Thailand is long established on the traditional backpacker route, and there are many reasons why; the country has a lot to offer travellers and tourists alike, with an abundance of beaches, fascinating culture, and amazing traditional cuisine. For backpackers, it has become a rite of passage to spend a few nights in the capital Bangkok, and then travel to the collection of islands in the Gulf of Thailand which featured in Alex Garland’s best-selling 1996 novel ‘The Beach’.
Situated within the Ang Thong Marine National Park in the province of Surat Thani, the islands of Koh Samui, Koh Pha Ngan and Koh Tao attract thousands of visitors each year, whether for a relaxing beach holiday, a hedonistic party or unrivalled diving. Many travellers are able to combine all three, using the frequent ferry service that connects the islands. It is possible to travel to both Koh Samui and Koh Pha Ngan from the port of Don Sak on the Thai mainland, but due to the time it takes to reach the outer islands, many visitors stop at Koh Samui before making connecting journeys.
If you are travelling to Koh Pha Ngan for one of the monthly full moon parties, it is advisable to try and book ferry tickets in advance due to the lengthy queues that develop during peak periods. Bear in mind that the boats are not luxury transport; there is limited indoor space and during rough weather, both you and your belongings will be subjected to sea water! On arrival on the island, there will be several ‘taxis’ waiting to take you to your accommodation. It is advisable to have an idea of your destination, as on disembarking the port turns into a chaotic free for all, and once all the transport leaves it is completely deserted. These are not taxis in the traditional sense; generally they consist of a converted pick-up truck, with benches in the back to seat passengers. Drivers will collect as many people as they like, and it is a common sight to see some standing on the outside of the vehicle once they have reached capacity. Having witnessed someone fall out of a taxi and roll a decent way down a hill, the advice is to hold on tight.
There is accommodation on Koh Pha Ngan to suit all budgets. Hotels are generally based within popular resorts, but for a cheaper alternative, stay somewhere a bit more remote. Cookie’s Bungalow is a small family run business situated about fifteen minutes drive from Haad Rin beach, and offers a relaxing alternative to the frantic tourist driven pace of the main resorts. The accommodation is small wooden beach huts, some situated in the hillside and others within view of a deserted beach. It is extremely basic, with no hot water and bathrooms which are (practically!) outside, but for just £4 a night you can’t go wrong. With amazing views of the ocean and surrounding islands, most of the time is spent outside in a hammock on the balcony, or watching the sunset from the beachside bar.
Many travellers come to Koh Pha Ngan for the infamous full moon parties on Haad Rin beach. Held monthly (dates dependent on the lunar cycle), the parties have become a mecca for those wanting a hedonistic escape and to experience the ultimate backpacker gathering. Chosen for its perfect view of the night sky, the beach is designed for having a good time; countless stalls selling alcohol, neon paint and glow sticks line the surrounding streets, and the beach bars overflow with revellers. Pre-empting the state of some party goers, there is a designated ‘passing out area’ in the middle of the beach. The name is self-explanatory, and as well as providing a place for people to find their friends, it doubles as an amusing sideshow to the main event. A party tradition is to quite literally purchase a ‘bucket’ of the local alcohol. A plastic seaside bucket is sold containing a bottle of Sang Som (Thai rum) and a can of coke; some even go a step further and sell a highly caffeinated energy drink, illegal in the UK because of its drug-like properties. There is more to the party than its drink fuelled reputation suggests; up to 12 different sound systems cover trance, drum and bass, dance and reggae, jugglers and fire-eaters entertain the crowds, and an impromptu firework display lights up the sky.
Koh Pha Ngan offers the best of both worlds; the party atmosphere mixes effortlessly with relaxing beaches and traditional Thai hospitality, meaning that every visitor will discover something that is right for them.