Koh Phangan

A Brief History of Tourism on Koh Phangan

Koh Phangan is an island in the Gulf of Thailand. It is located about 600 km south of Bangkok and about 15 km from its sister island Koh Samui. It takes about 3 hours by ferry from Surat Thani on the mainland and twenty minutes from Koh Samui by Catamaran. Koh Phangan is the largest of Koh Samui's neighboring islands with an area of 168 sq km. Over 70% of its total area is mountains with the highest point on the island reaching 627 meters. Rain-forest covers Koh Phangan's mountain-sides while the lowlands are dotted with beaches and coconut fields.

Thongsala is the main town of the island and the departure point for the ferry to Koh Samui and the mainland. The majority of the population lives in small farming and fishing villages around the island. Currently about 10,000 people permanently live on Koh Phangan the majority of which are based in Thongsala. While more than 95% of the islanders are Buddhists, a small number of Muslims live in Ban Tai Village a few minutes from the harbor.

Traditionally, the most important form of agriculture has been coconuts. Each month, Koh Phangan and Koh Samui produce more than 1 million coconuts for export to Bangkok. Fishing supplements agriculture for many inhabitants and the breeding of fighting cocks is a favorite past-time for the locals. For most of its existence, Koh Phangan has been surviving as a local backwater with minimal infrastructure. Like Koh Samui, Koh Phangan has maintained a strong tradition of local autonomy. In spite of occasional visits by Thai monarchs, there has only been loose control of the islands by central authority.

Since the early 1980s, visitors to Koh Samui had embarked on day-trips to Koh Phangan. Occasionally, these visitors were forced by adverse weather conditions to stay overnight, so enterprising locals built rudimentary accommodation. In the subsequent years, as Koh Samui began its course from traveler-centre to fully fledged resort, increasing numbers of travelers would visit Koh Phangan in order to experience a more relaxed way of life. The earliest touristic development occurred on the beaches close to Thongsala and involved the accommodation of a small number of Western visitors by local families.

However, due to its isolated nature and white sandy beach, Haad Rin, situated immediately opposite Koh Samui, became the first destination on the island to attract foreign visitors in large numbers. Surrounded by mountains, this 300 meter stretch of beach was cut off from the rest of the island and was only accessible by boat. Haad Rin actually consists of two beaches - one each on either side of Cape Rin at the south-east corner of the island. In 1982, the only permanent structures at Haad Rin were three or four barns which were used for the coconut harvest for short periods of the year. The families who owned the land lived at Ban Tai village about 6 km away while, the main population centre, Thongsala, was more than three-quarters of an hour away by boat. Once it became clear that catering for these visitors had commercial potential, some members of Ban Tai village's extended family groups who owned the land, moved there permanently. Several sets of bungalows were built in quick succession. They offered only rudimentary accommodation and sold Thai food to the visitors.

The Westerners who came first were similar in outlook to the drifters who had discovered Koh Samui in the previous decade and were quite content with these basic conditions. Spurning the established tourism infrastructure on Koh Samui, the original Western visitors to Koh Phangan were eager to immerse themselves in the local culture and to interact with the local population. While staying on Haad Rin, due to its superior beach and established accommodation, they spent a lot of time in the Thai villages of the island and frequently went fishing with the locals. Rather than simply being regarded as a source of income by the locals, these visitors were subjected to local curiosity and were afforded traditional hospitality.

Over the next few years, the number of visitors to Koh Phangan increased at a steady rate. There, the number of resorts gradually rose from 8 in 1983 to 26 in 1986, increasing prospective visitor numbers from 140 to nearly 500 per day. Tourism development remained concentrated at Haad Rin Beach where fourteen bungalow resorts had come into existence. In comparison, on the 10km stretch of coast from Haad Rin to Thongsala, only a further twelve sets of bungalows had been built by 1987). The rest of the island remained virtually untouched by tourism.

Today on Koh Phangan

Today the island boasts 26,000 rooms which is just as well for at times 30,000 people turn up for the Full Moon Party alone. It is always best to book bungalows in advance for around the Full Moon it is almost impossible to find accommodation in the three or four days before and after the event.

The range of accommodation on Koh Phangan is extensive with budget style bungalows available for a few hundred Baht every day through to up market Villas and Hotels that work out at 20,000 Baht per day plus. Some of the new bungalows and hotels are stunningly beautiful in design. The new roads on the island allow visitors to tour easily and take advantage of the many view points all over the island and visit remote bays and beaches that would once have taken several hours to traverse the rocky muddy roads.

Koh Phangan has been known as the backpackers’ destination, Today a wide range of visitors arrive. Most have the same goal - to find a relaxed and easy going place. One exception might be the Full moon party when Haad Rin Nok transforms to a dance-floor made of sand. If you don't want to participate or even listen to the music, don't worry. Koh Phangan is a relatively large island, so you can easily find a quiet place here, even when the moon is round. The island is 168 square kilometers in area and the Full Moon only takes up three or four square kilometers so there are plenty of places to find away from the noise and 24 hour fuel injected party scene.

The beaches on Koh Phangan are still some of the best in the Gulf of Thailand, and remain more popular for people wishing to avoid the crowds of Thailand beaches: Had Rin Nok, Had Rin Nai, Had Yao, Had Kuat, Chalok lam, Ban Tai, Ban Kai, Than Sadet and Mae Haed are just a few of the most popular ones. Not all have been developed, so there are still those quiet deserted beaches which can be very attractive. There is also snorkeling to be done, with many beaches having live-coral formations and there are lots of activities.

Amenities and Utilities

There are plenty of banks in Thongsala and there is one Western Union office. Dotted around the island are many ATM cash points – usually next to the 7-11 retail outlets which are plentiful. The main post office is based in Thongsala with a sub post office at Haad Rin.

There is a local hospital which is the equivalent of an accident and emergency facility with larger hospitals based on Koh Samui.

Communications are very good with high speed internet available in many places. There is power cabling available in most locations.