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Koh Chang, Trat – Transport Options & Issues

Saturday, July 3rd, 2010

© 2010 Frank P. Schneidewind

The island of Koh Chang is the largest of all real natural islands in Thailand. If you take the bridge-connected Phuket, with its few meters of waterway, that separates it from the mainland, from the list.

Koh Chang has a long personal history for me, as I was privileged to witness it well before the Millennium. Back in my wild years, Koh Chang offered a lot of freedom and it hardly had any significant developments, other than the fishing village of Kai Bae and the small Resort area of Hat Sai Khao. Hat Sai Kho turned into White Sand Beach by name at a later time and a narrow asphalt road was replacing an off-road dirt track between the villages. Koh Chang has changed a bit in the years between then an now, but it surely didn’t get overtouristed like Phuket or Koh Samui. There are now a number of Resorts and Hotels along the ring road, but the immediate shore area is the only developed stretch of land on the island. Ferries are plentiful, the one from Ao Thammachad leaving roughly every hour, the Centerpoint Ferry operates at a less frequent schedule. A crossing is executed in well under one hour and costs 100 Baht one-way or 120 Baht return. Travelers have reported and complained about Centerpoint Ferry not offering the cheaper return tickets to foreigners, but that is just a cheap scam and can be avoided by chosing the right ferry. The Ao Thammachad ferry is the one the locals and expats use, I took their advice and made sure, that we did not get taken. Both mainland-side ferry ports are near Laem Ngop, easily accessible from Trat town, a little trickier from Chantaburi. Busses and scheduled minivans service directly the pier at Ao Thammachad but when you arrive via Trat bus-terminal, you’ll have touts and scamsters luring you onto the Centerpoint ferry. Keep this in mind and avoid being ripped-off. Further details on another Centrepoint scam island-side will follow here.

Attention: The Trat bus-terminal has been relocated to a remote spot outside of town! Exit at the market or near it, in order to avoid further transport scams. Taxi usage is almost unavoidable at the new Trat bus-terminal!

The state run “government” bus system leaves from Ekkamai station on Sukhumvit in the eastern part of Bangkok. Their meager schedule is offering only 3 buses to the Koh Chang pier, very early in the morning. 2 buses leave prior to 8 o’clock and the only one leaving later is the one departing at 9:45 hours, which is often sold out. This bus service was for the longest time the only other option to flying.

Trat does have a small airfield, which is serviced exclusively by Bangkok Airways, they have a reputation to max out possible airfares due to lack of competition. Trat airport with its open air terminal and short runway, reminds one of the Samui airstrip of earlier days. Insider know, that Bangkok Airways owns both airports and has built them very cost saving.

Update:  A direct flight to and from Koh Samui as well as Phuket is announced for the 2010/2011 high season, please inquire with Bangkok Airways, if interested. Signage near Klong Son  on the road side advertises flights to be bookable as early as December.

The bus is bragging with a transit time of 4 1/2 hours for the journey, a regular estimate is closer to 6 1/2 to 7 hours. This particular bus is the same, that also stops also at Bangkok Airport to scoop up passengers! It also stops normaly in Klaeng and Chantaburi, and has frequent drop-off stops, prior to the final destination.


My driver on the last trip, that I ever took with this bus connection, was the unfriendliest Isaan “Hell’s Driver” that I ever encountered in Thailand. It took close to 7 hours to cover the slightly over 300 Kilometers from Bangkok. A disgusting attitude and a driving style, that jerked passengers unnecessarily around. Tailgating others permanently and honking his horns like a madman. On top of this, he entertained himself with some ethnic music, that was annoying – when he had breaks from chatting on the cellphone, whilst tailgating someone at 100 km/h+. He had to run these speeds, because he wasted excessive time in Suvarnabhumi, Klaeng and Chantaburi. In the Chantaburi bus terminal alone, he idled well over 30 minutes, to fill the bus up with young students in uniform. It then took forever to drop them at their various stops along the way, sometimes only a Kilometer from his previous stop. Unbelievable, but the government calls this a 1st class bus and charges accordingly! The fare has been raised to 350 Baht one way. Pretty steep, if  you are considering the Chantaburi bus fares (with the last 60 km to Laem Ngop missing), being just under 200 Baht.

Those who take the bus to Trat will be introduced to their brand spanking new bus arrival station, where blue colored songtheauws park, already waiting for their coaches full of victims. Sometimes, one’s luggage may be stowed onto the songtheauw and taken from the buses belly, if it is identifiable, being a foreigner’s backpack or suitcase and not a cardboard box or plastic bag. Try to avoid getting dropped at the new Trat Bus Terminal, you’ll be way out of town there and need further transportation, which eager unmetered fly-by-night taxis (ordinary sedans) will gladly provide for a wildly exaggerated fee. Try to arrange to get out at the central market (Thalaad Trat) instead, you have better options from there to get to the pier, without getting ripped off.:)

Blue colored songtheauws, like the one shown utilize touts, and all other means to lure you into them. The fare to the Centerpoint ferry pier is 60 Baht, but frequent lies are common. “The ferry leaves right, when we arrive!” and jokes like that. The worst fact is, that you will fall into a series of scams without much chance to get out of the scheme!  First the lesser frequency of crossings, then the trick with one-way tickets only and then the grand finale. The island side ferry pier for the Centerpoint ferry is located further South on the eastern side of Koh Chang. Hardly a local takes these ferries, so chances are high that there won’t be a songteauw waiting to transport you at a scheduled and fixed rate. Instead you will be asked to hire the entire vehicle for a whopping rip-off price. AVOID BLUE, when going to Koh Chang! A Blue songtheauw is pictured below.

The decent transport option to Koh Chang from Trat features white colored songtheauws, they drive a little further, but you will arrive at the much more frequent ferry at their pier in Ao Thammachad. 60 Baht is the fare and the trip lasts under 30 minutes. This is, what the locals use and I had no friction with them on plenty of trips. They schedule their departures at the market in Trat, in order to get you to the pier in time for a quick crossing. They are also available for a trip from the pier back to Trat. The ferry docks on a pier island-side further north and due to their high frequency of locals, there were always songtheauws waiting to take you to your island destination. The fare to White Sand Beach is 50 or 60 Baht.

A smart alternative to the crappy government bus is being offered without great fanfare at the Ao Thammachad pier. New minibuses ply the route to Bangkok hourly in high season and every 2 hour in off-season. A ticket costs 300 Baht one-way and they drop you off at Victory Monument (BTS) or Mor Chit. They start their services at 7:00 hours and leave after the last ferry to the mainland arrives at 19:00 hours. Transit time via the tollway (included) is 4 hours on average, as they make only one pit-stop halfway. A drop-off at the Bangkok airport can be arranged for at no surcharge.

Koh Chang bound passengers best board the minivan  at Bangkok’s Victory Monument, their starting point is in front of  the Rajavithi Hospital there.

The vans were always new (still had red plates!) and clean, the below pictured hut has been taken down since last year, but you can’t miss the ticket booth, if you bear to your right hand side, past the cafe outside the ticket booth for the ferry.

UPDATE! The booth moved to the left hand side of the large bus parking place, 100 m across the road to enter and exit the ferry loading dock. A second line offers other destinations on Sukhumvit Road, Khao Sarn Road or Ngam Wong Wan Road, their fare is 350 Baht one-way.

The interior is roomy and not as cramped as on old style minivans. Headrests, seatbelts, you won’t miss a thing.

The used ferries are of the roll-on-roll-off variety. Toilets are on board and a snack shop with a drink selection. Bring your Coke along, if you are a Cocaholic, like me – they serve P….products, which may make me seasick.

Enjoy your stay on this great island and don’t hesitate to ask in a comment here, if you have any questions. We will depart Bangkok within hours for Koh Chang and give you a second Koh Chang SIAMPEDIA Report about some selected places and resorts, eateries and so forth.

SRT – Thailand’s State Railway in distress

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009

© Frank P. Schneidewind

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© Video by SIAMPEDIA

Thailand’s over a century old rail system is narrow gauge and mostly single track. This doesn’t allow for 21st century speeds, but it’s still being operated and hauls quite a number of passengers in 3 different classes of service. Tourists, which have to catch planes at any nationwide airport should refrain from rail services, their useage of timetables and schedules does not operate on western standards!

Equipment is being called “time-bombs” by leading local media and recent fatalities through derailments did cast a further bad shadow on the tracks. We have, however used long distance rail services in the past frequently and have just returned from Hat Yai in the far South. Other main lines lead North to Chiang Mai or East to Aranyaprathet, a Northeastern spur to Nong Khai has the lousiest railcars involved (wooden benches without any upholstery!) and was boycotted by us for orthopedic reasons in the past. Spurs to Trang, Sungai Kolok or Padang Bezar in the South and Kanchanaburi in the West do cater for residents there or tourists heading for destinations in those vicinities. A once daily service to and from Pattaya and Suphanburi is badly timed and often half empty. Efficiency doesn’t seem to play any factor on the rails.

The engines have a bad reputation with barely enough on hand for the daily service. Strikes hemmed efficiency and reliability bad in the recent past. It is said, that a large percentage of Thailand’s 212 engines is seriously damaged (“fubar”, in new English) and currently being cannibalized for spare parts to keep enough rolling stock on the rails. Copied parts are a major cause for failures and accidents, nobody gets his wrist slapped in Thailand for operating equipment with faulty brakes or security relevant parts made cheaply off-standard locally or in China. A person’s life doesn’t count for much here and the self-applauding governments from all the different parties, that ruled this country during the past decades, nobody dared to pay any attention!

The sleepers have outlasted their lifespan often 30 years ago, and rail securing technology from the 40’s is still being visible in many sections. Concrete sleepers with real gravel between them, a standard anywhere else, is being implied at a typical snail pace and may last a few more decades. SRT is not spending enough money to keep their train’s security switches and brakes active (reason for the recent deadly derailments), what do they worry about something so low as a sleeper for the rails.

The loud horns always work fine, no engineer would take on a journey without them! Countless unsecured railway crossings in the nation rack up a number of traffic fatalities per year, headline for a day only.

Engines are painted in a gright yellow, but paint is cheap and rust is plenty! Rusty parts overpainted last a little while longer, so their philosopy. So don’t get taken away by the colorful paintjobs on engines, that’s just a disguise for people believing in postcards and their motives!

 

Check the railcars and couplings for structural damages, oil leaks and hissing pressure hose connections – but well, people use these rolling pieces of trash daily, because a bus would cost them triple the fare. There is no alternative to SRT’s best-selling 3rd class fare, nowhere in the country!

Attacks with semi auto fire from muslim insurgents and bombings of rail-targets have halted the services south of Hat Yai quite often. Armed patrols accompany every train now and they are army rangers, well trained!

 

But we will concentrate on the service provided, not on the technical rapping the SRT is permanently getting from it’s own workers, engineers and the print media.

Train travel does have indeed positive sides, those will be featured in the follow-ons here for you on siampedia.org

Stay tuned for our essences from 15.000+ KM of train travel over the last couple of years here, we used all available classes of service – some of those never ever again :). We start with the 1st class sleeper-cabin tomorrow, cozy and not too bad – but pricier than a budget airline ticket!