Although best known for the monthly full moon parties, which attract thousands of travellers from all over the globe, there is a lot more to stunning Ko Pha Ngan than getting trashed and passing out in the powder-soft white sand.
The mid-sized and quite mountainous island (it stretches over 168 sq km and 70% of its topography is mountainous jungle with the remainder beaches and coconut groves) is situated roughly a third of the way from Ko Samui to Ko Tao. The island's original inhabitants are believed to have been either sea gypsies, or have come from Pattani or Nakhon Si Thammarat and once they settled the island, the main established industries became fishing and coconut cultivation.
Today, the coconut and fishing industries are still going, but they've been surpassed in monetary value by tourism and while the original inhabitants may have been predominantly Muslim, the present day population is mostly Buddhist. This is in part due to the massive influx of labour from elsewhere in Thailand seeking work in the thriving tourist industry — the guy taking your dinner order is as likely to be from Roi Et as the island's capital, Thong Sala. Over 10,000 people permanently live on the island, with the majority concentrated around Thong Sala.
From the mid eighties onwards, Ko Pha Ngan's popularity has skyrocketed among backpackers and independent travellers who eschewed the more developed Ko Samui. This has been supported by the increasing awareness and popularity of the Full Moon Party. Nowadays, Ko Pha Ngan is in many areas moving away from its backpacker roots and attracting families and package tourists in droves as well.
Of course the most major attraction is still the legendary Full Moon Party on Haad Rin beach. This monthly happening is a drug- and booze-fuelled cavorting — and very commercial — hullabaloo, and while it had its origins in a very low key, personalised gathering, today, with package tours coming out from London solely to attend the party, it's a far cry from the days back then. The party often attracts in excess of twenty thousand people who dance and party away from the evening well into the next day.
But it's not exactly the group love-in you might be imagining — drugs for sale are almost as common as undercover police, rampant theft (both from unattended bungalows and passed out partiers on the beach) and violent and sexual assault are major concerns. Fatalities are more common than the English-language press in Thailand lets on.
That said, it's not all bad, and thousands upon thousands of people attend every month suffering no more than a headache the next day. To try to minimise the dangers, try to stay in control, if you are going to use drugs, don't leave them in your room or on your person and don't walk up to complete strangers asking to buy acid — you will get busted. Drugs are illegal in Thailand, the penalties are severe and don't bank on the assumption you'll be able to buy your way out of the police station. Use your guesthouse's safe to store your valuables and basically don't head out with anything you can't afford to lose.
In fact there seems to be many ways to skin a moon and don't be disappointed if your timetable doesn't coincide with the actual Full Moon party — there is after all the Half Moon Party, Dark Moon Party and various other excuses for a romp taking place throughout the month. If you're on Ko Pha Ngan for anything more than a couple of days, chances are there'll be a party somewhere.
The Full Moon Party takes place at Haad Rin Beach, but it isn't necessary to find accommodation there to attend the party, as every beach will run transport to the party on the evening — indeed many commute over from Ko Samui for the night.
But there's much more to this island than parties. It is ringed by over a dozen beaches — some with fine white sand that squeaks between your toes and others with a more grainy, yellow sand. Most of the beaches are reasonably easy to reach — the road network improves every year and few beaches are only reachable to boat. This ease of access means that it is far easier than it used to be to base yourself on one beach, but do day trips to others.
The south coast of Ko Pha Ngan, running from the island's capital at Ao Thong Sala, though Ban Tai and Ban Kai to Haad Rin and Haad Saikantang are the islands most exposed beaches. Facing south towards Ko Samui, the beaches are protected by an offshore reef and the waters are very shallow, making this an ideal option for travelling families with small kids. It's possible to walk almost the full stretch without leaving the beach (though you'll have to wade a small river at one stage) and there's a wide variety of bungalows and small hotels for the entire length.
The east coast, running from Haad Rin north to the twin bays of Thong Nai Pan Noi and Yai offer some of the most isolated beaches on the island. The drop-off from the beach tends to be sharper on these beaches and the swimming is consequently better. Bungalows range from rustic shacks on Than Sadet through to luxury villas on Thong Nai Pan Noi.
The north coast encompasses Bottle Beach — long a backpacker haven, and Chaloklam Bay — the island's main fishing port — and the epicentre of Ko Pha Ngan's small diving industry. The north coast is also home to the islet of Ko Ma off Mae Haad Beach. As with the south coast, the beaches are a bit more exposed.
The west coast, like the east, is riddled with small bays and secretish beaches. The southwest corner of the island, just before you reach Thong Sala has some terrific budget deals. Though the beaches on this coast feel isolated, they're actually relatively well connected to Thong Sala by road and the development reflects this.
As the road network has improved, so has the range of accommodation on Ko Pha Ngan. In part due to their being an international airport on nearby Ko Samui, this is no longer a destination of nothing more than thatch bungalows. Indeed if you've money to burn there's a growing supply of truly luxurious villas and resorts on offer but also a glut of characterless over-priced mid-range accommodation. Land developers are also having a bit of a feeding frenzy — with plots for sale all over the place. For the most part though, the accommodation is focused on backpacker and flashpacker bungalows and mid-range hotels and resorts.
Aside from the beach, Ko Pha Ngan has great potential for boat and fishing trips, elephant trekking, diving, ATV rides, zip lines and even kite-boarding as well as other watersports. There's a smattering of waterfalls, many detox and yoga centres and the island is fast becoming renowned for meditation retreats. On the east coast, you'll also find Sanctuary and the related Wellness Centre — famous around the world for its seven day fasting courses. But if all that is way too hectic, equally compelling for many is just spending a few weeks in a hammock, watching the sun rise and fall.
Weather wise, the best time to visit Ko Pha Ngan is during the hot, dry season from January to April. From May to September the island gets a little afternoon rain courtesy of the Southwest monsoon, but the weather is still enjoyable and the seas calm and clear. From October to December it gets both windy and wet thanks to the northeast monsoon. The crowds thin out then, however, making the island appealing to some travellers — on the downside the few unpaved roads left do deteriorate.
It's connected to Ko Samui, Ko Tao and Surat Thani by ferries — see the transport section for details on frequency and cost. If you're coming from Bangkok you can fly to the airport at Ko Samui and then get the boat, or there's a variety of train, bus and ferry combo tickets available. See our story How to get from Bangkok to Ko Samui, Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Tao for more information.
By Romi Grossberg.