This Thai island is a tranquil paradise – when not hosting full-moon parties

The tide is in, the sea lapping gently against the guest house walls of Haad Rin Nai, also known as Sunset Beach, at the southern tip of Thailand’s Phangan island.

Some of the resorts here look as if they’ve been hit by a storm – the ruins of better times, before the pandemic battered Southeast Asia’s tourism industry . And I’m the only resident at the Sun Beach Bungalows, although that’s about to change, according to my host: “We’re completely full next week.”

The tide is in, the sea lapping gently against the guest house walls of Haad Rin Nai, also known as Sunset Beach, at the southern tip of Thailand’s Phangan island.

Some of the resorts here look as if they’ve been hit by a storm – the ruins of better times, before the pandemic battered Southeast Asia’s tourism industry . And I’m the only resident at the Sun Beach Bungalows, although that’s about to change, according to my host: “We’re completely full next week.”

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The reason for the imminent surge, and corresponding price increase, is the full moon party being held on nearby Haad Rin Nok, or Sunrise (as opposed to Sunset) Beach. Koh Phangan’s biggest party is the principle reason for many to visit the island.

“It’s up there with Ibiza and Goa on party people’s calendar,” enthuses the proprietor.

Haad Rin Nai is also known as Sunset Beach.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Except I’m not really “party people” and the prospect of a hedonistic hoard disrupting this corner of paradise is a dispiriting one. Lonely Planet claims Phangan is celebrated for both “full moon parties and hammock hanging” and it’s to the latter I’m drawn.

Lunching in Baan Nong Praew, a family-run cafe on the road between Sunset and Sunrise beaches, I meet Sontaya “Son” Shtongrun, a son of a fisherman who frequents the cafe to discuss the news of the day over a Thai whisky and soda. His Seaside Bungalows have been empty of tourists since Covid-19 swept across Southeast Asia in early 2020, and I negotiate a good price for a month’s stay.

“I’ve let workers from Myanmar stay in my place, they lost their jobs and there’s a war in their country,” explains Son, as we pass some of his residents, halos of yellow thanaka (a paste made from ground bark ) pasted on their cheeks. “What can I do? I’m a Buddhist.

Standing between Sunset Beach and a forested hillside, from where macaques occasionally emerge to steal from Son’s mango tree, his is a boutique resort of Thai stilted huts that step down to the water’s edge. Each is fronted by a small terrace on which a hammock swings.

Son might be two years short of revenue but he greets each day with grace, perched in a lotus pose on his porch, sipping coffee while listening to Thai folk songs and contemplating breakfast.

“Rice and eggs?” he asks, as I arise for a morning swim.

Sergio Vidas is the Portuguese owner of vegetarian-friendly Fat Cat Coffee & More.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Later, I ask if he ever considers selling up. He shakes his head. “I love it here, between the jungle and the sea. People have offered me money but I won’t sell the land, they’ll cover it in concrete and cut down all the trees.”

From his porch, we watch the full moon crowds arrive in their thousands, like moths drawn to a flame. Guest houses fill up and the sliver of land between the mountain and the sea becomes chock-a-block.

Most partygoers are of the 20-something backpacker variety; they look a bit lost, uneasy on hired scooters. There are hardcore party fiends, too, ravers with wild hair who live for these hedonistic happenings. A few hippie folk from the island’s east coast arrive in tie-dye, for a dance.

The island roads are largely empty of traffic and bordered by coconut plantations and jungle.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

But just as quickly as they arrive, they depart. Following the debauchery, Sunrise Beach is cleaned, blue taxi vans carry the revellers to the ferry port in Thong Sala and that’s a wrap for another month.

As the human tide recedes, the chatter of birds and insects rises above the buzz of Honda engines again. With the island back in low-gear, scootering around Koh Phangan is blissful. The roads belong to heat-dazed dogs, macaques courting fruit from passers-by and chickens that cross the blacktop as if they’re acting out that old joke.

“What’s interesting about this island is how much of it is still natural,” notes Sergio Vidas, the chatty Portuguese owner of vegetarian-friendly Fat Cat Coffee & More, which is on the oldest street of Thong Sala, the island’s original fishing settlement, and decorated with retro cat posters and feline-themed objects.

Bert Budel is the owner of Flipflop Pharmacy Bar on Thong Nai Pan Yai Beach.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Nearly half of the island falls inside the Than Sadet National Park. Although some resorts infringe on what should be protected, the hilly topography serves to preserve the rainforest from large-scale development.

The villages of the lowland areas are laced together by a few small roads and it is beneath the shade of the tree canopy that I zip from mystical wat (a type of temple) to isolated waterfall. The heat steers me to one shack-cafe or another for a cold coconut.

One stop is in the shadow of the island’s tallest tree. The 54-metre (177-foot) Yang Na Yai Tree towers over Ban Nok village like a titan. It is said to be more than 400 years old, predating Bangkok as the Thai capital and offering some perspective on the human lifespan.

Roads lead from coast to coast, and when one emerges from the forest, parcels of sand appear like half-moons, each more enticing than the last.

Local kids playing football outside a wat, or temple.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

At one of the most beautiful, Mae Haad Beach, a sandbar leads to a rocky outcrop that acts as a launch pad from which snorkellers explore the corals that still thrive off the northwest coast.

Peering below the surface, I spot an octopus half-crawling, half-swimming before having a bit of bother with a passing fish, which it appears to punch before disappearing into a tiny crack in corals in the way only octopuses can.

A little to the south is Zen Beach. Fringed by vegan restaurants and yoga retreats, this stretch of sand occupies a natural arc in the island’s contour. It is here where the bohemian set gather for a bit of skinny-dipping with the islets that dot the Gulf of Thailand “like jewels upon the sea”, to quote a David Crosby lyric, in the background.

Coincidentally, Crosby, Stills and Nash’s Suite: Judy Blue Eyes is emanating from the Flipflop Pharmacy Bar, on Thong Nai Pan Yai Beach, when I arrive, adding a Woodstock vibe to an island that already feels hippy-dippy when compared with commercial cousins Phuket or Koh Samui.

Singer Pui Wichitra and Drifting Island. Pui says she “simply fell in love” with Koh Phangan.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Flipflop is a single-storey beachside shack bar with interior walls plastered in flip-flops. Drinks are listed as “Flip Flop Prescriptions”, as alcohol is “medicine”, owner Bert Budel explains.

The accommodation that lines the bay either side of Flipflop is of the low-rise bungalow type, although even this is “built-up” compared with what Budel encountered when he arrived 23 years ago: “There was nothing at all, not even a paved road to Thong Sala.”

He watched the north coast develop gradually until April 2020, when everything stopped. “We closed for a month during the beginning of the pandemic but we were able to open to cater to locals and people who were locked down here. Some have decided to stay on and work from the island.”

It’s evident in the number of resorts that have closed that not everyone had the financial reserves to survive, but now the tourists are returning (since May 1, fully vaccinated travellers entering Thailand are no longer required to endure a brief hotel quarantine and take a PCR Covid-19 test on arrival), some new transplants to Phangan are prepared to take advantage.

A Chinese temple complex dedicated to Guanyin on Phangan island.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

“I was teaching Muay Thai in Phuket for 15 years,” says Sureewat Yodpotnong, who I pay to kick me around his gym after days of swinging in a hammock have left me feeling flaccid. “But then the virus came and everything stopped. We couldn’t do anything and I had to go back to Isan,” he says, referring to his home, in the rural northeast.

“When things started to open up last year, a friend told me about Koh Phangan so I came here and opened JLM Muaythai. We’ve only been open a few months but plenty of people are training with us.”

Another Isan native making a life for themself here is singer Pui Wichitra.

“I’d been doing the circuit in Bangkok for three years before the bars were closed and the city locked down,” she says, after finishing a pitch-perfect rendition of a classic Stevie Wonder number at the Secret Beach Restaurant and Bar one Thursday evening. “I lost all my gigs so I came to this island and simply fell in love. It’s not just a beautiful place but a musical place.”

And not only because of the DJs. “There are plenty of musicians living on the island as well,” says Pui. “I was here just a few months before I hooked up with these guys,” she says, gesturing to her Drifting Island bandmates.

“Now, we have four or five shows a week. Plus there are open-mic nights and gigs at venues like Jam Bar,” she says, referring to a venue that is little more than a bamboo-framed outdoor stage in the jungle where a multinational cast of musicians gather for twice-weekly jamborees.

A short drive north of the Jam Bar, just past a Chinese temple complex dedicated to Guanyin, the god of compassion and mercy, is Chaloklum Beach, another gorgeous cove. Chaloklum’s Sunday market makes for a fine bookend to a chilled-out Phangan week.

Local delicacies such as pad Thai with coconut sauce are eaten on the pier, which is laid out with tables for the occasion. The skies above the jungle-clad hills that frame the beach turn orange then purple before the stars are revealed in all their cosmic glory.

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