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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

Weather in Koh Phangan

The weather in Koh Phangan is generally excellent. That is one of the main reasons why the island is such a popular holiday destination. Nearly all year round you are guaranteed hot and sunny weather, and depending on the beach, you can be guaranteed year round swimming in the sea. It must be remembered that

Fishing in Koh Phangan

Prior to the first arrival of foreign travelers to Koh Phangan in the 1970s the island’s main commercial activities were coconut cultivation and fishing. Nowadays more of the 12,000 permanent residents of Koh Phangan are in a job related to the tourist industry than in employment connected to harvesting coconuts or fishing. Nevertheless, these two

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,

Medical Services in Koh Phangan

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

Koh Phangan International School

si-panya-school

 

One of the most obvious omissions in Koh Phangan facilities and amenities has been a decent school. Now we are soon to have Koh Phangan airport, it has been deemed the right time to start the ambitious project of a school. For many who regularly visit Koh Phangan the move has been seen as another example of how the island is becoming like Koh Samui. For most of the ex-pat community on the island the news of a school has been met with indifference. And for all but the wealthiest Thais the school is of little import. Indeed the biggest reaction to the news of an international school in Koh Phangan has been from teachers looking to find a job in paradise.

Si Panya School is located opposite Wat Pho near Ban Tai village. It is just off the road leading to Thong Nai Pan. The school follows the British curriculum and is for children aged 5 to 12 years old. The curriculum covers the following subjects:

Maths
English
Thai
Science
History
Geography
Music
Art
Physical education

The school opened in March 2012, and so far has about 7 children enrolled. The website does not list either the number of teachers or their qualifications. From looking at the gallery pages I estimate there are 3 foreign women involved and probably one Thai teacher.

Is it time for an International School in Koh Phangan?

For an international school to succeed there obviously needs to be a fairly wide catchment area with a suitable amount of demand. Few will argue that the Thai schools in Koh Phangan are of a poor quality. Nationally speaking Thai education is good at basic numeracy and literacy – figures show literacy is well over 90%. In terms of more sophisticated education the system has failed many Thais; and this is especially true in Koh Phangan. The wealthy Thais on the island normally send their kids away to the Catholic school in Suratthani for their education.

It is not just education at stake: Koh Phangan is famous for its parties. Inevitably drugs, organized crime and prostitution follow in the wake of the party scene. These are bad influences for kids growing up on the island.

The majority of foreigners who are staying legally and semi legally on the island are connected to tourism. They run bars etc, teach diving or call themselves DJs. It is a young demographic, most of who don’t have kids. If they did it is unsure how many of them can afford 7000 Thai baht a month for their kid’s education.

The cheaper option is distance learning packs. The Australian government has an excellent distance learning program with free books and online lessons.

In Koh Samui the International Schools have a wider pool of ex-pats to draw on. Until recently the boom in the luxury residential market meant foreign professionals resided on the island.

Ban Tai Center of Learning

Ban Tai is conveniently placed between Haad Rin and Thongsala, the 2 towns with the most facilities. Except for the hill just before Haad Rin it is also a flat area. It is for this reason that the off-shoots to the Full Moon Party are also located along this stretch of land. In Ban Tai and its surroundings are the Jungle Experience, the Half Moon Party, Shiva Moon Party, Ban Sabai After Party, Blue and Green Sramanora Waterfall Party and the Black Moon Party. Moreover, there is live music at The Sound on Fridays and Sundays.

The coastline from Thongsala to Ban Kai is full of cheap and mid-range resorts that cater to a young, party orientated crowd. The parties are outdoors and go on all night. The sound of the bass carries for miles. It is unlikely that they are going to turn it down on school nights.

Living in Paradise

Not thousands but millions of Westerners fed up with high taxes, bad weather and the alienation engendered by urban living dream of living in a place like Koh Phangan. The notion of ‘island life’ where people are laid back and friendly, where no one worries about being late, where everything is cheap, where a gorgeous beach is just a stone’s throw away is almost a Jungian archetype. It is thus no wonder that comment boxes for articles about Si Panya School are already filling up with job requests. Perhaps a better business model would be teacher training on Koh Phangan!

Despite my irony I would like the school to survive. I would also like for its fees to drop and for more Thai kids to have a chance at getting a better education. There have been rumours of oil exploration in the Gulf and this might lead to the success of the school. We will have to wait and see. As with the airport story, Koh Phangan International School is one that is bound to provoke a response, if only from teachers looking for a job.

For those interested the website for the school is: http://www.sipanyaschool.com/

Weather in Koh Phangan

Monsoon

The weather in Koh Phangan is generally excellent. That is one of the main reasons why the island is such a popular holiday destination. Nearly all year round you are guaranteed hot and sunny weather, and depending on the beach, you can be guaranteed year round swimming in the sea.

It must be remembered that Koh Phangan has its own micro climate governed by winds in the gulf, pressure zones, the mountainous terrain etc. The island is still 90% covered with virgin forest. It is often called ‘rainforest’. I’m not sure this is an accurate description – in the Amazon it rains nearly every day. That is not the case in Koh Phangan. Rather you will notice that after a few really hot days the humidity will raise dramatically and then there will be a quick downpour of rain followed by blue skies and lower humidity.

The wet season or monsoon in Thailand starts in the north and moves south. The timing of the monsoon varies by a few days every year. In Koh Phangan the monsoon usually hits at the end of October or the start of November. It rains heavily for about a month and then eases off. During the height of the rainy season the waves really pick up. It is not advised that you swim during the monsoon. The waves are not for surfing. They are dangerous and have a strong undertow on many of the beaches. Indeed, it is unlikely that you will stay in Koh Phangan during monsoon. Several businesses shut up during this period and many of the beaches become cut off because of flooded roads. Many of the ex-pats go up north to places to Chiang Mai during the rainy season in Koh Phangan to dodge the bad weather. Expect serious disruption to ferry and other transport links during October and November.

The peak season in Koh Phangan and elsewhere in Thailand is the Christmas and New Year period. Party organizers ignore the course of the moon and throw Christmas and New Year ‘Full Moon’ Parties that are the busiest of the year. The weather at this time is hit-and-miss. Many of the beaches will still have sand bags from the monsoon. The skies are often grey and there is the occasional downpour.

Koh Phangan Weather
From the graphic above you can see the average rainfall and temperature for each month of the year. This naturally changes slightly from year to year. In 2011 it changed considerably – there were heavy rains in March (that flooded Bangkok and other parts of Thailand causing landslides, property damage and loss of life) and a fairly gentle monsoon. This pattern did not repeat itself in 2012 gratefully.

The hottest months in Koh Phangan are March and April. Temperatures are on average 32 degrees but can climb to 36 degrees. The other months have an average temperature of 30 or 31 degrees. These figures are slightly deceptive – June and July feel hotter and more humid than October to December.

In terms of rainfall, January and February are the driest months and October and November are the wettest months. From May to August there is a pattern of hot weather followed by sudden rainstorms.

March to November is the low tidal season. On beaches like Srithanu, Wok Tum, Hin Kong, Nai Wok and Haad Khom swimming is confined to the part of the day when the tide is high. These beaches are better during the high tidal period from December to April. Beaches in the north and East such as Bottle Beach, Chaloklum, Thong Nai Pan Noi and Yai, Than Sadet, Haad Thian and Haad Yuan have little tidal difference throughout the year – they don’t have a coral reef and are thus great for year round swimming but not snorkeling.

I personally love June the best in Koh Phangan. The sky is bright blue. The sea is flat and warm like a bath and the beaches in the afternoon are virtually empty. The summer holiday crowds haven’t arrived yet and it is often just me and a couple of dogs sitting in the shallows cooling off. I believe that June also has the best light for taking photographs. In contrast, December is the most expensive month to stay on the island and has some of the most average weather. It just goes to show how out-of-synch holidays and tropical weather can be!

The picture at the top is of the monsoon on Thong Nai Pan Noi. Below is a little widget to tell you the weather conditions in Koh Phangan at the moment.

Fishing in Koh Phangan


Prior to the first arrival of foreign travelers to Koh Phangan in the 1970s the island’s main commercial activities were coconut cultivation and fishing. Nowadays more of the 12,000 permanent residents of Koh Phangan are in a job related to the tourist industry than in employment connected to harvesting coconuts or fishing. Nevertheless, these two economic sources are still important to the population.

In Chaloklum and Srithanu they still have fleets of boats for fishing. Many of them are traditional long tail boats with flat bottoms that can be moored in shallow bays. The main catch is squid.

There are bigger commercial fishing boats that fish far out to sea. They can often be seen at night in such bays as Thong Nai Pan. They line up across the bay seeking shelter from storms farther out to sea.

Many of the fish found on nightly barbecues on the beaches of Koh Phangan were caught in the Gulf of Thailand, some close by. Commonly found are barracuda, shark, white snapper and red snapper.

It is possible to catch these fish off the coast of Koh Phangan as well other fish such as mackerel. Legally speaking it is alright to fish anywhere along the coast of the island except for Mai Haad and Koh Ma This area is protected by marine park status. There are some good fishing spots away from human settlement areas around the island. These are not on the ‘tourist trail’. You have to pay a Thai person to take you out on a boat to show you the best fishing spots.

For many Thais on Koh Phangan fishing is both a hobby and a possibility of catching either food or something that can be exchanged for money. Such is the privilege of islander’s lives. The simplest way to go fishing in Thailand is with a hook and some line on a stick. The hook is baited with something cheap like squid and cast off from a promising rocky outcrop.

Those who are serious about their fishing might not find the Koh Phangan fishing scene so exciting. Most of the fish on offer don’t offer a great challenge to land. Moreover, much of the Gulf of Thailand has been over-fished.

The topic of fishing in Koh Phangan must include comment about fishing during the full moon. In fishing lore opinion is divided about the idea: some swear that the fish bite more during the full moon, others that it is a terrible time to fish. However, night fishing is popular in Koh Phangan. The fishermen hang strip lights off the side of the boats – they don’t rely on the light of the moon.

Putting aside the notion that the full moon has magical powers to lure fish to their doom, the brightness of the moon is not dependent on how full it is. Other factors such as weather conditions and cloud cover are more important. The amount of light from the moon does not vary very much during its various phases (except when there is a black moon). Indeed it is possible to have the astronomical event called the ‘full moon’ during the day.

Light at night will have different effects on different fish. For example, nocturnal fish will be less active if there is more light filtering down from the surface of the sea. Whereas diurnal fish will be more active if it is brighter.

In terms of equipment, there are plenty of places to buy or rent fishing equipment on Koh Phangan. There is a good market stall in Thongsala selling equipment. On the main drag there is a dedicated fishing shop that has rods, reels, bait, hooks etc. They might also be able to give you some tips about the best spots to try your luck with the rod.

Many people recommend squid fishing in Koh Phangan. This can be done virtually anywhere along the coast. Lots of locals are doing it. They wrap fishing line around a plastic bottle and use a colorful lure. They then cast out and keep turning the bottle to ensure the lure moves side to side as it is going through the water.

Food in general is becoming an expensive commodity. As a result, the temptation to take as many fish as possible from the Gulf of Thailand is a real one. This tropical region has traditionally had small populations that include the Moken or Sea Gypsies that heavily rely on fishing. The fish supply could support such remote populations. Much of the commercial fishing around the world is unsustainable. Koh Phangan that hosts up to 40,000 people at a time has created a large demand for fresh, locally caught fish as well as farmed fish and prawns.

When fishing in Koh Phangan it is worth bearing this in mind and throwing back most of the catch, just keeping the older, fully grown ones.

NB. The video above was filmed at Mae Haad according to the title. This is a protected area. We can give the Thais the benefit of the doubt. There is a good chance that the person taking the video didn’t know exactly where he or she was. Of more interest is the way that the Thai works the hook and manages to keep his cigarette in his mouth.

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

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.