red curries, mouthwatering garlic and pepper prawns, spicy noodles and soups and so much more. We had so much fun eating our way through the menu it wasn’t easy to motivate ourselves to explore elsewhere of an evening, although the one night we ventured along to Amber Sands was well worth the effort.
Another culinary high spot was Salakphet Seafood at the southern end of the east coast. One of the top seafood restaurants in Thailand, its mouthwatering menu offers a wide variety of dishes customisable with the fish of your choice. We ordered a selection of plates including sashimi mackerel, the fieriest seafood tom yam I have ever come across, a whole roasted snapper with garlic, and crab cakes to die for.
This was one of the most enjoyable meals of our holiday; faultless, delectable dining in a perfectly picturesque setting – rustic wood over the turquoise water dotted with fishing boats, walkways lined with bright flowers and lush greenery. Paradise, and for a final lunch out it couldn’t have been more perfect.
It’s always sad to leave for home after a wonderful holiday, but harder than ever when it feels as though you’re leaving behind part of your family.
I definitely left a little piece of my heart in Koh Chang; all the more reason to return and find it again.
Serenity Resort is situated on the east coast of Koh Chang in the village of Dan Khao, five minutes from the Ao Sapparot ferry pier and three minutes from the Centrepoint ferry landing.
Call 0800 924452, email email@example.com, or see the Serenity website.