The many faces of Koh Phangan
No matter what you want out of a Thai island getaway Koh Phangan will satisfy you. Even if you’re not after the hectic partying brought by the infamous Full Moon parties, Koh Phangan has plenty to offer those seeking a more chilled out island experience. It isn’t as developed as the more resort dense islands of Samui and Phuket, but this is changing. For now however there is a range of lower budget to more expensive accommodation and plenty of bars, family restaurants and cafes to suit all price ranges.
Koh Phangan has a number of different beaches surrounding the few towns scattered around the island so there is plenty to explore once you’re comfortable to zip around on a scooter. With so much to do you could easily spend up to a week exploring the island – we have spent far longer in total.
Of course Koh Phangan is renowned for the hectic Full Moon party and the many other parties that are on in the lead up to the main event. Even between Full Moon parties there is some action going on down on the full moon beach at Haad Rin, and every fortnight there is a rave in the jungle known as the Half Moon party. However, entry to this event has climbed to 1000฿ so make a good assessment as to whether this fits into your budget. The Full Moon party by comparison is 100฿.
If you’re not the Full Moon type then Koh Phangan is still the perfect Thai island. As it is not as developed as many of the others so you still feel like you’re in Thailand and most of the time the prices reflect this. Particularly between Full Moon and Half Moon parties (periods of a few days to a week) the island has a much quieter feel. This gives you the chance to have a proper explore and pop into family restaurants for some tasty cheap Thai food, find some good quality coffee, hunt for secluded beaches and just appreciate the beautiful scenery that becomes your everyday.
Koh Phangan will be a reoccurring feature of our time away, because at Secret Hut (the best accommodation on the island) we have found a home away from home. Coming back here to regroup is a real luxury.
Getting around Koh Phangan
Ferries from Surat Thani depart regularly everyday. They dock at Tong Sala on Koh Phangan, which is about a 25 -30 minute drive from Haad Rin, where the Full Moon beach is. Other towns such as Ban Tai and Had Yao are about 15 minutes from Tong Sala. There are always plenty of songthaews – open air taxis – waiting at the port when you get off the boat. They cost between 100-150฿ per ride.
If you’re familiar with driving a motorbike or scooter then it is worth picking one of these up straight away so you can get yourself to your accommodation and save money on a taxi. Be sure you are ok with riding with your backpack on though, the extra weight can throw your balance a bit.
Kate’s Motorbike hire is located just near the port at Tong Sala. Kate runs a good service and you can get a semi-automatic bike starting at about 150฿ per day, cheaper if you are hiring for longer. Kate takes your passport as insurance, but I always feel very comfortable leaving mine with her.
Travelling around the island, like many places in Southeast Asia is best done on a scooter or motorbike. This is why it is well worth doing some basic training on one of these kinds of vehicles before you come to the region. However, even those with no experience can soon get comfortable riding a scooter – it is after all, just like a motorised bicycle. The roads on Koh Pha Ngan are pretty good for the most part, but we certainly encountered a very hairy situation when we ended up on a dirt road full of potholes in the dark. This was in the Northwest of the island towards Had Yao so if you try and avoid this area and stick to the main road down the centre of the island you will be fine. Drive carefully and if you are going out to party at night just pay for a taxi.
Taxis open air songthaews run up and down the main roads of the island and there are plenty at night when sensible party-goers have left their scooters behind. They usually charge 100฿ per person and will fill up their van as they go. Returning home can be a bit of a nightmare because drivers might wait until they have a full load to leave. While I am sure this is fine during Full Moon when things are very busy, it was a bit of a pain for us because there were far fewer people around.
There is a range of options for your stay on Koh Phangan. During the Full Moon period it definitely pays to book ahead because places will fill up. Don’t try and find somewhere when you get to the island.
We will always stay at Secret Hut, the best value and the best views on the island. The owner Visanu is a fascinating character that loves to spend time talking with his guests. He is a retired lawyer who speaks excellent English and will give you a unique and deep perspective on anything you want to know about Thailand.
Secret Hut is about 8 cabins set up on a hill with a spectacular view and prices start at around 700฿ a night. If you want resort style luxury this isn’t the place for you. The rooms are basic, but have a private balcony with a view of the jungle and ocean worth much more than you pay plus you are surrounded by wonderful Thai staff and have the option to eat relative cheap, delicious food cooked by Visanu’s sister. Eating here is a great option if you need to be careful of food intolerances because Visanu speaks such good English he can translate any special requirements directly to his sister. Her red curry is delicious! I wish I could vouch for some of her other food, but after one bite of the red curry we weren’t interested in anything else.
To book Secret Hut just message Visanu on Facebook.
Beware that Secret Hut is very secret! Many taxi drivers don’t know where to find it so I suggest capturing a screenshot on Google maps so you can show them. They might try and charge you extra during the night shuttles, but it isn’t too far to walk from the main road.
Eating on Koh Phangan
Food and drink
There are plenty of authentic, cheap Thai options all over the island many of which I do not know the name. However, here I have listed some of the more expensive places we went to treat ourselves.
Cheap Thai food
Nong View Restaurant: Generous portions of tasty Thai food on the cheap. Conveniently located just down the road from Secret Hut. The red curry fried rice is great as are the vegetable and meat stir-fries. Avoid ordering anything that might contain soy if you need gluten free, because you might struggle to communicate your allergies.
Lifestyle Restaurant: Very generous servings of curries, pad thai and some very good salads. I really enjoyed the Thai salad with pork. We also got take away food here a couple of nights and took it back to our room and enjoyed it on the balcony.
Mang Place: A great, cheap place for breakfast. Food and drinks are very cheap here and you can order eggs all sorts of different ways. The fruit shakes are just 30฿ and made with fruit and ice, which is very refreshing in the heat.
Petty’s Place: This one is a bit pricier, but the Massaman is amazing. You will see reviews on all sites rave about this dish and with good reason. For 200฿ plus 25฿ for rice this curry can feed two people so it is worth while. The restaurant is run by an Italian man and his Thai wife and they are very friendly.
Luna Café: This is a great space set in a converted shipping container. The coffee is great and the menu serving Western breakfasts and Thai food is extensive. To give you an idea of price a black hot coffee is 60฿ and they serve lots of other exciting drinks such as the sea salt caramel latte that was on the menu when we visited. The staff are really friendly. We came here three days in a row to sit in the air-conditioned café and catch up on some reading. It is a really nice space to just relax.
Bubba’s organic coffee bar: Koh Phangan’s answer to hipster coffee and brunch. Drinks and food are very expensive here, but it has a great café atmosphere and there are some meals specifically noted as gluten free and vegetarian/vegan. The cold drip coffee is very good.
Treat yo self
Fisherman’s Restaurant: This is a place to really splurge, we have been five times and counting. The seafood is amazing and there is an extensive list of cocktails, the lemon grass and ginger daiquiri is to die for. All the fish is cooked to perfection, no matter how you order it and the chips are absolutely incredible. The staff here provide excellent service and if you have food intolerances you need to communicate there are a couple of British members of the team that can assist. While more expensive than many other places on the island, it is absolutely worth a treat.
Amsterdam Bar: Expensive drinks, but an exceptional view. It is a pretty steep ascent and descent up to the car park on a scooter, but well worth it for the incredible ocean and island views you get at the top. There is a swimming pool and two levels of seating.
The Masons Arms: If you’ve been away from home a while (and home is the UK) then this English style pub is definitely worth a visit, even just for the novelty. They have a couple of draught beers and bottled ciders, which aren’t cheap but sometimes it’s worth it! We spent a couple of hours in the airconditioned pub playing pool.
Koh Phangan Activities
Apart from exploring the mountain on your scooter and partying on Had Rin beach at night you can dive and visit the local marine park. Sail Rock is a great dive site and there are plenty of operators that will take you out there on certain days of the week.
Anthong Marine Park is very beautiful, but unless you have a very big budget I don’t recommend jumping on one of the many day trips out to the park. For a start it costs more than 2000฿ per person, which is a lot in Southeast Asia. If you got great value for this money I wouldn’t complain, but we didn’t really feel this was the case. Tour operators pack their boats absolutely to the brim. Apparently there was only 100 people on our boat and sometimes during Full Moon there are up to 150. We could not get a seat in the shade and as a result each one of our group got very sunburnt.
Activities on the trip are standard for these kinds of cruises – snorkelling, kayaking and a hike. The snorkelling had the potential to be very good, but visibility was poor for us. The kayaking was fun and the views from both lookouts were beautiful, however, in my eyes none of this was worth 2000฿+ each. On the plus side our tour fed us quite well with a full lunch and then a solid meal again before the end of the cruise. However, the boat never stopped for us to eat so it was not particularly comfortable or enjoyable on the moving vessel.
We did a day with Had Yao Divers, which run a great operation and is reasonably priced (albeit not the cheapest). Our trip cost 2700฿ per person and included two dives, pick up and drop off from your hotel, breakfast, lunch and all equipment hire. Breakfast included boiled eggs and fruit so there were gluten free friendly options. We had a fantastic dive leader, Thomas who was very thorough in is briefing and great at pointing out the marine life below. It was a great day and I would definitely use Had Yao Divers again.
I hope in sharing some of highlights on Koh Phangan I have given even the most party shy some inspiration to give the island a go. Look out for upcoming articles on other Southern Thai cities and islands soon.