A Year in Bangkok – Koh Si Chang

22 05 2011

Colourful fishing boats in Koh Si Chang harbour.

I picked up my new car last weekend. That was quite a big deal as, shortly before leaving England, I gave my car to my son and promised myself that, from then on, I would lead a cleaner, greener life and only use public transport or occasional hire cars. Well, I lasted for about six and a half years but the journey to work has pushed me back into car ownership – and I’m already feeling the benefit! It was the last weekend before school started back so I decided we should go away. Looking at a map, I spotted Koh Sichang, a small island not too far from Bangkok that I have intended visiting for some time. This seemed to be as good a time as any so I spent Friday evening on the internet finding out about the place and booking somewhere to stay and then we set off on Saturday. We made a major detour to pick up a friend who wanted to join us so lunchtime found us at Si Racha rushing to park the car and board a seriously overloaded ferry for the island. It is actually about two hours from our house but had taken us four due to the detour. The ferry had a legal capacity of 154 passengers but there must have been close to three hundred crammed on to it. We were a bit nervous about the dangerous overloading but, hey, this is Thailand!

The local tuk-tuk

This area is a huge deep water harbour and is full of giant cargo ships and tankers, quite a disconcerting sight. They unload out there into barges, which are often seen being towed up the Chao Phraya river in Bangkok. They are so unsightly they could have easily put me off going there had I known about them in advance. I am so glad that I didn’t know about them. Koh Sichang is a small fishing community (population just over 5,000 according to a local guy we were chatting with) which I am arrogantly going to say is part of the real Thailand. I say that because I am not enamoured of the tourist hot-spots or of their complete lack of what I think of as “Thainess’. So, whatever the real Thailand may be, this is part of it! It’s delightful, quaint, old-fashioned, rugged, inexpensive and one of the nicest places I have visited. I’m already looking forward to my next visit.

Beautiful rugged scenery and walks.

As the ferry approaches the island, the first thing you are likely to notice is an old Chinese temple built into the hillside. This is called San Jao Phaw Khao Yai and is believed to date back to China’s Ming dynasty. It is built around a cave-shrine which predates the temple by many centuries, a time when Chinese junks anchored in this vast natural harbor and a proper visit, which I didn’t manage on this trip, is highly recommended.

Lovely wooden school in the island's only town.

The first things I noticed when we landed were the local tuk-tuks which I can only describe as a cross between a chopper and a limousine. These beasts are powered by six cylinder engines and are unique to Si Racha (although I didn’t see any there) and Koh Si Chang. The second thing I noticed was the colourful jumble of fishing boats in the harbour.

All those big ships in the background!

We stayed in what is apparently the only proper hotel on the island, the Sichang Palace, where we had a sea view room for 1,400 baht. The sea view was actually a panorama of ocean going ships between the island and the mainland. Our friend didn’t want to pay so much so found somewhere else but, in asking around, we discovered places as cheap as 200 baht for the night.

A convalescent home for westerners, built by King Rama v.

A late lunch was followed by a tour of the island on one of those amazing tuk-tuks for just 250 baht and that gave us a good flavour of the island. Before we knew it, the afternoon had gone and it was time for dinner. We had already planned to have dinner at a restaurant called Pan and David’s. They are a Thai/Western couple who have set up a useful, informative web-site about the island ( www.ko-sichang.com ) and also promote their restaurant on the site. Here’s a quote from it: Our food’s good because we’ve been putting our heart into our kitchen for a long time, and because we use the best ingredients.” Naturally, I was hoping it would be as good as they claimed.

Pan and David's restaurant.

First impressions were good – it was clean and attractive and we were very quickly shown to a table. I had hoped to meet Pan and David but they weren’t there. Sadly the food, although okay, wasn’t going to win any awards. All the western dishes were served with those tasteless frozen ‘french fries’ beloved by MacDonald’s and other restaurants of similar quality . A pity as real potatoes are easily obtainable here and most, if not all, of their western dishes would be so much better if a little effort was put into what they are served with. I ordered tuna steak and that was fairly good. For dessert, I had a moderately okay cheesecake. The menu claimed they had an extensive wine list and, after struggling to get the attention of one of the staff, I was told there isn’t actually a wine list – just take a walk to the chiller cabinet (which housed both red and white wines!) and choose – the price was clearly marked on all bottles. And that was the real gem of this restaurant. All the wine was very reasonably priced and that alone makes it worth going back to. We had a decent frascati for 750 baht. Just a week earlier, we had paid 1,200 baht for the exact same wine in a Bangkok restaurant. The food was good enough to make a return visit too but, as I said, not wonderful.

The original foundations for what is now called Vimanmek Mansion in Bangkok.

In the 19th century, the island was a getaway for the royal family. Three successive kings used to come here but it was King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) who really seemed to take to it. He initiated the building of a summer palace here, Munthat Rattanarot Mansion. Sadly, western colonialism pushed the royal family into abandoning the island and the mansion was never finished. The French claim to nearby Laos led to their gunships blockading the Chao Phraya river in the late 19th century and their troops occupying Koh Si Cwhite squirrelhang. A treaty was signed in 1893 relinquishing land on the eastern side of the Mekong river to France but they did not pull out their troops for another ten years. In 1901 the king had the almost finished mansion dismantled and moved to Bangkok where it was re-assembled and renamed ‘Vimanmek Mansion’. It is the largest golden teak building in the world and is well worth a visit. Here on the island, you can still see the original foundations of it.

Typical sea view on this rocky island.

Accommodation on the island is fairly limited but reasonably priced. There is no natural source of water on the island, so the people here rely on rain water stored in large cisterns that were built when the island was developed about a century ago. There is now a new water purification centre which a local guy proudly pointed out to us. Next week, I will write about a wonderful temple and meditation centre on the island.

More on this next week!

Next time we go, and there will certainly be a next time, I hope to see the squirrels. The island is home to a unique white squirrel which was hunted almost to extinction. Now, they are protected and are apparently a common sight which I hope to see very soon.

Time to risk getting that ferry back.

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2 responses

6 09 2012
David Knapp

Hi, Ben!

This is David, of Pan & David Restaurant, and I’ve just come across your comments, and I apologise for not being there with Pan to welcome and look after you. We probably give ourselves too much time off when the rainy season is coming. I’ll tell our staff that you weren’t thrilled with the food, and I’m pretty sure they’ll take at least a bit more pains to keep the standard up when Pan and I are elsewhere. In a forgotten corner like Ko Sichang it takes a long while, but they are all starting to take pride in their work, even when the cat’s away.

I have to apologise for the frozen French fries, too. Most people will happily eat them; we do buy a better brand than McDonalds and some guests even ask where they can get them, but you’re right: they don’t fit our aspirations. By the end of October, we’ll have good home fries, steamed and mashed potatoes, and one day we’ll figure out how to produce consistent “chips” from Thai potatoes. (It’s a challenge because neither the fresh markets nor the big chains have a constant supply of any particular variety.) We’ll have an up-to-date wine list, too: Pan had told the waitresses not to show the old one because we’d stopped selling two-thirds of what it listed.

If you do come back, feel free to give me a call or e-mail, and we’ll try to make amends. I’m pretty sure we’re capable of preparing a meal you’ll remember with relish.

Last of all, my compliments on your blog. Good photos, good writing, and a welcome awareness that the Thailand’s not a theme park or an unsuccessful copy of some supposedly superior Western country.

Cheers,

David

10 09 2012
Ben Salmons

How lovely to hear from you David. We have been back to the island, back to your place and my wife had a natter with your wife the last time we were there.

Good news about the potatoes! I don’t know if you know it but there is an English style fish and chip shop in Bangkok on Sukhumvit Soi 23 and they produce consistently good hand made chips. Also, Saxophone pub at Victory Monument used to but I’ve not eaten there for some years so maybe they no longer do so. As for the potato quality, I know what you mean but that is improving year by year.

I will take you up and get in touch next time we come, possibly early November when we have a weekend visitor.

Regards, Ben

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