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. More recently, Ko Pha Ngan has seen a considerable influx of labour from neighbouring Burma — to the point where the staffer taking your dinner order is far more likely to be from Mawlamyine or Hpa-an in Burma than the island's capital, Thong Sala.
From the mid eighties onwards, Ko Pha Ngan's popularity 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. Two decades later, 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 Europe 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 – please see our Full Moon Party feature for more detailed advice.
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.
But there's much more to this island than parties. Ko Pha Ngan 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 (Leela Beach) 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 luxurious hotels 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 heart 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, diving 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.
When to go to Ko Pha Ngan
Ko Pha Ngan has three weather seasons – rainy, cold and hot season – and three tourism seasons – low, high and peak. Which of these make for the best time to visit? Good question.
The monsoon typically hits around October or November (though it’s been known to come earlier and later). Sometimes, the rain will last for days at a time; others it will rain for an hour before the sun reappears. This season also happens (not coincidentally) to correspond with low season, when not many tourists visit the island.
"Cold" is a bit of a misnomer, as cold season is still pretty warm, with temperatures a very pleasant 25 to 28 degrees Celsius. Cold season tends to last from December through to March, and also coincides with peak season, usually nominated by hotels as December 15 to January 15. During peak season, the island is absolutely rammed. Hotels, particularly in popular areas like Haad Rin, are best booked well in advance.
Hot season tends to start around April and lasts until rainy season starts. April and May are by far the hottest months of the year – when we say hot, we mean hot. High season lasts from the end of peak season until the end of Songkran, or Thai New Year, in mid-April. During this time, the island is quite busy, but nowhere near as crazy as during peak season.
June, July, and August are our picks for the best time of year to visit Ko Pha Ngan. It’s low season in terms of traveller numbers on the island, even though Europeans arrive en masse, but the hot weather has dissipated by then — it’s still hot, and very windy, but rainy season is still a while away. Prices are also more reasonable.
How long to stay on Ko Pha Ngan
It’s not uncommon on Ko Pha Ngan to meet someone who planned to come to the island for a few days and ended up staying months, if not years. The island seems to have a hold on people that goes beyond the Full Moon Party and the white sand beaches. Still, there are plenty who come for just a few days and then take off to see other islands.
If you're coming from Ko Samui, it is straightforward to pop over for just a daytrip by taking the boat from Bang Rak to Haad Rin. From there you could grab a longtail up to one of the isolated east coast beaches, or just hang around on Haad Rin. People also do day trips from Ko Tao, but that is a considerably longer trip which leaves you at Thong Sala – personally, we wouldn't bother.
A few more days is ideal for those who are just looking to get a taste and feel for the island. You can enjoy plenty of beach time, fit in a party (or two), and explore more of the beauty Ko Pha Ngan has to offer. Note that if you plan on visiting during the Full Moon Party period, many hotels (though not all) require that you stay for a minimum of five days.
Staying safe on Ko Pha Ngan
First and foremost, if you’ve never driven a motorbike or scooter, now is probably not a good time to start. If you do get on a scooter, go to an area with little traffic to practise (the area west of the roundabout, near the pier, is perfect for this). You are supposed to have a license — while nobody may check, if you have an accident and you don’t have one, your insurance will not be valid. Watch out for sand on the road. Always wear a helmet.
The tide and currents are generally quite weak around Ko Pha Ngan, so you’re unlikely to get dragged under by a rip-tide, but still keep your wits about you when entering the ocean. Sea urchins are a concern, especially in the north of the island. You may wish to sport water shoes to help avoid a painful sting. Need it be said, don't swim when drunk or stoned. There have been a few fatalities related to jelly fish, so if you're told not to get in the water because of jelly fish, don't get in the water. Don't swim near longtails.
If your bungalow has a safe, use it. Unfortunately theft from rooms or bungalows is not unheard of. If you don’t have a safe, ask reception if they do or, worse case, try stashing it in your room. The flimsier your bungalow, the easier it is for somebody to break in. If you have an open to the sky bathroom, make sure you can lock the door.
Theft off the beach is generally uncommon, especially outside of the Haad Rin beach area, but it’s a good idea to designate someone to keep an eye on your belongings if you head into the water for a dip.
At the Full Moon Party, avoid the cheap buckets as these often contain home-made alcohol. Stick to drinks from more reputable bars, or if you must buy from a stand, get a beer instead. Don't take anything to a party that you don’t mind losing. These parties are rife with pickpockets. If you can avoid it, don’t bring a purse – stash everything in your pockets. Try to keep 1,000 baht hidden somewhere on yourself, separate from any other money or belongings, as a back-up. Thailand has very strict anti-drug laws. Make sure you have at least one person who you plan to stick with all night, and arrange a meeting spot to find each other in case you get lost. Chicken Corner in Haad Rin is a popular meeting point.
Ko Pha Ngan Tourist Police have an office in Thong Sala and can be reached on T: 1155.
ATMs are scattered all through Thong Sala and Haad Rin and also on many of the smaller beaches. The 3G signal is strong across much of the island and most places to stay offer WiFi.
If you are looking for a secondhand book, there are a couple of secondhand bookstores in Thong Sala and one in Chaloklam. A few guesthouses may offer a small book swap or library, but this is quite rare.
Ko Pha Ngan has a few hospitals and clinics, mostly scattered along the south coast. The main Pha Ngan public hospital is behind Wok Tum, but foreign travellers tend to use the following. While these would be fine for cuts and abrasions for when you come off your scooter and that sort of thing, for more serious injuries, you want to be evacuated to Ko Samui or Bangkok. You have travel insurance right?
Bandon Clinic Has two branches, one in Thong Sala T: (077) 375 471 and one in Haad Rin T: (077) 377 371. http://www.bandonhospitalsamui.com/
First Western Hospital Thong Sala T: (077) 377 474 http://firstwesternhospital.healthcare/
Phangan International Hospital by Bangkok Hospital Samui Baan Tai, T: (077) 239 599 https://www.facebook.com/PhanganinterByBSH/
By Stuart McDonald. Last updated on 6th November, 2016.