Saturday, June 12, 2010

KO PHA-NGAN เกาะพงัน

KO PHA-NGAN เกาะพงัน

In the family of southern Gulf islands, Ko Pha-Ngan sits in the crystal sea between Ko Samui, its business-savvy older brother, and little Ko Tao, the spunky younger brother full of dive-centric energy. Ko Pha-Ngan is the slacker middle child: a chilled out beach bum with tattered dreadlocks, a tattoo of a Chinese serenity symbol, and a penchant for white nights and bikini-clad pool parties.

The scenic cape of Hat Rin has long been the darling destination of this laid-back paradise. Sunrise Beach started hosting the world-famous Full Moon parties long before Alex Garland’s The Beach inspired many of us to strap on a rucksack. Today, thousands still flock to the kerosene-soaked sands for an epic trance-a-thon fuelled by adrenaline and a couple of other substances…

But like any textbook teenager, this angstridden island can’t decide what it wants to be when it grows up. Should the party personality persist or will the stunning and secluded northern beaches finally come out from under Hat Rin’s shadow?

While Pha-Ngan’s slacker vibe and reputation will no doubt dominate for years to come, the island is secretly starting to creep upmarket. Every year, tired old shacks are being replaced by crisp modern abodes. In Hat Rin, you will be hard-pressed to find a room on Sunrise Beach for less than 1,000B. Soon, the phrase ‘private infinity pool’ and ‘personal butler’ will find a permanent place in the island’s lexicon, replacing ‘pass the dutch’ and ‘another whiskey bucket please’. But don’t fret just yet – the vast inland jungle continues to feel undiscovered, and there are still plenty of secluded bays in which you can string up a hammock and watch the tide roll in.


Ko Pha-Ngan, Thailand’s fifth-largest island, is approximately 20km from Ko Samui and 100km from Surat Thai.

Most of the island’s visitors stay on the thin peninsula known as Hat Rin. This mountainous cape is flanked with beautiful beaches on either side, and is home to the infamous Full Moon parties held every month. For a detailed layout of the area. The rest of the island is noticeably quieter, although gradual development has meant an increase in population on the west and south coasts. The northern coast has a few good beaches that feature modern amenities but feel relaxed and remote. The quiet eastern shore is virtually deserted.

About half of Ko Pha-Ngan’s population live in and around the small port of Thong Sala, where the ferries to and from Ko Tao, Surat Thani and Ko Samui dock.


If you got neon body paint on your clothes during your Full-Moon romp, don’t bother sending them to the cleaners – the paint will never come out. Trust us, we tried. For your other washing needs, there are heaps of places that will gladly wash your clothes. Prices hover around 40B per kilo, and express cleanings shouldn’t be more than 60B per kilo.


Medical services can be a little crooked in Ko Pha-Ngan – expect unstable prices and underqualified doctors. Many clinics charge a 3,000B entrance fee before treatment. Serious medical issues should be dealt with on nearby Ko Samui. All dental problems should be treated on Ko Samui as well.


Thong Sala, Ko Pha-Ngan’s financial ‘capital’, has plenty of banks, currency converters and several Western Union offices. Hat Rin has numerous ATMs and a couple of banks at the pier. There are also ATMs in Hat Yao, Chaloklum and Thong Nai Pan.


Female travellers should be extra careful when partying on the island. We’ve received many reports about drug- and alcohol-related rape (and these situations are not limited to Full Moon parties). Another disturbing problem is the unscrupulous behaviour of some of the local motorcycle taxi drivers. Several complaints have been filed about drivers groping female passengers; there are even reports of severe sexual assaults.


Ko Pha-Ngan has more motorcycle accidents than injuries incurred from Full-Moon tomfoolery. Nowadays there’s a system of paved roads, but much of it is a labyrinth of rutty dirt-and-mud paths. The island is also very hilly, and even if the road is paved, it can be too difficult for most to take on. The very steep road to Hat Rin is a perfect case in point. The island now has a special ambulance that trolls the island helping injured bikers.


There are no tourist police on Ko Pha-Ngan, which means that a greater percentage of tourists fall victim to various gimmicks. A common scam involves booking ‘first class’ bus or boat tickets only to find out that the transport is rickety at best, and the other passengers paid significantly less. Sometimes travellers fall victim to phantom bookings, in which the ticket agent made no reservations whatsoever. Many tourists have reported problems with transport between Bangkok and Ko Pha-Ngan – operators often rifle through bags placed in the luggage compartment of the bus.


For those who have grown weary of beachbumming, this large jungle island has many natural features to explore, including mountains, waterfalls and spectacular beaches.


There are many waterfalls throughout the island’s interior, four of which gush throughout the year. Nam Tok Than Sadet features boulders carved with the royal insignia of Rama V, Rama VII and Rama IX. King Rama V enjoyed this hidden spot so much that he returned over a dozen times between 1888 and 1909. The river waters of Khlong Than Sadet are now considered sacred and used in royal ceremonies. Also near the eastern coast, Nam Tok Than Prawet is a series of chutes that snake inland for approximately 2km.

In the centre of the island, Nam Tok Phaeng is protected by a national park and is a pleasant reward after a short-but-rough hike. Continue the adventure and head up to Khao Ra, the highest mountain on the island at 625m. Those with eagle-eyes will spot wild crocodiles, monkeys, snakes, deer and boar along the way, and the viewpoint from the top is spectacular – on a clear day you can see Ko Tao. Although the trek isn’t arduous, it is very easy to lose one’s way, and we highly recommend hiring an escort in Ban Madeua Wan (near the falls). The local guides have crude signs posted in front of their homes, and, if they’re around, they’ll take you up to the top for 500B. Most of them only speak Thai.

Pha-Ngan’s stunning beaches are definitely worth visiting, however caution should also be exercised for those travelling on foot. The ‘Green Dot’ trail from Hat Rin to Hat Yuan is completely overgrown, as is most of the route between Chalok Lam and Hat Khuat (Bottle Beach). Save yourself the strife and charter a water taxi.

Hat Khuat, also called Bottle Beach, is a classic fave. Visitors flock to this shore for a relaxing day of swimming and snorkelling – some opt to stay the night at one of the several bungalow operations along the beach. For additional seclusion, try the isolated beaches on the east coast, which include: Than Sadet, Hat Yuan, Hat Thian and the teeny Ao Thong Reng. For more enchanting beaches, consider doing a day trip to the stunning Ang Thong Marine National Park.