In recent years, backpackers have tended to move over to Ko Samui’s fun-loving little sibling, KO PHA NGAN, 20km to the north, which still has a comparatively simple atmosphere, mostly because the poor road system is an impediment to the developers. With a dense jungle covering its inland mountains and rugged granite outcrops along the coast, Pha Ngan lacks the huge, gently sweeping beaches for which Samui is famous, but it does have plenty of coral to explore and some beautiful, sheltered bays. If you’re seeking total isolation, trek out to Hat Khuat (Bottle Beach) on the north coast or the half-dozen pristine beaches on the east coast; Thong Nai Pan, at the top of the east coast, is not quite as remote, and offers a decent range of amenities and accommodation; while on the long neck of land at the southeast corner, Hat Rin, a pilgrimage site for ravers, is a thoroughly commercialized backpackers’ resort in a gorgeous setting.

Much of Pha Ngan’s development has plonked itself on the south and west sides along the only coastal roads on the island, which fan out from Thong Sala, the capital. The long, straight south coast is lined with bungalows, especially around Ban Tai and Ban Khai, to take the overspill from nearby Hat Rin, but it’s hard to recommend staying here, as the beaches are mediocre by Thai standards, and the coral reef that hugs the length of the shoreline gets in the way of swimming. The west coast, however, offers several handsome sandy bays with great sunset views, notably Hat Yao and Hat Salad.

Pha Ngan’s bungalows all now have running water and electricity, and plenty of places offer air conditioning, though there are only a handful of real luxury hotels. The three hundred-plus resorts generally have more space to spread out than on Ko Samui, and the cost of living is lower. The prices given on the following pages are standard for most of the year (though on Hat Rin they vary with the phases of the moon), but in slack periods you’ll be offered discounts (possible, roughly, in May, June, Oct & Nov), and at the very busiest times (especially Dec & Jan) Pha Ngan’s bungalow owners are canny enough to raise the stakes. Nightlife is concentrated at Hat Rin, climaxing every month in a wild full moon party on the beach; a couple of smaller outdoor parties have now got in on the act: the Half Moon Festival (twice monthly, about a week before and after the full moon;
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halfmoonfestival.com) and the monthly Black Moon Party (
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blackmoon-culture.com), both at Ban Tai on the south coast.