Ko Pha Ngan: Thailand’s tropical refuge, then and now

A Travelfish long read by Tom Vater
First published on 1st October, 2020 |8,269 reads.

Ko Pha Ngan is infamous for its long–running Full Moon Party, but there is a lot more to this idyllic, palm–fringed island than sound systems and teenagers imbibing cheap alcohol. Just 125 square kilometres in size, nestled between larger Ko Samui and smaller Ko Tao in the Gulf of Thailand, Ko Pha Ngan’s mountainous interior is drenched in evergreen rainforest, while its sandy beaches and coastal communities have been spawning subcultures from around the world for centuries.

Will the era of Covid19 provide a bookend on two decades of intense development, or will it enable the island to continue to offer new arrivals a sense of space, as well as a sense of place?

Bangkokian Jakkra Brande is the owner of Nira’s, Ko Pha Ngan’s first bakery. After their typewriter business collapsed, his parents fled the Thai capital during an economic crisis in 1984 and aimed for a new frontier—Ko Samui.

Jakkra Brande, owner of Nira’s, Ko Pha Ngan’s first bakery. : Tom Vater.
Jakkra Brande, owner of Nira’s, Ko Pha Ngan’s first bakery. Photo: Tom Vater

In their younger years, his father had been a chef in Germany, while his mother had saved the life of a German nun who’d had a motorcycle accident. She cooked and baked for her throughout her convalescence—subsequently the nun adopted her.

The wrong boat to a cloudy rainy place

Brande, at the time aged six, recounts his parent’s arrival on Ko Samui.

“My father saw some local boys selling newspapers to foreigners. That got him thinking, why not start something on Ko Samui? They both had the skills, but they didn’t know how to start a business, so they took the boat back to the mainland. An hour later, their Songserm ferry stopped at Ko Pha Ngan. They had taken the wrong boat.”

“From our bungalow, we saw this cloudy, rainy place across the water—Ko Pha Ngan.”

Michael Hershman.

That wrong boat would change their lives.

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About the author

Tom Vater is an Asia-based writer, publisher & editor. He’s the author of numerous books, including Sacred Skin, the first title on Thailand’s spirit tattoos, and The Cambodian Book of the Dead, the first in a series of acclaimed thrillers set in Southeast Asia. His features on the environment, tourism, youth culture etc. are published in a wide range of media. Tom co-founded Asia’s English language crime fiction imprint, Crime Wave Press, and the book-coaching service Sand Scribes. Read more at www.tomvater.com or on Twitter at @tomvater.

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