Home to the best food on the island
One of the great things about Ko Pha Ngan, especially if you’re coming from Ko Tao, is the wide selection of local-style Thai food served at street carts and roadside shacks. The island’s capital town, Thong Sala, is probably the best place on the island to dig into real-deal Thai food while also enjoying a strong spread of Western food and bars.
Within two minutes of walking around we stumbled across tasty khanom jeen (fresh rice noodles with curry) and Southern Thai curries and stir-fries served with rice for 40 baht a plate at Khanom Jeen Khun Khon. The Asian eggplant with pork belly and aromatic pad prik khing (dry red curry with ginger) instantly cured our craving for the bold Thai flavours that can be so hard to find on touristy islands. The nondescript shop is marked by big stainless steel pots and trays of pre-prepared curries displayed along the footpath, with several black-and-white photos of King Rama V on the interior walls.
The southern stretch of Talad Gao Road, also known as Old Chinese Street, is a good place to find cheap and tasty Chinese-Thai food served in some of the old wood houses that line the narrow lane. You’ll pass shops dishing out kuay tiao reua (“boat noodles” with pork in a dark and savoury broth), khao man gai (chicken rice) and khao muu krob (deep-fried pork belly with rice and a rich gravy), among others. The northern part of the street is also worth a look, though the restaurants there tend to be more geared towards travellers and the Thai food is often watered down for Western tastes.
Drawing travellers and locals, Pantip Night Market’s tight cluster of stalls offers international options like pizza and kebabs along with Thai finger foods like gai tort (fried chicken) and luk chin muu (pork balls). If you don’t shy from the explosive flavours of Southern Thailand, we recommend gaeng som tai (spicy and sour orange curry with fish) and kua kling muu (chopped pork with turmeric and loads of chillies). If those are too spicy, go for a bowl of rich massaman curry with slow-cooked chicken legs and potatoes. Also look for a guy who grills chicken over charcoal in a massive ceramic vase, hanging the cooked pieces around the inner edges to keep them warm. A sizeable seating area is available in back, and a plate of food will set you back just 50 to 100 baht.
Every Saturday night, Old Chinese Street and an intersecting lane are closed to traffic for a weekly “walking street” market that draws locals and travellers from all over the island. While Pantip Night Market is a better option for a proper meal, you will find munchies like sai oua (Northern Thai herbaceous sausage), fresh fruit and juices, and a la carte sushi. Many other vendors sell cheap clothes, souvenirs and natural health products made on the island.
Thong Sala did not deny us a meal of Isaan food spent crying and wiping our nose from all of the chillies. Named after the province where the cooks learned their trade, Som Tam Khon Kaen is a no-frills shack with plastic chairs, dented tables and a big pestle that sings, “pok pok pok,” as a cook drums out intensely flavoured Northeast Thai salads like som tam Lao (grated green papaya salad with fresh chillies and fermented fish sauce) and laab muu (minced pork salad with toasted rice and roasted chillies). Also don’t miss the melt-in-the-mouth fried chicken with a basket of sticky rice. While most customers are Thai, they do have an English menu and several dishes are pictured on a banner.
The road that fronts the ferry piers boasts a couple of Ko Pha Ngan’s best Western-style breakfast spots. Going strong since 1985, Nira’s Home Bakery serves great sandwiches on house-baked breads along with good coffee and baked goods like apple streusel and brownies. Thai food and a range of fresh juices are also available, with a snappy team of servers well-versed at ensuring that patrons get their meals with time to spare before their ferry departures. Starting below 100 baht, prices are reasonable for the quality.
A few hundred metres north of Nira’s, German-owned Sweet Cafe is another outstanding choice with big breakfast plates showcasing morning fare from 10 different countries. We enjoyed the mix of house-baked breads, hummus, tahini and herb sour cream in the Israeli breakfast, though our favourite was a German breakfast featuring several types of cured meats and imported cheeses – more than enough for two to get their fill. Prices range from 125 to 285 baht, but much of the food is prepared from scratch and the portions are huge. German owner Irene also offers fresh coffee, homemade muesli and baked goods.
We found ourselves returning for a beer and burger at Soho, a London-style pub with a lively atmosphere located directly across from Pantip Night Market. All served with a selection of sauces, including a curry ketchup, a simple burger goes for 180 baht while an Indian-inspired lamb burger fetches 250 baht, and “The Fat Bastard” reaches up to 400 baht. Salads and other entrees are also on offer. Serving Guiness and Heineken on draft along with wines and Premier League on a big screen, the bar is a fun place to chat up travellers and expats.
Anyone in the mood for Mexican should drop by Ando Loco, a long-standing spot serving quality enchiladas served with half a dozen Mexican hot sauces. While we didn’t get around to trying it, we’ve also heard great things about the pizza, crab ravioli and homemade cheeses at Italian-owned O Sole Mio, which also has rooms for rent on Thong Sala Beach. The pasta is made from scratch and delivery is available for those lazy days after the parties.
Most of Thong Sala’s nightlife is clustered along the main Thong Sala - Baan Tai Road to the east of town, which is the only place on Pha Ngan that hosts a few seedy “hostess bars.” More straightforward options include Outlaws Pub, an American Wild West themed spot serving imported beers and great burgers – the Sunday afternoon roasts also draw quite a few expats. Nearby Slumber Party draws younger travellers who sip on buckets and play beer pong. There’s also Two Rocks, offering a chilled-out beachfront bar with loads of hammocks and a sports bar out on the main road.
Ando Loco: Thong Sala - Baan Tai Rd; open 14:00-22:00
Khanom Jeen Khun Khon: Ratcharoen Rd (just south of Family Mart); open 08:00-16:00
Nira’s Home Bakery: Lebchaitalay Rd (across from the piers); open 07:00-19:00
Pantip Night Market: Talad Mai Rd, next to a 7-eleven; open 17:00-22:00
O Sole Mio: Ao Thong Sala; T: (077) 377 334
Outlaws Saloon: Thong Sala - Baan Tai Rd; open 17:00 to late
Soho: Talad Mai Rd (across from Pantip Night Market): open 12:00-00:00; T: (080) 537 2554
Som Tam Khon Kaen: Talad Mai Rd (directly across from the entrance to Tesco Lotus); open for dinner
The Sweet Cafe: Lebchaitalay Rd (across from the piers); open 06:00-18:00; T: (061) 295 6582
David Luekens first came to Thailand in 2005 when Thai friends from his former home of Burlington, Vermont led him on a life-changing trip. Based in Thailand since 2011, he spends much of his time eating in Bangkok street markets and island hopping the Andaman Sea.