Saturday, November 5, 2011

Ko Chang : playing pool with playing cards, in paradise

My view on most days on Ko Chang
Ko Chang is a large island in the east of Thailand. Although tourism has been present here for quite some time, it is far less developed than in the south Thailand islands of Samui and Phuket. In fact, the entire eastern side of Ko Chang is almost devoid of tourist accommodation.
After consulting with some experienced backpackers, I decided to stay in Bang Bao, a tiny fishing village on the very southern tip of the island - this was a good compromise between lost island paradise and tourist commodities.

Life on Ko Chang is pretty laid back - activities in which I partook included snorkeling, boat tours, circling the island on a motorbike, sampling all sorts of spicy soups, and a ton of just kicking back in a hammock.

The bay right under the cottage - decent snorkeling here too!

 Life is slow and easy here. Cheap, too, for the most part.
I had a nice bungalow for the first few days, with air-conditioning and a private bathroom (while still getting used to life post-Ethiopia, these were drastic but welcomed luxuries!). Towards the end of the stay I moved into a more rustic bungalow, right on sunset cliff. There, I just had a fan and a mosquito net, but hearing the waves splash below definitely helps with having a good night's sleep!

Lunch on the snorkeling boat. Pineapple and shrimp go well together.
It was my first time snorkeling - this was definitely a highlight of my stay on Ko Chang. Sea urchins with giant black spikes and centers colored in iridescent blues, greens, yellows and oranges, a mind-blowing variety of coral formations, fish large and small, a few beautiful jellyfish are just a few of the things for which I would have liked to have an underwater camera, but alas...

Matthias takes the shortcut to the snorkeling waters
During my first hours on Ko Chang, I met a group of three French tourists (from southern France - they pronounced "gauche" with the "O" sounds like we Normandinians would pronounce "roche", which cracked me up every time). Great people, all with a love of traveling and lots of cool stories to share, made for lovely long dinners and conversation as well as solid partners for daytime activities. More about Elodie, Simon and Matthias in the obligatory pool material further down this post!
Motorcycle fuel is stored in old Samsong whisky bottles...

Another highlight of the trip was meeting Tim, an American living in Barcelona working remotely as a freelance web designer. We got along from the start and wound up traveling together after Ko Chang, all the way to Phnom Penh. Tim and I rented motorcycles (more like glorified scooters, but still - it was the first time for each of us!) and circled the entire island. About 1.5 hours each way (there is no road completing the circle in the south), we saw the gradient of development, going from 5-star spa-resorts in the western strip to abandoned temporary fishing hamlets guarded by tourist-hungry dogs in the south eastern end.

 We had heard that the road on the eastern side of the island had some damage. This was confirmed when we got to a spot on the road with a single cone and a sign that explained "The road has aproblem. Please use careful.". A couple of kilometers later we were greeted by a gigantic gap in the road caused by a recent landslide. As first-time bikers, we had some apprehension about going around the massive hole on the strip of mud that was propped up for that purpose (this is the only way to get to that side of the island!). We did make it across without problems, very fun!
The road deteriorated quite a bit in the south eastern end. Unfinished pavement, no pavement, more landslides and crazy dogs were par for the course, but we were rewarded with breathtaking views from lesser-known vantage points. It will still be a while before the whole island is covered in bland tourist paraphernalia, but it will happen - maybe 5 or ten years. Things are changing very fast in southeast Asia, some of it is good of course, but the price to pay is traditional lifestyles and unspoiled paradises such as Ko Chang will not realistically be the same tomorrow.

Snooker-sized american pool ball set, on a snooker table
 Night life in Bang Bao is virtually non-existent. There are a few restaurants, but they close quite early in general and by 11pm you have nothing to do but go back to your bungalow, flashlight in hand, dodging mosquitos and the occasional sleeping hound. After one such restaurant dinner with the French, as we were walking back we saw some locals playing what appeared to be snooker in a local food shack. I got the French to come with me on promise of buying them a beer, were it to be available, and everyone had a great time trying to figure out the rules of this crazy game in spite of the insurmountable language barrier.

This guy is explaining the rules to me. I'm not getting it.

 This game is played with a deck of playing cards. I have a feeling this a version of the game that my good friend Jonas experienced in Cambodia (see this old post).
Each player gets dealt 5 cards face down. If any player sinks a ball, then all players may reveal and discard the corresponding card. Whoever plays all his cards first, wins. For example, on my turn, I may have an 8. If I shoot and make the 8, I play my 8 card, but the other players also get to play their 8 if they have one (or several for that matter).
The game is actually quite interesting tactically, because you can actually figure out the contents of your opponents' hands by observing which shots they attempt (if you are relatively sober).
There is quite a bit of defense. In fact, sinking a ball for which you didn't have the card, or fouling in any way meant you had to take an extra card from the deck (and if that one had already been played, too bad for you!). Unfortunately I only won 1 rack and came out down about $12 after 2+ hours of play, not so bad for such an experience. The locals were super friendly and happy to try to teach the game (and to take my money).

The whole crew

I leave you with a Ko Chang spicy soup pr0n selection. Can you name them all?


  1. I love keeping up with your travels on his blog. How long do you plan on traveling?