Koh Phangan is the fifth largest island in Thailand; it has an area of just over 125 square kilometers and is located in the southwestern part of the Gulf of Siam. Famous for its beaches and almost untouched tropical nature, Koh Phangan is also a destination known to travelers throughout the world for its Full Moon Party. During this party, celebrated once or twice a month depending on how often the full moon is visible, along almost a kilometer of beach DJ’s from around the world have 30 thousand people dancing.
Koh Phangan is not just music and dancing; in fact it’s also a place appreciated by travelers looking for calm and tranquility. 90% of the island is covered in thick tropical forest, which makes it a suitable place for yoga fans and those looking for a spiritual experience in one of the many retreats.
The island’s spirituality is also quite evident in its history. Up until 1400 Koh Phangan was in fact completely uninhabited, it’s discovery was made by a group of Buddhist monks who decided to build the first temple on the island: Wat Phu Khao Noi.
As a tourist destination, Koh Phangan began to become known starting in the 70’s. Ten years later though it underwent a full tourist boom, and thanks to the Full Moon Party, Koh Phangan in fact became one of the most popular places among young people from all over the world.
Today the majority of the island’s income comes from tourism, even though the island has preserved its wild nature thanks to the institution of the national park. Tourist development on the island hasn’t been excessive, the resorts built are of small to medium size, and are for the most part family-run. The majority of accommodations are in bungalows.
Another important slice of the local economy is in the exportation of coconuts. The mature ones, which are ready to be sent to Bangkok, are gathered by trained monkeys who climb the trees in precise lines guided by their tamers.
Despite the large numbers of tourists, the island is still considered a suitable place for those who want to experience firsthand the authenticity of Thai tradition.
The number of inhabitants is a little less than 15,000 people, of which a minority are Muslims who have immigrated from Malaysia. The most populated part of the island is near the port of Thong Sala, where ferries from both the coast and nearby islands of Koh Tao and Koh Samui dock. The northwest coast is the prettiest because it offers spectacular sunsets and the chance of seeing the coral reef.
Unlike nearby Koh Tao, Koh Phangan is not particularly suited for fans of diving, because the sea bed is quite shallow. For fans of diving and snorkeling I recommend taking a look at the beaches located in the northwestern part. Places like Haad Son and Haad Salat offer marvelous marine scenes. Moving toward Srithanu Beach you can also admire the beginning of the coral reef.
The most mountainous part of the island is located along the northeastern coast. In this area the majority of the beaches are characterized by a backdrop of volcanic rock that is particularly visible at low tide.
Along the southern coast there’s the longest and most famous beaches. This is also the most developed part since there’s the capital Thongsala, which has all the necessary services such as banks, post office, the police headquarters and the largest supermarkets.
The best time to visit Koh Phangan is from the end of January to April, when the weather is hot but dry. During these four months the temperatures can even go up to 35 degrees. In February especially, the sea is very calm and allows for greater underwater visibility.
How to get to the island
From Bangkok you can get to Koh Phangan by air, but also by train or bus.
Koh Phangan can be easily reached both by the nearby islands and the capital Bangkok. The fastest way (but also the most expensive!) is to take a flight from Bangkok landing in Koh Samui. Bangkok Airways has a good 17 flights a day, which from Suvarnabhumi Airport reach the island of Koh Samui in a little less than an hour.
Once you get to Koh Samui you can then take a ferry or catamaran, heading to Koh Phangan. There are various places where you can take a boat and to get there from the airport you’re best option is to take a taxi.
If you want to get there as fast as possible I recommend that you take the catamaran, and in half and hour you’re in Koh Phangan. If you take the boat instead, you can get to the port of Thong Sala in and hour and a half (with the company Raja Ferry) from Koh Samui Lipa Noi. From Big Buddha beach the ferry Haad Rin Queen departs, which connects the two islands in an hour-long crossing. The arrival point on Koh Phangan is not the main port, but Haad Rin Beach.
Some low-cost carriers, like AirAsia, also include the transfer from the airport to the port in the price of the ticket. But these companies don’t land on the island but the Surat Thani Airport, which is located along the coast 90 kilometers from Koh Samui. You’ll then be accompanied by minivan to the port of Donsak, and from there you can take a ferry to Koh Phangan.
From the port of Donsak you can choose if you want a ferry or catamaran. With the former it will take almost 3 hours to reach Koh Phangan, and just an hour and a half with the latter.
If you want to spend less you can take a flight from Bangkok to Chumphon. Both Nok Air and AirAsia, also organize transport from the airport at Chumphon to the port and from there a ferry to the island of Kho Phangan. The trip is not direct and the boats stop before the island of Koh Tao, taking about an hour and a half. From Koh Tao to Koh Phangan it takes a little more than an hour of travel.
If you want to travel more comfortably and also have the chance to admire the scenery, the train is the choice for you.
From Bangkok there are various trains going to both Surat Thani and to Chumphon. Train number 83, for example, leaves from the Hualamphong Station in Bangkok and gets to Chumphon in less than 8 hours. Add on another 3 hours and you’ll get to Surat Thani.
My advice is to take the night train and arrive at either Chumphon or Surat Thani early the next morning so as to take the first ferry. Times and prices are available on the site 12go.asia.
Other than buying your ticket online, you can also get one from Hualamphong Station, where you can also buy a ferry ticket (which also includes the bus trip from the airport to the port).
The cheapest way, which is also the slowest and most uncomfortable, is the bus. The most convenient station for reaching Koh Phangan from Bangkok is the one located in the south of the city, which in Thai is called: Sai Tai Mai. Be careful that you don’t confuse it with the old station located on the same road, called Sai Thai Gao.
I recommend that you get to Sai Tai Mai by taxi. From the city center you can get by on less than 200 THB. The ticket sales counters are located on the third floor and run by various companies like Bangkok Busline and Krungsiam Tour.
It takes about 16 hours and the ticket price (including the ferry to Koh Phangan) starts at a minimum of 550 THB to a maximum of 1,200 THB for VIP tickets.
Kho Phangan is also a popular destination for those arriving in the southern part of Thailand. For example from Phuket, you can take a flight that lands in Koh Samui, or a bus. For this second option you have two choices: you can take the bus from the airport in Phuket and then get on a catamaran heading to Koh Phangan. The price is 1,200 THB a person and takes 8 hours. There are only 2 daily departures: at 10 and 12.30.
If you have more time and are staying near Patong Beach or Phuket Town, you can take a bus with the company Lomprayah, or Phantip. Both take 11 hours (ferry included), at a cost that goes between 550 and 750 THB. The departure time from terminal 2 in Phuket Town, is at 8. The bus from Patong instead leaves at 7:30.
The same transportation companies that operate in Phuket, also operate transfers from Krabi on Koh Phangan. In this case there’s only 5 hours of travel, and there are buses that leave from 7 in the morning to 12:30. The price of a ticket starts from 550 THB to a max of 750 THB.
Where to stay on Koh Phangan
Koh Phangan is an island offering accommodations for all tastes and budgets. The most popular, especially during the Full Moon party, are the bungalows. Despite their being practically everywhere, it’s important to choose your lodging based on the beach you want to stay at.
At Haad Rin, where they hold the Full Moon Party, you can find a bungalow for 450 THB a night, and at resorts for more than 3,000 THB. My advice is to book well in advance, especially when your stay lines up with the night of a full moon.
The west and north coasts have shallow water and from April to November there’s also low tide. The southern area, particularly near Haad Rin Beach, is where there are more clubs and restaurants. This coast is recommended for those looking for entertainment and nightlife. The only downside is that the beaches aren’t the prettiest on the island.
On the eastern side there’s no low tide, but it’s the most isolated and peaceful part of the island, suitable for those looking for absolute tranquility.
Where to eat on Koh Phangan
If you’re a traveler with a backpack on your shoulder and a limited daily budget, the restaurants of Koh Phangan may seem anything but cheap. But with a few adjustments you can also find local restaurants that serve Thai food at a good price.
For example near the dock at Thong Sala, there’s the Phantip Market where you can find various stalls that make local food. For 40 – 50 THB you can buy rice and vegetables and also fish and meat dishes.
On Koh Phangan, and especially near Haad Rin Beach, there’s obviously a wide choice of international restaurants that offer hamburgers, pizza, sandwiches, Indian and Japanese food.
The most beautiful beaches of Koh Phangan
One of the prettiest and least visited beaches on the island is Malibu Beach. Located on the northern part of Koh Phangan, in Chaloklum Bay, this beach has very fine white sand and is surrounded by palms and little bars. Unfortunately during low tide it’s practically impossible to swim.
Haad Rin Nok is the most famous beach on the island, where the full moon is celebrated. Despite the fact that many people cross it, it’s a clean place with white sand and clear water. This beach is 2 kilometers long and an excellent place to watch the sunrise.
Nearby Haad Rin Nai Beach is instead recommended for watching the sun go down. This beach gives you the opportunity to be near nightlife while still being able to stay in a more peaceful place.
To the north of the island we find Haad Khom Beach (also called Coconut Beach), a small beach located to the right of the village of Chaloklum. The beach is not often visited by tourists, which is ideal for those looking for peace and tranquility. You can get there both on foot and by scooter, which can be parked in the lot across from the beach.
From Haad Khom Beach you can take a boat, the so-called long-tail boats, and visit nearby beaches that are more easily reached by water. An example is Bottle Beach (Haad Khuad in Thai). This beach is little known and visited since up until just a little while ago it was reachable only by boat. Today you can also get to this beach through the jungle. The trip is rather taxing with tiring sections in its 4 kilometer length.
When the first hippies arrived at Koh Phangan in the 80’s, Bottle Beach was used as a refuge for those who didn’t want to participate in the Full Moon Party. Legend says that in 1800 Bottle Beach was established by some Chinese fishermen, ancestors of the families that even today live on the island.
The calm of Haad Khuad underwent a backlash in 2004, when it was decided to build a street connecting the beach to that of Thong Nai Pan Noi. Today various resorts rise up over this beach and despite the idea of making it a small luxury paradise, the descendants of the Chinese fishermen have still not given their approval.
The beach, which also gives its name to the village of Chaloklum represents an almost intact glimpse into Thai customs. In fact, local fishermen live on this beach.
Another beach that merits a visit is Haad Yao Beach, situated on the west coast. Here too you’ll find yourself in front of a postcard-worthy landscape: powdery white sand, crystalline water and palms outlining it. Unlike Bottle Beach, this beach is more animated thanks to the various resorts that it hosts.
Unfortunately Haad Yao Beach is also not recommended during periods of low tide, due to the rocks on the surface that make bathing impossible. The beach is a beautiful place to watch the sunset and eat dinner right on the shore.
You can get there easily both by boat or going through the interior. My advice for visiting the island’s beaches is to rent a scooter, so that you’re freely able to see however many beaches you want without depending on local taxis.
You can easily find scooters for rent for 250 THB a day. Taxi service is done with pick-ups and the famous open-air Thai taxis called “songthaew”. Prices start from 100 THB a person for short distances, such as the port in Thongsala to the beach where they hold the Full Moon Party, up to rates of over 300 THB for places on the north of the island.
On the east coast there’s a little beach that’s good for both families and the more adventurous. It’s name is Thon Nai Pan Noi, and behind it there’s a promontory that you can climb to enjoy a breathtaking view of the bay from above.
Another little beach, still in the east of the island, is Haad Thong Reng. This beach is a little under 100 meters long with several bungalows completely immersed in the green.
Staying on the theme of uncrowded beaches, Haad Nam Tok, near the waterfalls of the same name, offers an oasis of peace and tranquility. This beach is little known to tourists thanks to its position, which is reachable only by boat or by traveling a path deep through the forest.
Unlike the other beaches on the island, Haad Yang does not offer accommodations. You can get there with a long tail or by passing through the surrounding coconut plantations.
Paradise Beach is instead a place where you can go snorkeling thanks to its crystal clear water. As with Haad Yang, the best way to get there is by sea.
What to do on Koh Phangan
You can’t talk about Koh Phangan without mentioning the famous Full Moon Party. For almost 30 years during nights with a full moon, starting at 8 in the evening, thousands of people gather on the beach at Haad Rin Nok to dance the night away to the tunes of the most famous Thai and international DJ’s in the world.
The week before the full moon party, they organize the Half Moon Festival. Unlike the Full Moon, this party is organized in the jungle at the village of Baan Thai, halfway between the port and Haad Rin Nok Beach.
The music is techno-trance style. The price of the ticket has risen a bit in recent years, and at the moment on the official site of the Half Moon Festival, prices start from 1,390 THB a person.
Besides the Full Moon Party organized once a month, the Half Moon party, twice a month, there are also:
- Blackmoon Culture, which is held once a month in the forest of Baan Tai. The type of music the local and international DJ’s play is psychedelic trance. On the event’s official Facebook page you can find the dates and names of the DJ’s that will play;
- The Moon Set Party is a party held three days before the Full Moon Party. What makes it special is that it’s held on a pirate ship, where the DJ is set up on the bridge while the Pirate’s bar is in the back.
If you’re a fan of diving and nature, I suggest you visit the Ang Thong marine park. It’s an archipelago made up of 42 little uninhabited islands that offers paradisiac beaches, caves to visit, tropical forest and even a salt lake.
With a motorboat, from Koh Phangan it takes 45 minutes to get to Ang Thong. Sadly you can’t visit the park on your own and you have to go with an organized tour.
There are things to do in this area for all tastes. Agencies offer snorkeling and diving, but you can also kayak, climb the highest peaks to admire the panorama, or just simply relax on a deserted beach. Usually the first island where they stop and do these activities is Koh Woa Ta La.
Another very beautiful place to visit in the marine park is the emerald salt lake. It’s name comes from the intense color of its waters. This lagoon is connected to the sea through underground tunnels and is located on the island of Koh Mae Ko. It’s here that they filmed some of the scenes from the movie The Beach, where the lake had the name of the Blue Lagoon.
You can find tours for Ang Thong in almost any agency on Koh Phangan. Prices vary depending on the activities and number of islands visited. Generally they start at a minimum of 1,500 THB a person. Remember too that you’ll also have to pay an entrance fee for the park of 300 THB for adults and 150 THB for children.
Koh Phangan also offers breathtaking natural views. If you’re a fan of trekking for example, near Haad Khom Beach there’s a trail that brings you to Bottle Beach. The trip takes an hour and directions are signaled on signs.
For the more courageous, you can also climb the highest peak on the island at an altitude of 600 meters. You can reach Khao Ra on a two hour hike. You have to pay for entry (20 THB) and a bottle of water is included in the price.
Another route for fans of trekking is the trail that goes from Haad Rin to Haad Yuan. This area is famous for hosting various yoga centers. It’s about 3 kilometers long and at the moment doesn’t require an entrance fee.
There are 6 waterfalls spread throughout the island, with the biggest being Than Sadet located in the southeast of the island near the beach of the same name inside the national park that occupies almost 50 square kilometers.
These waterfalls, thanks to their fresh water and natural granite pools were also much appreciated by King Re Rama V, who visited them many times. For this reason you’ll see a seal inside with his name.
There are 7 Buddhist temples on the island, one of which is Chinese and considered a lucky gate. To get to Wat Maduea Wan you have to climb a stairway. At Wat Pho you have to take a sauna in the grass while at Wat Khao Tham there’s a stupendous view of the southeast part of Koh Phangan.
Legend says that Koh Phangan is a rocky island above a deposit of quartz crystal and therefore emanates a curative energy. Starting in the 80’s there was a proliferation of yoga schools and detoxification centers that offer programs for learning the healthiest lifestyle possible.
The most famous yoga center on the island is The Sanctuary. Here you can practice both yoga and meditation or follow a path of detoxification all by staying at their resort.
Koh Phangan offers various opportunities for those interested in the Thai national sport: muay thai. One of the most famous schools is the Diamond Muay Thai. Among their offerings you can train and stay in the bungalows of their camp. Prices start from 5,500 THB a week for a package that includes lodging, two muay thai lessons a day, yoga lessons and two meals.
[Photo Credits (Creative Commons License): www.flickr.com/photos/robertnyman/]