Koh Chang has a long and detailed history which dates back to the Ayutthaya era (1350-1767). Back then, the whole of Trat province, including Koh Chang, was known as Baan Bang Pra. However, it was not long before Koh Chang started to develop its own personality and therefore received its own name. During the reign of King Naresuan, the island was named Koh Chang because of its shape.
If approached by boat from the mainland, the northernmost tip of Koh Chang indeed looks like the upper body and trunk of an elephant wading the sea with a baby elephant following. ‘Chang’ in Thai means ‘elephant’, and ‘Koh’ means ‘island’.
Elephants are greatly revered in Thailand and therefore, it was a great honour for the island to receive this name.
During the reign of King Rama V (1868-1910), Trat province was actually handed over to the French as part of an agreement which saw French troops remove themselves from Chantaburi Province. However, King Rama V successfully reclaimed the province in 1906 in exchange for Sri Sophon, Pratabong and Siem Reap.
This was seen as an enormous conquest for Thailand and in honour of their devoted King, the people of Trat erected the Rama V Monument which is still seen today. It is located at the front of City Hall and sees crowds gather round it every year on 23 March to celebrate the province’s Independence Day.
Koh Chang was pretty much left to its own devices until the Indochina war (1940-1941). The French navy tried to recapture Trat and the famous French-Thai battle took place at Koh Chang on 17 January 1941. The Thais were victors and managed to drive the French fleet out of Thai territorial waters. However, many Thais lost their lives and as a result and mark of respect for all who lost their lives, the Thai Navy holds a merit-making ceremony every year on 17 January.
After this war and over the next 30 years, the island belonged to a small group of local families. It did not see any tourists or development. The fertile land of the island’s interior was considered the real money-making area and was where villagers set up home. The beach was considered worthless.
The island was further populated by fishermen who lived on the mainland in the neighbourhood of Koh Chang. They stumbled upon it during their fishing trips and some of them set up home on the island.
Generations later, the patriarch of the family which owned most of Kai Bae beach decided it was time to split his land between his children. He favoured his sons and therefore gave them the fertile inland for them to grow rubber and fruit. The daughters were given a token gift of the land by the sea. In the end, the daughters made their fortunes with this land, most of which is still owned by the same family and as the island continues to develop, so the money keeps rolling in.
In 1982, parts of the island and its 51 surrounding small islands were declared as part of the Koh Chang Marine National Park. Approximately 85% of the island is under protection from development, however this is mainly the interior leaving most of the desired coastal area to be developed for the increasing tourist arrivals.