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.