Koh Pha Ngan

Koh Phangan Travel Blog

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I left Bangkok early Friday morning to fly to Koh Samui (an island off the southern coast of Thailand).  Bangkok Airways is the only airline that flies to Koh Samui, and they own the airport there.  As you’d imagine, this allows them to inflate the prices, but as I was traveling on the Discovery Airpass and using flight coupons, that didn’t matter to me.  The airport in Koh Samui is beautiful, if an airport can be beautiful--the runway is lined with palm trees and flowers, and all the planes and baggage carts are painted in bright tropical patterns.  The airport’s buildings are open-air with straw roofs, which fits the tropical motif but doesn’t seem like a very good idea in the rain.

Although Koh Samui looked very nice from the air, I didn’t stay there and instead took a boat to the nearby island of Koh Pha Ngan (pronounced koh pah nyan), which is much less developed than Koh Samui.  Koh Samui is full of resorts and classy hotels, whereas Koh Pha Ngan is mostly bungalows.  I hadn’t decided which beach to stay at: all I knew is I wanted to avoid Had Rin, home of the wild full moon parties. I decided on Hat Yao, on the western side of the island. It was pretty and quiet, and I’d be able to see the sunset from there.  Back in Bangkok, I had been thinking I’d save a few baht and go for a fan-cooled bungalow, but that silly idea quickly evaporated in the 95 degree heat.  The difference between fan and AC was about $5, or 200 baht.  In Thailand, you can start to think that 200 baht is a lot of money, but a cool room in the middle of the day is priceless.

Sidenote about the heat: my guidebook claims that you can help stay cool by using this stuff called prickly heat powder.  It’s sold everywhere, and I bought some at a 7-11.  It’s kind of like talcum powder, except that it smells like Vicks Vapo-Rub.  You apply it to your skin before going out.  While at first it does give a cool tingling sensation and is nice for getting rid of the stickiness of sunscreen, I am still practically keeling over from the heat by noon.  Maybe I’m not using enough.

So, Hat Yao had maybe five or six different bungalow operations to choose from, and I picked one at the end of the beach called Sandy Bay.  They gave me a bungalow on the hill overlooking the ocean, and I had AC, hot water, a Western toilet (though no toilet paper), and a patio.  The beach at Hat Yao was very pretty, with fine sand and coconut trees.  There were a few Thai fisherman boats anchored in the bay.  The water was clear and warm, and also calm, because the bay is sheltered by a coral reef.  When the tide was out it was too shallow to swim, which was Hat Yao’s main drawback.  Even though the beach was lined with bungalows, there were never many people out.  It was the perfect amount of isolation: food and basic traveler services were available, but the commercial centers were far away.

I sat down on the beach with a book as the sun went down, which became my routine for the four evenings I was there.  The sunset the first night was beautiful, with spectacular red and orange colors over the water.  The next nights were cloudier and less colorful, but almost prettier than the first one, though more subtle.  On those nights, everything shimmered.  The water turned a silvery color--first silvery white, to match the beach, and then silvery blue, to match the sky.

Each night after the sunset I went to the bungalows’ restaurant for dinner.  They had a selection of Thai and Western food, but I mostly stuck with Thai.  For one, I didn’t come to Thailand for macaroni and cheese, and also, you’re less likely to get sick eating local food than Western food, since they know how prepare the local food.  I’ve found that while there are many Thai dishes that you can’t get back in the US, the ones that you do find there--Pad Thai, fried rice, panang curry, etc.--taste pretty much the same as the versions of those dishes here.  Thai food is a relatively new thing in the US, so I guess it hasn’t had the chance to be altered from the original as much as, say, Chinese food.  There are of course a few differences between Thai food here and Thai food there: for one, it’s spicier here (must remember to say no to “you want hot?”), and then there are small things, such as baby corn here actually tastes like corn�"my guess is that it isn’t picked here like in the US.

After dinner, I’d usually go to the TV room to watch a movie.  The place had an impressive collection of pirated DVDs, many of which are still playing in American theaters now.  They looked authentic, but what gave it away, other than the newness of the movies, was that the English subtitles, which I turned on because the sound system was kind of muffled, were obviously written by a non-English speaker.

I’d come down with a cold on my first night in Koh Pha Ngan, so I took it easy there, which is what you should do at a beach anyway.  On my first full day there, I walked about 20 minutes to a freshwater lake, which I’d heard was good for swimming and had rope swings.  For some reason, I cannot resist rope swings.  There were a few Thai houses, some empty bungalows, and some chickens, but the only other person around was the owner of the bungalows.  I left my stuff on the shore and attempted to swing out into the lake on one of the swings.  I didn’t get as much momentum on my first try as I needed, so I let myself swing back to shore.  Unfortunately my control of direction on the swing was very poor, and I came crashing back into the tree, jamming my back against a branch that was sticking out.  After checking to make sure it wasn’t bleeding (I imagined nasty lakewater infections), I swung back out and this time jumped.  The water was surprisingly warm, almost too warm, so I swam around a few minutes and got out.

Later, back at Hat Yao, I ordered a fresh coconut.  It took them 15 or 20 minutes to bring it out; the only explanation I can imagine (and you might say something like this as a joke in the US when you have slow service) is that they had to send somebody to go pick the coconut.  The coconuts here look very different from the ones you see at home, and I don’t know whether they’re a different variety or just at a different stage of maturity.  They’re bigger, green, not as hard, and have a thinner layer inside of milder tasting fruit.  They also contain much more coconut water, which is sweeter and less salty than the coconut water in American coconuts.  I say coconut water and not coconut milk because coconut milk here is a specific term referring to the coconut water mixed with the juice squeezed from coconut gratings.  They use it in everything.

The next day, I took a couple of taxis to Thong Sala, the main port town, and then to Had Rin, the departure point for the eastern beaches.  The roads on Koh Pha Ngan are very narrow, in many places unpaved, full of potholes, and often very steep, and there are many places on the island accessible only by boat.  While this makes it difficult and expensive to get around, it probably also keeps the island from becoming like Koh Samui.  Marriott resort guests would not likely be charmed by having to access their hotel by boat.

From Had Rin, I took a longtail boat (like a large, motorized canoe) to Hat Thian, which was supposed to have good snorkeling and a nice place for massages.  Upon arrival, I found that the massage prices had jumped fivefold from the price in my guidebook, and the snorkeling equipment was all broken.  My boat hadn’t left yet, so I got a ride back to another beach, Had Yuan.

When I got out of the boat, I headed towards a set of beach chairs in front of a restaurant and bungalow cluster.  I asked the owner, who spoke excellent English, if it would be all right if I just sat outside.  He said, “Make yourself at home.  You are welcome to stay for a few hours.”  A few minutes later, he brought out a free glass of ice water to my chair.

And here is the highlight of my time in Koh Pha Ngan.  I went into the restaurant to find a place to change, and I saw a small animal scampering across the bar.  I went over to look, and it was a baby monkey!  The owner said, “Two weeks old.  She just took a shower, very clean.  You can take her out to the beach to play if you want.”  I weighed the possibility that the monkey had rabies against the likelihood that I’d never get another chance to hold a monkey, so I scooped her up and we went out to play.

At one point, a Thai toddler came out to play with the monkey.  Something the toddler did scared the monkey, and she leapt onto my arm and clung to me.  Then she decided the boy was okay, but his attention span was about as long as the monkey’s, and he was already running off to something else.  The monkey ran along at his heels until she was distracted by a dog.  The dog was uninterested in having the monkey ride on its back, so she went back to the boy, who let the her join him in his hammock.  The monkey had some habits similar to those of a human baby, such as sucking her thumb and trying to put everything in her mouth, including her own fist.

After a while, I put the monkey back in her cage and went out for a swim.  The emerald-colored water was calm and just cool enough to be refreshing.  I could have stayed in for a long time enjoying the view of the white sand shoreline, the coconut trees, and the dark dramatic mountains in the background against the grey clouds, but I was being bitten by something (invisible jellyfish?), so I got out.

I sat on a swing hanging from one of the palms trees for a while to dry off.  The owner of the place came out with a CD carrying case and asked me to choose the music.  He had an odd but extensive selection, and I picked “Rock in Love,” John Denver, and an Oscar music compilation.  This guy was so friendly, and he wasn’t even expecting me to buy anything more than lunch.  If I hadn’t enjoyed the sunsets so much at Hat Yao on the west coast, I would have been sorry that I hadn’t stayed at Had Yuan.

On the way back to Had Yao that evening, I talked with the taxi driver.  To speak English in a way that will be understood by most people on the street, you have to omit most articles, prepositions, and verb tenses.  You indicate tense with words like yesterday, already, soon, tomorrow, now.  Anyway, the taxi driver wanted to know where I was from.  “Oh, America, big city, many people!” he said.  He also wanted to know how old I was and how old my boyfriend was.  For simplicity, I said we were both 23.  “Oh, same same!” he said.  I don’t know the Thai word for “same,” but I assume it’s repeated, because Thai people always say “same same” in English.  There are shirts sold on Khao San Road that say “Same same but different,” which is a phrase they use to mean “similar.”  When I noticed a pack of dogs by the side of the road, I said something about there being a lot of dogs in Thailand.  He asked if there were many dogs in America.  I said yes, but that the dogs in America usually live in houses with people.  He said, “Oh. Dog in same same house!”  Later I asked where he learned English.  He said he only knew a few words, and then he rattled off his phrases for me: “Where you from? You how old? You want taxi? Where you go? How much you pay?  You can wait, or you go now?”

That evening, I had some amazing chicken soup with coconut milk (true chicken soup for the soul).  I spent most of the next day resting, trying to get over my cold, and on Tuesday I headed back to Koh Samui to fly back to Bangkok.  Because of the ferry schedule, I had to wait a few hours at the Koh Samui airport for my flight, and decided that while the outdoor airport was atmospheric, I would have gladly traded it in for an ugly concrete structure with air-con.
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Koh Phangan
photo by: alanmica