Lots of beaches and lots of options
One of the advantages of staying on one of the many beaches that line Ko Pha Ngan's west coast is that if you have your own transport it is easy to pop over to another beach for breakfast, lunch or dinner. With that in mind we've combined some of the highlights into a page for the entire coast.
Despite being quite crammed with resorts and guesthouses, each of which has its own attached restaurant, Haad Salad also manages to fit in quite a few freestanding bars and restaurants, so you won't go hungry or thirsty here.
While you'll find Thai food on most of the menus, much of it, especially in the guesthouses, is very toned down for tourists and just isn't all that good. We did have a decent Thai meal at Alex Restaurant, a simple and small off-beach restaurant kind of behind My Way. Our standout for Thai food though was Salad Hut. Their menu is exhaustive and the Thai meals we had were easily the best we had on the beach. Prices were moderate. Ying Ying is another Thai restaurant back off the beach on the road that runs parallel to the beach gets consistently good reviews, though we didn't try it.
Another surprising find was at Double Duke down towards the southern end of the beach. They have daily afternoon discounts on one plate dishes and the fried curry we had here was excellent. You'll often come across Burmese staff in guesthouses on Ko Pha Ngan and while we didn't stick our head into the kitchen, we'd swear there was a Burmese hand involved in what we ate. Delish and affordable.
If you're hankering for western food, a good off beach spot is Peppercorn. It is a steak house on the rise behind Haad Salad when heading towards Haad Yao. It's not particularly cheap, but if you're craving a steak this is the place. It is not walking distance from Haad Salad.
Also on the hill, but with a view, is Sabai Bar. It is one of the many viewpoint bars scattered around Ko Pha Ngan, has terrific views, a friendly crew and live music some nights of the week. This is a great place to come for a sundowner, though you will need your own transport.
Other options for a drink back down on the beach include Spicy Salad at the northern tip of the beach (Gig, the friendly Bangkokian owner also rents some basic bungalows). While at the southern end of the beach, Cookie's platform restaurant is ideally placed to watch Haad Salad burst into technicolour in the late afternoon, note though that you can't see the sunset from here. Convivial Jack's Bar, behind Salad Hut is another option for a cold drink and some tunes – best well after the sun has set.
Like Haad Salad to the north, Haad Yao has plenty of dining options, both on and off the beach – and you certainly won't starve – but also as with Haad Salad, there is a lot of tourist fare on offer.
If you like to start your day the right way, there is no better place for it than Pura Vida. They serve up absolutely delicious western breakfasts and also do a good coffee. We made the mistake of not trying here till our last day in the area – don't you make the same mistake! Closes in late afternoon.
Also off the beach and near Pura Vida, sits the curiously named but extremely popular House People which is open evenings only. They offer an eclectic mix of burgers, sandwiches, Thai and Indonesian food along with a full bar all wrapped up in a social ambience. It is very popular and reservations – yes reservations on Ko Pha Ngan – are a good idea, especially if there are a few of you. If you prefer to be on the sand, we liked Vagga Bar.
If you're looking for something more traditionally Thai, on the southern hill between here and Chaophao you'll spy the aptly named 9 Million Views, which, you guessed it, has some great views. The food is also pretty solid, with some reasonably authentic Thai fare on offer. We ate here a couple of times and both times we were the only diner, which struck us as strange as the food was good and affordable – even if the restaurant needed a good cleaning up. Very friendly staff.
Jutting out from Haad Son (the small bay immediately to the south of Haad Yao) you'll find Ko Raham Restaurant which actually bridges across to a minuscule island. The setting is quite spectacular, especially in the late afternoon – you can jump into the ocean and it is, well designed for Instagram really. Unfortunately the food is not great and poor value, but it is worth dropping by for a drink and a few photos. Nearby on Haad Son itself is Secret Beach which isn't really secret at all given all their signposting, but they've got a fun beach club vibe going and even have a couple of bungalows to rent.
Next beach off the rank heading south is the very sedate Ao Chaophao and while many of the eateries are attached to the guesthouses and resorts – no shortage of seafood beach bbqs here – there are a couple of standalone exceptions.
Easily the source of the best Thai food we had across our entire time on Ko Pha Ngan, Krua Ta Sert (Grandpa Ta's Kitchen – there is no English sign) has two menus, one in English with some typical fare and a second menu, just in Thai, which is the absolute business. We were pointed here by a Thai traveller who said she never misses a meal here and yes, the food is exceptional. Not cheap though – expect to pay a couple of hundred baht for most dishes, but the food is worth every satang. Krua Ta Sert is not signposted in English, but it is on the offbeach side of the road, near Benjamin's Resort. If you like your food authentic and spicy as all hell, this is the place.
Nearby Art Cafe doesn’t look like much from the outside. But this charming little coffee shop, restaurant and lounge is testament to the old adage that you can’t judge a book by its cover. try their selection of teas, from Nepalese afternoon tea to a green tea named Temple of Heaven Gun Powder, to a herbal offering called the Chaucer Cup. The menu features vegan-friendly dishes that non-vegans will love too. Towards the entrance are all kinds of health supplements for sale, including probiotics, cold-press virgin coconut oil, mojo booster, and more.
We also really enjoyed the food at Seaflower, which has a large, convivial restaurant set back off the beach. The food is typical bungalow food, with a mix of Thai and western usual suspects, but the standards are good and the prices not unreasonable. Seaflower also has the attached Heaven Beach Bar which, you guessed it, is a beach bar.
For something more western, two spots should be on your shortlist – Seethanu Bungalows for its Belgian Beer Bar, which boats 45 different Belgium beers) and, just a hop skip and a jump further down the beach, La Dolce Vita does great pizza and pasta in a comfortable beachside setting. Further down again you'll reach Pirate Bar hanging off the rocky headland. The sunsets here can be absolutely sublime.
The best eating in the Seethanu area is off the beach and along the road that runs behind Laem Son Lake and down towards Hinkhong. Between Seethanu and the lake the road is lined by a a series of small mostly wooden and bamboo Thai restaurants, Good Time and Mama Pooh's are frequently recommended but we found both to be pretty uninspiring. For more back-to-basics thai fare, continue south a little more and you'll reach a clutch on northeastern style street bbq shacks on the off beach side of the road that whip up decent Isaan food at bare bones prices – no tourist green curries here.
Away from Thai, Taboon Middle Eastern Cafe has a Moroccan feel and is great for a breakfast or lunch of Israeli food such as malawach and shakshuka – it's especially good for dinner parties and ordering a range of dishes to share such as a variety of pitas, hummus and other dips.
The stand-out in Seethanu though is Crave. The Canadian-run place does spectacular burgers which we'd go as far as to say are worth riding across the island for. You'll find Crave towards the southern end of Seethanu as you head towards Thong Sala. Highly recommended (if you feel like a burger!)
Lastly, if you can't face another bungalow breakfast, help as at hand in Seethanu courtesy of Cookie's Cafe, more or less in the centre of the village.
All the eating options on this beach are associated with the guesthouse or resort, but Plaay Laem is better known for its two relaxed view point bars. Stone Bar and Amsterdam Bar both sit back on the rise behind Plaay Laem beach on the southwest corner of Ko Pha Ngan – take their names as guidance for the relaxed vibe at both of them.
Stone Bar is the far less commercial and very sedate, little more than a wooden platform with some low slung tables and axe pillows scattered around. We liked it a lot. The far busier Amsterdam Bar with its horizon pool and boisterous atmosphere attract a lively, younger backpacker crew.
Both offer tremendous views and while for Stone Bar you need to walk the whole way up, at Amsterdam you can ride a lot of the way up (perhaps not a good idea if you're in for a big night). Please bear in mind Thailand has extremely strict anti-drug laws if you plan of visiting either of these spots.
Back down to earth, of the guesthouse options, Shambhala was our favourite, but a cold drink at the more backpacker-focussed Cookie, with its bar set atop a few boulders, also makes for a memorable sunset. If you want to go upmarket, La Plage Restaurant at Kupu Kupu is the obvious choice, though we didn't try it. Their website lists a series of "How to be Romantic" options, topping out at the Dining under the Stars package that comes in at a sweet 18,000 baht per couple. Let us know how it was!
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer, freelancing and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.