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.