Archive for April 28, 2012

Dive Sites in Koh Phangan

whale shark

whale shark at Sail Rock

Diving around Koh Phangan is rewarding. You can see a variety of marine life. There are some good corals and the sites aren’t over-crowded with dive boats as they tend to be in Koh Tao which is much more famous for its diving. Generally you can expect to learn how to scuba dive in Koh Phangan in small groups of 4 or 5 people if you choose an operator such as Chaloklum Diving or H20 Scuba School.

The downside about diving near Koh Phangan is that for the seasoned diver the chances of spotting new types of sea fauna are small. The dives aren’t that challenging. The only 5 Star PADI rated dive site in the Gulf of Thailand is Sail Rock. The other famous spots are Ang Thong National Park, Chumphon Pinnacles and Southwest Pinnacles. These sites take an hour or so to get to by standard chug-chug dive boats.

What the diving outfits in Koh Phangan, Koh Tao and Koh Samui are reluctant to tell their customers is that the diving is much better on the other side. That is the Andaman Coast. The Surin Islands and the Similan Islands near Khao Lak offer world class diving. The Similan Islands dive sites are rated by National Geographic Magazine as in the top 10 in the world. To dive these places you have to sign up for a liveaboard trip usually for 2 or 3 nights.

Anyway back to dive sites in Koh Phangan. Here they are:

Koh Ma

Koh Ma is a small island off the north-west coast of Koh Phangan that is joined to the mainland by a sandbank. It is the Nang Yuan of Koh Phangan – only not as impressive. At Koh Ma there are hard corals, soft corals and whip corals. The maximum depth is 24 meters. Here you can see banner fish, barracuda and grouper. Koh Ma is good for independent snorkeling. Just rent a bike and head over to Mae Haad beach. The corals are a short swim from the beach and the marine park is free to enter.

Haad Salad

This is a beach on the West Coast, known as the Pirate Beach. Hence one of the local diving outfits is called Pirate Divers. The coral at Haad Salad is 150 meters from the coast. There are a range of corals and you can spot some colorful reef fish. Maximum depth is 18 meters. Not a very difficult dive.

Haad Yao

Haad Yao is a great beach. Stretching across the entire bay are corals. There are table corals, brain corals and coral sponges to see. It is possible to see blue spotted sting rays, porcupine fish, parrot fish, squirrel fish and fusiliers. It is possible to dive straight from the beach. The biggest dive shop in Haad Yao is Haad Yao Divers.

Rock Point

Optimistically called ‘Koh Phangan’s Sail Rock’ – Rock Point (Kong Yai) is a chimney rock just off the coast of Chaloklum. It is a seasonal dive. There is a swim through and plenty of fish to see. The maximum depth is 20 meters.

Haad Khom

Haad Khom is a pretty beach next to Chaloklum. There is a coral off the coast that offers good snorkeling. Dive schools in Chaloklum use it for its proximity.

Koh Tae Nok

Koh Tae Nok is the island that is seen by people arriving by boat at Thongsala. It’s quite a big island with a beach which I’ve often thought would make a good spot for a small shed-like bar. There’s a coral reef off the coast and sometimes small reef sharks can be seen. Maximum depth is 19 meters.

Haad Chao Phao

This beach is on the west coast. The coral reef is 100 meters from the beach. There’s a range of hard corals and reef fish.

If you enjoy diving it is worth traveling farther in a boat to go to the better sites in the Gulf of Thailand. The dive schools also prefer this as they can charge more money. However for doing your first couple of dives for an Open Water Course Koh Phangan dive sites are great as they are not too deep and the marine life is not scared off by too many divers.

Changing Image of Koh Phangan

Tesco Lotus in Koh Phangan
Koh Phangan is Thailand’s fifth biggest island. It is located in the Gulf of Thailand near the more famous island of Samui. It is an island that has had a steady trickle of tourists go through since the Samui Archipelago opened up in the 1970s. Koh Phangan was always seen as less developed than Koh Samui and a place for hippies and backpackers who didn’t mind slumming it. These perceptions are beginning to change, as well as visitor numbers to Koh Phangan.

The main advantage of Koh Samui over Koh Phangan as a tourist destination has always been amenities and facilities. Since the late 1980s Koh Samui has had an airport, big modern hospitals, international schools, well-stocked supermarkets, luxury hotels and fine dining options. Areas like Chaweng and Lamai also offer entertainment areas teaming with bars and clubs that are famous for offering intoxicating nightlife.

In contrast, Koh Phangan kept development to a minimum. Rainforest protection meant that 90% of the island retained its original tree cover. Building heights were restricted. Road repairs were slow. The hospital was kept basic – capable of only dealing with minor medical problems. There were no supermarkets like Tesco. Most of the accommodation was traditional thatched bungalows on the beach and few places had swimming pools.

Two things have changed the image of Koh Phangan: the Full Moon Party and Thong Nai Pan Noi beach. These two factors are pulling in the opposite directions but have both drastically increased visitor numbers to the island and the revenue of its businesses.

The Full Moon Party started out as a small beach party attended by a few hundred hippies. It was influenced by the Goan trance parties in India. As the party became more notorious so more people started coming to Haad Rin Nai just for the party.

Party numbers grew at an alarming rate and the main beach in Haad Rin changed from being a place full of cheap bungalows to being a strip of bars catering to the full moon hoards.

The people going to the Full Moon Parties are often not cost-conscious backpackers but people with income to spend on better accommodation and lots and lots of alcohol. As a result Haad Rin today is full of mid-range resorts with swimming pools and lots of bars offering pizzas, English breakfasts and drink deals.

I have been to several Full Moon Parties. Official figures say that 20,000 people go to the average party. I’m not sure it is that many but it is certainly thousands.

Thong Nai Pan Noi used to be a travelers’ secret – a perfect beach tucked away from the world surrounded by an amphitheater of mountains. A place for the discerning traveler with cheap prices and an addictively laid back atmosphere. Even the only hotel on Thong Nai Pan Noi, the Panviman, cost just 500 Thai Baht a night ($15) back in 1998.

Developers soon realized the potential of Thong Nai Pan Noi to attract ‘5 star customers’. From 2000 to 2008 two other luxury hotels were built on the beach – Anantara Rasananda and Santhiya. At present another is being built and Panviman is expanding. These places often charge close to $1,000 a night for private pool villas.

The hotel resorts in Thong Nai Pan Noi have high occupancy levels – much higher than their Koh Samui counterparts. It seems the wealthy prefer the unspoiled nature and idyllic beach of Thong Nai Pan Noi over the loud and brash beach culture offered on Koh Samui.

As a result of the Full Moon Party and Thong Nai Pan Noi’s popularity the roads have been improved around the island, a Tesco Lotus has been opened in the main town of Thongsala and several of the other beaches have started upgrading accommodation.

In early 2012 permission was given to start building Koh Phangan airport. The authorities have not offered much more information but it looks like it’s going to be near Chaloklum village and be used by the low cost carrier Kan Air.

Clearly the central and provincial governments have realized the potential of Koh Phangan to become a major travel destination in Thailand. No longer, it seems, is the island deemed as a ‘backwater’ and a ‘little brother to Koh Samui’.

At the moment there are still obscure beaches like Haad Khom, Than Sadet, Haad Yuan and Haad Tian East where the old hippy feel has been maintained but these places are beginning to feel like relics, albeit charming ones, from the past as Koh Phangan becomes more and more the reserve of those who want to party all night and those who want 5 star luxury.

Full Moon Party Review

The Full Moon Party on Haad Rin Sunrise Beach strongly divides locals, other Thais and foreign visitors to Koh Phangan. Those Thais whose businesses benefit from the party tend to tolerate the noise as it brings financial reward. The taxi drivers make good money. The bar owners along the beach totally depend on the party to pay the high rents. The locals who don’t benefit either directly or indirectly from the party tend to stay well away. The foreigners either hate it or love it. The haters often refer to those seeking all-night techno, trance and buckets as ‘fool mooners’.

The Full Moon Party started out in 1987 as a small birthday bash on the beach. It was organized by Paradise Bungalows. The bungalow place is still there along with a rock to commemorate the central role Paradise Bungalows had in starting the parties. It seems unlikely that there weren’t any beach parties in Haad Rin prior to the one legendary party that initiated the whole idea. I guess more credit should be given to the person who had the idea to market the idea of the ‘Full Moon Party’ – a monthly night of carnival and mayhem.

The early parties were much smaller affairs than they are today: just a few hundred hippies mostly sitting around smoking weed; something like in Goa where the whole party on the beach and trance music thing really started.

The early parties soon caught the attention of the press both local and foreign. This caused a massive clamping down on the open smoking of weed. It also helped to publicize the party – the notoriety of the party drew in the punters.

With time the commercial importance of the Full Moon Party became apparent. 20,000 tourists spending money couldn’t be ignored. The result was that most of the cheap bungalow places on the beach were pulled down and replaced with bars sporting large sound systems. Haad Rin expanded its room capacity; and of course peak prices were introduced along with a minimum stay requirement.

The latest step in maximizing the profits from the party was in 2011 when they started charging anyone who arrived by land or sea in Haad Rin on the night of the party 100 Thai Baht. The ‘organizers’ (there are no organizers) claim it is for security, cleaning etc. In Thailand these are dubious claims. No doubt the admission price will soon be 150 Thai Baht. Maybe they will blame the price increase on the price of petrol.

On the plus side, the Full Moon Party is quite a spectacle. The beach is packed with young Thais and ‘farangs’ many of whom are covered in fluorescent paint. The bars are packed with people dancing. Many are dancing on the beach, in the sea and on tables. Others are passed out some in the safety zone, others not. The town is heaving with people. Everywhere you turn there is a stall selling bucket sets of gin, vodka or Thai whisky.

Each bar has its own sound. There is psy-trance, house, drum and bass, chart and RnB. To find out which bar plays which music check out this list of bars at the Full Moon Party.

There are always fire dancers, fire limbo competitions and long ropes on fire which the daring attempt to skip over. Many have minor burns that they only discover the following day – hence the recent proliferation of medical clinics in Haad Rin.

People go to the Full Moon Party because they love the music. Others go to pull girls. Others go to pick the pockets of the passed out. Others go just to see the spectacle. Others go, I suspect, because it is one of those ‘must do’ or bucket list things when visiting Thailand.

The Full Moon Party has brought prosperity for a few on the island. It is made Koh Phangan a famous or infamous place. It has also caused a rash of imitators. Around the nearby village of Bantai they have the Jungle Experience, the Black Moon Party, the Shiva Moon Party and the Half Moon Party. The local residents are feed up with the noise that these parties generate.  Despite their protests the police seem reluctant to kill these geese that lay golden eggs. Haad Rin now also has Love:Is a new beach party. In Thailand a good business idea can never be copied too many times.

For those not keen on the party atmosphere, trance music and the concomitant illegality most of the beaches in Koh Phangan are free of the FMP bug. Than Sadet, Haad Khom, Thong Nai Pan Noi, Wok Tum, Srithanu don’t hold ‘warm up’ parties. These beaches attract hippies and those people who used to be hippies but now have money. They want peace, sand, warm seas and that Robinson Crusoe sense of being stranded far from the concerns of the world and the big raves in Haad Rin and Bantai.

To get an idea of what the Full Moon Party is like check out the Youtube clip above. It must be stressed, which the fool in the video didn’t, that the full moon doesn’t happen to fall on the last night of the year. They also have a party at Christmas. It just makes more commercial sense to hold parties at these times – nobody will notice that the moon is far from full.

Medical Services in Koh Phangan

Southland Medical Clinic
The island of Phangan has made large strides in terms of improving infrastructure, facilities and amenities: the roads have got better (especially the road from Bantai to Thong Nai Pan), the electrical power supply is more constant (new poles were placed in 2008); and now there is a Tesco Lotus in Thongsala for shopping. As mentioned in an earlier post, work on Koh Phangan airport has now begun. Unfortunately, not much progress has been made on medical services in Koh Phangan.

Several of the beaches have small pharmacies where you can pick up basic medicines. There are better pharmacies in Thongsala, and recently a big one opened in Bantai. They sell a range of drugs some of which you need a prescription to purchase.

There are a couple of medical centers in Thongsala along the main road. I went to one in 2008 feeling terrible, slightly delirious and covered in tiny red spots. The doctor told me I had herpes and prescribed expensive medicine. He seemed to be in business primarily to facilitate tourists claiming back medical expenses on their insurance policies.

I later found out that I had dengue fever, as several other people on the beach where I was staying also had it. It’s not lethal and goes by itself the first couple of times you get it, but can be fatal the third time you contract the disease. It’s spread by mosquitoes.

On another occasion I had a cut on my foot that went septic, which is easily done in Thailand. This time I went to Koh Phangan Hospital just outside of Thongsala. They treated my wound and gave me antibiotics. It cost only 50 Thai Baht to see a doctor.

Koh Phangan hospital is a simple affair with a few beds, a couple of doctors an X-ray machine and nothing much else. The doctors do a good job and are able to deal with motorbike injuries and other minor problems. I don’t know if they have snake anti-serum. For any serious injuries the hospital will organize an immediate evacuation to Koh Samui where they have Bandon International Hospital and Bangkok Hospital Samui. These are big and fully equipped hospitals.

Around the time of the Full Moon Party Koh Phangan hospital often gets overrun with victims of the party. Commonly they treat minor burns (from the fire attractions), broken limbs, motorbike scratches (Koh Phangan tattoo) and those who are lost from taking too many psychedelics and other illegal substances.

Obviously due to the thousands that descend on Haad Rin for the Full Moon Party there has sprung up a couple of medical centers in the town. They are Southland Medical Clinic (Tel: 077 375515); Siam International Clinic (Tel: 077 375521) and Bandon International Clinic (Tel: 077 375471-2, Fax: 077 375414).

During the night of the Full Moon Party there are volunteer medics on hand to give emergency medical treatment.

For those in need of medical help after Jungle Experience, Half Moon Party, Black Moon Party or Shiva Moon Party there is now in Bantai Bangkok Hospital Samui Clinic (Tel: 077 239599) that has an ambulance.

All these private clinics in Haad Rin and Bantai are small, have doctors and can arrange immediate speed boat transfers to Koh Samui. They all cost a pretty penny; so, if you aren’t seriously hurt and don’t have insurance then the best thing to do is to go to the government hospital outside Thongsala on the road to Srithanu.

Diving Accidents

For those involved in a diving accident, there is a small decompression tank in Koh Tao and a bigger one on Koh Samui. Koh Tao medical services are on a level slightly lower than Koh Phangan’s.

Dentists in Koh Phangan

For dental work the dental clinic on the road between Thongsala and Bantai is said to be OK. However, people go especially to Bophut in Koh Samui for the dentists which are supposed to be excellent.

Thailand has a growing reputation for its cheap and excellent medical services. People come to Thailand for surgery, dental work and IVF treatments. They don’t, however, come to Koh Phangan for these things.

Koh Phangan Hospital – 077 377034 & 077 238315
Phangan Animal Care – 077 238375

Are Review Sites any Good?

Jip Shop in Thong Nai Pan Noi

Big review sites like Trip Advisor and Agoda are a mixed bag. They are internet businesses first and foremost. They use other people’s content – namely reviews of hotels, restaurants, activities etc. and place these between several columns offering ads and booking services for hotels. Thanks to cookies these sites will monitor your visits and make what they think are appropriate suggestions to you. On the positive side, these sites do give people access to lots of comments that can give them a clue as to the level of amenities and services they can expect to get.

Trip Advisor recently got in trouble for its automated comment system when it was found that hotel owners were being blackmailed into giving discounts under the threat of people writing negative reviews.

This is just one problem with review sites. The other is that owners of hotels, tour companies, restaurants etc. can post glowing reviews of their own business and can say nasty things about their competitors. For hostel booking sites this seems to be the case in the highly competitive hostel market in South America. Comments about hostels vary from saying the bed linen was filthy to saying it’s the best hostel in so and so place. There seems to be no middle ground, and even taking into account that people value different things, it smells of manipulation.

www.phanganaccommmodation.net/information isn’t really a review site in the conventional sense. We don’t encourage people to send us reviews. We don’t collate and give out a star system. Not only does this technology need large bandwidth, but we also think the need for such reviews is indicative of a general problem with tourism in the Twenty-first Century. People are letting their perceptions be guided too much, they view going on holiday like buying a flat screen TV – you read the reviews, look at the prices and listen to the spiel of the shop rep and then hand over your credit card.

All the beaches of Koh Phangan are worth visiting. They all have their charms, and they all have their drawbacks. Thong Nai Pan Noi is lovely but overpriced. Haad Rin is lively but too noisy and crowded. The west coast beaches from Hin Kong to Srithanu are relaxed but have a big tidal difference and aren’t great for swimming.

The businesses in Koh Phangan vary from day to day. Even the promise of international brands such as Anantara (Rasananda on Thong Nai Pan Noi) and Best Western (Phanganburi in Haad Rin) cannot entirely rein in the problems of staff going walk about, the food being sometimes below par, the rooms not being cleaned thoroughly, the accounts being done accurately, the taxi arriving on time, the renovations being carried out on time. Thailand simply is not Europe, and even Koh Samui with its pretensions to high standards isn’t much better. Expectations have to be adjusted for Thailand in general and Koh Phangan in particular. It is a magical place with stunning natural scenery. It is a place where you can eat fresh fish and good Thai food. You can buy overpriced red wine. You can get slow internet. You can rent a motorbike or Jet Ski and have a great time as long as you don’t put a scratch on it.

In short, reviews of Koh Phangan businesses, services and activities should be taken with a pinch of salt. The best reviews are by friends who can give you an honest opinion. Moreover, it is important that when you go on holiday you leave Europe, Australia, Canada, and the States behind and enjoy Thai culture and not expect a ‘home away from home’. The hospitality might be this but most other things will have a strong ‘Thai’ gloss.

Anyway for those interested here are Trip Advisor’s lists for Koh Phangan:

Hotels in Koh Phangan

1 Seaview Bungalows – Than Sadet
2 Anantara Rasananda – Thong Nai Pan Noi
3 Sea Scene Resort – Plaay Laem
4 Sunset Cove Resort – Chao Phao
5 Santhiya Koh Phangan Resort & Spa – Thong Nai Pan Noi

B&Bs in Koh Phangan

1 Blue Ocean Garden Beach Resort – Chao Phao
2 Nice Sea Resort – Srithanu
3 Blue Lotus Resort – Bankai

Restaurants in Koh Phangan

1. Fisherman’s Restaurant & Bar – Ban Tai
2. Again and Again – Thong Nai Pan Noi
3 Beachlounge – Thong Sala

Koh Phangan Airport

Koh Phangan airport
For years one of the favorite topics of those living on Koh Phangan has been whether or not they will build an airport. For the skeptics the lack of available flat land and the perceived reluctance of the locals were strong indicators that it would never happen. For those in the opposing camp an airport on Koh Phangan seemed an obvious progression for the island: tourism is booming like never before and places like Thong Nai Pan Noi are attracting high-end customers who are prepared to pay for the convenience of flying to the island.

The argument is now over. They are building an airport in Koh Phangan. At first it seemed it was going to be located on the east coast between Than Sadet and Thong Nai Pan. There was considerable land clearance in the area, but that has now stopped. The reason has not been given. It must be assumed that the initial site was found to be unsuitable. Now the workers have moved to an area near Chaloklum village.

It is going to be Kan Airways that are going to run flights to Koh Phangan. Few other details are available. There are posters around the island in Thai that announce the construction of an airport in Koh Phangan. They thank some official and give no other information. The authorities on the island have not seen the need for further comment. This is partly the way things are done in Thailand. Construction goes ahead, and only when it is fait accompli do the facts come out: consultations about changes are not openly invited.

We can only guess to the details, but it looks like the Chaloklum site will allow a long enough runway to accommodate aircraft that can make it all the way from Bangkok to Koh Phangan. A short runway would mean the inconvenience of transfers in Suratthani.

Kan Airways is traditionally a low cost carrier, however demand and limited places will no doubt drive the prices up. That said, the current option of flying to Koh Samui is overpriced thanks to the monopoly that Bangkok Airways have. Moreover, the convenience of not having to catch a boat to Koh Phangan will be worth paying for. It is time consuming and sometimes the boats pitch up and down and cause motion sickness. That is particularly true of the Lomprayah catamarans which bounce over the waves.

We can only speculate when Koh Phangan airport will be finished. Obviously before the peak season around Christmas and New Year 2012 would make commercial sense.

For Koh Samui the writing is on the wall. Hotels are already running at 40% capacity. Koh Phangan airport is no doubt going to draw further business away from the island – which many see as justly deserved for the sin of over-development.

Interesting times are ahead for the population of Koh Phangan.

For updates on Koh Phangan airport visit www.kohphanganairport.com