If you're looking for an adventure-filled island holiday, or a quiet spot with secluded bungalows and hammocks, you can't go past Ko Phangan
To party or not to party?
Once a month, the small island of Ko Phangan in the Gulf of Thailand is swamped by thousands of young travellers arriving for the Full Moon Party. Some stay long enough to experience the Half Moon Party, Black Moon Party, Moon Set Party or even the New Moon Party, but the vast majority stay only a few days and then depart for the next South East Asian destination on their list.
This is a shame for them, but good for those of us who love the quieter side of Ko Phangan and know how much more there is to experience on this gem of an island.
Ko Phangan is only 20 kilometres long and 10 kilometres across, although it seems a lot bigger when you start exploring on your scooter or bicycle or on foot. The centre of the island is dominated by three looming, jungle-covered mountains which catch the rare clouds and echo with the screeches of monkeys. Beautiful sandy beaches ring the island, and in the hills above, tiny bungalows sit shaded by coconut palms.
Beneath the waves
If you have ever wanted to learn to scuba dive, Ko Phangan is the place – nearby Ko Tao is overrun with dive shops and the waters are congested with bubbles. Koh Phangan, on the other hand, has beautiful coral reefs off many of its beaches, and fewer dive schools – meaning you get a more personalised teaching experience if you learn here Haad Yao Divers (www.haadyaodivers.com) is highly recommended – their instructors are friendly and fun and PADI-certified, and after you’ve done some training off the west-coast beaches, you can dive with them on Sail Rock.
Sail Rock is a huge underwater pinnacle an hour by boat from Ko Phangan, and perfect for all levels of diving. If you dive here in February, March or April, you may well be lucky enough to dive with a whale shark – the biggest fish in the sea, and totally harmless – well, as long as you’re human, not plankton!
The north of Ko Phangan offers some amazing beaches and day trips – try Chalakolum, a small fishing village, for some of the best and most fresh seafood in the whole of Thailand. The beach-side restaurants are amazingly cheap and offer the opportunity to eat freshly-caught squid whilst watching the day’s catch drying on racks on the beach beneath you. The snorkelling at nearby Bottle Beach and Ko Ma is world-class. Nearby are elephant treks, archery, horse-riding, monkey sanctuaries, bars, bungalows, yoga, healing centres, high-end resorts, wake-boarding, kite-surfing ... and the list goes on. After all this excitement, you’ll need a few days chilling in your hammock with a good book and perhaps a few Singha beers.
Meet the people
But easily the best thing about Ko Phangan, and indeed all of Thailand, is the Thai people – and the best place to meet Thai people is in small, family-run resorts. One such is Nice Sea Resort on the north-west coast, in the village of Sri Thanu. Nice Sea Resort is a collection of around ten bungalows right on the beach, and is owned and run by a Thai couple and their family. This is a small and friendly resort with very reasonable prices and personalised service – perfect for people wanting some peace and quiet, families with small children, or just solitary travellers seeking a special experience.
The food in the restaurant is simply incredible and the beach is possibly the best place on the island to sit and watch the sun go down. Every bungalow has a view of the sea, and the balconies on each bungalow are the perfect place to lie in your hammock and maybe chat to the neighbours – or maybe just recover from the rat race for a few weeks.
Also, the nearby village of Sri Thanu has an Italian restaurant which serves real coffee ... and with this, the only thing missing from most of South East Asia, the experience attains perfection.