Getting there and around:
We took the first-class government bus from Phuket Town to Surat Thani which was about a 6 hour ride. Most of the buses are newer luxury coaches but our bus was most likely older than us, the A/C was broken, and it leaked when it rained. The goverment-run buses are usually a safer bet in terms of sticking to schedules, safety, and your bags are less likely to be compromised, but the comfort on ours was at the bottom end of the scale. You can get to Surat Thani from most major cities in Thailand, but almost all tourists will end up taking the ferry to Thong Sala Port in KPN.
The island itself is of small to medium size with a decent amount of roads connecting most of the island. The Northeast side of the island is the hardest to get to unless you are up for a partially-off road and very steep challenge which takes you across a small mountain pass which we did on our moped. Do not drive around if the rain is more than trickling or you will find yourself stuck in knee deep pools of run-off water with all sorts of fun little critters. This happened to us one night in a torrential downpour which started during dinner. On our way back to the hotel, our moped stalled and everything went pitch black causing us to wade through the tropical juice and backtrack to the restaurant for Plan B. Also make sure you have plenty of gas in your ride, especially if driving around at night, because you never know when you will accidently make a wrong turn and end up in the interior of the island, like us.
Koh Pha Ngan is only accesible by ferry or private boat so from Surat Thani we took a two and a half hour ferry ride east. The island itself is located on the East side of Thailand, close to Ko Samui (tourist hotspot) and Ko Tao (good for diving) islands. Although KPN is known for the Full, Half, and Black Moon Parties, the non party sides (anwhere other than from Haad Rin Beach to Thongsala) of the island are still somewhat harder to reach and less tourists go there. Funny enough, the party reputation keeps the families and resort lovers away, leaving the entire island with a new-age vibe.
We first stayed at Kho Pha Ngan (KPN) Beach Resort located on Ban Tai Beach about 10 minutes from the Thongsala Beach Pier. It is a smaller resort with a beachfront location and rooms with a garden or sea view. Since we were booked for only 4 nights, splashing out on the “best” room they offered, a deluxe beachfront bungalow, sounded like a good idea and treat for us so we wouldn’t have to go far to chill out on the beach. We woke up every morning to a wicked view of the sea just steps away from our front porch. The water itself was not worth swimming around in as the seasonal tides had left most of the beach with murky, stagnant, & shallow water, and you had to go quite far out to find any depth or currents. The water was fine for jumping in for a quick dip, maybe knee deep. Either of the owners of the hotel, British Andy or his Russian wife, were usually present on site. Andy was great for providing information and she was a loud, money-hungry drunk, who always made her presence known. There are signs everywhere on how guests should behave and how we would be fined if we break the rules – an unclassy measure by our standards. Accessibilty to food and Haad Rin (AKA Full Moon Party) Beach was pretty good, and there were few lady boy bars within a 10- 15 minute walking distance from our resort, none that we visited though!
After 4 nights on the more touristy and party-side of the island we decided to spend our remaining 5 nights of our vacation on the chill and more remote side of the island – Haad Salad Beach. We spent a morning driving our moped, scoping out our next potential hotel, on the Northwest side of the island, with our top priority being easy access to good swimming (we were burned by our tease of a beachfront bungalow without a beach to swim in). We dodged sinkholes and huge cracks in the road and traversed up and down very steep hills to find Salad Beach Resort. The resort is located on the beach, with a pool (YAY), very decent restaurant, and beautiful garden situated throughout most of the property. The resort is one of the first here and is run by locals. The manager, Patrick, and his staff bring a family-run atmosphere which made the resort an enjoyable stay for us. Jyoti also was lucky enough to enjoy an afternoon of free Watsu (Water Shiatsu) by acting as a guinea pig for an English instructor. Good stuff!
We arrived there in late April, which is the HOTTEST month. Although we experienced some afternoon showers and a heavy rain one night, the rainy season doesn’t officially start until Mid-May. However, when it rains, it pours. We heard stories of heavy rains lasting a month straight and saw evidence of the aftermath in the form of mudslides, washed out roads, and bungalows swept off their foundations. December and January are the coolest months and also the peak season for tourism.
As vegetarians, food was surprisingly better and easier to find here than on Phuket Island. There is definitely a yoga loving hippy vibe to the island which translates to an understanding of healthy food with many vegetarian options. As you may have guessed, most of these types of establishments are mostly owned by foreigners, predominantly Europeans and with some Aussies and South Africans mixed in. We found several places which we would recommend to others: Fabio’s, Fellini’s, Om Ganesh, Namaste Restaurant and Calcutta Bar, Karma, and Ananda’s. We also recommend casual street dining at the super cheap and yummy Thongsala Street Market. KPN is home to a great variety of foods such as Italian, American, Mediterranean, Indian, as well as fresh fruit juices like watermelon, coconut, mango, popaya, carrot, and more!
The beaches on the southeast and northeast part of the island are the best. Haad Rin Beach is the beach located on the SW tip of the island and is the site of the infamous Full Moon Party. It is overpopulated and lined with hotels and bars, not to mention the whole beach is littered with waste, which saddened us – beautiful beach though.
One of the best beaches, which is also one of the hardest to reach, is Thong Nai Pan Yai. It is located on the NE side of the islan, just south of Thong Nai Pan Noi. The only paved road to here is being built but its still has a ways to go before seeing completion. Most travellers take a boat to get here, and if you are staying at a resort located here, then they will handle the transfer and bring you via boat taxi. This area has an uber chill vibe and it is the place to be to if you want to get away from the partiers. A handful of large resorts are buying up all the land along the east coast so this side will soon too be ridden with resort bungalows and pools. It was like a beachside ghost town when we visited.
Although we didn’t make it there, the locals told us that Bottle Beach is also one of the most beautiful on the island – only way to get there is via a longer hike or a private boat taxi.
Natural Beauty and Wildlife:
The wildlife here is rich and full of life. We could always hear the wildlife buzzing from outside our door and we even had lizards, spiders, and mosquitos in our room most of the time. There are many resident snakes including cobras, which in one restaurant owner’s case had found a home under the steps leading to their property. Elephants were brought to the island some years back and now there is an elephant and cobra shows where a crazed man pokes and prods at cobras in a show of utter stupidity. We never went but saw a video recap on the camera of a Canadian tourist.
Sealife and underwater adventures in Thailand are said to be some of the best in the world. We got a chance to go snorkelling off one of the islands comprising Ang Thong National Park where we were able to see coral and swim with various schools of fish.
KPN is also a great place to obtain a PADI scuba certification quickly and cheap – if you are after the certificate and not so worried about quality of instruction, this is your place.
As mentioned, Ko Pha Ngan is known globally for the Full-Moon Party. Its also one of the less developed islands in Thailand, which still allowed us to appreciate the island life along with the locals. Unless you’re looking for a world famous party, don’t plan on being on KPN and especially Haad Rin Beach during the Full Moon Party which brings the luminescent paint covered party crowd by the droves. We were here in the off-season but we did manage to catch the Black Moon party, which along with the twice monthy half-moon parties, fill the time between the full-moons. It was alright, lots of psy-trance with a sprinkling of techno and not too many people. Mac’s Bay Resort is where you will find the Black Moon Parties unless politics and upcoming elections force the organizers to change the venue . This happens every couple of years and represents the struggle between the money that these often drug-using partiers bring to the island through tourism and Thai political agendas which are heavily anti-drugs. It lasts for about a month before everything returns back to normal. In spite of this, we sense that the Full Moon Parties have probably experienced their peak and now that tourism and money-hungry promoters have taken over, the free love driving force is dying and the seedy underbelly of the operation beginning to be exposed.
Despite this, unlike Phuket or Ko Samui, you will be able to unwind and enjoy nature; it’s one of the less developed Thai Islands. Head for the NW or NE parts of the island where its harder to get to – you will find peace and tranquility here, and very little pollution and noise. Here, you will find local bartenders sleeping in hammocks on the beach, and you’ll hear lounge or island music as you sip on your beverage of choice while lazing in the sun.
Buildings are quite basic in terms of amenities and construction materials used. Many of the restaurants are indoor/outdoor and local timber and bamboo is used for the frame and roof. Many foreigners set up small businesses like restaurant/cafes and souvenir shops, mainly because initial investment can be less expensive than exotic islands in the western world. Resorts range from extremely basic to luxurious despite their titles so do your research. Get used to bugs and reptiles in your room. The septic and sewer systems are a not the best but comparitively speaking, better than other some Asian countries. The heavy rains constantly wash out the especially steep roads so you need to give the road your undivided attention or a sink hole in the middle of the street might swallow you up.
Ang Thong Trip:
On our lat full day, we booked an awesome all day boat trip to see the Angthong Marine Park. There are 42 islands, most of which are uninhabitable. The sealife is abundant and the waves are huge. We took a 3 engine boat full of 30-40 people, toured around the islands, and snorkelled for a bit before making our way to Tale Nai to catch breathtaking views of the other islands. Finally, we made our way to the national park headquarters on Wua Talap Island where we ate lunch and were free to bath in the water, take kayak tours, or go on a hike. The day ended with us heading back to Thongsala pier in heavy rains. Being chased by the monsoon is a theme that continued on into India. Stay tuned!