Koh Phangan is an island off the southeast coast of Thailand; it lies further out than Koh Samui but not as far as Koh Tao; at 186 sq km it's smaller than the former and bigger than the latter. All three are gorgeous jewels rising up out of the beautiful clear ocean; they are blessed with white sandy beaches, rocky fertile interiors covered with teeming tropical vegetation, fresh sparkling streams, and abundant seafood. Is it any wonder they are popular with tourists? While Koh Samui has risen in the last few decades from bungalow to luxury resort status, and now has its own airport, Koh Phangan is still in the bungalow and backpacker stage, and Koh Tao, fittingly, is the quietest of the bunch. But all in good time, my friends, and if you decry this sort of "development", don't go there; it's because we farang tourists pay to go to places like this that such changes happen, and if we don't go, they won't occur. Sad but true.
Although Koh Phangan is famous for scraggly backpackers and their raucous Full Moon Party (as depicted in the movie "The Beach"), it has a long and illustrious history as well. In 1888 the king Chulalongkorn used his recently acquired steamship to transport his entourage down south; the party included some of his formidable brothers, as well as wives and retainers. They were the first central Thai royalty to really explore the southern portion of their realm, and at Koh Phangan they anchored on a bay and made their way up a series of waterfalls, through a dense and lush jungle. Enamoured of the lovely area, known today as Than Sadet ("Royal Stream"), Chulalongkorn visited the area ten more times before his death in 1910, and left his name carved on a giant boulder there. Besides a steamship, he had cameras, and many charming photos of Chulalongkorn and his entourage in the area survive today. Later, his son Rama VII trekked there in 1926 and 1931, and the current monarch, Bhumibol Adulyadej, also paid a visit in 1962; both left inscriptions of their names in the rocks. Given its association with two of the most revered and illustrious kings of modern Thai history, it's no surprise that the water from this stream is considered sacred and figures in the coronation ritual.
When I first went to Koh Phangan, about 15 years ago, it was still quite undeveloped; you had to circumnavigate the island by boat, and the accomodations were pretty basic; most bungalows didn't even have private bathrooms. These days there are roads and better bungalows. I used to stay at a favourite spot on the hill overlooking the white sandy beach of Had Rin - home of the infamous Full Moon Party these days - and it was there that I really learned to relax for the first time in my life. On holiday from stressful Bangkok, where I taught English, on my first few trips I brought books and writing paper and crafts to keep me occupied. But after a few visits I found that I could barely get through one book; a redhead, I don't sunbathe, so I would lie in a hammock on the porch of my bungalow all day, gazing at the water, reading a page or two of my book, napping, and just generally doing nothing until about 4 PM, when I'd go for a swim, the most strenuous part of my day. I think that this ability to really shut down, relax, and recuperate, was one of the most valuable things I learned in Thailand. That, and sometimes choosing to be slightly deceitful but kind and nice rather than brutally honest and cruel.
Had Rin is pretty commercial these days, but Teiresias asks me to mention the beaches Tong Nai Pan Yai and Tong Nai Pan Noi (yai is "big" in Thai, noi is "small"). He says he spent almost a week there, and comments: "time really behaved differently on that island, and it was amazing". Sounds fantastic. Next time, I'm going there.
To get to Koh Phangan, most people take a fast boat from Surat Thani on the mainland; it takes about 3-1/2 hours and stops at Koh Samui on the way. During the monsoon season this crossing can get quite rough; as I boarded the boat for the worst one I experienced, the attendants handed us seasick pills, never a good sign. These ferries are fiberglass, and the waves were very high; as we crashed up and down the boat creaked most alarmingly, but it didn't break in half the way I thought it was going to, and we survived. There's also a slow boat that takes all night to reach Koh Phangan. Thinking it would be charming to snooze the night away on my trip, I took it once, but was alarmed at the total lack of safety equipment on that boat: no life preservers, no life boats. Then Thai people told me stories of that boat occasionally sinking - "everyone dies!" they laughed - and I never took it again. Consider yourself warned.
Koh Phangan also offers snorkelling and diving, mountain biking, and a thriving alternative culture which offers you such joys as colonics and meditation retreats. What can I say? It's a beautiful place, dear to my heart, and though a huge rave on the beach is not my idea of a good time, it may be yours. Please, just be respectful of the Thai people who live there.
A good place to look for information on Koh Phangan is