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Thai holiday on the run leads East

Koh Chang is touted as the 'second Phuket'

By CNN's Marianne Bray

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The Chatuchak Weekend markets in Bangkok is the world's largest.
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Bangkok (Thailand)
Tourism and Leisure

(CNN) -- It was a steamy Boxing Day morning in Bangkok and we were strolling past an array of fried insects on sale at one of 9,000 stalls at the Chatuchak Weekend markets when the mobile rang.

"You've got to run, there's a huge wave," a friend staying on the resort island of Phuket shouted down the phone. A wall of water had swept up over his hotel pool, and grabbing his children he had run upstairs. He felt like he was in an action film. There were bodies everywhere, he said.

Surprised, we told him we had spent the night in Bangkok rather than rush down to Costa Lanta, a minimalist 22-bungalow resort on Lanta Yai, an island 70 kilometers (40 miles) southwest of Krabi. We were due to fly down that afternoon.

Tucking into some pad Thai, papaya salad and fried fish, we began wondering about the call. What if our friend hadn't been joking? One of our party rang the Atlanta bureau of CNN and news was breaking of a massive earthquake off northern Indonesia, triggering huge waves across coastlines bordering the Indian Ocean.

We rushed back to Bangkok's Metropolitan hotel and began calling Costa Lanta and Thai Airways. Thus began a day of confusion and chaos as calls everywhere went unanswered and the staggering story emerged on television and the Internet.

Feeling on one hand extremely lucky, and on the other, very guilty, the four of us wondered what to do. Did Costa Lanta exist anymore? Did anyone survive there? Were flights running? Do we rush down to report the story or help survivors? Return home to Hong Kong? Find somewhere else in Asia? Stay in Thailand?

We decided to stay. Thailand is like our second home. Our dream was -- it still is -- to retire to Phuket. We didn't know what to do, but we didn't want to leave.

Deciding we would only get in the way if we went down, a Bangkok friend suggested the relatively unknown island of Koh Chang (Elephant Island) in eastern Thailand. It is the second largest island in the nation, a place Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra wants to make the "second Phuket."

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On the ferry ride to Koh Chang we discovered we were looking at the cover photo of Lonely Planet's 2000 edition.

Set in the Gulf of Thailand close to Cambodia, there would be no killer waves in Koh Chang because the Thai-Malay peninsula separates it from the Indian Ocean. A four-hour drive from Bangkok made it less popular than Koh Samet or the busy resort town of Pattaya.

It was touted as the Phuket of 20 years ago, a mountainous island in a remote marine park, with waterfalls and unspoiled rainforest descending to long sandy beaches and shallow waters.

With the end of the Cambodian civil war next door, the 47-island archipelago was deemed safe.

I had brought my five-year-old edition of Lonely Planet's "Thailand's Islands and Beaches." We loaded up on cash, because there were no banks on Koh Chang, the book said. We also left most of our baggage in Bangkok, because we were going "back-to-nature" -- roads were unsealed, and the accommodation was back-packer style beach bungalows.

Still the pictures of palm-fringed beaches, and the Lonely Planet's claim that Koh Chang had the best preserved tropical rainforest in Thailand, and perhaps in all Southeast Asia, sounded promising. Here we could push the frontiers of eco-tourism -- hiking and bicycling around an unspoiled island, snorkeling and diving among coral reefs and tropical fish.

Looking for somewhere to stay in likely the busiest week of the year, I logged into www.tripadvisor.com, found a link to a 2002 Washington Post article that recommended staying at the Klong Prao Resort, which I booked immediately.

The next day we headed southeast from Bangkok in a minivan to Laem Ngop, where ferries leave for Koh Chang. News of the tsunami had reached our friends and all day we fielded calls. Even then, nobody understood the magnitude of the disaster, and the conversations had an air of idle gossip: "I have a friend in Thailand who just escaped, I only just spoke to them."

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On our trip south we passed the Bang Bao fishing village until we reached the end of the road and another beach.

When we arrived at the Centrepoint ferry terminal on the northern tip of the island, we jumped onto a songthaew, threw our bags onto roof-racks, and hung on for dear life as 11 of us wound our way down the west coast on the back of the converted pickup truck in the dusk.

We emerged from the darkness at Hat Sai Khao (White Sands Beach) village, where we dropped off some passengers. Here we saw the first of many 7-Elevens, Internet cafes, gaudy mid-range resort complexes, travel agents, banks, ATMs and red-light districts. People crowded around Heli's Kitchen, the Hipp café and "Mini-Pattaya" -- a cluster of open-air beer bars complete with ageing pool tables and super-friendly bar girls.

Tourists chatted up bar girls, bar girls chatted up tourists, and a novice tourist was being seduced by a "she-man." Just then our songthaew started off on the now sealed road.

It had taken less than five years since the publication of the Lonely Planet guide for Thaksin's vision to come true -- Koh Chang was becoming another Phuket.

A few minutes later we arrived at Klong Prao resort. Bungalows perched precariously over a lagoon, close to the beach. The proximity frightened me now -- it felt so exposed. But it was too late now -- we just hoped this was one of those rare places that looked better by day.

Luckily, when we woke up, it was. We were on a beautiful and uncrowded crescent of white sandy beach, shaded by coconut palms with jagged, forested mountains behind us.

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The Coral Resort restaurant in Kai Bae village had great views.

On this balmy, sun-drenched island it was as if the tsunami had never happened. There was no outward sign on people's faces. The only news we got was from two-day old editions of the Bangkok Post where photos showed burnt and bloated corpses sprawled amid rubble.

In Koh Chang people lazed on the beach, rented kayaks right alongside us to paddle to nearby islands, succumbed to cheap and cheerful Thai massages by the pool, snorkeled in clear waters and celebrated sunsets with Pina Coladas. We felt completely disconnected from the real world, and so we joined them, drinking bottles of Australian chardonnay we had shipped in from Bangkok.

As darkness fell, we adjourned to the beach restaurant, where we quickly established our routine, setting up our own makeshift bar -- a side table, bottles of Mekong, soda water, a tub of ice cubes, some bottles of Singha, cigarettes, ash trays and an iPod with portable speakers -- to while the evenings with games of cards and fresh grilled seafood as workers built a temporary stage over the sea for the New Year's party.

This carried on for days, broken only by renewed bouts of anxiety and guilt as we read old newspapers over breakfast and wondered about the tsunami.

A few days later, we were forced to break our pattern because the resort was fully booked over New Year. Hiring a "Cowboy for Rent" jeep from Koh Chang Plaza, we headed south, navigating perilous switchback turns that tested our Suzuki Jeep, which whistled and squealed as we passed many high-end package holiday hotels on the west coast.

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The 64-room luxury resort of Ramayana is one of the newest entrants to the market.

Thailand has begun marketing this former backpacker haven as the "Oriental Eden of East Asia," a luxury destination for well-heeled package tourists.

Thirty-two kilometers long at most, and with only 6,000 villagers, Koh Chang boasts 106 resorts with about 3,100 rooms perched on a narrow strip of land circling the mountain range. Two flights a day from Bangkok land at the mainland in nearby Trat and there is talk of turning some of the islands into golf courses, casinos and a jungle safari.

On the trip south, we stopped at many hotels, including the luxury resort of Ramayana and the trendy Amari Emerald Cove, but everywhere rooms were booked as tourists headed to this unscathed part of the world. At one high-end hotel the manager said they were over-booked, no one wanted to leave, and more people were coming: "I wish we had cancellations," she sighed.

When we returned to Klong Prao, the manager said he had found us rooms. They were upgrades. Luxury suites. Right on the beach. Two meters from the breaking swell. My sleep became more troubled than ever. Giant waves tormented me. Perhaps this is what happens when you vacation during a terrible disaster.

That night we went for a night cap at Mini-Pattaya. There we met an English man perched on a stool in the corner of the bar. He was waiting for friends who had been in Phuket, but he hadn't heard from them. Collection boxes on the bar asked for donations.

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Koh Chang offers champagne sunsets and Mekong evenings.

On our last night, New Year's Eve, we watched the sun set over the gulf, thinking of those who had not been as lucky as us. We reluctantly joined the party, a compulsory resort event, where the manager drew prizes out of a lucky-draw while a band sang Thai and Western covers.

We were surprised they didn't have a moment of silence for those who had lost their lives a few hundred kilometers south. At midnight fireworks erupted over the still black sea. We still hadn't reached Costa Lanta.

When we returned to Hong Kong, we received word. The resort had been damaged, and was closed but everyone escaped "with nothing but scrapes and bruises," the email from the management said. And, as in many resorts around Asia, they are trying to find the strength to start over.

Mulling over our holiday, I'm glad we stayed. In all the disillusioning travel I've done, I'm always happy to arrive in Thailand, and be hit by the tropical heat, odors and colors and submerge myself in the gentle culture, the food, the palm trees and the beaches. The tsunami has made me appreciate it all the more and discover a new place at the same time.


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