Over the past six months we have visited more South-East Asian tropical islands than we can count on both hands and have seen and done so many amazing things that it is tough to know where I want to start but because there are numerous reasons for it making our top three list, I thought we’d kick off some island reminiscing by looking at Thailand’s Koh Phangan.
I first visited the gulf of Thailand last year September, spending 2 weeks on the bigger Koh Samui, then 2 weeks on Koh Phangan and visited Koh Tao and Koh Nangyuan on day trips. Of course, as this was my first time in Thailand, these places naturally hold a very dear place in my heart, Koh Phangan especially.
The friends and memories I made on that month-long stint will stick with me for life but visiting again a year later I felt like I uncovered even more of the island than before and what better place to share some of these discoveries than right here on a blog post…
Being funemployed travellers this time around, our goal has been to maximise fun and longevity of our stay while minimising expense and we have been pretty successful without, as I say, skimping on any of the magic of a holiday. So let me outline some of the quintessential things to do and see that also happen to not be budget breakers for you below…
Not all islands were created equal. Phangan is a special beast. It’s Thailand’s fifth largest island but is extremely easy to navigate and boasts more than 30 pristine beaches. And I mean pristine. Those post card images you always imagine of sunsets in paradise, this is where you’ll find em.
I suggest you grab a copy of Phangan.info as soon as possible, it’s a goldmine of information and has handy maps of the entire island as well as more detailed maps of each area.
Back to the beaches. Of course there are some have-to-do beaches that you need to visit just to tick them off the list, like Haad Rin, Secret Beach and maybe Bottle Beach but in my opinion, those are the tourist highlight package. To see even better beaches with less people on them, I have a few suggestions.
My absolute favourite beach has to be Coconut Beach (Haad Khom) in the north of the island. Depending where you are staying it could be a bit of a trek getting out there but it is so worth it. Not only is the beach absolutely unspoilt, with amazing huts tucked into the forest just off its shoreline, with a small selection of restaurants and bars, but it is also one of the best places to walk in off the beach and snorkel (more on that later)… Kick back in a lazy hammock, chill in the shade of a tree, get your holiday shot in a tree swing, see the marine life and finish off with a cold Chang at Coral Beach bar. Day sorted.
Other top beaches include Thaan Sadet in the far east of the island (calm and serene); Mae beach and Koh Ma; and for an absolute stunner of a sunset you can’t beat the strip at Wok Tum and Hin Kong (check out Freeway Bar for the best sunset view and chill spot – my opinion)
2. Food Loving
Thailand, Thailand, Thailand. How sweet your cullinary offerings are (in more ways than one)… Phangan is a smorgasbord of eats and you will want to try everything from night market street food to delectable dishes in awesome restaurants.
Let’s try keep this simple. Quick, delicious and incredibly cheap – hit the night market, on every night, in Thong Sala. Curries and Thai dishes starting as little as 40 baht, fruit shake mixes with everything under the sun, ice cream and baked confectionaries, all under one roof (except there isn’t really a roof)… I think some of my favourite meals were had at these little canteen-style tables, so do give it a try.
Two restaurants that stood out for me (though there were many, many, many good ones, so don’t be shy to explore) were Lime n Soda (also great accommodation), with a chilled pool-side vibe, a view onto the beach and possibly the best Chicken Cashew and Green Curry on the island; and for a cool view over Haad Rin, a massive menu and still extremely affordable, hit up The Rock at the top of the beach. Great vibe, great food, great price (my favourite things haha)…
3. Scooter cruising
Of course, getting around to all these places and those we will still look at means you will need to be mobile. A scooter is the best way to see the island and it lends itself to some pretty decent cruising. Sometimes an outing for us would be as simple as hopping on the bike and touring the jungle roads. Last time I visited, the north section of roads was under construction which made travelling there a bit hazardous but the new roads are complete and are a treat to ride on, so rent a bike (pretty much everywhere charges 250baht a day but if you take it over a week or more you can ask for a discount) and feel the wind zipping past you as you glide between the trees…
4. Snorkel, snorkel and snorkel some more…
By far one of the best investments we made before leaving home was buying a set of snorkel masks for two. What I love about Koh Phangan is that it lies slap bang in the middle of some of the best snorkel and diving spots Thailand has to offer. Unlike other islands, you don’t need to hire a boat or book a tour to see the marine life, you can simply plod into the water off some of the beaches and you are instantly transported to that magical underwater world.
Now, I’m not saying you will have the best snorkeling of your life doing it this way. Going in off the beach you open yourself to the possibility of on-shore winds, chop, visibilty issues etc if the weather gods aren’t playing along but it’s still easily and freely available to you.
Again, I recommend Coconut Beach (Haad Khom) here but with over 10km of reef along its shores, Koh Phangan gives you some options to explore. If all else fails, pop in at a tour operator and book a boat trip (Koh Tao or Nangyuan are options) but be ready for a hefty pricetag (by Thai standards, anyway)…
5. Party, Party, Partayyy!
Phangan is pretty much famous for one thing and one thing only, being the go-to party island. The big attraction is the Full Moon party on Haad Rin, which is a chaotic spasm of people, fire, cheap alcohol buckets and lumo paint but a whole lot of fun. The island works around these parties and that is when the crowds really seem to teem. Many other activities sprout up around this time too, like muay thai fights if you’re keen to see em.
Other than the full moon hullabaloo there are plenty big jungle parties throughout the month (again they tend to sync with moon phases) and so many places (including backpacker hostels) that will host big parties, especially in peak season. Simply look out for advertising banners if that is what you are in the mood for.
6. Bar hopping
Along with the big beach parties, Koh Phangan also boasts a number of eclectic bars, from pool party vibes to laid back and chilled. Three of my favourites were Top Rock bar, where, after tackling somewhat daunting stairs, you are treated to a panoramic view above the tree tops of the western flank of the island; Freeway Bar, where, as mentioned, the sun gives its final daily kiss to the ocean; and, if you time it right, Amsterdam bar, where you can lounge across multiple levels or splash in the pool.
Baan Tai, in the South-East, is also dotted with some nice beach bars. But throw a stone and you’ll probably hit something that suits your flavour regardless of what that is…
7. When nature calls
If you’re done lazing on the beach or not feeling too ragged after the nightlife haunts, there are so many great hiking spots on the island. Most of them are coupled with great waterfall views. The national park boasts a number of walking paths, dotted with waterfalls, flora and fauna and if you fancy making it to the highest point on the island, head on up Khao Ra, where you will be treated to some amazing viewpoints and can leave a small offering at the shrine at the top.
Otherwise, look for signs or ask at a tour operator and you can tackle some mountain biking, kayaking, supping or even a zipline or two – the great outdoors is calling your name…
8. Hit the gym – Muay Thai style
Like anywhere in Thailand, muay thai features as a great tourist attraction and gyms are dotted across the island. I can only vouch for the one I trained at, Diamond Muay Thai, in Tong Sala. It’s a great melting pot of cultures from around the globe, brought together to experience the art of muay thai. Whether you’ve never hit a pad before or are looking to get some experience in the ring, it’s a great place to be. They have a great bunch of trainers, do regular team activities like hikes or trips to the beach and on Saturday evenings they have a free-for-all barbecue night where you can grab a beer and some grub with fellow students…
9. Movie nights
This second time around I never did this particular activity but on my first visit I did it 3 times in 2 weeks so thought I’d include it in this list. A visit to the Moonlight Cinema is a great way to spend an evening. Check the schedule on their notice board or online (or if you book a private room you can request your own movie) and get ready to lie back on bedouin style bedding with a bag of popcorn and a beer and take in a unique island movie experience on their big screen. There’s even a tree in the middle of the movie house!
If you have visited anywhere in Thailand before you will be accustomed to this cat call as you amble in the streets and Koh Phangan is no exception. There are massage parlours on every corner but let me give you the heads up. You can’t beat a massage on the beach, so skip the little spas and dark rooms and choose one of these two: Just outside of the Rock restaurant is a great one and if you hit Mae beach (where Koh Ma island is), head right as you get on the beach and look for the first beach massage on your right. Besides being on the beach (which makes it 10 times better already), these are two of the cheapest massages available on the island at 150baht and 200baht for an hour, respectively, so don’t say I didn’t hook you up 😜