Are the days of Phangan as a backpacker island numbered? Many recent visitors see its future shaping — into a high-end luxury island destination.
Koh Samui is a springboard to some inhabited atolls in a string of 80 islands scattered around the Gulf of Thailand, including the Angthong National Park, very popular for day trip explorations. Highway Travel Booking Company (Tel: 077-421 285; email@example.com) operates a daytrip to Angthong, highlighted by kayaking through natural caves and hiking up Tha Laem Nai, the tranquil blue salt-water lagoon lake featured in the movie, “The Beach.” But for this trip, I bypassed much of Samui and Angthong. I wanted to explore to Koh Phangan, the lovely island made infamous worldwide by the immensely popular “Full Moon Parties.”
One can get to Koh Phangan aboard the Sea Tran Ferry from Bophut pier (Samui) on the way to Koh Tao, another striking Thai island. First inhabited by monks 60 years ago, Koh Phangan is bigger than Koh Tao. And while it now wears the guise of a full moon party island, it remains a hidden paradise for visitors who fancy going on a moonlight swim under a starry night and beach-lovers who just love to lay back all-day on one of its unsullied beaches. But I didn’t expect that the island is now also great for what many frequent travelers now term as “luxe-experience.”
My hosts at the Blue Hill Resort (www.bluehillbeachresort.com) warmly received me at the pier and drove me past the quiet town and the well-paved hilly road to Had Rin. In about 20 minutes, I stepped out the vehicle onto the comfort grounds of the resort, which is perched on the hill surrounded by a thick tropical jungle looking down the infinite seam and in the backdrop, the rocky outline of the 25km-long island we all know as Samui.
Probably a one-of -kind resort in southern Thailand, Blue Hill Resort is equipped with a funicular (chair lift) so guests (and staff) may easily access the rooms located on a five-level terraced hill, and the pool and the beach on level one. The private beach is ideal honeymooning couples and families seeking the ultimate alone time. The resort’s beach, with its orderly pile of rocks, affords the most dramatic sunsets on the island.
The suites and rooms are air-conditioned and equipped with modern amenities, but I turned the air-con off so the heavenly breeze may cross-ventilate my room. In this room overlooking a breathtaking ocean view, I spent my first few nights on the island.
I started my day with a hearty breakfast at the restaurant, energized by the full menu (including young coconut water full of electrolyte) and the view. In fact, the restaurant offers a variety of dining – from traditional Thai specialties such as tom yam gung (shrimp in tamarind soup and herbs) and som-o (spicy pomelo salad) to continental cuisine (including succulent pizza or a juicy burger that you may take-away and enjoy on the beach).
Temperature can soar during summer months here but one partially cloudy day, we drove around to explore the main town and the coastline. From the resort to the town center, the scenic coastal road peaks and troughs through a stretch of occasional sharp turnouts requiring caution. The center with a local market is lined up with shops, banks, lodging, cafes, massage parlors, beauty salons (with names like “Sexy Scissors”) and tour companies that organize diving and snorkeling trips around the archipelago.
Leaving the town area, we followed the signs in the direction of Had Yao. The route is again a showcase of dramatic littoral coastal scenery with swaying palm trees and tropical jungle. As we entered the outer limits, the coastal hills appeared dotted with resorts and bungalow accommodation such as Woktum Bay Resort, which has bungalows perched above the hill overlooking the turquoise sea. Almost every verandah of the bungalows has a pool with a sea-view.
At another stretch, there was Sabai Beach Resort set beautifully around huge boulders hammered on the beach. A little farther, Ananda Yoga Resort near Laem Son Lake offers daily yoga, spa treatments, healthy food, and snorkeling and scuba diving trips.
Farther north we entered the center of Had Yao, more popular for its long beaches. Here, Long Bay Resort, Silver Beach Resort, and many others offer accommodation and BBQ on the beach, while dayspas, Internet cafes, restaurants and bars, and tattoo shops serve their clients on both sides of the road. (Tattooing is almost a part of indigenous culture on the island and tattoo artists makes a good living out of it, charging about US$500 per person for piercing colors and design for the upper arm.)
We retreated Had Yao and passed the town to explore the Ban Tai area – gaining popularity for kite surfing — and then went biking into the narrow avenues leading to the beach. A highly recommended resort here is The Milky Bay, located southwest on the idyllic Ban Tai beach with tropical gardens that extend into the beach. Its spacious air-con beach villas with attached bath come with a package of hot shower, each equipped with a large king size bed, mini-bar, TV and splash pool in the private verandah with a sea view. The restaurant menu is filled with a riot of South African flavors although you can also enjoy continental cuisine as well as BBQ nights on the beach.
While beach volleyball, ping pong, children play center and massage area form part of Milky Bay Resort activities, outdoor activities such as snorkeling and scuba diving around Koh Ma: a protected National Marine Park near Koh Phangan are also available. There are also miles and miles of virgin trekking trails at Than Sadet National Park, which is steeped in history and culture.
Back to the Blue Hill Resort after a light meal, we visited the next-door resort (The Palais), which is still under construction. Looking at this grand structure with its unique features and carvings in the form of Khmer art, I envision the future of Phangan shaping: it is transforming into a high-end luxury island destination.
The next day, we took a bike to Had Rin, where nightlife is sprawled around restaurants, bars, and fire dancers whirling rings of fire until the blaze fades out. It is in this district, in the Ban Kai stretch, where loud and rowdy Full Moon Party, happens. In fact, even under the half- or quarter moon glows, theme parties enliven the beach – and the island’s – spirit. Said one owner of the beach party venues: During these parties, “more than 2,000 revelers spend the night on the beach to party all-night long!”
Locals also tell stories of revelers partying in the nude but resorts like Blue Lotus Resort prefer the madding crowd off their grounds. Says the manager, “It’s good for business but (we would) rather host families or couples.” The resort’s Mexican Restaurant is quite popular and guests love the beach lined with coconut trees twisting into the sky. For a moment there, I felt like I’m inside a picture postcard myself! Another recommended hotel here is the Bankai Orchid Resort nearby, with its blend of Thai architecture and modern trimmings, and a view over the rocky Bankai beach at Tumbon.
Leaving the Southwest beach, we took up the path to our final journey: Ban Thong Nai Pan, the northeast coast of Phangan. Pearly white sand characterizes this part on the island and therefore makes a perfect venue for five-star resorting. Oh, and by the way, along this expanse, you can enjoy a meal at Rasta Baby Restaurant and Bar (a unique fusion of Thai-Jamaican style) while listening to some entrancing reggae. There is a local souvenir and tattoo shop and you can find some out-of-the-the ordinary indigenous souvenirs such as fine silver and gemstone jewelry.
By Air: Thai Airways and Air Asia fly from Bangkok to Suratthani airport in the Southeast Thailand. From Suratthani Airport, the bus transfers the passengers to the ferry terminal for departure to Samui or direct to Phangan. From Samui, Phangan island is access by speed boats or Sea Tran ferry. Bangkok Airways fly directly to Koh Samui.By Road: Buses ply overnight from Bangkok to Suratthani regularly. One-way VIP bus journey costs around Bt800 plus, usually including ferry transfers to Samui or Phangan.
By Rail: Bangkok to Chumphon. Ferry service from Chumphon to Phangan.