Probably the first two Thai islands to become popular with travellers were Phuket and Koh Samui. Koh in Thai means island, and although Phuket is an island the word Koh is not often used as part of its name. In fact, many may even be unaware that it is even an island, as it is connected to the mainland by a bridge, giving it more of a mainland feel.
Whilst package tourists were already visiting the beaches of Phuket in the 1980s, Koh Samui was only really popular with backpackers interested in beach huts on quiet beaches and little else. However, when Koh Samui airport opened up in 1989, the island was changed, and development followed. Upmarket hotels began to replace the once basic bungalows, as short-term travellers started to replace the backpackers who like to stay around for longer, but spend less per night.
So these travellers began to search out a new place, and that place became the nearby island, Koh Pha Ngan.
Koh Pha Ngan
Koh Pha Ngan has been a favourite amongst travellers for around 25 years now, and some would tell you has lost its charm of the old days, but honestly, if you are looking for the old Koh Pha Ngan bungalow scene, it is still there. You may have to pay a little more than you did years back, but you can still find that Thai bungalow vibe, where all you have is a hut, with a bed, veranda with hammock, in a coconut grove, facing a beach with turquoise waters. The natural surroundings speak for themselves.
However if you are looking for something a bit more comfortable, you can find this too. The one admirable thing about development on Koh Pha Ngan is that outside of the towns, buildings are low-profile, nothing stands out or blocks the views. So even the higher-end places are small and blend in with the environment.
So if looking for the Koh Pha Ngan of old, head to Haad Thian. Also written Haad Thien, or Haad Tien. It’s on the south eastern coast just north of Haad Rin, the home of the famous Full Moon Party, but don’t let that put you off, it’s a far cry from the craziness of Haad Rin.
So to get there, head to Haad Rin by songtheaw (pick-up truck) from the port at Thong Sala. When you get to Haad Rin, walk to the beach and take a shared longtail boat from one of the many boat drivers. I am not sure of the exact cost, but in 2004 in was 50 baht, then 2010 it tripled to 150 baht, so at that rate of rise, it could be around 300 baht now. Unfortunately transportation prices on Koh Pha Ngan are unfairly high and not exactly regulated with the customer in mind.
The first beach you pass is Haad Yuan, but carry on going to Haad Thian. It’s a quiet beach with the famous Sanctuary wellness resort, and a number of small bungalow operations set in or behind a coconut grove. To the north, accessible by a short coastal path is Haad Wai Nam, a tiny beach with a nice reef, and one small bungalow operation.
Every Friday night there is a party at the only bar in the bay, which is open air, and usually goes on throughout the night. So aside from this, it is a very quiet and peaceful place, and somewhere where you get to experience the real Koh Pha Ngan bungalow experience. Aside from a rough dirt road through the mountains which is usually only used during rough seas, the bay is only accessible by boat, which adds to the special feeling of the place.
Koh Payam (also seen as Koh Phayam) is a small island close to the relatively little visited town of Ranong on the southwest coast. Located close to Myanmar, it has some notable influences from its neighbour. It’s common to see people on the island wearing the white Myanmar tannaka on their cheeks.
Koh Payam has narrow roads only suitable for motorbikes and bicycles, so there are no cars. There is no mains electricity, there are no banks or 7-11s. This all adds to the attraction of the small island. If you are looking for an escape from hectic modern life, this is the place.
To get there, take a shared songtheaw in Ranong town, they regularly run to the pier. At the pier you can buy a ticket for the boat which departs twice a day, morning and afternoon. It is a slow fishing boat, and takes around 2 hours. Occasionally there is a faster boat running. On arrival on the island, you can take a motorbike taxi to your beach of choice. I highly recommend you stay at Ao Khao Kwai (Buffalo Bay). It should take about 15 minutes and cost about 50 – 100 baht to reach.
Ao Khao Kwai has a number of low-key bungalow resorts, and also one of the most incredible beach bars I’ve even seen, Hippy Bar, constructed from driftwood collected over the years, it’s like a driftwood palace, complete with pirate ship frontage, and run by some really nice, laid back, friendly people, including Jimi, a very cool guy.
For places to stay, try Starlight, run by Todd, or neighbouring Banana. Both great choices for good value, friendly accommodation.
You can spend your days hiking on the island, exploring the island by bicycle, swimming, looking for the pretty hornbill bird – the island is famous for these, or just relaxing among nature. If you like an occasional beach party, the island has these too. The bars around the island usually take it in turns, sometimes Hippy Bar, sometimes another bar on another beach. You’ll usually see a flyer attached to a tree.
In the far south, on the west coast, Koh Libong is another small island without any banks, 7-11s, wide roads, and almost car-free. It is accessible from Trang, a fascinating town in its own right, that has relatively small numbers of foreign travellers.
If you’re looking for a peaceful island with little in way of nightlife, just serene beaches, very friendly people, lush scenery and somewhere to escape from the 21st century, then this is it. It’s predominantly a Muslim island, so you’ll find some delicious delicacies such as roti being served up in the villages, and alcohol is usually restricted to the resorts. Most resorts are low-key, and even the higher-end places are small and blend in with the local environment.
To get there, take a shared minivan from Trang to the pier where you can take a longtail boat either private or shared the short distance over to the island – it’s not so far off the mainland.
Koh Surin National Park
If you are looking for a place that is totally secluded, very peaceful, natural, with pristine beaches and reefs to snorkel, then this is the place you should visit. And don’t do it as a day trip from Phuket, nor do it as an overnight package. There are a few national park bungalows on the island but these are overpriced. It’s much better to camp. The national park has some ready pitched tents you can rent, but it’s better to take your own if you have, then you can choose a more secluded camp spot. Head to the second camping beach, Mai Ngam, as the first camping beach – Chong Khad – where you get dropped off sometimes gets busy with day trippers who eat there as part of their package.
There is a national park cafeteria that serves meals at set times for reasonable prices. Here you can also rent a locker, use the electricity to charge things in the evening, and register for twice-daily snorkelling trips, as well as renting any equipment you didn’t bring with you.
The best way to get there is from Khuraburi on the mainland, located on the southwest north of Phuket. Tom and Am at Tom and Am tour are very friendly, and will organise your boat ticket (around 1600 – 2000 baht return p/p) as well as take you to the pier. They can also rent you a tent or any other camping or snorkelling equipment you may need, cheaper than renting on the island. To get to Khuraburi you can take an overnight bus from Bangkok, taking about 10 hours. The national park is open from November to April.