A Tale Of Two Islands: Part Two
After three days on Koh Tao it was time to move on to the second phase of my trip, taking a look at Koh Phangan and its notorious full moon party. My Koh Tao stay had been pleasant enough but the island is really just about one thing; scuba diving. And if you’re not into that the place could be become boring fairly quickly due to its small geographical size. Koh Phangan, being larger, had the potential to be more interesting.
The run from Koh Tao to Koh Phangan takes roughly an hour on a ferry. I’d booked a fare on the 9:00 AM departure with Lomphraya and after hurriedly downing my breakfast I made my way to the ferry terminal to find the place packed with departees. I shouldn’t have been surprised as the full moon party was the following day and a lot of the party hounds probably had the same idea as me, getting to Koh Phangnan with a bit of time to spare before the party kicked off.
The one hour journey from Koh Tao to Koh Phangan is 600 THB on the Lomphraya Ferry and the disembarkation point is the Thong Sala Jetty, midway along the west coast of Koh Phangan. After clearing off the ferry and claiming your bag/back pack there is plenty of transportation about to run you to your designated hotel/accommodation. I’d pre-booked five nights at the Delight Resort, in Haad Rin Beach, with Agoda. Haad Rin is at the southern tip of the island and is approx. a nine kilometre run from the Thong Sala Jetty. It also happens to be the location of the full moon party and, as such, is the most crowded, noisy and congested spot on the island. I’d booked my accommodation there solely because I wanted to get a few shots of the full moon party and didn’t want to travel far if I ended up having a late night and a few beers.
My first view of Haad Rin Beach.
For any future trips to Koh Phangan I will steer well clear of Haad Rin and I’d recommend if you don’t like the type of crowding and noise which is often synonymous with Thai beach resort areas, stay elsewhere. Due to the full moon party being the primary focus for this location – it occurs every month – the predominant type of tourist/traveller staying there is the younger partying backpacker who wants to get drunk or drugged up. The accommodation, bars and restaurants, jam-packed into the narrow, congested laneways up behind the beach, cater mainly to their needs. An example would be the standard late starting time – 9 am – for breakfast at the Delight Resort. The management understand the party animals staying at their hotel usually don’t rise till 10 or 11 AM and therefore have adjusted their breakfast time to suit. This is the only hotel I’ve ever been in where breakfast finishes at 1 PM and I’m fairly certain other hotels in the area run the same breakfast program. The other annoying thing about the hotel is they play techno music in the restaurant area until midnight.
After having had a look about the area I can now say with reasonable certainty the only hotel at Haad Rin worth staying at is the Phangan Bayshore. Still I understand the younger crowd are always looking for a bargain and a stylish stand-alone bungalow at 1800 THB a night is probably well over their budget. In this regard there are plenty of bare bones, low cost accommodation for those whose only concern is a mattress to flop out on after a big night out. At 150 THB a night the rabbit warrens, on one of the small laneways down to beach, will be all some might need.
The Rabbit warrens: a 4 meter x 1.5 meter room with four steel frame bunks, a fan and not enough room to swing a dead cat
After getting settled in at the Delight Resort I met up with Torsten again in the hotel’s restaurant and after not too much debate we decided to hire a couple of scooters and take a ride up to the beaches on the northern end of the island. As mentioned, Haad Rin is at the very southern tip of the Island and sits at the end of the coastal road which traverses the western side of the island. The township of Thong Sala, and the islands main jetty, is situated at roughly at the mid-point on the west coast of the island. Beyond this the road continues on to some picturesque beaches to the North, including Haad Mai and Haad Yao, where there are some very nice resorts and bungalows dotted in amongst the surrounding vegetation which pushes right down to the high water marks. The beaches at this northern end of the island are much less crowded than Haad Rin and with the surrounding resorts being more expensive there is less of the young partying crowd to be seen.
One of the idyllic beaches at the northern end of Koh Phangan
The road up the west coast to the northern end actually continues around in a loop which then cuts through the middle of the island and ends up back at Thong Sala Township. After getting in some late afternoon swim time we opted to take this longer route back to town. The road weaves it way through some picturesque jungle clad peaks, the highest being Khao Ra which tops out at 672 metres. For a small island this is quite impressive and it gives the place a feel that it’s perhaps bigger than it actually is. During the ride back in to town it was hard not to reflect on the marked difference in the mood of Koh Phangan, compared with Koh Tao. Where Koh Tao is small, cluttered, congested and has an over-all tight feeling, Koh Phangan has a feeling of openness and freedom. With the sun sinking over the western horizon Torsten and I arrived back in town and made a bee line for the Harp, an Irish pub across the road from Thong Sala Jetty, and over the course of a couple of sundowners made our plans for the next day.
The weather on Koh Phangan at this time of year (November) is still officially the rainy season. The 25th – the day of the full moon party and Loy Kratong – was no exception and I awoke to humid conditions and overcast skies. Torsten and I had planned a fairly big day and we wanted to get an early start. Due to the fact the Delight Resort didn’t start its breakfast until 9 AM we arranged to meet at Nira’s Bakery, across the road from the Thong Sala Jetty, for our bacon and eggs before setting out on our day’s activities. Nira’s Bakery opens at 7 AM and probably serves the best western breakfasts on the island. Our plan for the morning was probably just a bit too ambitious. We wanted to get an early start to visit Phaeng Waterfall and then try to tackle Khao Ra, the highest peak on the island. After opting to do the trek up to the view point above the Phaeng Waterfall location we cancelled the Khao Ra plan realising it was probably a bit too much to try and take on in one day. The climb up to the Phaeng Waterfall viewpoint had been demanding enough in the already high humidity. The recommendation for climbing Khao Ra is 1.5 litres of water for the round trip – approx. 4 hours – in humid conditions I would estimate this probably isn’t enough. Another recommendation is to take plenty of insect repellent as the bugs were out in force during our climb to Phaeng waterfall viewpoint. Although only approx. half the height of Khao Ra, it still offers a great view out over the western coast of Koh Phangan and beyond across to the mainland. There is a circuit – roughly about 2 kilometres – which takes you back to the Phaeng Waterfall Park Headquarters. At the bottom end of the waterfall there’s a section of the stream which has been dammed off to create a decent size freshwater pool for a cooling dip after the trek up to the viewpoint. The waterfall is set back off the main track and for those wishing to enjoy a refreshing shower you’ll need to cross the stream and climb up the rock fall to the base of the falls. The rocks on the way up are a bit slippery but if you work your way up carefully it’s not a difficult climb.
The view towards the west and Koh Samui from the peak behind Phaeng Waterfall
A refreshing shower after a 2 kilometre trek through the jungle
After spending almost four hours at the nature reserve Torsten and I decided to head back to Nira’s Bakery for a coffee and some lunch. As we were preparing to leave I found it rather amusing that a hoard of the younger, partying crowd were starting to arrive. I guess this ties in with their late start to the day after a big night out. To be honest, they don’t seem like a very adventurous lot. While Torsten and I were up under the waterfall a number of them just stood about and took photos from the safety of the viewing area fifty meters below. I guess they were saving their energy for the coming big night of booze and other mind altering substances? Having spent the past three years travelling extensively in the region my take on the young traveller/hipster crowd is they’re not what I’d consider much of an adventurous lot. Having a blast in a tropical location is more their thing than caving, jungle trekking or getting out into the wilds. A phrase called “the banana pancake trail” was coined some time ago for this lot and I think it’s a fairly apt description of their travel expectations. Khao Sarn Road, Koh Phangan, and Pai being their favoured locations to hang out in cafés, check their apps, eat pancakes and get some of the local herb while planning their next bus ride.
Torsten and I had a fairly full evening planned. Apart from checking out the full moon party on Haad Rin Beach we were also going to have a look at the local Loy Kratong celebrations at the beach nearby the Thong Sala Pier. Covering both events wouldn’t be a problem as the Loy Kratong festivities would be starting earlier in the evening and would be winding down before the Full Moon celebrations kicked into gear. After an enjoyable lunch at Nira’s Bakery we both went back to our respective bungalows to rest up for a couple of hours before meeting for sundowners at the harp. The road back to Haad Rin, from Thong Sala, is a picturesque ride which follows the coastline and passes through the bulk of the tourist oriented beach side areas along the way. The usual offering of bungalows, resorts, restaurants, supermarkets and bars line either side of the road. For those who are interested, approximately two kilometres south of Thong Sala there is a small strip of beer bars with a friendly bevy of local hostesses waiting to entertain you and provide additional services as required. I didn’t partake but Torsten assured me they were friendly and capable; the bar fine was 400 THB and an overnight stay was 2000 THB.
After a semblance of rest at the Delight resort – two hours lying on the bed with ear plugs in place while a bunch of young revellers around the pool played their boom box and spoke to each other at the top of their voices – I was back in Thong Sala at the Harp with Torsten. As the sun sank into the western horizon we considered our plan for the coming evening. There was a beach just across the road from where we sat where the Loy Kratong festivities would take place. As we sat there enjoying our Heinekens, and dusk gave way to darkness, we’d already seen a number of the traditional lanterns drifting up into the night sky from the said beach area. No doubt the numbers would increase as the night wore on and with that in my we decided to get a belly full of Thai food to sustain ourselves over next few hours.
By 8.30 pm we were down on the little beach area, which is just south of Thong Sala Pier, and the locals were out in full force launching their Kratongs into the calm, smooth surface of the sheltered bay. Despite my misgivings regarding the weather and the time of year – it was still officially the rainy season in this part of Thailand – the clouds had moved off to reveal a clear, moonlit night. All along the beach Thai and farang were lighting up lanterns and launching them into the heavens. Torsten decided to get into the swing of things and bought a Kratong. After a couple of failed attempts he was finally able to keep the candles burning and waded out into knee deep water to push his offering out on the calm surface. All around us dozens of other Kratongs bobbled about in the reflective light on the water’s surface. What surprised me was the number of farang who joined in the celebrations. All along the beach there were small groups of foreigners, mainly families, either lighting lanterns or pushing Kratongs out onto the water.
A couple of locals getting their lantern on the way during the Loy Kratong celebrations
Torsten getting into the swing of things at the local festivities
What also didn’t surprise me was there were none of the party hounds to be seen. It seems as though the cool crowd aren’t too focused on the culture of the countries they visit these days. By 10 pm we’d seen enough and I’d banged off enough shots to satisfy my needs of covering the Loy Kratong festivities. And besides that, the course grained sand was a bloody nightmare on the feet when it lodges between the soles and the surface area of the one’s sandals. It was time for us to head to Full Moon Party Central; Haad Rin Beach.
During the nine kilometre ride back to Haad Rin Song packed Thaews full of full moon revellers were rumbling along the road towards hedonist’s event of the month. The ladies all painted up with spiralled, glow in the dark colours and the guy’s decked out in their lime green and orange singlets, and iridescent fedora hats. Actually, judging by the number of signs I’d seen on the road side during my short time on the island, it’s seems for the hard core part hounds the full moon party is just one of the many party days on offer each month. For those who feel one day just isn’t enough there’s also the half-moon party, the black moon party, Shiva moon, the day after full moon and the waterfall party. There may be other party variations of the moon phase but I guess I hadn’t been around long enough to know the full schedule. Whatever the case it seemed there was enough partying days on offer each month to keep the hard core revellers satisfied, and the local businesses ticking over nicely.
By the time we reached the outskirts of Haad Rin the was a log jam of slow moving Song Thaew’s backed up for a couple of hundred meters. Being on motorbikes we were able to skirt around the long line of blue pick-ups and find out what the hold-up was. Approximately one kilometre from Haad Rin Beach the local boys in brown had a check point set up in the middle of the road. As we slowly cruised through and got the official nod to move on, I could see a number of potential suspects (dread locks and tatts) getting a thorough search for any potential illegal substances. It seems that partying in Koh Phangan is fine by the locals, but only on their terms.
The Thais, give them their due, have actually got this monthly event very well organised. I suppose the bad press in previous years has seen them make an effort to reduce the amount of mayhem which could unfold when thousands of drunken foreigners are gathered in one area for a few hours. In this regard the control of vehicle traffic on the small roads in behind the beach area has been eliminated for the few hours the party is in full swing. A couple of hundred meters from the beach another check point is set up to stop any vehicles from entering the near vicinity of the mayhem which will unfold. The Song Thaew’s disgorge their occupants and anyone with a motorbike is pointed towards a large parking area at a nearby local school. The Thais, being masters at profiting from any inconvenience, have duly created extra charges for parking your bike and entering the vehicle no go area. Never mind the fact that you might be staying at a hotel down by the beach. It’s 100 THB to park your bike and another 100 THB to pass the check point.
As Torsten and I worked our way down towards my hotel the streets were crowded with revellers covered in flouro paint and there were dozens of hawkers stands about with glow in the dark trinkets on offer. It might be a party for the crowds of foreigners but for the local population, its business as usual. After dumping my excess gear back in the hotel room Torsten and I had a time out with a couple of cold beers in the hotel’s restaurant. In the laneway, directly across the road, dozens of flouro painted revellers were pouring down to the beach. A few minutes later, and after getting warmed up with the beers we’d had, Torsten and I decided it was time to enter the maelstrom. Haad Rin Beach is approximately 700 meters in length and we arrived there to find it almost entirely packed with party goers and the support systems to keep them entertained: bars, music stations, dance platforms and flaming signs. The following is a few pics of the night. A more extensive collection can be seen at my website.
A local bartender with buckets and mix at the ready
An essential piece of the partying rig
Getting into the mood with the flouro paint being applied
The chin-up bar where the alpha males try to outdo each other with displays of physical prowess
The fire jump rope; for those keen to get skipping
Who was that masked man?
A charged up group on one of the dance platforms
The sign says it all
I can tick the full moon party off the bucket list. It was good to see once but I’ve no need to do it again. As far as the islands of Koh Phangan and Koh Tao are concerned, I will probably return to Koh Phangan again but not to Koh Tao. As mentioned in part one, if you’re not into scuba diving or partying then Koh Tao could become boring fairly quickly. It’s just too small of an island to maintain an interest in for any length of time. Whereas Koh Phangan, due to its larger physical size offers a lot more in terms of natural beauty and possibilities for exploration.
Thanks for the nice report and for confirming what I have long thought – that that part of the country and the Full Moon Party is not for me.