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; whalfmoonfestival.com) and the monthly Black Moon Party (wblackmoon-culture.com), both at Ban Tai on the south coast.
HAT RIN is firmly established as the major party venue in Southeast Asia, especially in the peak seasons of August, December and January, but it’s most famous for its year-round full moon parties – something like Apocalypse Now without the war. Hat Rin’s compact geography is ideally suited to an intense party town: it occupies the flat neck of Pha Ngan’s southeast headland, which is so narrow that the resort comprises two back-to-back beaches, joined by transverse roads at the north and south ends. The eastern beach, usually referred to as Sunrise, or Hat Rin Nok (Outer Hat Rin), is what originally drew visitors here, a classic curve of fine white sand between two rocky slopes; there’s still some coral off the southern slope to explore, though the water is far from limpid these days. This beach is the centre of Hat Rin’s action, with a solid line of bars, restaurants and bungalows tucked under the palm trees.
Sunset beach, or Hat Rin Nai (Inner Hat Rin), which for much of the year is littered with flotsam, looks ordinary by comparison but has plenty of quieter accommodation. Unfortunately, development between the beaches does no justice to the setting: it’s ugly, cramped and chaotic, with new low-rise concrete shophouses thrown up at any old angle. Businesses here, concentrated around what’s known as Chicken Corner, where the southern transverse road meets the road along the back of Sunrise, include supermarkets, overseas phone facilities, dozens of internet outlets, plenty of ATMs and bank currency-exchange booths, as well as outlets for more outré services such as bikini waxing and Playstation rental. Half-hearted attempts to tart up the large body of water in the middle of the headland with a few park benches and lights have been undermined by all-too-accurate signposts pointing to “Hat Rin Swamp”.
Even if you’re not the type to coat yourself in day-glo and dance till dawn, a full moon party at Hat Rin is certainly a sight to see, and the atmosphere created by thousands of folk mashing it up on a beautiful, moon-bathed beach, lit up by fireworks and fire-jugglers, is quite a buzz. If you’re planning to get in on the action, first of all you’ll need to check exactly when the party is: when the full moon coincides with an important Buddhist festival, the party is moved one night away to avoid a clash. There’s also a big party at Hat Rin on Christmas Day, and a massive one on New Year’s Eve. An admission fee to the parties of B100 is now charged.
On full moon night, Paradise, at the very southern end of Sunrise, styles itself as the main party venue, sometimes bringing in big-name international DJs. However, the mayhem spreads along most of Sunrise, fuelled by hastily erected drinks stalls and around a dozen major sound systems – listen out for psy-trance and driving techno at Zoom, and tech house at Tommy’s and funky house and drum’n’bass at Sunrise further up the beach. Next day, as the beach party winds down, Back Yard kicks off its afterparty at around eleven in the morning, with the best of the previous night’s DJs; it’s up the hill behind the south end of Sunrise off the path to Leela Beach.
Drug-related horror stories are common currency in Hat Rin, and some of them are even true: dodgy Ecstasy, ya baa (Burmese-manufactured methamphetamines) and all manner of other concoctions put an average of two farangs a month into hospital for psychiatric treatment. The local authorities have started clamping down on the trade in earnest, setting up a permanent police box at Hat Rin, instigating regular roadblocks and bungalow searches, paying bungalow and restaurant owners to inform on travellers whom they’ve sold drugs to, and drafting in scores of police (both uniformed and plain-clothes) on full moon nights. It doesn’t seem to have dampened the fun, only made travellers a lot more circumspect.
Other tips for surviving the full moon are mostly common sense: leave your valuables in your resort’s safe – it’s a bad night for bungalow break-ins – and don’t take a bag out with you; keep an eye on your drink to make sure it’s not spiked; watch out for broken bottles on the beach; and do not go swimming while under the influence – there have been several deaths by drowning at previous full moon parties. There have also been several reports of sexual assaults on women and of unprovoked, late-night gang attacks in Hat Rin, especially around full moon night.
Many places on Hat Rin, including the Backpackers Information Centre, book one-day boat trips up the east coast and back, taking in Mae Hat, Thong Nai Pan, Bottle Beach and Thaan Sadet. Back on dry land, Chakra, in an alley off the southern transverse, does good massages and runs massage courses, while Jungle Gym near the pier offers Thai boxing classes, a steam room and yoga.
AO THONG NAI PAN is a beautiful, semicircular bay backed by steep, green hills, which looks as if it’s been bitten out of the island’s northeast corner by a gap-toothed giant, leaving a tall hump of land (occupied by Panviman Resort) dividing the bay into two parts: Thong Nai Pan Noi to the north, Thong Nai Pan Yai to the south. With lovely, fine, white sand, the longer, more indented Thong Nai Pan Yai has marginally the better beach, but both halves of the bay are sheltered and deep enough for swimming. A bumpy road, only partly paved, winds its way for 13km over the steep mountains from Ban Tai on the south coast to Thong Nai Pan, but once you get here you’ll find most of the basic amenities you’ll need: internet shops, travel agents, dive outfits, ATMs and a tiny post office (on Thong Nai Pan Yai).
The most popular activities on Ko Pha Ngan are round-island boat trips from Hat Rin, Ao Thong Nai Pan and Hat Yao and trips to Ang Thong National Marine Park. The island isn’t a great base for scuba diving: getting to the best sites around Ko Tao involves time-consuming and expensive voyages, and there aren’t as many dive companies here as on Ko Samui or Ko Tao. Other activities include learning to cook Thai food, yoga, kiteboarding, windsurfing and sailing.
On a quiet hillside above Ban Tai, 4km from Thong Sala on the south coast, Wat Khao Tham holds ten-day meditation retreats most months of the year. The American and Australian teachers emphasize compassionate understanding as the basis of mental development. Space is limited (retreats are especially heavily subscribed Dec–March), so it’s best to pre-register either in person or in writing.