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Lifestyle Curators for Thailand + Southeast Asia

The Other Side of Phangan

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There’s more to Koh Phangan than just the exciting monthly Full Moon parties, and they’re easier to find than you think!

by Percy Roxas
Local children enjoy simple joys at the beach.

Local children enjoy simple joys at the beach.

Mention Koh Phangan and the island’s world-renowned full moon parties come to mind. This 125sqm-island has been celebrated –- in books, movies, and songs – as party central because of its full moon parties, which attract some 40,000 revelers from around the world. Because of these parties Phangan is today one of the kingdom’s top island destinations. But local authorities are not entirely happy with just the full moon party monicker.

Why? “Visitors are not really seeing the real Koh Phangan,” explains Kobkarn Wattanaravkul, Thai minister of tourism and sports. “It is time for Koh Phangan to show to the world that is more than just a full moon party island.” Last month, the island did just that. Under the auspices of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) and Koh Phangan Hotels Association, the island organized the first “Phangan Color Moon Festival” to tell the world that their island has more to offer than just the full moon parties.

Locals recently converted an unused Thai  Navy ship into a museum showcasing Koh Phangan's culture and arts

Locals recently converted an unused Thai Navy ship into a museum showcasing Koh Phangan’s culture and arts

A full moon party at Haad Rin Beach was still part of it, but the event emphasized the island’s history, culture, and breadth of other attractions instead — and not just to please tourists but also, more importantly perhaps, to reaffirm that their island is still the paradise they know it to be. We were fortunate to visit the island during the festival, which also marked the historical significance of the island as a royal retreat of King Rama V (1868-1910). The great king paid 16 visits to the island in his lifetime, 14 on full holidays and two on stopovers.

Our visit revealed a Koh Phangan different from what many thought it was. From the moment we disembark from the ferry, we immediately noticed the changes. There is now a big, vibrant pier. Signs of modern development are everywhere, although for the most part, the spirit has remained rural. The population has grown (13,700 as of 2013 census) and tourism infrastructure has improved. A main road encircling the island is being built, making even the remotest parts of the island more accessible. If you’ve been to the island, more than half of which is national park, you know that its interior used to be generally inaccessible.

A view from Maehaad  not too far  from the  popular  sand bar.

A view from Maehaad not too far from the popular sand bar.

There are now more hotels on the island—already 7,820 room in various accommodation categories, say the TAT–catering to the growing number of tourists who stay an average of 5.5 days on the island. And more are in the blueprint, many offering a new kind of “luxe-experience,” as the island expects visitor-numbers, 740,000 in 2013, to hit one million soon.

There is a Koh Phangan that most visitors won’t see if they are focused only on the full moon parties or just its paradisiacal beaches and the crystal clear blue sea.

Much of the local traditions and heritage may have been washed to the beach by the advent of mass tourism, but it is easy to see that the locals, despite increasingly engaging in more profitable tourism businesses, still adhere to their ancient traditions: harvesting coconuts, catching squid, building boats, and producing what is said to be the country’s finest shrimp pastes. As the island becomes an even bigger tourist magnet, its folks are jealously guarding—as they should—their Thainess, so to speak. The “color” in the festival title “Phangan Color Moon Festival” actually refers to the varied aspects of the islanders’ exceptional way of life.

A monument of King Rama V , who visited the island 16 times, stands in the heart of town.

A monument of King Rama V , who visited the island 16 times, stands in the heart of town.

We immersed ourselves in these “colors” during our visit. We drove to the many places very few tourists go, and we liked what we saw. Like the waterfalls that King Rama V has named during his royal visits. These waterfalls (Thansadet, Thanprapas, and Thanprawet), located near the king’s well-preserved royal pavilion in an area nestled between a lovely beach and a lush, green forest – are part of the more than 80sqm of relatively unspoiled rainforest in the island with diverse flora and fauna.

We drove through that rainforest and visited several many non-mainstream attractions. We walked through that sand bar on Maehaad beach that Lonely Planet recently praised as “one of the world’s best,” we watched kite-boarding fanatics strut their stuff at Malibu beach, we visited several community-based tourism pursuits, and we even explored new training centers for yoga teaching. Why, with its numerous Buddhist temples, spa retreats, and thriving meditation industry—the island has the makings of perfect spiritual retreat!

The pristine  waterfall where King Rama V used to bathe during his visits.

The pristine waterfall where King Rama V used to bathe during his visits.

On every turn, in fact, there is something new to explore and discover, although we don’t have enough space to talk about them all for now.

As we embark on the Seatran ferry again, we were thinking about how Phangan could become even more family friendly. A Koh Phangan that is not just backpacker refuge portrayed in “The Beach,” not just a nest for old hippies, young punks, and eternal juveniles who live only to party, and not just another Thai island that might soon become “Paradise Lost,” but an island of serendipitous fun for everyone.

Perhaps, when we return, we will see a Koh Phangan that showcases fully its distinctive character and Thainess, and not just a rowdy full moon party island? We can hardly wait.