The many faces of Koh Pha-ngan

Posted on January 14, 2014


From the boat, depending on the weather, Koh Pha-ngan colors can range from a tantalizing dark green ablaze in sunshine to a mysterious-looking charcoal gray with valleys and mountains blurring under sudden rain. One thing’s for sure: it has a lure to it: it looks like it’s going to be worth exploring – a tropical island with sandy bays, jungle and who knows what more. Hardly surprising that three decades ago, travelers made a beeline for it.

It’s a major tourist destination though one that lacks an airport. The only way to land there is by boat, though it’s separated by just a few kilometers of almost always calm water from either the mainland or its sister island, Koh Samui. But for many tourists, that lack of an airport is a psychological hurdle. Think about it: if your holiday is only a week long, and you have to take a boat, isn’t there just the slightest sense of disappointment at having to do so? Especially if that boat trip comes after a 15 hour flight. However, the fact there’s no airport has stopped the island from getting too developed too fast.

Koh Pha-ngan remains a bit stuck in time. Or let’s just say that time doesn’t seem to move so quickly there. People say it’s like Koh Samui used to be 20 years ago. There isn’t the traffic, the coast isn’t virtually encircled by buildings and life goes on at a simpler pace. Buzzy, it ain’t.

A convenient way to arrive is by Lomprayah hovercraft, and it’s both speedy and civilized. A bit like being on a bus, you sit and look out of the window until the island port of Thong Sala comes into view. Once on the island, transport awaits to take you to your hotel. Maybe you’ll go in a taxi, or maybe take another boat, if the roads aren’t too good.

By far the slowest and perhaps most picturesque way to arrive is to take the daily slow boat from Samui’s north coast – it leaves from Maenam beach, where you have to literally wade out into the sea and climb aboard using a ladder. The boat sets off and after stopping in Haad Rin it hops from bay to bay up the island’s east coast. This is definitely how travel was decades back – and it’s remained that way, with this slowest of boats remains abidingly popular. People look out from the deck at the slow succession of bays, watching out for the one where they’ll be staying. Arriving this way may not be grand, but it’s certainly laid-back and very enjoyable.

Though Koh Pha-ngan is quite small, it has more variety than Koh Samui has, thanks to it having many small bays and coves. Wherever there’s a beach, you’ll usually find a small selection of hut-style accommodation, run by original Koh Pha-ngan families. Life is relaxed, indolent – there’s no sense of the island being under an international hotelier’s microscope, with each square centimeter of land scrutinized to see if it’s being appropriately used. Unlike in some larger destinations, it’s still possible to find whole swathes of sea-shore that are barely developed, with jungle coming right down to the sands. The only occupants seem to be buffaloes, contentedly munching on the greenery.

Koh Pha-ngan’s always been associated with young people thanks to the Full Moon Party. It’s the island’s most famous asset after its sheer natural beauty and has helped put the island on the map. A world-famous festival attracting humongous numbers of people, the party’s kept on going for an astonishing 25 years. It all started with a birthday party held at Paradise Bungalows in Haad Rin and the same party has simply continued for a quarter of a century, just getting gradually bigger. It can now pull in some 15,000 party-goers per full moon. If you find yourself at full moon on the island, be prepared for the party to assume pride of place with half the tourist population turning up to dance and have fun.

Despite the youthful cachet of The Full Moon Party the truth is that the island’s attractiveness is enough to draw people of any age. Children love it. So do seniors. And as time goes by, the amenities have improved all round, bringing new levels of comfort.

Roads are still patchy in place and you still can’t get everywhere, unless you’re prepared to take a boat. But the island government has been steadily concreting the jungle tracks making ever more territory accessible by car. This in turn has affected property prices, with more land deals being done. After all, not many people are interested in buying land that requires a sturdy jeep and nerves of steel to reach out-of-the-way spots. As the white-knuckle drives become ever fewer, the island is naturally opening itself up and with plenty of natural beauty from lush jungle to picturesque waterfalls and plunge pools, more people are coming out to visit.

It’s been a gradual process. For years the island seemed to simply cater for backpackers, who appreciated the natural surroundings and the sheer unhurried pace of life. And to a great extent, that way of life continues. It’s still possible to get a room for 300 Baht; a simple hut, on stilts to protect it from the rain, with a shower tacked on, and a small verandah to sit out on of an evening. It’s a formula that’s worked for decades – and still does. No need to change it, therefore.

Progress seems to be gathering pace, however. There’s an increasing drift to modernize, to add luxe, to offer more variety and while some resort owners are revamping the old huts or adding swimming pools to their properties, brand new investors are making their guests’ holidays a sophisticated experience by building lavish accommodation that include spas, plunge pools, and elegant bars. You’ll now find a dozen top-notch resorts offering all that you’d expect to find in the very classiest of destinations.

It’s the same with food. The earliest travelers out here found that the only western food they could find were banana pancakes, now there are dozens of restaurants specializing in international food and you can find just about everything from a salami ciabatta sandwich to a full-scale Japanese dinner. The pancake cart still comes round, and is still every bit as popular – but there’s more on offer. You can stay a year or two and not grow bored with the food, as many expats have found to their delight.
Koh Pha-ngan has a lot going for it. The beaches and backdrops are romantic and their beauty attracts everyone from the single traveler to families with small children. With its mixed clientele of affluent and not so affluent, young and old, and everything in-between, the island manages to cater for very varied tastes. Over the years it’s gradually and quietly diversified. Yet the original draw of the island’s sheer simplicity can still easily be found – for the moment. Whether you’re going to book into a hut or a 5-star resort, you’ll find diversity on Koh Pha-ngan, and a holiday that you will probably want to repeat. Much like the Full Moon Party, some things are good enough to prolong indefinitely.

Posted in: Koh Pha-ngan