Because there are no trains in this area of Thailand, a long bus ride used to be the only route to get to Koh Chang, Koh Kood and the other islands. This would mean staying at least one night in Trat, the closest big town on the mainland.
Established long before tourists started coming to the area, the town, centre of Trat province, which is known as the Orchard State and is famous for its tropical fruits, has a busy food market selling fresh produce, meats and fish in the mornings and prepared and cooked foods in the early evenings. The few guest houses that developed to cater to the arrival of tourists didn’t seem to change the place that much.
Now, even though there is there is a small airport outside of town and a taxi or direct bus to the ferry, both of which make the trip from Bangkok to Koh Chang much easier, many travelers still choose a more leisurely pace and break their journey in this gently bustling market town.
The Trat shops reflect the town’s interests. It used to be all hardware stores, practical places, much like a provincial town anywhere except for the additional focus on food. Businesses from the island could buy excellent local produce from here, but for a long time sellers remained impervious to the more international style requirements of the tourists, those they seemed to say, have to be bought from elsewhere. Over time, however, this has gradually – perhaps inevitably – changed.
Small brand boutiques started springing up. A store selling gifts to offer in the temples is now sandwiched between a wine gallery and a shop with stylish children’s clothes and toys – at stylishly expensive prices. A couple of big superstores have opened on the edge of town catering both to the change in tastes of the locals and satisfying the business owners from the islands with the predictable downside consequence – the closure of the sleepy department store that seemed unable to adapt.
But maybe the change that is the most intriguing is in a small corner of Trat where the artists have arrived. Suddenly, there are murals on the walls and small cafes have appeared, serving real coffee from the north of Thailand rather than the ubiquitous three-in-one instant sachets and the food, which was always good, is now well presented too. Meanwhile, some of the old wooden fronted shophouses are in the process of being renovated, probably into more accommodation, perhaps into more business for their guests.
A friend subscribes to the theory that wherever artists go, they start a trend, others follow and suddenly the area changes. We can’t be sure if that is the case here, but we will watch with interest.