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