The notorious party island of Koh Phangan had the honor of being our first real stop in Asia. After a whirlwind of flights and hotels through Auckland, Melbourne, Bangkok, and Koh Samui, we finally boarded a ferry alongside countless other backpackers, all dreaming of neon paint and buckets full of alcohol, and we made our way to the hallowed shores of Haad Rin. We were finally heading to the famous Full Moon Party.
Except that we weren’t. I say with a feeling close to that of pride that we might be the only 20-something backpackers to ever make it all the way to the island during the full moon, only to not make it to the Full Moon Party at all. Unfortunately, a bad batch of street food rendered Liam helpless and bed-bound just in time for the big night.
This combined with the fact that the airline had lost my backpack the day before (how can one be a backpacker without a backpack?!) and the fact that our hostel decided to set up a DJ booth directly opposite the door to our tiny non-air conditioned room (sleep was a distant memory to us) all led to a very bumpy start to our travels.
That being said, Koh Phangan is much much more than a stretch of beach filled with drunken debauchery and loud trance music and our unfortunate circumstances actually gave me the opportunity to see this gem of an island for what it really is: white shores and expansive jungles, friendly locals and scrumptious (if sometimes treacherous) street food, a yoga and vegan favoring haunt full of beauty and life.
SO instead of dwelling on our crash course in everything-going-wrong-whilst-traveling, let’s focus on some of the positives that Koh Phangan threw my way, shall we?
1. Sunset on Haad Son
The moment we arrived on the island we rented a motorbike and set out on a mission to find a meal and a beach. These are the important things in life.
After filling up on the delectable finds at the nightly food market in Thong Sala, we headed towards the coast and drove north, following the snaking road up and down mountains until we found a worthy stretch of sand.
A small sign on the side of the road proclaiming the presence of a beach down the hill led us through a resort and onto the lovely little stretch of Haad Son. We sat in the warm, knee deep water of the Gulf with ten or so other travelers whose explorations had led them there as well, and we watched the sunset. The breathtaking blood-orange display fell into a perfectly pastel twilight with small Thai fishing boats setting themselves against the pink and blue backdrop.
As darkness began to fall and the twinkling string lights of the “Secret Bar” came to life, the few of us sitting around the small tables all began to applaud the incredible show that nature seemed to have put on just for us.
If you’re making your way to Koh Phangan, don’t miss the sunsets on the northwestern beaches. They’re unforgettable!
2. A morning stroll to the ever popular 7/11
I know, 7/11? It might sound strange, but hear me out.
The first morning we woke up on the island, after the unfortunate realization of Liam’s illness, I volunteered to go to the store to buy the inflicted some ginger ale and crackers. Having not tried my hand at the motorbike yet, I figured it best for my safety and for the safety of others that I just take a walk instead.
Leaving the dark surroundings of the still-sleeping hostel behind me, I found myself entering a pristine – if unbelievably hot – morning. Bluest skies and swaying palm trees accompanied me as I hit the main road and started to see signs of the island waking up around me. Locals beginning to prepare their restaurants and fruit stands for the day, an old woman balancing two restless toddlers as she swept her storefront, a dog rolling lazily in the shade by the roadside, paying no attention to the scooters whizzing by.
The short, simple walk opened my eyes to where I was and allowed me to, for the first time, really realize that I had finally made it to Asia.
3. Driving the northern loop
In an attempt to see as much of the island as possible, we looked to our smartphones and mapped out a loop that led us north through the jungle before turning at the northern side of the island and leading us back down the coast to Thong Sala.
It was the perfect shades-on, wind-in-your-hair kind of day. The majority of the time we were the only ones on the road, and we sailed through the tropical mountains drinking in the fresh air and almost complete lack of development.
When we hit the coast, we came across a lot of road construction which led to a few humorous incidents including but not limited to: having to switch drivers while stopped on a hill by a construction worker because I couldn’t handle the pressure, driving down a dirt road whose pothole to road ratio resulted in a hilariously bumpy few minutes, and coming face to face with a bulldozer roaring down the wrong side of the road right towards us.
To cap it off we ended the day on a beautiful pebble strewn beach, playing with (read: being terrified of) sea cucumbers and talking to birds. Another successful day in paradise.
4. Making it over the mountains to Haad Rin
To keep on the subject of motor-biking, the next moment of elation (or possibly just relief) came when we made it over the treacherous mountain pass between Haad Rin and the rest of the island for the first time.
With deep breaths and tightening of helmet straps we ventured forth to take on the perilous ups and downs of the southern coast in pursuit of a refreshing swim in the deeper waters off of Haad Rin. I’ll admit, I was much more hesitant than Liam, and he made it fairly easily through the notorious stretch of road. I only had to dismount and walk up one hill that our old bike was struggling to carry us both to the top of, and the view from the top made it very worth the sweaty ordeal.
Although it was rather anticlimactic in the end, and we proceeded to do the drive several more times over the next few days (not to mention the entire length of Vietnam a month later), the first time that we crested that final peak and were greeted with the “Welcome to Haad Rin!” sign was a really good moment.
5. Breakfast at an honest to goodness resort
Anyone on a backpackers budget knows that experiences like this one are a rare occurrence when traveling.
With the festivities of Full Moon in full swing, I decided after a few hours of misery that the stifling heat, pounding music, and raucous yelling of our hostel was not an ideal place for Liam to recover. So there I was, calling every resort on the island with airconditioning until I found one that didn’t render us entirely bankrupt. Finally finding success, I loaded both of our belongings onto the motorbike and took to the streets around 10pm, swerving to avoid the drunken backpackers stumbling into the road and dodging taxis full of excited ravers. After wobbling down a sandy dirt road, checking in, and returning to retrieve Liam (who I’m very sure had no idea where he even was), the tree lined pathways, beachside bungalows, and of course the glorious gift from heaven that is airconditioning were all very welcoming.
The true moment of delight, however, came the next morning when we had the luxury of walking right out onto the white sand and enjoying an amazing breakfast overlooking the turquoise waters and the not too distant island of Koh Samui.
I can’t lie, it was pretty worth the splurge to live like the other half does, even just for a day.
6. Stumbling upon 360 Bar
On one of our sunny days driving around the island, we came across signs advertising a bar with 360 degree views and one heck of a happy hour. Intrigued, we braved the steep and sandy hairpin curves and arrived at what looked like the bones of a forgotten construction project, the idea of a resort that had been given up on.
If it hadn’t been for the other few motorbikes parked under the big concrete pillars, I’m sure we would have assumed there was nothing more to see and headed back down the mountain. However, thankfully this wasn’t the case, and we parked the bike and headed up the unfinished stairs to the top of the structure.
A gorgeous little tree-shaded terrace greeted us with a fully stocked bar at the top facing an expanse of incredible ocean and island views. Nothing could have brought me down as we perched ourselves on the pillow filled platforms lining the edge that overlooked Ko Ma and Mae Haad Beach and enjoyed our fruity cocktails.
7. Haad Rin sans Full Moon
After and a brief and rather stressful stint in Koh Samui to pick up my luggage (yay!) we landed back on Koh Phangan ready to leave the serene comfort of the west side of the island and to take on a few nights on Haad Rin.
Due to the fact that Full Moon had taken place almost a week ago, the island was essentially a ghost town. We took full advantage of this and booked ourselves into a beachside resort complete with pool and airconditioning for next to nothing. (Side note: Koh Phangan is pretty wonderful when void of party-goers. In a very different way of course.)
We enjoyed a gorgeous lantern-lit dinner on the sand, and a small quibble with the waitstaff over a drink bill led to some good-spirited banter with the two guys a few tables over from us. Before we knew it we were sipping buckets of vodka Sprite with the couple from Australia. This inevitably led to the four of us – along with a group of German guys – bar hopping, losing games of Connect Four to a Thai lady, sampling fruit wines with a group of Israelis and taking turns trying to convince each other that joining the lethal-looking , flaming jump rope would be a good idea (it’s not.)
As we sat together in the wee hours of the morning, watching in awe as the local guys practiced their incredible fire tricks and losing count of the number of cocktails we had consumed, Haad Rin felt like a perfect fit.
8. Enjoying the little things on Haad Salad
I know, another Haad and another sunset, but the beach sunsets are just that impeccable.
This particular day we set up our towels at a resort on Haad Salad and had a simple late afternoon. We played in the shallow water with a cheeky little local boy who spoke no English whatsoever, but whose infatuation with Liam led to him repeating every single word that the latter said much to our (and his) amusement. Two ice pops, a few illegal swims in the “guests only” hotel pool, and one lovely Thai sunset later, we packed up our meager belongings and brought a close to another day in paradise.
9. Evening rides back to Thong Sala
Our obsession with the western beaches resulted in a daily ritual of twilight motorbike rides back towards our hostel on the south side of the island. The oppressive heat disappeared with the sun and left us in pleasantly balmy evenings. The curving rides felt almost cinematic as the slowly waning remnants of the full moon shone through the swaying palm trees, and we cruised along in the open air. Call me a dork, but I felt like I was in a movie. And it was awesome.
10. Dinner at Koh Raham “Sunset Paradise”
Our last night we decided to make our way back to Koh Son to have dinner at a restaurant that we had discovered on our first day on the island.
Koh Raham, part of the Koh Son resort, is the ideal sunset restaurant. A tunnel of trees, hanging vines, and rope swings leads onto the rocky outcrop where the restaurant sits, draped in tropical foliage and twinkling lights.The place makes you feel as though you’re walking through a fairytale no matter what time of the day you visit. On top of the stellar atmosphere, the far end of the restaurant is a small cliff equipped with stairs into the sea and showers so that those visiting during the day can jump into the ocean for a swim while waiting for their food.
We went just after sunset, and as we topped off our meal with banana & chocolate spring rolls and sweet black rice pudding, I looked out on the sprinkling of green lights on the sea that were the fishermen reeling in their nightly hauls and found myself entirely grateful to have had the chance to spend even a brief time on the beautiful and unique Koh Phangan.