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Koh Phangan
Island experiences enjoyed Old Skool


"Koh Phangan's biggest claim to fame -- or perhaps its only claim to fame -- is its Full Moon Parties.  There are plenty of web sites devoted specifically to promote these.   Koh Phangan's fortunes are tied, literally, to the moon.  If the moon packed up shop tomorrow and decided to orbit around another planet instead, Koh Phangan would sink faster than the Titanic."  Doug Knell, Doug's Republic


There were twenty to thirty people present at the first Full Moon party in Koh Phangan in 1985, so the story goes.  Then, again the story goes, word just spread and Full Moon parties became famous, now appearing at the top of the list of any banana pancake trail backpacker seeking to experience Asia at its most touristy.

I cannot help but think that the Tourism Authority of Thailand and other tangential agencies promoting tourism in Thailand jumped onto this party bandwagon in the 1990's to encourage tourism to Thailand during a decade of widespread tourist development all over the country, though I cannot find any proof of this.   Today, up to 30,000 people attend these wild bashes.  Officially, drugs are discouraged, and the police are there to crack down.  When I was in Koh Phangan in December 2005, one of the full moon parties was cancelled because two foreigners had drowned in a beach related accident. 

Phangan party

Never far from a party on Koh Phangan

I'll tell you though, reflecting on my experiences on Koh Phangan, that it doesn't matter if a Full Moon party is cancelled.  There are always parties on Koh Phangan.   Nowadays, there are Half Moon parties, held every two weeks.  And Black Moon parties.   On smaller beaches, there are local parties.  

These parties, wherever they're held, involve lots of alcohol, drugs (usually weed, MDMA, and mushrooms), drum banging, and banging of another kind -- with someone you just met, barely know, and won't remember the next day.  For a brief period of time while you're on the island, depending upon the vibes you hook up with, it can be a taste of the Swinging Sixties that you, like me, probably missed by being born in the wrong year.  What typically goes along with mind altering chemical and shirtless drummers are youngish people expressing banal thoughts but thinking they're unlocking secrets of the universe.  Just remember that the real Sixties radicals became lawyers, bureaucrats, and sinecures, fully entrenched in the system they rebelled against.  The banana pancake trailblazers you meet on Phangan in the party scene are about as radical as a bank clerk.

When people are perpetually stoned, words like "dude", "cool", and "Old Skool" (spelled just like that) become their predominant vocabulary.  The free Koh Phangan monthly travel guide used the term Old Skool to define everything that was happening on the island, using meaningless phrases like "Relax on ______ beach and enjoy the Old Skool vibe."   If someone out there truly knows the difference between the Koh Phangan new school vibe and how it differs from the Old Skool one, let me know.  I thought both vibes required lots of drugs.

 
Doug's Interest In Koh Phangan

I will disclose up front that I've NEVER been to a full moon, half moon, quarter moon, eighth moon, sixteenth moon, black moon, green moon, mahogany moon, or turquoise moon party on Koh Phangan.  I had opportunities.   In December 2005, I was on the island when a full moon party was supposed to happen.  It got canned because two Swedish girls drowned in heavy currents, but I had made no plans to attend it when the party was meant to happen.  I spent another 6 weeks on the island from late January to early March 2007 and missed one or two Full Moon parties.  That I can't tell you whether it was one or two parties shows you much I care.

You see, I'm more into the smaller scene.  I'd prefer a concert in a small club vs a sports arena.  A massive par-tay scene is of no interest to me.

Phangan Hat Tien Phangan Had Yuan Thong Nai Pan
Doug's interests on Koh Phangan are all Old Skool, sparsely occupied tropical beaches:    (left) Hat Tien sunrise; (middle)  Hat Yuan; (right) Thong Nai Pan

My interest in Koh Phangan is a very simple one.  When I first visited the island in 1994, it was little developed.   You could rent a simple, basic bungalow near a beach and enjoy serene time away from it all.  In 1994, I have no recollection which beach I stayed at, but it was far from any of the major island towns, and there weren't many good roads in the vicinity.

That impression stayed with me when I revisited the island in 2005.  While the island had certainly changed in the eleven years since I'd previously visited, it had fortunately been spared the 7-11 stripmallization that had transformed its neighbors Koh Samui and Koh Tao.  The unofficial and unattractive capital was larger, there were more restaurants and guesthouses in full moon party-central Had Rin which had grown like urban sprawl in any larger city, the road network had expanded, but there were still beaches inaccessible by car.
Koh Phangan map
Remote or well touristed beaches -- take your pick

This is changing, however.  In 1994, there weren't many roads period, and many of them were in just plain poor shape. From the 2004 map, you can see roads sprawling to most of the beaches.  The beaches along the east coast have been spared coastal road development thus far.  When I last visited Hat Tien/Hat Yuan beach in early 2007 (see Ao Haad Yuan on map), there was no road.  You could take a beautiful hiking trail to Hat Rin or you had to make the journey by boat.  As roads touch more and more beach pockets and transport to/from all locales becomes easier, rapid development and luxury accommodation springs up.  If not done properly, the local character is compromised. 

Getting around by boat is the most common form of transportation by visitors.  Local boats that can stuff a half a dozen people make the shorter journeys, such as the trip from Hat Rin to Hat Yuan.   The water can get choppy and your luggage can get wet, so it's recommended you insulate your belongings with plastic garbage bags.  More proper boats circulate the island less frequently, stopping at any beaches along the way.   Some depart the boat to check in at a new location while travelers departing said beach embark.   The perimeter of Koh Phangan is only 50 km.  It doesn't take much time to circle the island. 

Koh Samui and Koh Tao are both short ferry rides away.

Koh Phangan's Charm

Today's traveler wants to make a split second decision whether it is worth their while to visit some place. Is Koh Phangan worth your time?

Let's resort to an old Hollywood practice of summarizing a proposed project in as few words as possible.  If Koh Samui is "the Spa Island", Koh Tao is the "Dive Island," then Koh Phangan is the "Hang Out Island."   Koh Phangan has seen the development of some luxury hotels, but no one would mistake Koh Phangan for Koh Samui.  Rustic bungalows are still the name of the game for most of the travelers coming here, who tend to stay a long time and return seasonally.  I visited Hat Tien in December 2005.   When I returned in February 2007, I ran into the same English girl I'd met the first time, and she pointed out a number of people present whom she'd met on previous visits.  A Canadian girl, a friend of the English one, was staying a year.

Phangan detoxYou'll see people staying a year on Koh Samui.  They're retirees living in a nice townhouse.  You'll see people staying a year on Koh Tao, too.  They're employed as divemasters.  You'll see plenty staying on Koh Phangan, too, doing absolutely nothing.  They can do so because Koh Phangan offers them a rustic inexpensive living environment.  

I came at the end of 2005 to visit a particular beach.  My brother had visited Thailand earlier that year and had raved about the Thai cuisine there.  I came for only four days.  I had no more time to spare; I was already booked on a flight to Australia.  I discovered this beach had a wellness center with a detoxification program.  It was expensive by Thai standards.  I could live cheaper per day drinking and eating to my heart's content than I could fasting and performing coffee colonics twice a day.   Still, it was cheap by Western standards, and I vowed to return to this beach after my trip to Australia to conduct the detox. 

I kept my word.  More than a year later, I started my detox.  I ate raw foods for two days before the one-week regime, and raw for three days afterwards.  I had first considering leaving shortly after the detox was finished.  But an extra day's stay turned into a week, then two weeks, then three weeks.  I just hung around.  I'd do yoga classes four days a week, run on the beach, read books on my balcony.  There were a couple of utterly fantastic restaurants.  Food was expensive relative to Had Rin -- everything had to be boated in from there -- but life was still cheap, relaxed, and tranquil.  An Italian man I met there, no more than a decade older than myself, had claimed he'd retired to this island and beach permanently. 

I stayed six weeks in the end.  For four nights, I caught a boat to Thong Nai Pan beach.   My bungalow on Hat Yuan was so reasonably priced and with it being high season, I just kept renting my bungalow there as a base as I explored other parts of the island for days at a time. 

I had a full slate of plans during my six weeks there, nearly all of which didn't materialize.  For the completely unmotivated, count on getting less than nothing done, and that's all part of the charm.


 

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