Ko Chik: A pair of obscure, charming islands near the Welu wetlands of Chanthaburi

Island Daze #14

An old man in a leather cowboy hat and baggy red pants pulled up above his waste greeted us as we arrived at Ko Chik (also spelt Jik or Jeek) in December 2020. “Welcome foreigner,” he said. “Ko Chang has many foreigners, but never any here!”

In a flash, this welcoming “uncle” led us into the village. Other curious islanders joined as we strolled. Hearing our voices, only one of the three dogs laying in the sunshine raised its head. Hung from a window, a dozen silver fish contrasted the faded wood-and-mortar walls of a shophouse. Patches of flowers — purple ruellia and bright-orange bird of paradise — bulged over the lane.

“Are you hungry?”, a plump woman in a floral-pattern sarong asked us. “My cousin makes delicious noodles. Follow me, follow me…”


Amid the Welu wetlands

Ko Chik Nok (Outer Chik Island) sits two km off the mouth of the Welu River, one of the widest estuaries in Thailand. (Only the Kraburi River estuary in Ranong is wider, I believe.) The surrounding area mostly consists of inhabited wetlands hosting many shrimp, crab, oyster and fish farms. Few roads ensure that boats remain the primary mode of transport throughout these Welu wetlands.

Hosting little more than a coconut grove and a lonesome farmhouse, Ko Chik Nok’s little sister island, Ko Chik Klang (Central Chik Island), is closer to the mainland. There’s also Ko Chik Nai, which, despite its “Inner Island” name, occupies part of the mainland cape which forms the left bank of the Welu estuary. Other nearby villages include Ban Khlong Sadong and Bang Chan, both composed of stilted houses clustered at the ends of tributaries a little further up the Welu.

Ko Chik Nok and Klang are both on the far eastern fringe of Chanthaburi province, but the nearest pier accessible by road is on Trat province’s side of the river. Still, the existence of Ko Chik is unknown to nearly all non-locals who find themselves on nearby Highway 3156 over on that dryer Trat side of the Welu. Despite being only 10 km west of both Trat Airport and the nearest ferry pier for Ko Chang, we saw no road signs pointing to Ko Chik in either Thai or English.

This map of Ko Chik Nok is not to scale — not even close. The island actually has a triangular shape, and the map is drawn so that north is down and south is up.

Info on Ko Chik is also scant on the internet and I’ve never seen it covered by guidebooks or other travel media, apart from an island guide I wrote for Travelfish. You might assume the lack of attention means that Ko Chik lacks beauty, culture or anything else to interest travelers. If so, you would be wrong.


A brief history of Ko Chik

Chinese fishers and farmers first settled Ko Chik in ways that were similar to the settlement of Ko Mak and parts of Ko Chang in the 18th and 19th centuries. The name comes from chiknam or Indian oak trees, first planted on the islands for their edible shoots. Settlers also sowed coconut, mango, banana, mangosteen and, a bit later, rubber trees. While some forest remains, most of the interior land is agricultural.

Soldiers serving under King Chulalongkorn were garrisoned at Ko Chik Nok until French Indochina took hold of Chanthaburi in 1893. With both Chanthaburi and Trat back in Siamese hands by 1907, when Siam ceded part of Cambodia to France in exchange for what is now Thailand’s far eastern seaboard, Ko Chik became a bustling fishing hub. Its commercial success lasted well into the 20th century.

“The seafood market by the pier was very busy when I was a young,” says Mr. Somboon, an elder whose family roots on Ko Chik go back several generations. “Now the island is much quieter. Most of the young people leave to work in cities, although some return later on. It’s still a good place to live. I can leave my things lying around anywhere, and no one will steal them.”

Ko Chik natives like Mr. Somboon, seen here with our three “guides” (more on them below), were extraordinarily welcoming and genuine towards Chin and I.

Ko Chik Nok has around 400 residents, we were told, though we saw no more than 40 during our day on the island. Its only village, Ban Ko Chik, is packed along the north coast with stilted houses built over the sea and shophouses lining a single lane. Some of the architecture is attractive, resembling the heritage houses found in Nong Bua and other nearby towns. Most villagers walk or cycle to get around; we saw only two sidecar motorbikes used for moving heavier loads.

It sounds cliché, but Ko Chik Nok truly looks and feels like a place that time forgot. Cell service is weak or nonexistent. Several phone booths are in working order, and we saw no one staring at a smartphone. The island lacked electricity until solar cells were imported in recent years, a project that islanders were proud to say they completed on their own. As a result, they now enjoy 24-hour electricity.


Meet our “guides”

Within 10 minutes of our arrival, we found ourselves sitting around communal tables in the noodle shop run by Ms. Pon. Her specialty is muu liang, a soup of roasted pork slices and spongey pork meatballs in a broth rendered brown by bustard cardamom and the drippings from roasting pork. With wide rice noodles and dashes of crunchy bean sprout and pickled chili sauce, it hit the spot.

Accompanying us at Pon’s place were Mr. Somboon along with our mild-mannered boat driver, Mr. Toi, three young boys who followed us there, and one of their fathers. We bought each a 20-baht bowl of soup as they imparted the highlights of Ko Chik. After chatting with us, the father of one of the boys enlisted them as our “guides.” Though shy at first, they embraced the role with no shortage of energy.

They ran us straight up to Ko Chik Nok’s primary school, an adorable set of two wooden longhouses and a playground built on a hillside. Taro, the boy in red, told us that only eight kids, total, are in grades one through six. Porsche, wearing yellow, explained how the larger of the two buildings was no longer used due to low enrollment. And Taem, donning orange, showed us how the decaying bodies of a species of antlion bug, tun chang in Thai, look like tiny elephants.

Beyond the school lies the island’s only temple, Wat Ko Chik, with a stumpy yellow ordination hall and an old plaster Buddha in peeling red paint seated by a shaggy football field. Nearby we were shown the island’s communal well along with its largest cluster of solar panels. Then we turned uphill, into the forest.


Over the hill and down to the beach

Through tall grass and stands of mature bamboo we hiked for perhaps 15 minutes before descending to a beach on the west coast. Apart from some tidal rubbish on the shore, no signs of humans appeared. The 100-meter stretch of khaki sand was barely wide enough to sit on during our high-tide visit. Overhanging umbrella trees provided shade, with a swing strung to one of their trunks.

We waded in the clear sea as the boys swam and hung from the branches like monkeys. After showing off their stone-skipping skills, they were impressed by how far my old baseball-pitching arm can still launch a rock. After an hour or so, we had to beg the boys to get out of the water and continue our “tour.”

Soon we were striding uphill again, this time through a hillside rubber grove. At the top sits a secluded house made of fretted teak and concertina windows — the abode of a monk, we were told. He was off the island that day, meaning the boys could shout as loud as they wished while leading us to a platform set up amid the treetops. Through the leaves, we spied an empty Gulf of Thailand down below.


Shells, shrines and wooden penises

Jogging to keep up with Taro, Porsche and Taem, we doubled back through the village and met more of the islanders over bottles of soda outside one of Ko Chik’s few shophouse convenience stores. As we paced towards the northwest corner of the island, I followed a few steps behind to photograph the modest houses, phone booths and baskets of drying fish set out by the seaside footpath.

At the end of the lane stands a shrine dedicated to a feminine terrestrial spirit, Chao Mae Ko Chik, which is believed to watch over the island and its people. Ko Chik’s Chinese roots are on display in the style of the porcelain spirit image and the shrine that houses it. A golden depiction of Kuan Yin, the Chinese “goddess” of compassion, holds a Dharma wheel rather than the usual upside-down vase by the sea.

The shrine also contains piles of wooden phalluses — offerings from those who have requested help from Chao Mae Ko Chik in conceiving children or other forms of fertility, a ritual that I’ve seen down in Krabi and elsewhere in Thailand. Just beyond the shrine, seashells crunched underfoot. The sea deposits all sorts of them on the island’s northwest corner, creating a shell beach to poke around.

At first we were so focused on the array of shells that we failed to notice the gnarly granitic cliffs towering nearby. Offshore, the boys jumped from protruding rocks into the jade water. With dripping feet we climbed up to a rocky cape topped by a light tower that warns passing boats of the danger. The original lighthouse, we learned, was dismantled and reassembled on the mainland several decades ago.


Homestays and a defunct resort

Over on the northeast corner of Ko Chik Nok we passed Mangkorn Thong or “Golden Dragon,” the subject of another Chinese-style shrine established in the early 20th century. Featuring multiple dragon images, it was built after settlers stumbled onto a serpent nest and a tree branch that resembled a dragon head.

East of the Golden Dragon stands a string of homestays in a serene area, most of them occupying renovated wooden houses set on stilts above the sea. They charge around 1,000 baht per room, or 300 baht per person for large groups, including meals and access to bicycles, kayaks and perhaps fishing poles. The one that looked most inviting to us is called Koh Jik You Chan Homestay (details below).

We also peeked at Ko Chik Resort, which the government forcibly closed in 2018 for illegal sea encroachment due to the placement of its villas on concrete frames over the water. Once touted as “the Maldives of Chanthaburi” [sic!], the rooms and restaurant pavilion were falling apart when we visited. (Above-sea structures that pre-date a law banning such buildings, such as Ko Chik’s homestays, are exempt.)


Getting there

Though Ko Chik Nok is part of Khlung district in Chanthaburi province, the closest jumping off point is Ang Kapong Pier, located near a temple and village of the same name in Khao Saming district of southwestern Trat province.

There we paid 1,200 baht for a two-way trip — not cheap but a reasonable fee given the size of the boat and the half-hour ride in both directions. There is no regular ferry service to Ko Chik; instead the islanders plan trips to the mainland among themselves. Homestays might throw in a free boat pick up for guests with advanced notice, we were told. When wanting to return to the mainland, we called Mr. Toi on his cell phone and he showed up at the pier shortly afterwards.

That’s Mr. Toi’s boat on the left. The man who runs the shop beside Ang Kapong Pier told us that if a boat (and its driver) are not around when tourists arrive, he can call a boat to cruise over from Ko Chik Nok or elsewhere in the vicinity.

Non-Thai speakers should expect a language barrier, both on Ko Chik Nok itself and at Ang Kapong Pier. Also note that Ko Chik has no ATM or even a post office. There is a wee health clinic by the school.

If coming in a private vehicle, turn south off Sukhumvit Road (Route 3) onto Highway 3156 at the intersection in Saen Thung, following signs to Ko Chang and Trat Airport. From Saen Thung it’s an 18-km drive down to the turn off, which is marked only by a small Thai-language sign for Wat Ang Kapong. Take the first right after this temple to reach the pier, where it costs 40 baht to park a car for the day.

If using public transport, hop off any bus to/from Trat in Saen Thung and look for an orange songthaew parked just north of the intersection, across from Saen Thung’s fresh market, about 100 meters off Sukhumvit Rd. They ply the route between Saen Thung and Laem Ngop, and drivers can drop passengers at Ang Kapong Pier on the way. These songthaews also pick up passengers near the piers for Ko Mak and Ko Chang in Laem Ngop before heading up to Saen Thung.

Arranging a boat in Khlung allows you to explore more of the Welu wetlands and try the crab at Farm Pu Nim, but it’s a long ride from there to Ko Chik.🌴

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(Here’s a map to help you make sense of the area.)

Koh Jik You Chan Homestay (เกาะจิกอยู่จันท์โฮมสเตย์): 083 585 5320 / kohjikyouchan.weebly.com / www.facebook.com/kohjik.chanthaburi/