Koh Phangan is an island in the Gulf of Thailand; it is one in a group of three popular tourist islands. To the south is Koh Samui, the largest island, and to the north is Koh Tao which is the smallest island. Located in between is Koh Phangan; not too big or too small and feels just about right. Goldilocks vacationed here once.
The island does not have an airport so one must arrive by sea. We booked our transportation from Bangkok using Nok Airlines which conveniently combined the airfare, bus and sea transfers into one single ticket.
- Bangkok airport (DMK) to Surat Thani airport: 1 hour
- Bus transfer to Donsak port: 2 hours
- Catamaran transfer to Koh Phangan island: 1.5 hours
Alternatively one could save some time by flying directly from Bangkok to Koh Samui island and then taking a speedboat or catamaran but that’s a lot more expensive.
Getting ready to board in a not so organized fashion…
Arriving at the Thong Sala pier you have the simple option of taking a shared taxi to your accommodation for a fixed price, in our case 300 Baht ($9 USD) per person. Many hotels offer a pickup service but at two or three times the price it is certainly not worth it.
For any vehicle rental one must leave behind your passport as a security deposit. Some unscrupulous vendors have been know to rip off tourists for the smallest of dents or scratches. It’s impossible to argue or walk away when they hold your passport. Caveat emptor. (That’s Latin for: “I know two words of latin!”)
At only 200 Baht ($6 USD) per day, it would seem that renting a scooter is the best way to get around. However, the interior of the island is especially hilly and the roads are covered in loose sand and dirt in many places. Add to that intermittent rain showers and lots of bugs flying in the air and you have some difficult cycling conditions.
In other words, riding a motorcycle or scooter is ill advised especially if you have little or no experience. If in any doubt, drop by the Koh Phangan hospital to see tourists being treated for cuts, burns and worse due to scooter accidents. Or just simply look around the beach to see fellow guests hobbling about and avoiding the salty sea water.
Those familiar with motorcycle safety know that wearing the proper equipment is necessary to protect you in event of a fall. However, on the Thai islands, a swimsuit is generally the only protection worn by tourists. It is no wonder that people loose their toe nails when riding around shoeless and destroy their arms and legs when taking a small fall at low speed. Ouch!
There is but one car rental company on the island which offers car insurance and you pay a premium for the privilege. For the others, you must pay out of pocket for any accidents or damage you may cause. Despite the risk, we chose one such company based on the strong recommendation of our hotel and of course the competitive price – 1100 Baht ($34 USD) for 24 hours.
Everything worked out well and it proved to be a hassle free experience for us…but not so much for them as within 30 minutes of driving off we had them coming to fix a problem with the engine mysteriously dying. We were very lucky that our phones had enough signal to call.
Note to self: learn the 4WD transmission procedures BEFORE off-roading so you don’t end up perilously stuck on a steep hillside track wondering why you can’t move forward. My ‘man card’ was suspended temporarily!
There are lots of accommodation options to choose from but first one must decide on which side of the island to stay. The west is where you’ll find beautiful sunsets but unfortunately many of the beaches are not very suitable for swimming – the water level, even at high tide, is low due to the surrounding reef. The north has some of the best snorkeling at Mae Head Cove and Ko Ma while the south is famous for the Full Moon party and the backpacker scene. The east is quiet, popular with families, and is home to many beautiful beaches.
Unlike Tupac and Biggie, we couldn’t choose one side so instead we divided our time between the west and east. We spent 3 weeks on the east in Thong Nai Pan Noi and another week on the west side at Chao Phao beach.
The little town of Thong Nai Pan Noi on the east side…
Located on the east side of the island, about 40 minutes by taxi from Thong Sala pier, is the highly rated Buri Rasa resort hotel. We were very much looking forward to our stay here after spending the previous two weeks ‘roughing it’ in Myanmar.
If truth be told, we were both underwhelmed by the place on arrival. Perhaps it was the late evening arrival, some issues with our room, the overcast sky or the mediocre dinner at the hotel restaurant that dampened our mood.
However, the next morning we enjoyed a terrific beachside buffet breakfast basking in a warm sun and suddenly everything was right in the world. In fairness, Angelo, the guest relations manager, made a big effort to rectify a few mistakes and it certainly made us feel right at home. It convinced us that his was the place to come back to after we spent one week on the west side. We even sent a few customers his way while on the other side of the island. We ourselves would definitely love to go back!
Or perhaps it was our newest best friend: Jerry Fried Rice. The name was given to him by Alina due to his love for fried rice. (She sure does love a guy with a bad hip, poor eyesight and diminishing listening skills!)
Each evening Jerry would sleep outside our room for a few hours and in the morning would join us for breakfast before spending the entire day sleeping under our beach chair. I’m convinced that the sausage and bacon treats handed out by Alina were not a factor in his decisions!
Almost every night, the hotel puts on some kind of performance at the beach. Here we are enjoying the ‘fire show’ for about the fifth time…
On our return to the resort we got a personalized welcome. (Not pictured: Bottle of wine)
Blue Ocean Garden Resort
Located on the west side of the island, the Blue Ocean Garden resort couldn’t be more different than Buri Rasa. It’s a tiny property with about twelve individual bungalows run by a Thai lady and her Italian husband. (You see what I did there?! #equality)
It was recommended to us by our friends Abbie and Adam. Seeing as they were still staying there, we decided to leave Buri Rasa and join them for a week. Though the beach was not great for swimming, it was nice to spend some time on this side of the island to hang out with friends and gave us an opportunity to explore a new area. There are lots of restaurants nearby with two villages within 15-30 minute walk in either direction.
The breakfast is really good and you can’t beat dining outside next to the beach…
Onsite is Sunny Yoga where anyone can drop in for a 10am class. While I blogged, also known as caught up with news on Liverpool FC, Alina got in touch with her inner yogi and the previous nights dinner…
One thing to note about the Thai islands is that most, if not all, of the hotel staff are from Myanmar. By law, they can be paid less per hour than Thai citizens and are restricted to certain job duties. In addition to their wages, some employers provide them with accommodation, health care and all meals but many more do not. As migrant workers they are at the mercy of their employers. In essence, the Burmese are doing the jobs that Thai people do not want to do – not exactly a new phenomenon but a little bit of a surprise in a country where there is still plenty of poverty and unemployment.
Places to Eat
The BEST place to have a sandwich, do laundry or get a taxi! Owned by the most handsome man on the island and operated by his wife and sister (let’s face it – the ladies do all the work!) – this is a most charming little spot and they are so welcoming and friendly. We ate here almost every day. When in doubt, go to Handsome Sandwiches.
Alina left such an impression that they honored her with a gift when we finally left. How genuine is that?!!
Again and Again
We had a strange case of Jekyll and Hyde with the tiny restaurant called Again and Again. Very friendly the first five or so times we visited with the owner doing all of the cooking by herself – we hadn’t once complained even while waiting over 90 minutes for just a soup and curry. However, the one time we discretely mentioned a soup didn’t taste good, she went a little nuts and started having other people in the restaurant sample the very bowl of soup in question. Whatever about the sanitary implications, it was all a little awkward and the last time we graced her establishment. Her loss was our gain as we then discovered a much better restaurant down the street called Star Hut.
In happier times with Alina’s braided hair…
We were convinced to give Star Hut a try by some people we met who have been returning to this restaurant year after year for over a decade. They gave us the low down on the chef specialities not included on the menu and boy were we not disappointed. Probably the best restaurant we tried on the east side of the island.
Pura Vida Cafe
Situated on the main road in Haad Yao, the Pura Vida Cafe is a great place to stop for a sandwich especially as they bake their own bread daily. The owners are a Portuguese couple (and sister) who quit their life back home where the economy is struggling, to start a new life in Thailand. Very friendly and super tasty!
Belgian Beer House
Located right next door to the aforementioned Blue Ocean Garden resort, this bar has a huge selection of Belgian beers and is probably a great place to get drunk on two strong beers. Unfortunately, all were outside the budget of this flashpacker so we settled for a very hot curry and a coke at the accompanying restaurant!
Crave Restaurant and Lounge
Also situated on the main road in Haad Yao, the Crave Restaurant and Lounge, is a good evening spot to have a beer, burger and play some games – various board games, dice and a pool table are available free of charge.
The Luna Cafe is located close to Thong Sala. It’s a nice little place built out of two shipping containers. We enjoyed a good coffee, fresh sandwiches and desserts the two times we drove by in our rental car.
Taboon is a very popular vegetarian restaurant specializing in Mediterranean cuisine like shakshuka, sambusak, hummus, homemade pita from their wood-fired oven, etc. A little on the pricey side but so worth it to enjoy a nice salad for a change.
A tiny restaurant called Jumpahon operated by a single Thai lady is the highest rated restaurant on the island according to Tripadvisor. The food is very fresh and well prepared and is pretty hot and spicy, though one can have it ‘baby food’ spicy if desired!
Word of warning: allow at least 2-3 hours for dinner as she cooks all of the meals by herself!
The little vegetarian restaurant with its outdoor patio is operated by a Russian lady who cooks all of the savory dishes on offer. We went straight to dessert and my resident Russian correspondent confirmed that the Napoleon was indeed the real deal.
Things to Do
Many people come to Thailand specifically to scuba dive; it has some of the best diving locations in the world but more importantly the cost to dive or become certified is significantly less than other destinations. Neither of us had ever scuba dived before so we were definitely apprehensive as we approached the Dreamland Diver shop where we met Thomas, a German national, who was to be our instructor. He put us at ease by agreeing to give us some practice time at their swimming pool a day in advance of our two morning dives.
Let’s just say that the pool practice went well if we dismiss the fact that yours truly had a momentary panic attack when going from a depth of 4 feet to 9 feet! Nevertheless, after 45 minutes of practice we both exited the pool feeling a little bit more confident.
The next morning we made our way in a little boat over very choppy seas to the very popular dive site called Sail Rock. Not much eye contact was made between myself and Alina on the way out in fears we would betray our anxiety or our breakfast!
Once moored at the dive site, with the boat rocking violently, we ‘stepped off’ for the first time and strangely enough the anxiety dissipated once hitting the water and seeing the sea life below. Visibility was great and we managed to spend 45 minutes underwater on our first dive with Thomas doing his best to keep us on the right levels. In essence, all we had to do was focus on our breathing.
After a quick break for lunch (in the boat!), we ‘stepped off’ for our second dive in waters which were even more choppy. This time we were given more freedom to manage our own dive but with Alina’s tendency to ascend and my tendency to descend, Thomas spent the entire time swimming up, down and around to bring us back together. At one point I was 3 meters beyond the 12 meter limit. It would’ve been easier to find Nemo!
In the end, we both survived and felt good that we accomplished our goal especially as neither of us are particularly good open water swimmers. Unfortunately we weren’t able to capture any photographs of our adventure.
Here is an eerily accurate depiction of my second dive…
Angthong National Marine Park
As part of the day trip one gets to snorkel for 45 minutes, take two short hikes to a beautiful lagoon and viewpoint, do a little swimming and optionally kayak for 30 minutes or so. There were about 40 guests on board but the guides did a good job of moving things along. A small snack was provided on departure and later on a surprisingly tasty lunch was served buffet style.
Despite the conveyor belt feel of the tour and the expense ($45 USD p.p.) it was a nice change from lounging at the beach if nothing else.
Without a doubt, the best beach we encountered on the island. Very peaceful and great for swimming. It has a small restaurant nestled in the tree line behind the beach along with some bungalows for rent. One of the few developments I’ve encountered that doesn’t totally spoil the beach environment.
There are lots of stray dogs in Koh Phangan but equally many people have one dog as a pet. You can’t walk too far without bumping into a four-legged friend! We met this guy, Buddy, early in our stay on the east side of the island.
He had a deep wound in his back that didn’t look good. We reached out to the Koh Phangan Animal Care clinic but they were very reluctant to come and help. Regardless, we did our best to treat his wound with help from the local pharmacist and gave him some fresh water and food each day. All the time, reaching out for additional assistance – the only thing forthcoming was an antibiotic dropped off at our hotel for us to administer!
After a few days of doing this, it was time for us to move to the other side of the island with the understanding that the Animal Care people would come and check up on the dog. This did not happen and when we returned one week later Buddy was nowhere to be found. We searched two or three times daily but to no avail. Finally we found him, almost unrecognizable, and he died right in front of us within a couple of minutes of our arrival.
Very sad and totally unnecessary – you can understand that we were very disappointed with the Animal Care people for not taking it more seriously and taking action. But at the same time, they are the only organization on the island doing anything for animal welfare and their resources are somewhat limited. Still…
This little girl who we met at a local restaurant was knocked down by a motorcycle but was recovering well in the care of her owners…
On a happier note, this is a healthy little puppy called Sugar who lives at the laundromat…
And Jerry Fried Rice once more…
Having spent so much time with stray dogs, we wondered if it was time to get some booster shots to our Rabies vaccination. The first clinic we visited told us not to bother or get one! The second clinic told us that we needed 5 immediately or else we would be in trouble. Feeling confused we finally went to the impressive First Western Hospital where they suggested (the recommended) 2 shots as a precaution.
“Work getting you down? Feeling stressed lately?”
Koh Phangan is a great island to visit with plenty of activities for all types of tourists. 3+ weeks was just the right amount of time to get comfortable but we could easily have stayed another month.