Archive for May 24, 2012

Food Allergies, Vegetarians and Vegans

Thongsala Market
There are plenty of frightening statistics about the high percentage of people in America and Europe who have allergies. Some of the commonest types of allergies appear to be connected to food. The nut allergy can cause the trachea to swell and for the sufferer to die without immediate medical assistance. Then there are those people for health, green or moral reasons don’t eat meat or fish and maybe even not dairy products.

I have hung out in places all over the world and I’ve noticed that allergies are a rich country problem. As a result, I’ve never met a single Thai who had hay fever (despite breathing in pollen all year round) or a food allergy. Moreover, despite the Buddha being very clear on the reverence we should place on all living things, I’ve never met a Thai vegetarian. Thus, all these things seem slightly strange to your average Thai living in Koh Phangan.

I mention all this because if you have a nut allergy it is pointless asking a beach restaurant or market stall if they have made nut dishes in their kitchen. One of the most common Thai dishes is Phad Thai which uses ground up peanuts. Out of politeness they might declare their kitchen spotless and nut free but it’s really not worth the risk.

It is best to arm yourself with knowledge before arriving in Thailand what dishes contain food you are allergic to. This is your best safeguard against allergic reaction.

The other option is self-catering. There are now a few private villas for rent around the island. They have varying cooking facilities. It is a good option if you have transport as villa rental in Koh Phangan is now becoming a cheaper option than staying in many of the resorts.

Vegetarian and Vegan Food

Food is not bad in Thailand if you are a vegetarian. Most dishes can be made with tofu instead of meat. The tofu is of the frozen variety and not as delicious as that found in China or Japan, but nevertheless fairly appetizing and good with Thai food.

There are also beans and nuts for protein. Many places have a veggie burger option – again I expect frozen food. The best thing is that fruit tastes delicious in Koh Phangan, and is very cheap if you go to the market. Mangosteens, rambutans, mangos, pineapples and bananas are all easy to find. When it is the rambutan season they are almost giving them away. In fact, sometimes they are.

It is possible to find in places like Big A supermarket things like lentils and pulses. Several places in Thongsala stock imported cheese. This however, is fairly expensive and probably not vegetarian or vegan cheese.

Being a vegan in Koh Phangan is not much harder than being a vegetarian. Other than eggs few dairy products are used in traditional cooking. Indeed you can substitute dairy products with coconut milk and cream. Coconuts are a wonderful food source and maybe the reason why so many Koh Phanganers look so healthy.

I have been a vegetarian in Koh Phangan with no problems. I never asked if Chang beer was vegetarian or not for fear of the wrong answer. If you have a serious food allergy then don’t rely on the waiter passing a message through to the cook. The safest thing is to cook or prepare your own food. With a selection of shops that is improving every year, this is becoming easier to arrange.

5 Best Swimming Beaches

Thong Nai Pan Noi

When discussing the best beaches in Koh Phangan you can enter a minefield of contention. People often visit Koh Phangan for the first time and choose a beach and then continue going back to the same beach year after year. They fall in love with the beach and tend to even get proprietorial about the beach, seeing it as in somewhere theirs.

Thus, you will find plenty of staunch defenders of Haad Rin Nai beach. They come to Haad Rin for the nightlife and parties and enjoy relaxing on the beach. For thousands of people this is a heavenly routine and therefore, Haad Rin is the best beach.

To avoid controversy I’m limiting my scope to just the best beaches in Koh Phangan for swimming. I am not concerned with nightlife, hotels, swimming pools, shops or transport. What counts is the quality of the sand, the cleanness of the water, the tidal difference and the shape of the sea bed.

Generally speaking most of the beaches on the west coast of Koh Phangan have large tidal differences. Places like Srithanu turn into mud flats at low tide. This is great for bird watching, but not ideal for swimming in the sea as the sea is far away and the sea bed can feel muddy underfoot.

Haad Yao (west)

Haad Yao
The great exception on the west coast is Haad Yao. It is sometimes referred to as the ‘perfect beach’. It is a fine white sand beach that stretches for about 1 km. It is wide enough to play beach games on, and not to disappear during the rainy season. The bay of Haad Yao is protected by a coral reef that holds plenty of marine life and is great for shallow dives. Haad Yao offers great year round swimming. It has a small tidal difference and has soft sand underfoot. It gets deep neither too quickly nor too slowly as you walk out into the sea.

Although Haad Yao has recently seen resort development it still retains its natural charm.

Bottle Beach

Bottle Beach
Bottle Beach used to be the place to go to get that remote feeling. It is still remote, but is now connected by road to the rest of the island. The small white sand beach on the north coast draws beach lovers because of its beauty. It is a clean beach with lush mountain covered forests behind.

The sea at Bottle Beach is usually calm and the tidal variation is minimal. Again walking into the sea from the beach is great as it gets gradually deeper. The sea bottom is sand. Both the sea and the beach are clean. At the right time of year you can easily spot small fish in the water at Bottle Beach.

Thong Nai Pan Noi

Thong Nai Pan Noi
In the north-east corner of Koh Phangan is the double bay of Thong Nai Pan. Of the two beaches Thong Nai Pan Noi has the more beautiful beach. It is about 800 meters long and is composed of fine white sand. The tidal change is small and the sea bottom sandy. It is an ideal beach for swimming. In June and July the sea is very still and makes for perfect photos.

For many, Thong Nai Pan Noi is undoubtedly the best swimming beach on Koh Phangan. The scenery is magnificent as the bay is surrounded by mountains. Birds of prey can be seen floating in the thermals, yellow butterflies flutter in the shallows and the area boasts lots of colorful flora and impressive granite boulders.

While many prefer the neighboring Thong Nai Pan Yai because it has cheaper accommodation, more of a Thai feel and a bigger beach, it is hard to argue that Thong Nai Pan Noi isn’t the better beach for swimming and sheer natural beauty.

Than Sadet

Than Sadet
The east coast of Koh Phangan doesn’t have any coral reefs but it is more sheltered and its beaches have very small tidal differences. Most of the east coast beaches are isolated as mountainous terrain makes it hard to access the beaches from land.

One such beach is Haad Sadet. This is a small beach just south of Thong Nai Pan Noi that is famous because 3 kings of Thailand have visited the nearby waterfall of Than Sadet.

The beach at Haad Sadet is great for swimming. The water is clear and the beach clean. It is a very peaceful beach as it is hard to get to and few people stay here. You can also walk to the even more remote beach of Haad Thong Reng that is also great for swimming.

Haad Tian (east)

Haad Tian East
Farther down the east coast is another beach that is inaccessible by land. That is Haad Tian. It is similar to Haad Sadet in size. The sea is fine white and the water great for swimming.

As with the other beaches on the east coast, development has been kept in check in Haad Tian. The beach maintains its friendly hippy vibe and is popular with French people. For taking a dip in the sea and relaxing on the beach it is hard to better Haad Tian (also spelt Haad Thian).

Apologies to those whose beach wasn’t featured in this list of 5 best swimming beaches in Koh Phangan. There are of course several other great swimming beaches in Koh Phangan including Haad Rin Nok.

History of Koh Phangan

Seatran

Little has been written down about the history of Koh Phangan. Speaking to the older people who were born on the island can reveal things about the island that are both surprising and shocking. It is not our place to re-tell these stories related in confidence; but needless to say that until tourism arrived in Koh Phangan in the 1970s the islanders meted out their own version of justice, and as with many of the other islands of Thailand the central government let Koh Phangan run itself in all but name.

The first thing that should be mentioned about Koh Phangan is that it was probably inhabited as far back as 500 to 100 BC. The evidence for this is an ancient bronze drum. Obviously, these people are very distant from the present ethnic group called ‘Thai’. It is thought that maybe these early people were related to the present day sea gypsies or Moken found in Ang Thong National Park and other out of the way islands in the Gulf.

Some 600 years ago a group of monks arrived on the island. They settled in Wat Phu Khao Noi just outside of Thongsala. There is also an old stupa from the same period at Ban Nua Village (near Ban Tai).

About 200 years ago Chinese people migrated from the island of Heinan. They originally started out fishing, but many moved to working on the tin mines. There were mines at Thong Nai Pan, Srithanu and Laem Son Lake near Haad Yao. The latter tin mine was only closed in the Twentieth Century.

The next historical marker for the island is the frequent visits of King Rama V between 1888 and 1910. The King had bought a steamship and toured his Kingdom. He fell in love with a small beach and waterfall in the east that was renamed Than Sadet meaning Royal Stream.

In 1970 Koh Phangan stopped being considered a sub-district of Koh Samui. At this point Koh Phangan became a separate sub-district and placed under Suratthani Province.

In the late 1970s regular tourists started appearing on Koh Phangan. The first placed to start catering for this new income source was Haad Rin. Despite people swearing it was this or that date, or Wikipedia and its false authority saying it was 1985, nobody is really sure when the first full moon party took place on the island. This typifies the slippery nature of Koh Phangan history.

Nobody is quite sure when the first Muslim people came to Koh Phangan either. Some think they are connected to the sea gypsies, others than the Muslims are a much newer addition to the island.

The constants of Koh Phangan history are probably fishing and coconut plantations. Both are still today important to the local economy of the island, and were probably so hundreds of years ago.

There are a number of old families on Koh Phangan who can trace their lineage back to well before the island became a tourist destination. In the case of some beaches these old families still hold on to the land and preserve a more low-key type of development. On other beaches the temptation to sell up was too great and outside developers have moved in with more grandiose schemes.

It is hoped that with the new interest in things creative on the island, someone will spend time to collect more information about the history of Koh Phangan.

Tours of Koh Phangan

Koh Ma
In Koh Samui there is stiff competition in the day tour market. All the tours have the same principle behind them – take the tourists to half a dozen various places on the island which in themselves might not be very interesting, but collectively add up to a fun day. A good business idea can never be copied too many times. That seems to be the motto when it comes to the tourist business in Thailand, and so it should be no great surprise that Safari Boat offer two very similar tours of Koh Phangan.

The one tour is called ‘One Day Trip in Paradise’. It doesn’t involve taking magic mushrooms. Here is the itinerary:

1)    Start in Thongsala
2)    Chinese Temple
3)    Elephant show and camp (optional extra to ride an elephant)
4)    Snorkeling at Koh Ma or Haad Khom
5)    Lunch in Thong Nai Pan
6)    Visit to Bottle Beach
7)    Visit to Than Sadet waterfall
8)    Drop off

The cost is 1,200 Thai Baht without elephant trek and 1,700 Thai Baht with elephant trek.

The second tour is called ‘Rainforest Adventure’. This has 3 options. The most expensive is as follows:

1)    Meet in Thongsala
2)    Short trek to Phaeng waterfall
3)    Chinese temple
4)    Archery in Chaloklum
5)    Snorkeling at Koh Ma
6)    Lunch
7)    Canopy zip lines near Thong Nai Pan
8)    Elephant camp at Ban Tai
9)    Thai boxing show in Haad Rin
10)    Herbal steam sauna at Wat Pho in Ban Tai

This costs 1,800 Thai Baht a head. I’m not sure if you get a ride on an elephant for this as well.

A few things spring to mind when I look at these itineraries. First is that they do cover some of the highlights of Koh Phangan. Koh Ma is a great place to snorkel. A boat trip to the hidden beach of Haad Sadet is something special. The Chinese Temple on the road to Chaloklum is a curiosity worth a look. Phaeng waterfall is beautiful; but much better combined with a hike to the top of Koh Ra.

The chap running the elephant place in Ban Tai must be happy with the trade the tours bring. The safari boat website claims they are a herd of wild elephants. They are chained up and don’t look that wild to me. When the elephants were bought to Koh Phangan is an interesting question that can probably never be answered with much authority since written history of the island is scarce. Nobody can decide when the first Full Moon Party was.

The paint balling place near Thongsala is not on the tour. Obviously no deal could be struck, or perhaps it is not family orientated enough. There is no fishing aspect to the tour either. In Koh Samui there is an artificial lake to let the tourists feel like champion anglers. There is also no kayaking – the boulders in the sea off Plaay Laem make an obvious choice.

I guess the one day tours are good for parents who have children to entertain. They are also ideal for those who want to ‘do’ the island but can’t be bothered with organizing it themselves, or spending too much time away from the beach or the parties.

In Koh Samui they also have booze tours with VIP entry to clubs, drinks promotions, games and a dazzling hospitality for drunken youths seeking over-indulgence and snogging. If only I could place a bet that this will come to Koh Phangan in a few years. Already one self-inflated chap offers courses on picking up girls at the Full Moon Party.

It’s all good for business, I guess. Although Koh Phangan might be more like paradise for many if there was less of such business.

For those interested the website for the tours is www.safariboat.info

The Mason’s Arms


The Mason’s Arms has become something of an institution on Koh Phangan. It was opened in the early 2000s and has established itself as one of the best, if not the best bar on the island. Although the bars in Haad Rin are closer to the techno / trance action at the Full Moon Parties, and although the Mason’s Arms is not on the beach, none of them have the audacity of the Mason’s Arms. It is not just another English pub – it is an exact replica of a mock Tudor pub that was the owner’s favorite watering hole in Southampton prior to moving to the sunny climes of Thailand.

There are Tudor beams in the building’s structure. There are the furnishings that make you think you are back in Blighty. There’s the pool table, the darts board and the table football. The effect is uncanny.

And when you go to the bar you won’t be disappointed. You can buy draught Guinness, Kilkenny, Weston’s Cider and Kronenbourg by the pint. There are also plenty of bottle beers and spirits to choose from. And, of course, if you want to smoke then you will have to step outside into the beer garden that has wooden benches and tables just like in the UK. The good thing is that you won’t be freezing as you hurriedly smoke your cigarette.

There is a full range of pub grub on offer including such classics and burgers and chips, Irish stew and sandwiches.

On Friday nights there is a pool competition, and sometimes a band plays.

Further entertainment is provided by giant projectors that show live sports events. The jukebox is free, and so is the wifi.

You can find the Mason’s Arms on the road out of Thongsala that goes to Srithanu and the other beaches along the west coast. It is near to Grand Sea Resort. It is not really relaxing to walk to the Mason’s Arms from Thongsala. You need a motorbike – taxi hire back and forth gets expensive. For me this is one of the benefits of the Mason’s Arms – it doesn’t get over-run with teeth gnashing folk who have escaped one of the outdoor parties.

To find out more about the Mason’s Arms or to check out if any bands are due to play visit their website: www.themasonsarms.in.th