Royal Retreat

Koh Si Chang is the perfect holiday destination, even for a day

One hilly island on the Gulf of Thailand has the ambience of a fishing village and the reminiscence of a royal palace to offer visitors. Its name is Koh Si Chang, comprised of nine islets, situated about 12km off the coast of Si Racha in Chon Buri.

King Chulalongkorn used his personal funds to build Asdang Bridge in the compound of Phra Chudadhuj Palace to celebrate the recovery of his son, HRH Prince Asdang Dejavudh, from an illness after his long stay on Koh Si Chang. The royal opening ceremony was held on Aug 23, 1891.

The atmosphere is tranquil on weekdays when holiday-makers from Bangkok and elsewhere have yet to arrive. Various activities await visitors on weekends, from sightseeing to fishing, relaxing on the beach, snorkelling or kayaking off a bat-inhabited islet or meditating at a cave monastery.

Due to its proximity to Bangkok, Koh Si Chang is fit for a one-day trip, as well as an overnight stay. One of its highlights is the Phra Chudadhuj Palace, established by King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) in the 19th century, when the island was a popular place for Siamese royals and Westerners to convalescence.

Here, you will still see traces of the past. They include several royal residences and the foundation of a teak mansion, which was relocated to Bangkok and renamed Vimanmek.

Near the palace stands Wat Asdangkhanimitr, whose ordination hall resembles a Buddhist pagoda blended with Gothic architecture. Another must-see piece of architecture in the palace compound is the beautiful wooden Asdang Bridge.

A few minutes drive from the palace is Hat Tham Pang beach where locals and tourists relax on beach chairs, eating seafood, fried chicken, som tum and sticky rice, go fishing or cool off in the pristine waters.

On the other side of Koh Si Chang is Chong Khao Khat, or the Issariyapon Passage, where panoramic views of the island are cherished, especially at sunset. A royal pavilion, erected for for King Chulalongkorn, stands there.

This wooden house, called Ruan Mai Rim Thalay, was built in the reign of King Chulalongkorn as convalescence lodging for Westerners. Later, the king had it restored for use as a residence for members of the Royal Family before the establishment of Phra Chudadhuj Palace in 1892. Today, it serves as an information and exhibition centre for visitors.

Koh Si Chang is also home to several sacred sites. Among them is a replica of the Lord Buddha's footprint and the Chao Phor Khao Yai Chinese Shrine.

Four major festivals are celebrated annually on the island. During Chinese New Year, many people from the mainland pay their respects to the Chao Phor Khao Yai shrine. Every March, a festival is held for a large number of the faithful to worship the replica of Lord Buddha's footprint at Phra Chulachomklao Peak.

On April 19, local villagers hold a prayer ceremony and feast at the Sri Chalothornthep Shrine, the island's spirit house which was founded in 1891. In July, local residents form a parade to celebrate the start of Buddhist Lent and present a gigantic candle to the monks of Wat Chuthathit Thammasapharam.

Historical records show that the name Si Chang existed in the early Ayutthaya period. In one of his poetry books entitled Khlong Kam Suan, poet Si Prat referred to this island as Koh Sachang. However, in Samutphap Traiphum, from the late Ayutthaya and Thon Buri periods, the island was called Si Chang.

There is no hard evidence concerning the origin of the name Sachang or Si Chang. Some scholars believe the word may have originated from the Khmer word satueng, meaning "deep water". Others believe the word is derived from a Pali word meaning the leg of a lion, which depicts the shape of the island. This word is also pronounced Si Chang, though spelt differently.

For over a century, the island has been on a marine navigation route. Vessels travelled along the coast from Chanthaburi past Sattahip and the island before entering the Chao Phraya estuary. Protected from strong winds by mountains, Koh Si Chang has long been a port and place for loading goods. In 1879 during the reign of King Chulalongkorn there were efforts to make a map to indicate the depth of the water surrounding the island. Submerged rocks were also surveyed and iron buoys placed.

In the past, Koh Si Chang was a popular holiday destination and a place to convalescence due to its beautiful scenery, pristine air and close proximity to Bangkok.

When King Chulalongkorn visited Koh Si Chang, he was greeted by local villagers, mostly the elderly who were healthy and strong. The king praised the island for its fine climate, which led to longevity and good health. During his reign, the island became a popular holiday resort for Westerners, and local authorities built lodgings for rent.

In 1888, the king sent the ailing HRH Prince Maha Vajiravudh to the island to recuperate. The next royals who stayed there and regained their health were one of the king's consorts, HRH Princess Saovabha Phongsri, who would later become queen, and her son HRH Prince Asdang Dejavudh.

More importantly, Koh Si Chang holds historical significance due to its relations to several Siamese kings.

King Rama IV visited the island several times and made one of the villagers, Grandma Sem, the island's caretaker holding the title of thao khiri raksa. He also restored Wat Koh Si Chang.

Later, his son King Chulalongkorn visited the island for the first time as a prince. After his coronation, he took several long vacations there from 1879-1892. His reign was a golden period for Koh Si Chang with the emergence of convalescence homes, bridges, roads, wells, schools, a lighthouse and more. The king built Phra Chudadhuj Palace as a royal residence where he stayed and worked during his holidays on the island. His son King Vajiravudh, then a prince, stayed for eight months in 1888 at one of the island's lodgings when he was seriously ill.

After the Franco-Siamese crisis in 1893, the palace was deserted. Since the 1970s, it has been maintained by Chulalongkorn University and was re-opened as a museum. Today, a 224 rai plot on the island houses the university's Marine Science Research Station.

Koh Si Chang is a paradise island for people from all walks of life _ from royals and jetsetters to holidaymakers, marine scientists and adventurers along with faith practitioners.

In 1891, King Chulalongkorn noticed that the surroundings of Wat Koh Si Chang was no longer suitable for monks to practice dhamma due to the emergence of bungalows for rent to Western tourists. He therefore had a new temple built on a hillside, south of the palace compound, and named it Wat Asdangkhanimitr. The ordination hall was constructed on a royally granted plot of land in 1892. The hall has distinctive, unconventional features. It is round with a Sinhalese-style pagoda instead of a conventional roof on top. The doors and rose-coloured stained glass windows have pointed arches like those in Gothic architecture. Around the hall lies a circular terrace for ceremonial walking, surrounded by walls with glazed balustrade decoration. On these walls are eight stone inscriptions depicting dhamma.

Ruan Phongsri is one of three buildings constructed in 1889 as Asaitasathan, or convalescence buildings, for royals, before the construction of Phra Chudadhuj Palace in 1892. It was named after one of the king’s consortsHRH Princess Saovabha Phongsri, who would later become queen. Inside the building is the bronze statue of King Chulalongkorn sitting on a chair carrying his sonHRHPrince Asdang Dejavudh, along with his other sons,HRHPrince Chakrabongse, left, andHRH Prince Maha Vajiravudh, right. The statue is believed to have been built sometime between 1892-1893. Today, the building displays an exhibition on the biographies of important figures related to Koh Si Chang.

In front of Wat Asdangkhanimitr’s ordination hall, to the east, is the sacred Sri Maha Bodhi Tree, planted by King Chulalongkorn. The sapling was brought from Bodh Gaya, India, by one of the king’s brothers,HRHPrince Damrong Rajanuphab.

Phra Chudadhuj Palace was the country’s first palace on an island. It was built on a rocky triangular site on the hillside by the sea, southeast of Koh Si Chang, after the recovery of one of the king’s consortsHRHPrincess Saovabha Phongsri and their sonHRHPrince Maha Vajiravudh in 1888. Under the royal command of King Chulalongkorn, construction of the palace officially began in 1892 and was supervised byHRHPrince Bhanurangsi Savangwongse. The palace was named by the king after one of his sons,HRHPrince Chudadhuj Dharadilok, who was born on the island that year. The palace had four royal mansions, as well as 14 royal residences, which are named after different kinds of gemstones. Also, there were eight inner gates, gardens, pavilions, ponds, walkways and steps. Their fine architectural features were in harmony with the natural surroundings. King Chulalongkorn gave meaningful, melodious and rhyming names to these structures. More wells and ponds, including the Maha Anodard Well, were dug in the palace compound. Nearby is Lan Song, a special area for the royals to bathe. A certain amount of archaeological objects were uncovered in the palace compound during restoration work. These finds are believed to be utensils used by those who accompanied King Chulalongkorn to the island. They are classified into four groups: pottery imported from China, Holland and England and locally made iron tools, architectural ornaments and miscellaneous objects like medals, coins and fragments of glass containers. However, only a few European-style sculptures are on view at the museum today.

Ruan Vadhana is one of the three convalescence buildings for royals, built before the construction of Phra Chudadhuj Palace in 1892. It was named after Queen Savang Vadhana. Today, it features an exhibition on the island’s major incidents.

Ruan Abhirom is one of the three Asaitasathan buildings. It was named after one of the king’s consortsHRHPrincess Saisawalee Bhirom. It was used by Si Racha district as a school building from 1945-1949 after Phra Chudadhuj Palace was deserted by the Royal Family following the Franco- Siamese crisis in 1893. Today, Ruan Abhirom displays an exhibition on the island’s structures built in the reign of King Chulalongkorn.

A replica of the Lord Buddha’s footprint was established on the Kayasira hillside at Phra Chulachomklao Peak, north of Koh Si Chang on April 27, 1892, under the royal command of King Chulalongkorn. Celebrations took place during April 28-30 and May 16-19, 1892, which were considered as auspicious days for Buddhists to pay respects to the footprint. This stone carving modelled from the Lord Buddha’s right foot was brought from Bodh Gaya, India, by Prince Damrong Rajanuphab.

Manthatratanarote Royal Mansion was a prominent royal residence in the compound of Phra Chudadhuj Palace. It was made of golden teakwood and comprised three storeys designed in an octagonal shape. It was built by the beach near Asdang Bridge, under King Chulalongkorn’s royal command, on Aug 10, 1892. However, the construction of the royal mansion and other halls was interrupted by the Franco-Siamese crisis in 1893. French troops intruded on and occupied Koh Si Chang. After the end of the dispute, the construction came to a stop as the king never stayed overnight on the island again. In 1900, the king visited the island again and noticed the deserted royal mansion. He then had it relocated to Dusit Palace in Bangkok, and renamed it Vimanmek Mansion. Today, traces of the foundation of Manthatratanarote Mansion remains in the compound of Phra Chudadhuj Palace on Koh Si Chang.

Hat Tham Phang is a beach, west of Koh Si Chang. To the north lies Laem Tham Phang (also known as Chakrabongse Cape). To the south is Tukkata Cape. Many people come here to enjoy fishing, cool themselves off in the waters and see the stunning views at sunset. Tham Phang beach has jet skis, banana boats and a kayak rental service, snorkelling tours, fine seafood and accommodation to offer tourists. However, swimming is not recommended on this beach because there are many rocks.

Overlooking the sea, Chao Phor Khao Yai Shrine is a Chinese-style building situated in the central part of a hill, east of the island. It consists of the shrines for Xing Zhi (Magic Monkey), goddess Guan Yin and a hall for the statue of the Smiling Buddha, known among Thais as Phra Sangatchai. People believe those who pay their respects at this shrine for three years in a row will enjoy good fortune and prosperity for the rest of their lives. The shrine houses a wooden inscription inscribed by a Hainanese man in 1883 about a legend relating to the shrine. It says a Chinese seafarer saw a light on the mountain, climbed up, entered a cave and saw a stalactite that resembled a man’s head. The object was considered sacred since it was facing east and situated on a mountain in the middle of the sea. Since then, Chinese seafarers have worshipped Chao Phor Khao Yai and pray for safe trips. Even now, the shrine attracts many worshippers, in particular Chinese from Bangkok, Malaysia and Singapore.

Ruan Vadhana is one of the three convalescence buildings for royals, built before the construction of Phra Chudadhuj Palace in 1892. It was named after Queen Savang Vadhana. Today, it features an exhibition on the island’s major incidents.

Chong Khao Khat, or the Issariyapon Passage, is a beautiful place for visitors to cherish the scenery of Koh Si Chang and watch the sun kiss the horizon. The shape of the headland was caused by monsoon winds that blow from the west to the east from March until September every year. Also in the area is a royal pavilion used by King Chulalongkorn to enjoy the views.

How to get there:

From Bangkok, both ordinary passenger coaches and air-conditioned coaches run between the Eastern Bus Terminal in Ekamai, on Sukhumvit Road, and Si Racha, Chon Buri, and between the Northern Bus Terminal in Mo Chit and Si Racha from early morning until late evening. Each bus departs every 25-50 minutes.

From Si Racha, ferries to Koh Si Chang depart from Koh Loi pier every hour from 7am-8pm. The fare is 50 baht per person, per way. From the island, the ferries leave hourly from 6am to 6pm.

To tour Koh Si Chang, visitors can hire taxis of different kinds to suit their needs. The fare is 150 baht per trip between the palace and Chao Phor Khao Yai Shrine for a motorcycle-converted tuk tuk, 250 baht per trip around the island for a tuk tuk and 500 baht per trip per day for a songthaew, which can accommodate up to 15 persons. Renting a motorcycle costs 500 baht per day.

More Info:

Phra Chudadhuj Palace Museum on Koh Si Chang opens from 9am-5pm, Tuesday-Sunday. Call 038-216-412 or 038-216-416. Admission is free.

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