I recently had the opportunity to visit Koh Pha Ngan for the first time for four days. I had been to several islands before: Koh Samui, Koh Tao, Koh Chang, Koh Kood, and Koh Samet. Yet, somehow Koh Pha Ngan had escaped me
I visited during the Full Moon Party, and the island certainly lived up to its reputation as a party island. That being said, the island also had stunning natural beauty to offer, and it was a welcome respite for an urban dwelling Bangkok resident like myself.
Getting to Koh Pha Ngan is not as easy as getting to some other islands. I chose to fly to a nearby provincial airport and then take an hour-long shuttle and ferry from there. Many people fly into Koh Samui and take a ferry, or even take a bus or train down to Surat Thani before taking a shuttle and ferry to the island. Unlike Koh Samui, there is no direct flight to the island.
Still, the island is a hotbed of tourism, with many young backpackers heading to the island to take part in the nightlife.
I was either partying or recovering most of the time, so I regret not participating in the watersports available. However, overall I had a great time, and, though the Full Moon Party was more or less what I expected, I was still surprised and impressed with many aspects of the island. Below are some of my thoughts:
It's beautiful: It may not be as mountainous as Koh Chang or have the rock faces of Krabi, but Koh Pha Ngan has an incredible natural landscape, with verdant forests, cerulean wind-capped seas, and rolling hills in the landscape. Not to mention, the sunset when seen from Amsterdam Bar may be the most gorgeous sunset I have seen outside of summer in Arctic Alaska.
It's pretty cheap: Koh Phan Ngan may be a tourist destination, but few things are expensive. Hotels, for one, are much cheaper than in Bangkok. My friend and I stayed in a private room with air-con for only a little over 1000 baht per night. Try finding a hotel that cheap in Bangkok outside of Khao San.
The beer is cheap too. I never found a place that charged more than 100 baht for a small Singha. Food is more expensive than in Bangkok, with Thai food going for around 100 baht, and western food going for 300-500. However, food has to be brought in from the mainland, so it's hard to get upset about.
Old at 25?
You'll (probably) feel old at the full moon party: I'm 25, and I assumed that I would be pretty average in age. However, most people I talked to were 18-20 year old backpackers. Most people are well traveled and quite mature for their age, but it's hard not to feel old when everyone is so young.
Drunken people can be assholes: I had someone pour a bucket on me for "not partying hard enough" and saw people getting into fights over some spilled alcohol from a 200 baht bucket. I have nothing against Dionysian revelry, but know your limits, and stop being complete jerks.
There is serious tension between the locals and tourists: You will see this tension in most tourist areas in Thailand, and the world really. Yet it's especially apparent on Koh Phan Ngan.
It's sad really, because most tourists are nice people, and most locals just want to make a living. Unfortunately, the combination of tourists causing trouble and crashing motorbikes as well as locals ripping off tourists has led to conflicts.
To be honest, if I were a local, I would be annoyed at the constant influx of inebriated tourists. On the other hand, the full moon parties bring in a ton of money, so I am not sure how much the islanders can really complain.
I doubt I will have time to go back to the Gulf islands anytime soon, so I am glad that I decided to use a couple of vacation days and go somewhere I had never been before. It's easy to become complacent as a long-term resident of Thailand, but sometimes it's necessary to go somewhere new and experience the unexpected.