I know a few things about Koh Phangan (Thailand) because it’s my home away from home. I’ve been living there on and off for some time, and can’t get enough of it. I love the island because it’s so versatile. A lot of people see only the Full Moon Party side of it but let me convince you, it’s much, much more.
Table of Contents
- About Thailand and Thai Customs
- How to Get to Koh Phangan, Thailand?
- Best Time to Visit
- Where to Stay and the Best Beaches?
- Getting Around KP
- What to Do on Koh Phangan?
- Where to Eat on Koh Phangan?
- The Full Moon Party and the Best Parties
- The Wrap-up
1. About Thailand and Thai Customs
Thai people are very laid-back and friendly people. They tolerate a lot from tourists but can be hard to make friends with. Thailand is also a proud nation. The country wasn’t conquered during the World Wars, unlike its neighbouring countries. Hence, Thailand also holds on to its religion and customs and doesn’t want to be westernised too much.
The funny thing is that I was actually teaching in Thailand just a while ago; Buddhism, Civics, and a few other subjects which fall under the category of Social Studies. Hence, I had to learn a thing or two about Buddhism and Thai society during those 6 months. If you want to learn more about working in Thailand as a teacher, you should definitely look into my previous posts. It was a bit crazy but I liked it!
Anyway, Buddhism defines or permeates the whole Thai society and the country. It gives Thais their calm and peaceful look on life and many of the traditions they follow in everyday life, such as giving offerings to the monks or going to the temple to pray.
Never touch a Thai’s head. Nor should you point your feet at anyone. Never ever make fun of the King. Every once in a while you read about drunken tourists making stupid pranks and the consequences are always severe.
Thais are also quite bashful when it comes to nudity and showing affection in public. In Europe, it’s ok to show off your skin a bit at beach holiday destinations but let me assure you, this is not the case in Thailand. I really can’t understand people who ignore the dress code when visiting temples (cover your shoulders, chest, and knees) or moving around in general (driving around in bikinis or speedos, a big no-no).
Let me assure you, this is not what any Thai would do and hence, I wouldn’t encourage you to do it either. Thais tolerate it, but it doesn’t mean it’s right. Okay, now that the rant is over (sorry):
if you want to be polite, you can learn the ‘wai’ greeting, in which you put your palms together and bow. It would be nice to learn a few words in Thai also, such as
Thank you: khop khun kha (females)
khop khun khrap (men)
Hello!: Sawat-dee kha (females)
Sawat-dee khrap (men)
Koh Phangan is situated in the Surat Thani province in southern Thailand. It is in the middle of the neighbouring Ko Tao (north of KP) and Koh Samui (south).
The immigration policies change constantly. Let me stress that: constantly. Sometimes the different immigration offices around the country might police the regulations differently because they just can’t keep up.
In recent years, it’s been evident that Thailand would like to have more affluent travellers and fewer backpackers. For instance, they are restricting how many times per year you can enter by land which is the cheapest way if you are backpacking through Asia.
Many Western nationals are entitled to Visa exempt which means you can arrive and stay 30 days without a Visa. If you plan to stay longer, a Visa for Thailand is required. Make sure to read the up-to-date info here: https://www.immigration.go.th/index
4. How to get to Koh Phangan, Thailand?
You’ve got multiple options. Most people fly into Bangkok first but you could also arrive from Malesia, such as take the bus or train from Penang or Kuala Lumpur. It is also possible to arrive from Myanmar by land.
Anyway, if you don’t have to count every penny, like the rest of us, mortal and skint backpackers, Bangkok Airways flies to Koh Samui from early morning until late at night, from Suvarnabhumi. From the Samui airport, you take a minivan or taxi to one of the piers and get a ferry to Koh Phangan (KP for short).
They have a booth which sells these journeys at the airport. This is the fastest but also the most expensive option. Bangkok Airways has a monopoly over this route so you won’t be seeing any discounts on the prices.
A cheaper alternative is to take a budget airline, such as Nok Air, Thai Lion Air or Thai Air Asia which fly from Don Mueang to Surat Thani. Surat Thani is on the mainland so from there, first, you take a couple hours bus ride to Donsak pier and then the ferry to your destination.
If you happen to be at Khao San Road, it’s pretty convenient to take one of the bus + ferry combos. You have 3 options, Songserm (the least trustworthy and comfy), Seatran (my favourite) and finally, Lomprayah which is a catamaran and the fastest (and the most expensive). The last two are suitable if you are travelling with a dog. If the sea is rough, be warned though, with Lomprayah it can get rocky (witnessed some puke fests and it’s not pleasant).
You can buy a ticket from the head offices of these companies at Khao San or from one of the numerous travel agents. You’ll save some 50-100 baht or so if you buy it directly from the main office which doesn’t make that big a difference. During the high season, book in advance if you need to be on the island on a specific date. Also, bear in mind, half of the backpackers head for the island close to full moon.
You could also take the comfy and well-running government bus which leaves from the Southern terminal Sai Tai or Northern Morchit terminal. For me, it just makes more sense to stick to the ones leaving from Banglamphu (Thai name for Khao San Rd area). Then again, if I’m leaving KP, I usually take the government bus because it’s very handy (you can leave your rucksack on the bus before stepping on the ferry so you don’t have to worry about it on the boat).
The VIP bus is a little bit more expensive but gives you a bit more room to stretch your legs on the bus and if you are travelling solo, you can request a spot where you don’t have to sit next to anyone. Travel agents can also help you secure a place for the government bus.
More info about the timetables and routes here: http://www.sawadee.com/thailand/transfer/bus-south.html
All of the companies offer a blanket, water bottle, and some snacks onboard. There is also dinner included with the government bus (vegans, vegetarians, and picky Westerns, be warned!). The stop is around midnight, and your bus ticket is your dinner voucher so don’t throw it away.
Then there is the train also, leaving from Hualamphong station, not too far from Khao San Rd. It has got different classes, I usually take the 2nd class sleeper, and I’m very happy with the beds. I’ve also done the trip with 2nd class seats. It was ok, the seats reclined and I was able to get some shut-eye.
They sell food, snacks, and drinks on the train. Book in advance during high season and Thai national holidays. You need to either go to Hualamphong by yourself or use a ticket agency. In the latter case, you can book it online but nevertheless, you still need to do it in advance (24 hours at least usually) and collect the actual ticket at a train station (Hualamphong or other station where you will be travelling from).
Check out Thai Railways web page to know more: http://www.thairailways.com/booking-ticket.html
What to Pack for the Long-distance Bus/Train?
I always sort out my hand luggage well in advance. Don’t leave your valuables in your rucksack which will be in the storage compartment because thefts are not unheard of.
You might want to make sure you have enough movies in your laptop etc if you don’t feel sleepy right away when the journey starts. A book can be handy but then you might need a headlamp because there isn’t always enough light for reading.
In addition, I pack a toothbrush and paste, eye mask, deodorant, earplugs, wet towels, sleeping tablets (or other medications should you require some), a bigger water bottle and some munchies, woolen socks (I’m from Finland after all) and comfy and warm clothing (it gets chilly inside) with me.
5. Best Time to Visit
The Monsoon hits around October-November and lasts a few months or so. This means that you get showers but it doesn’t usually rain the whole day. Do notice though that the weather patterns have been changing, on Koh Phangan also.
A few years ago the rain season just kept going. It was horrible. It was pretty much raining non-stop for 2 months. The rain season seems to extend well into December which previously was somewhat drier. Apart from the rainy months, it’s usually nice and sunny, and occasional showers.
It starts getting busy around Christmas and the high season extends until the end of February or so. After that, it starts slowing down except during the full moon dates. Then it’s always quite busy. Apparently, in August, the island too gets more visitors for instance from Europeans who have their summer holidays.
I like the buzz of the high season and because then you have more choice when it comes to restaurants and shops. Some food stalls and boutiques close for the quieter months and then reopen again when there are more people.
The downside is that you might need to wait for your services longer, eg. getting a massage or a dinner table. Furthermore, the beaches and roads will be crowded (and more dangerous). If you prefer some quiet time, better come outside the party dates and high season. And you probably guessed it right, you are able to score better deals outside the busy period and FMP dates.
6. Where to Stay and the Best Beaches?
The island has different areas/villages with unique characteristics. I will try to describe the different places so you get an idea what they are like.
The main port and town. Good for shopping and eating out. Also some small hotels, hostels and bungalow resorts. This is where you will find the Saturday night walking street market. A good central location but not super good beaches.
Ban Tai/Ban Kai
A laid-back area full of hippies and backpackers. Also numerous cheap eats, most of the major parties (Half Moon, Black Moon, Jungle Experience, and the amazing psytrance party Ban Sabaii), bungalow resorts and hostels. The beach is not spectacular but will do. Nice views to Koh Samui. I have a few hostels that I could recommend, such as Cats in Space and Echo Beach.
The beach is quite shallow and during the hot season you need to walk quite far away to the sea… and you can still find yourself barely able to swim.
The infamous Full Moon Party Beach is called Haad Rin Nok in Thai. On the other side, you will find a bit more quietude (Haad Rin Nai, which is the sunset side). Many backpackers stay here though Haad Rin also has bungalow resorts and hotels for a more upscale stay.
Haad Rin has a lot of small shops and boutiques selling trinkets, bikinis, t-shirts but also more stylish ladies clothing. In addition, you can find restaurants, massage shops, tattoo parlours and so forth in this backpacker hub. The actual Full Moon beach is very nice, white and fine sand, it just gets wrecked during the Full Moon period. From here, you also take the longtail boat to the next location:
Haad Yuan/Haad Thien/Whynam
The Tri-Bay area is quite secluded and hence, gathers a different crowd. It’s mainly the same people who keep going there year after year. Old school vibes, yoga schools, lazy beach life and a few good parties (Guy’s Bar on Friday, Eden on Saturday, Peace & Love on Sundays). The popular detox/yoga place called the Sanctuary is situated in Haad Thien.
The beaches are not my favourites because the sand is quite coarse. Then again, the surrounding lush jungles and cliffs add up to the experience.
I love this area but there are a few drawbacks; it’s quite expensive, it’s hard to get a bungalow during the high season and yeah, it’s secluded. Oh, and the longtail taxi boat ride is a rip-off. What used to be 100b is now 300-400 baht. A ridiculous amount considering it’s only a 15-minute boat ride.
A small but cozy beach which has a few bungalows resorts but not much else really. A good place for swimming if the other beaches are getting too shallow during the hot months. A bit far away, maybe 30 minutes by scooter from Ban Tai for example.
Thong Nai Pan Noi/Thong Nai Pan Yai
These two adjacent villages both have very nice beaches. There are a lot more families and couples and some luxury resorts and villas. Not much nightlife and it’s quite far from everything else. Pricier also. But makes a very good day trip if you fancy laying in the sun.
A secluded and small place with only few resorts and their restaurants, in addition to the lovely beach. No parties and noise to be seen. The road here can get inaccessible if it rains heavily but you can make it to Haad Khuad (the Thai name) with the longtail boat from Chaloklum, for instance.
The beach here is the best. It has a lovely dune-like setting and white, powdery sand. I love the fisherman village vibe and charm Chaloklum has. It is not a party place and, hence, it is more suitable for couples or those wanting to chill. Alternatively, when the sea gets rough, you can catch some kitesurfers doing mad stunts in the air. Def go and have a look, it’s crazy what they can do!
There are plenty of good seafood restaurants and some lovely cafes. The road from Thong Sala is in good condition all the way to Chaloklum so, in that sense, the location is good.
Hing Kong, Sri Thanu and Thereabouts
Hing Kong is a long stretch full of bungalows very close to the beach which gets very shallow regularly. After Hing Kong comes the yoga/new age epitome of the island, Sri Thanu. It’s full of yoga and tantra schools, eg, Sunny Yoga, Samma Karuna, and Orion Healing where I did my yoga teacher training.
Moreover, you can find all kinds of healing programs and events around Sri Thanu, such as Reiki courses, detox holidays, cacao ceremonies, and ecstatic dances. Just follow the notice boards around the island.
The West Coast also has plenty of good massage places, vegetarian and vegan restaurants, amazing cafes and so forth. Zen Beach is famous for its hippie vibes and I quite like Bovy Beach also, just to mention a few.
Haad Salad, Mae Haad and the North-West
This part of Koh Phangan is full of beautiful beaches, and more modern bungalows if we compare to Ban Tai for instance. Hence, many couples and families have their vacay here and it doesn’t have a real party scene. Utopia 360 makes an exception but this restaurant with a view is out of the way so won’t cause any disturbance.
Furthermore, most of the dive shops are situated in this area and hence, you can find the diving crew having a few after work bevvies at local restaurants and bars, such as Shiralea Backpackers.
7. Getting Around KP
Most young people want to rent a motorbike and drive around the island. That’s what I like to do also. But just a quick warning: there are so many motorbike accidents and even few casualties every year so please, please drive safe and make sure you have an insurance.
Motorbike rent is about 150-200b/day. Check the bike before renting and take a few pictures so you know which scratches were already on the bike. In Thailand, it’s been a typical tourist scam to ask the farang (foreigner in Thai) to pay for the damage on the bike which they actually haven’t caused.
Officially, you need a driver’s license but so far, they haven’t been asking it. Instead, even though it is illegal at the moment, they might require you to leave your passport as a deposit. If you are uncomfortable with this, try to give them a copy or try another place.
It took me a while to learn to drive on the left but nowadays it’s not a problem. The traffic can get quite crazy and the roads are very steep in some places, so if you are an inexperienced driver, it might be better to use a taxi. There are numerous stray cats and dogs also which can make a quick jump to the road at night (or drunken revelers for that matter).
You can take the songthaeow taxis which have their own routes and destinations: Chaloklum, Thong Nai Pan, West Coast up to Mae Haad and the one going to Haad Rin passes Ban Tai also. These are actually considered buses so you don’t need to negotiate beforehand.
However, at night time (or if it’s very slow) they can sometimes be used as regular taxis. If the driver asks you where do you want to go, you can take it as a sign that he or she wants to set an individual price for you (which will most likely be much higher than the average fare).
The fare ranges between 100-300 baht or so and is non-negotiable. The end destination/route is written on the car but if you are unsure you can always ask the driver.
You could also use a motorbike taxi. They are waiting for the passengers at the pier and with this guys, you need to negotiate the fare beforehand. The songthaeows at the pier only leave when the car is (nearly) full. Hence, I sometimes take a motorbike taxi if I can’t be bothered waiting.
Many of the hotels can also organise a transport for you if you request it beforehand.
8. What to Do on Koh Phangan?
Each to their own but I often feel sad that the young backpackers come only for the FMP and disappear en masse 1 or 2 days after. Koh Phangan has so much to offer.
You can actually do all kinds of watersport here, such as diving, snorkeling, and freediving. Often people go to Ko Tao for diving but Koh Phangan is a decent spot as well. For more info on what to consider when going snorkeling, check out this useful post.
Then there is kitesurfing, SUP boarding, kayaking, boat safaris and some crazy activities, such as Slip & Fly water slide. Just a friendly reminder, however, make sure your insurance is all good for the last activity.
Muay Thai, Martial Arts, Gym and Dancing
There are plenty of good Muay Thai gyms and other martial arts, such as BJJ. I’ve personally tried Diamond Muay Thai and can completely recommend them.
There are a couple gyms here, from modern to plain tin-roofed ones. I’ve been going to Phangan Muay Thai gym in Thong Sala. The equipment is not super new but its’ cheap. You can also train Muay Thai there as the name suggests. In Ban Tai and Haad Rin, you can find gyms with aircon if you prefer working out in a not-so-sweaty place.
During the high season, there are plenty of other cardio and fitness classes. Towards the low season, they tend to diminish. In recent years, opportunities for different dance classes have increased. There are plenty of dance lessons, especially Latin dances around the island.
I’d also suggest going trekking. While the island may not be big enough for a hardcore hiker, there are some trails I’d recommend for you to try. Some are for the more experienced, and some are suitable for almost everyone (unless you have injuries). This post explains the hikes in detail.
Some of you know already that I love yoga, especially Ashtanga Yoga. Koh Phangan has numerous yoga shalas where you can go to classes or do a proper yoga retreat or yoga teacher training.
As I already mentioned, Sri Thanu and thereabouts is the place to go if you want to immerse yourself in the yogic life. However, Ban Tai also has the lovely Siam Healing Centre and the Tribay area has a few recommended places, such as the infamous Sanctuary, Whynam Ashtanga Yoga Platform, and Pure Flow.
One of the best things to do on Koh Phangan is having a Thai massage. There are numerous places which offer quality massage. In Thong Sala, you can find eg. Kanda and Pure Relax. The latter is also a spa if you’d like to get a proper pampering and it is suited for couples if you fancy going with your partner.
In Ban Tai, I would recommend Siri massage opposite the original 7/11 and White lady massage opposite to Echo Beach Backpackers. In Sri Thanu, I’d suggest trying Papaya or Eyo. Anyway, all the masseuses have different styles. You have to try out different places to know which one you like the best.
One thing on Koh Phangan you have to try out is the sauna or steam room. Whatever you prefer to call it. I actually wrote an in-depth article about the best saunas on Koh Phangan. Wat Pho sauna at the Wat Pho temple in Ban Tai is very hot (be warned). It’s nothing fancy but it’s definitely unique. Another interesting option is the Dome which is very popular among the Sri Thanu crowds.
KP hasn’t got so many things to see per se. It’s more about soaking in the breathtaking sunsets and the natural beauty of the island, in my opinion.
Perhaps you want to see the Biggest Yang tree though, next to Wat Pho temple, or the quirky Buddhist temple, Wat Khao Tam where they also have vipassana meditation retreats. Be warned though, the dogs around this temple have been a bit nasty. I know because I used to live next door and have witnessed a few dog bites.
For a more detailed article about the different temples, click here.
During the rainy season, or until it gets too hot and dry, you can find fabulous waterfalls around the island. But like I already mentioned, don’t bother chasing these waterfalls after around February or March because they are going to be sad, little waterfalls or completely dry. My favourite waterfall is Phaeng, by the way. There’s a viewpoint and a hiking trail all in the same spot!
9. Where to Eat on Koh Phangan?
Koh Phangan has plenty of cheap eats but also finer restaurants. I will give some of my favourites here but there are always new ones opening. If you see a modest looking local restaurant with plenty of Thais sitting there, go and have a look! It usually means that the food is tasty and authentic.
Many times Thai food is spicy but not all of the dishes. Noodle dishes are quite mild usually (ok, yam wunsen in an exception, the oh-my so delicious seafood glass noodle salad). When you order a dish, you can ask not spicy or “mai phet, kha/krap”.
The Food Market/s
If you are new to the island, you have to experience the Phantip Plaza food market in Thong Sala, (or just simply food market). The choice is endless pretty much: Thai food, seafood, BBQ meat, Thai soups, Indian, Middle Eastern, vegan, salads…
And to top it off, they have a few vendors who sell delicious coconut ice cream, banana chocolate chip cake (my fave), donuts, crepes and so on. Essential to this whole food market experience is getting yourself a fruit shake (could also be called a smoothie, in English, lol): there are at least 100 different taste combos so you won’t get bored easily.
On Saturdays, the Chinese walking street turns into a night market and there are plenty of food stalls to choose from. The Phantip Plaza food market is still on but it’s pretty quiet. They play the national anthem 6pm sharp by the way so get ready to freeze when the song starts to play.
Vegetarian and Vegan Food
If you want to eat super healthy vegetarian and vegan food, head to Sri Thanu. There are so many fantastic options on the West coast, though the portions are a bit pricey, 150-200 baht on average. Some really good ones are Orion, where I did my yoga teacher training and raw food cooking class, Vegan Heaven, Karma Cafe is one of my favourites, then there is Art of Juice, Eat.co, the legendary Mama Pooh’s, and so forth.
Fine Dining (or Fancier Anyway)
If you have a romantic date set or fancy something finer for change, there are a few options that I’d like to recommend. Fabio’s Italian restaurant in Ban Tai is an oldie but goldie. The Portuguese restaurant nearby, Bite Delight is superb!
Fisherman’s is one of the oldest restaurants on the island and this Ban Tai classic really knows how to prepare the most beautiful seafood and Thai food dishes. Furthermore, the location at the beach is unbeatable. Oh, and they make killer cocktails!
Below is a picture from Infinity. It’s a pool/bar/restaurant complex worth getting to know, also in Ban Tai. You can use the pool for free if you order some food or drinks. It’s a fab place to wind down and work on with that tan of yours.
At Hing Kong, you have 2 premium spots next to each other: L’alcove and Romazo Tropicale. The first one is a French bistro with some excellent wines, cheese (and food) and the second one is an Italian restaurant with cozy cushions you can chill on, watching the sunset while having a glass of red with your pizza obviously.
New bars open constantly but I do have some recommendations; Soho in Thong Sala, on the opposite side to the food market is one of my favourites. If I want some after-hours vibes, I go there and have a glass of wine. They make mean burgers, too and the secret is in the sauces this place has 😉
For amazing vistas and 420 attitudes, try Top Rock, 360 or Amsterdam. Another cool bar/restaurant is the Secret Mountain. It’s a bit out of the way but worth a visit. Oh, and there’s a pool so take your bathers with you.
I have written a very thorough Koh Phangan Cafe Guide, in case you are a caffeine addict like myself and like all the things sweet. Many of these places offer meals also but I tried to concentrate on cafes which are mainly coffee shops/bakeries.
If you don’t have time to look at the extensive article (I’m hoping you would, though), I could recommend a few decent coffee shops, such as Nira’s, Dots, Karma Cafe, the Art Cafe, Pura Vida, World’s End, and Bubba’s.
10. Koh Phangan, Thailand: the Birthplace of the Original Full Moon Party
Even though I’ve written quite a lot about Koh Phangan (or Ko Phangan), I’ve never made it to this topic. Haven’t really considered it necessarily but maybe I will write a few lines. I might as well.
So, the island gets pretty much fully booked around the FMP dates, especially if its high season. Book in advance to avoid disappointment. The same applies to getting here: ferries, buses and sleeper trains will be packed/ sold out. If you have something special on your mind, book way ahead if you want to stay in that particular, lovely villa.
On the day, leave your valuables home and grab a taxi to the venue. Most certainly don’t try driving your motorbike there. Drink enough water, not just to prevent you from dehydrating (yadi yada…) but also to avoid the tropical hangover (better than the normal one since you are in the tropics, I always console myself).
Things get stolen at the party so be wise with your valuables, preferably leave them at home and take only cash with you. But most importantly, have fun and look after your friends!
The party used to be free but now there is a nominal 100b cleaning fee or so which I think is perfectly reasonable. It’s a disgrace how much rubbish is left behind after every event. And speaking of littering. Please, avoid taking extra straws and plastic bags.
Other Recommended Parties
The party scene is evolving constantly. New parties appear every season and some old ones are forgotten. If you prefer big parties, you might like the Jungle Experience, Waterfalls, Half Moon and Black Moon. The first one has the best lineup if you like tech house. Half Moon is a bit of a mainstream psytrance party and Black Moon closer to a proper psytrance party. These are all situated in the Ban Tai area.
If you are a true goa head, you can’t miss Ban Sabaii, though. It’s one of the best venues and parties I know, located at the beach, in Ban Tai.
Other recommended parties: Loy Lay (Ban Tai), 360 (Mae Haad), Eden and Guy’s Bar (Haad Yuan), Lighthouse (near Leela Beach close to Haad Rin), Backyard (Haad Rin) and Samsara (after Ban Kai, close to Haad Rin).
Thailand has very strict drug laws and they are not afraid to enforce them. Every year, during the high season, and especially around the full moon, they have a lot of army and police officers coming from the mainland to help maintain order and put away tourists who do not understand the clear message: do not use drugs here.
There is a slight distinction, though, whether or not you have been caught with marihuana or pills but nevertheless, leave it all out unless you want to get into trouble. It might be tempting to buy from a cool new Thai friend who assures you that “it’s ok”. But don’t believe this person. Many times they are informants working for the police.
11. Ko Phangan – The Wrap-up
Okay guys, I’ve tried to cover as much as I can but I think this article is getting out of control (over 5000 words, you know what I mean). I think I need to stop now. Anyway, please give this little Gulf of Thailand gem a chance, outside the Full Moon Party season also. It deserves it. It certainly has stolen my heart.
Have you been to Ko Phangan already? Is there something missing in the article that you’d like to know more about? Leave your comments and I will get back as soon as I can.
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