A country wide water fight celebrating the Thai New Year. Watch out on your left, your right, in front and behind, for 3 days water will be headed your way!
Having visited Koh Phangan two years ago on our first trip to Thailand we were excited to return. Koh Phangan is an island located in the Gulf of Thailand, most well known for their monthly full moon party in Haad Rin. Not all of Koh Phangan is party central. You can find a more chilled out scene with nice beaches and people in both the northeast and northwest parts of the island. We returned to Thong Nai Pan Yai, a small beach in the northeast, to stay at Longtail Beach Resort, a place we fell in love on our last trip. It’s about a 30 minute motorbike/taxi ride from the pier in Thong Sala. With luggage, we suggest taking a taxi as the roads are still under construction and are tough to motorbike on otherwise an experienced motorbiker will be fine.
Seasonally, the islands in the Gulf of Thailand are much different than the islands in the Andaman Sea. The sea side comes out of low season (rainy season) around mid November whereas the gulf enters low season around the same time and lasts about 1-3 months, depending who you talk to. We lucked out as we only had a few hours of rain for a couple of days in the morning or afternoon. Come January, the weather starts clearing up, the rain stops and the sea becomes much more calm.
We booked 10 days in Koh Phangan and planned to stay put. We had done quite a bit of island hopping so we knew this would be the perfect place to relax and do nothing - the Thailand way. The restaurant at Longtail serves fantastic thai food at very reasonable prices. Their signature dish is deep-fried chicken in Penang curry. We also highly recommend the Pad Thai and ‘No-Names’ - deep-fried vegetables in a red curry tempura batter served with a traditional sweet chili sauce.
Our first few days were spent lounging on the beach, eating and hanging out with some locals we met. We had exceptionally clear weather so we hiked to Thaan Prawes Waterfall. It was epic! The waters were home to toothless garra rufa fish which are usually used in a type of spa treatment. Known to all as the "doctor fish," within seconds, an army of them will gather at your feet and nibble your dead skin away.
After soaking in the water we drove up to a lookout point in Haad Than Sadet. We stumbled upon a hand painted wooden sign that said lookout point which took us up a very bumpy and hilly dirt road. It was so bad we nearly turned around, but when we reached the top and saw the view we knew we made the right choice. The viewpoint bar/bungalow was called Hide on High and is made completely out out of wood and bamboo and is tucked away in the mountain foliage. Bright blue water and lush green trees was surrounding us and was like nothing we'd ever seen. We ordered some beers and chilled out for awhile admiring the views.
Tip: Go early to be alone. Also, for a unique but expensive for the area experience, stay the night and have the owner cook a bbq dinner for you.
We were looking forward to reuniting with our friend Gabe from back home. We met him here on our trip two years ago and this time he was traveling from his home in China with his girlfriend to visit us. When they arrived we spent the next few days catching up before the weather turned for the worse forcing us to stay local at our bungalows. While eating lunch, a couple from Sweden we had met on Lanta, showed up to our surprise and made a rainy day that much better. Running into people we had previously met on other islands has happened to us a few times already. Small world! After a day or so we were itching to get around so we all rented motorbikes to do some exploring. If you go to southern Koh Phangan you will see loads of westerners with bandages wrapped around their arms and legs from motorbike accidents so be careful of other drivers. The locals have dubbed this the "Koh Phangan tattoo."
Tip: Motorbike rental businesses make their money by charging you for damages, not by renting. Make sure you check your bike over and point out any damages to the owner so you aren’t held responsible. Take pictures of the bike for protection and speak to your hotel/bungalow for recommendations on a good rental shop. Don’t rent the brand new motorbike. Rent a bike that is fairly used, but in good condition, so that if you do put a small scratch, there is a chance they won’t notice.
Back on wheels, we popped over to Thong Nai Pan Noi, the northern beach in Thong Nai Pan. It's more of a lively town with lots of places to eat and shops along the road on the way to the beach. The sea here is a bit rough, especially during the low season. The bungalows and restaurants on the beach are also much more expensive than in Thong Nai Pan Yai, so it really depends what you are looking for. We ate at a great local thai spot on the way into Noi called Boonme. Great sticky rice, noodle soup and larb (pork, minced, with mint, basil and spices). Always eat larb with your hands, it's the local way.
We wanted to make the most of our last day in Koh Phangan so we rented an SUV to trek around the island. Having four of us to split the cost made it really affordable. There is no road connecting Thong Nai Pan in the northeast to the beaches in the northwest so you must drive south through Thong Sala and then north up the west coast to get to them. It’s much easier to do this by SUV than motorbike.
Tip: Head to a beach called Haad Mae Haad which has an island called Koh Ma that you can walk to when the tide is low.
En route to Haad Mae Haad we saw another sign for a viewpoint. Starting to realize this is a thing here, we followed the wooden sign up a bumpy dirt road to a bar on stilts called Viewpoint Bar. Another great viewpoint! We posted up on some triangle pillows and enjoyed some big Changs.
Looking for a spot to see the sunset, we continued on to Haad Mae Haad. The beach here is very lovely with calm water perfect for swimming. We brought a blanket and some wine, but unfortunately it was a bit too cloudy during sunset. We ended up running into some people we met at Hide on High and they recommended we head further south for some food and drink.
Having had a lot of thai food over the last month and in need of some comfort food we went to an Italian restaurant that a local recommended to us called La Dolce Vita. Generally western food in Thailand isn't good, but La Dolce Vita did a really nice job and the prices were reasonable and the service was excellent. Andrea and Luciano, the owners were very hospitable and really created a great dining experience for us.
We were sad to leave Thailand, but really excited to move on to the next spot, knowing we would be back later in our trip to explore some of the Thailand's beautiful north country. A long day of travel to Kuala Lumpur and another two days and we would be in Indonesia!
From Surat Thani you can take a slow boat which takes about two and a half hours or you can take a speed boat which takes an hour and a half, both of which get into Thong Sala. From Koh Samui there are also ferry options to Thong Sala or Haad Rin Pier.
Longtail Beach Resort - located on Thong Nai Pan Yai in the northeast of Koh Phangan, it's the last set of bungalows on the beach. Reasonably priced and a great beachfront restaurant. Book early if you want the beachfront bungalows.
Boonme - local Thai joint, just before entering Thong Nai Pan Noi
Longtail Beach Resort Restaurant - excellent Thai food & reasonably priced. Even if you aren't staying, it's a great place to eat
Hacienda Happy Days - Mexican cuisine, and of course margaritas!
Luna Lounge - more upscale Thai and western cuisine
La Dolce Vita - Italian cuisine in Haad Chao Pao
Hide on High - near Than Sadet, worth the bumpy ride for the killer view and if you stay the night, an awesome sunset
Viewpoint Bar - near Haad Mae Haad, great view of the mountains, look for the wooden hand painted sign
Flipflop Pharmacy Bar - located on Thong Nai Pan Yai beach, good spot for some beers and a game of pool
Yai Bar - another beachfront bar on Thong Nai Pan Yai, triangle pillows and lounge areas to enjoy your drinks
The journey to Ko Lanta was our quickest yet, a 45 minute ferry over to Ao Nang and another ferry transfer to Lanta, only making one stop at Railay Beach. There must have been some confusion with the tickets because we ended up getting second ferry ride for free, saving us about $30 - huge win! We ditched our seats on the inside of the boat for a better view on the bow - extremely hot, but there was a nice breeze going so that made it more bearable. About 2 1/2 hours later we arrived at Saladan Pier in northwest Lanta. Having just come from some pretty chill islands we were a bit nervous when we saw the crowds of tourists waiting for ferries and dive trips, but hoped it would be a bit more relaxed where we were staying in Old Town, a fisherman’s village in southeast Lanta. A bit of negotiating and one bumpy motorbike ride later and we arrived at Slow Boat Bed & Bar on the main street. Already we could tell it was much less touristy than the other parts of the island.
Upon check in we were greeted with these delicious pear, passionfruit and beet shakes which were absolutely delicious. One of our favorite things to have in the mornings (or really anytime) are the fruit shakes. On the islands you can get them anywhere for under $2. Mix and match fruits - pineapple, coconut and mango are some of our faves.
Slow Boat B&B reminds you of an old fisherman’s house. Everything is made of beautiful old weathered wood with sweet little paintings and antiques decorating the house. It had open-air areas for hanging out, and of course, a bar downstairs. They have daily yoga on their pier. If you book your stay here your first class is free! All the rooms have unique names and we stayed in ‘Le Petit Prince’ on the second floor. Just outside our room there was a covered wrap-around porch complete with benches and triangle pillows, perfect for relaxing.
Lanta is significantly bigger than the other islands we have visited, so we rented a motorbike to get around to the beaches which are located along the west coast of the island. We spent our first day driving up and down the hilly coast exploring the various beaches and checking out the scene. You should be a fairly experienced motorbike driver, as the roads here are in rough shape and there are a decent amount of hills.
The busiest area on Lanta is Long Beach, close to Saladan Pier and gets quieter as you move south down the coast. We explored Klong Khong and Klong Nin in the evenings, both of which ended up being pretty touristy and much more expensive than Old Town. Good if you are looking for a typical Thailand party scene, but not exactly what we were after.
We really enjoyed the food in Old Town. Not only was it much cheaper than other parts of the island, but it was more flavorful and felt like it was less catered to western tourism. Because it’s a fisherman’s village you can get fresh seafood at nearly every restaurant and you can dine on the piers overlooking the sea. One of our favorite places was Apsara and because it was only a 5 minute walk from our place, we ended up going back there a few times. The red snapper fried in garlic & pepper sauce is an absolute must, and don’t even try to share one, just order two, it’s that good. They also have "special seating" - a little table for two at the very end of their pier.
After a quick stint in Koh Muk, we spent a couple more days on Lanta to enjoy some different beaches and check out the national park. Mu Ko Lanta National Park is located in the southern most tip of Lanta on the west side of the island. The fee to enter was about $6 each. You can walk the nature trail down to the beach, lighthouse and a small park. The walk through the park might take you an hour total.
TIP: Walk from the ticket booth directly into the trail (this is backwards but your trip is pretty much downhill the whole way with just one very steep road to climb back to the ticket booth at the end).
Unfortunately there wasn’t as much wildlife as you might expect. We saw a couple of monkeys and some birds, but otherwise fairly uneventful.
TIP: The monkeys are very sneaky and aggressive. They will try to steal small bags or open others in search of snacks and will bare their teeth if you try to stop them. This happened to a unknowing family that parked next to us. The monkey stole their cookies and then parked himself right next to their bike to enjoy them - at least they had a good photo op.
After our trip to the national park we found some quieter beaches on the southwest coast of the island that were lovely. Ao Noi beach is a 10 minute ride just north of the park. From the road you cannot see the beach, but you will see the motorbikes parked at the top. If there are more then 5 motorbikes, the beach wont feel like it’s yours alone. Walk down from the road on the concrete steps and find the beach nestled in a cove with a restaurant that serves decent Thai food and drinks. The waves are gentle here, no rocks, so it’s perfect for swimming and relaxing.
A few minutes south of Ao Noi is a slightly larger beach called Klong Jark. We were lucky enough to see a beautiful sunset here. We posted up at ‘Take It Easy’ bar where they serve food and fancy drinks in coconuts. They have some really nice locals working there that will happily chat to you for hours.
Depending on what island you are coming from there are a few ways to get to Lanta. We took the Ao Nang Princess ferry from Ao Nang. There are ferries available from Krabi and Phuket as well. You can also take a minivan from any of those areas, which is a more affordable way to get to Lanta, but takes longer. If you are flying you can fly directly into Krabi Airport and arrange transport to Lanta via ferry or minivan from there. Read more here.
Slow Boat Bed and Bar - a great, affordable hostel in Old Town. Great place if you are looking to get away from the crowds, but feel comfortable motorbiking around the island. There are four rooms equipped with fans and a shared bathroom with a cold shower.
Booking available on Air BnB.
The Old Times - same owners as Slow Boat B&B, but these rooms are more expensive as they come with air con and private bathrooms. Also located on the sea side so you will have a view of the piers from there.
Apsara Cafe - excellent seafood and Thai food, cute handwritten menu and a special table for two on the pier, a must if visiting Old Town.
Pinto - authentic Thai restaurant in Old Town, very reasonable prices and great Issan style sliced pork.
Take It Easy Bar - chilled out bar and restaurant on Klong Jark beach, drink a Mai Tai in a pineapple or a Pina Colada in a coconut and enjoy some fresh fish.
Island hop - visit some of the surrounding islands for snorkeling or kayaking day trips - Koh Muk, Koh Kradan, Koh Rok, Koh Jum
Mu Ko National Park - if you are looking for an easy walk through the woods, not a lot of wildlife but a fun motorbike trip there with great views.
After spending a few days in busy Lanta we decided to pop over to a small island called Koh Muk to meet up with some friends we met earlier in our trip and to do some snorkeling.
Despite being so close, Koh Muk wasn’t exactly the easiest place to get to and from. But we managed to meet up with our friends and the rest of the group from Coco Lodge (our bungalow accommodations) on a smaller island called Koh Kradan. Chest, the owner from Coco Lodge, sent a longtail boat to pick us up from the other side of the island and we joined their snorkeling trip. It was a bit of a choppy day for snorkeling, so we weren’t quite sure what to expect for the rest of the trip, but we were super excited when we heard we would be going to Emerald Cave otherwise known as ‘Tham Morakot’.
Emerald Cave is a secret lagoon hidden inside Koh Muk. The only way to access it is to swim through an underwater tunnel at high tide, which opens to a small bay and cave surrounded by huge limestone cliffs. Normally this is a very busy spot for tourists. You can expect to see 50 plus people swimming their way through the cave, however our guide Chest knew when the tour boats came and went so he waited until the end of the day to take us there.
Our small group got on our snorkel gear and followed Chest with his headlamp into the cave. The tunnel turns about halfway through so there are points when you are swimming in total darkness. If you look back while swimming into the cave you can see why they call it Emerald Cave - the water at the entrance is a stunning deep, bright blue-ish green. As you exit the tunnel and enter the lagoon you are welcomed with crystal clear water and a white sandy beach. It was one of the most incredible sites, and being there with a small group made it that much better. Rumor has it the cave used to be used by pirates to store their treasure and this cave was the original inspiration for the film ‘The Beach.’
After we explored Emerald Cave, Chest took us to another snorkel spot a few minutes away. The snorkeling was much better here as the water was calmer and the sun had come out towards the end of the day and it was looking like another great sunset. Chest gave Vic a harpoon to shoot some fish, if he could find some large enough. Unfortunately it was not the day for fish, turns out, reloading the harpoon while treading water with no life vest is quite the challenge. That evening we all enjoyed dinner at the lodge with our group from the day and went over to a very local bar made out of bits of driftwood for some beers later. These kind of bars seem to be a thing here.
We spent the next day exploring the island. As it’s one of the smallest islands we’ve been to, this did not take much time at all. No cars, just motorbikes, goats and geese wandering around the road. there were a lot of small little restaurants and very friendly people. There are a couple of more upscale resorts and bungalows here, just down the road from where we were staying, but it doesn’t seem to take away from the local feel of the island.
Unfortunately we had to get back to Lanta as we had booked a couple more nights there, departing early the next morning for our ferry.
Ferry service available from Koh Lanta to Charlie Beach, if you need to go to the other side of the island you can take a motorbike taxi or a longtail boat.
Coco Lodge - seaside bungalows in the fisherman's village. A range of options to stay - tent huts, simple fan bungalows, or more lux bungalows with air con.
Hilltop - wonderful little inexpensive restaurant run by a local thai family, the owner who speaks very good English will sit and chat with you while you eat
Boon Chu Cuisine - near Coco Lodge, thai food and cheap cocktails, very friendly staff
Pattana Reggae House Bar - teeny tiny little bar just down the road from Hill Top , fantastic Mai Tais and great company
Emerald Cave - even if you aren’t staying at Coco Lodge, you should take a trip over there and do a day out with Chest, very different from the typical tourist snorkeling excursions
4 Island Tour - you can do this from Lanta as well, usually includes Koh Kradan, Koh Ngai, Koh Maa, Koh Chuek, Koh Muk - or a variation of these
Our journey to Koh Yao Noi started with a 6 hour bus ride from Ranong to Phuket town. Although we asked to get dropped off at the airport (closer to the pier where we needed to catch the ferry), they didn't stop and by the time we noticed we had long passed it. Luckily the bus stops at any point so we hopped off at a random intersection in search of a taxi. Arrived just in time to catch the next speed boat over to the island.
Koh Yao Noi is the smaller of the two Koh Yao islands, 30 minutes off of north eastern Phuket. Definitely more built up than Koh Phayam, but still has a very local feel to it. A taxi pick-up truck with benches and an overhead cover drove us to our bungalow. Cars are allowed here, but motorbikes still seem to rule the road.
We stayed at a small resort called Hill House. Located on a very steep hill, hence it’s name, every bungalow on the property had a beautiful view of the Andaman Sea. They messed up our reservation so we got to spend the first night in a deluxe bungalow a bit higher on the hill for the same price.
Although we had become used to cold showers we were looking forward to a hot one, and a nice king size bed. Super firm beds are a thing here, and apparently so are towels for blankets. The biggest towel we had ever seen was spread out on the bed in lieu of a duvet. Makes sense considering the humidity here, but we were initially a bit confused.
Worn out from the all day travel, we strolled over to the restaurant across the way from our bungalow, owned by cousins of Hill House, which also had a spectacular sea view. On Koh Phayam there were many stray dogs, here there were loads of cats. A couple of the cats were chasing the tree frogs that were hopping around the deck as we ate. They had delicious food. Garlic and pepper shrimp, cashew nut stir fry and massaman curry so good that we ended up going back to eat there a few times.
Included in our room price was a light breakfast of fruit, toast and coffee. We were excited to find out this included mango sticky rice, mostly served in the morning or as a dessert in Thailand. It's exactly how it sounds, sticky rice with mango and it's sweet juices wrapped in a banana leaf.
The next day we rented a motorbike and explored the island. The beach we were staying on had very low tides, so we had to drive towards town a bit to find a proper swimming area.
After a bit of exploring, we finally got our first Thai massages of the trip. Thai massages are very different than a regular massage, they are a bit more of a workout, as they stretch and pull your limbs in every direction. Definitely not a massage you can snooze during.
The following day we were up for some adventure. One of the owners of Hill House mentioned a kayaking trip to Koh Kudu and Koh Roi, two very small islands off of Koh Yao Noi. Nearby is also the largest tree in southern Thailand, needing twenty people holding hands to go around it. We should have timed our trip a bit better because the whole way out we were going against the current and into the wind. It took us more than 2 hours to get to the tip of northern Koh Yao Noi and we still were a bit far from the islands. We found a small patch of beach where the mollusk fishermen post up and we paddled up to rest for a bit. After hanging out on the beach and realizing we still had a trek back to the resort, we decided not to go to the tree or the two islands as that would have taken another hour at the least. With the wind now at our back along with the incoming tide, we made it back to the resort in half the time, very sore and ready for lunch.
Despite the weather being a bit iffy we caught an amazing sunset that evening on Lamsai Pier, which had a view of Koh Yao Yai. It seems to be that the days you least expect to have a great sunset are the ones you will never forget.
The next day, sore from kayaking and hungover from the big Changs (Thai beer), we decided to take it easy and lay out on one of the beaches we saw while kayaking. To get to the beach we had to drive off the main roads and take a hilly dirt road the rest of the way. It was a beautiful trip through the forrest. Some of the trees in Thailand are planted in rows but you can only see the rows when looking from the side. The island locals harvest these trees for rubber. They attach small buckets and carve a spiral groove in the bark around the tree and then hammer a spout at the end of the groove. The spout directs the rubber into the bucket, then the buckets are collected for processing. Once fully harvested new trees are planted in rows. Very efficient and oddly beautiful. After reaching the beach it became very hot in the sun so we couldn’t stay out too long. We then hopped back on the motorbike in search of more great food.
While riding through town we saw a little hut overlooking the beach and decided to treat ourselves to some oil massages. Now these are the kinds you can fall asleep to, especially when you have the sound of waves crashing in the background.
The best way to describe the local people from Koh Yao Noi is friendly and helpful. You cannot walk past a local with out catching a Sawadee Ka/Kap (hello in Thai). They help with your bags, they pick up your kayak; even if you refuse and want to help, they insist. They are caring, and try to make you feel very comfortable and like you are a part of their community.
Don, one of the Hill House owners, was especially helpful when preparing for the next leg of our trip. We were to catch a ferry from Koh Yao Noi to Ao Nang then transfer to another ferry to get to Koh Lanta. The ferry departed the pier very early so they arranged a taxi to take us to the pier. We were worried about food options if any would be available to us as we would be on a ferry for the next several hours of the day in the hot sun. Don and his staff prepared us an extra to-go bag of mango sticky rice and a banana on the house. Hugs and smiles from Don and family and we were off to our next stop - Koh Lanta.
One hour away from Phuket International Airport or Krabi Airport and easily accessible by taxi and boat. For a cheaper option, you can take a bus to Phuket and catch the ferry at Baan Rong Pier in northeast Phuket. Speedboats leave almost every hour and take 30 minutes or you can take the slower ferry boats, about 60 minutes, but they leave less frequently.
Hill House - small resort overlooking Thakhao Bay, each bungalow has a sea view and a terrace equipped with a large hammock, light breakfast included.
Thakhao Bay View Restaurant - Seafood/Thai restaurant, just up the road from Hill House Bungalows, we loved the garlic and pepper shrimp
Rice Paddy - Thai and international food, even had an extensive wine list - rare for Thailand
Chaba Cafe & Gallery - Thai/French cafe with great fruit shakes and paninis, which you can take to go for the beach
Charlie Bar - small chilled out beach bar on the main strip of town near Pasai beach
Island hop - Koh Nok, Koh Kudu, Koh Roi - you will find small companies that run longtail boats out to these islands for day trips
Yoga - Island Yoga has daily drop in classes which hadn't yet started when we were there, but we met some people on the retreat and they highly recommended it
Massage - Nankanok Massage and Bungalow for an indoor air con massage, or look along Pasai beach for the huts offering sea view massages
We could not have been happier when we arrived in Koh Phayam. Our first island stay after a long trip over from NY and a short stay in Bangkok. Our 9 hour bus ride from Bangkok turned out to be quite a bit longer when our bus broke down. We missed our first ferry, but luckily they run quite frequently so we were able to catch the next one out. There are two ferries that run to Koh Phayam, a ‘slow boat’ which takes about 2 hours or a speed boat, which is about 45 minutes the latter being a bit more expensive. We opted for the faster boat as we were feeling exhausted after two days of nonstop travel.
Koh Phayam is a small island off the coast of Ranong. There are no cars on the island, only motorbikes and the hotels and bungalows run on generators so power is limited to the daytime. We chose to stay on the northwest side of the island on Ao Khao Kwai (Buffalo Bay) Beach at a small resort called Baan Klong Kleng. There are a number of places to stay along Ao Kwai, ranging from inexpensive bungalows to high-end resorts. It is the smaller of the two main beaches on the island with big rocks and gentle waves.
The island is slowly waking up from the low season, some bungalows and shops have yet to open, which made it a perfect way to ease into our trip. We rented a motorbike on our second day as a way to get around and explore more of the island. Ao Yai (Long Beach) is a short ride south from Ao Kwai, and an excellent place to watch the sunset. We rode our motorbike down the second evening, after a fairly rainy day, and surprisingly caught an amazing sunset.
We were most excited about the food and it certainly did not disappoint. The restaurant at our bungalow served a wide range of options. The manager, Fabien, is French, and he makes croissants and baguettes every morning, they also have excellent Thai food prepared by their chef Nok. Having tried a number of other restaurants on the island, this was definitely our favorite place to eat and we ended up having most of our meals here.
We closed out our stay with a trip to Hippy Bar on our last night. Its located at the far end of Ao Khao Kwai beach, just a short walk down from our bungalow. The bar is made completely out of driftwood, compiled to look like a pirate ship coming out of the sand. There were decks overlooking the beach and sea, a crow's nest atop the main mast and a bar where you can order anything from Mai Tai cocktails to classic Thai beers like Chang and Singha.
Koh Phayam is a tough place to leave, we actually met some people that came to the island and never left, but we are looking forward to our the next stop on our trip Koh Yao Noi, another small island, further south off the coast of Phuket.
Daily flights operated by Nok Air from Bangkok, Don Muang Airport to Ranong or take an overnight bus from Bangkok’s Southern Bus Terminal to Ranong. Once in Ranong, take a taxi from the airport or bus station to the pier where you can purchase your tickets for the slow boat or the speed boat.
Baan Klong Kleng - a small beachfront resort on Ao Khao Kwai beach, with an amazing restaurant which has both excellent Thai and western (French) cuisine