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

A Travelfish long read by Tom Vater
First published on 1st October, 2020 |7,881 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. Photo: 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.

“My parents ended up at Paradise Bungalows on Haad Rin Beach. In the morning, a young boy asked my father if he wanted to go fishing. My Dad went fishing for three days straight and forgot all about returning to the mainland. My mother saw the resort’s proprietor roll bread in the kitchen. It looked slow and laborious, so Mum taught the chef how to make bread properly. That was their start. Soon after, they leased a plot of land at Haad Rin and opened a bakery. Our first customer was from Alaska.”

Buffalo waiting for travellers’ luggage on Haad Rin Beach, 1988. Photo: Janelle Hansen courtesy of Jakkra Brande.
Buffalo waiting for travellers’ luggage on Haad Rin Beach, 1988. Photo: Janelle Hansen courtesy of Jakkra Brande

Californian Michael Hershman who runs A’s Famous Diner in Thong Sala, Ko Pha Ngan’s main town, tells a similar story. “I first travelled in Asia on a shoestring when I was 17. In Bangkok I met my wife–to–be, before I returned to the US where she joined me for four years.”

In 1985, Hershman moved to Thailand. “Let’s get away from the city, find a beautiful, remote and cheap place to buy on the beach—that was the dream.”

That boat had already sailed—the horizon however, beckoned.

“We went to Ko Samui, but we were too late. Tourism was beginning to thrive and people were trying to sell land with millions in their eyes. From our bungalow, we saw this cloudy, rainy place across the water—Ko Pha Ngan. People on Ko Samui discouraged us to go there, so we jumped onto the Songserm ferry.”

Relocating a bungalow at Ban Tai, 1988. Photo: Darren Hansen courtesy of Jakkra Brande.
Relocating a bungalow at Ban Tai, 1988. Photo: Darren Hansen courtesy of Jakkra Brande

Hershman had found what he’d been looking for. “I went into the jungle to cut wood and built a thatch-roofed bungalow,” he says. “God, this was the real thing. Back then, one had the impression that people came to Ko Pha Ngan to get away from their government.”

Seeking Sacoria

Perhaps this is part of the reason why no one is sure when people first settled on Ko Pha Ngan. A bronze drum found on Ko Samui in 1977 originated from the Dong Son culture in Vietnam which flourished from 500BC to 200BC. From the 7th until the 14th century, Surat Thani, the closest population centre on the Thai mainland, was part of the Srivijaya kingdom, though no written records mention Ko Pha Ngan or its neighbouring islands from this period. The island first appeared on 16th and 17th century maps, sometimes marked as Pulo Sacoria.

Pulo Sacoria marked on a map by John Thornton, 1701. Image: Bibliothèque nationale de France Photo: Travelfish.
Pulo Sacoria marked on a map by John Thornton, 1701. Image: Bibliothèque nationale de France Photo: Travelfish

Early written records suggest the three islands were visited by animist sea nomads. These marine wanderers are said to have originated in Malaysia and are called Chao Ley by Thais. They spent most of their time on their kabang—their houseboats—travelling along Southeast Asia’s coasts, making the region’s beaches their temporary homes.

Ko Pha Ngan’s oldest temple, Wat Maduea Wan, dates back to the Ayutthaya period, though today’s temple grounds, near the centre of the island, show no trace of its past. The nearby Wat Phu Khao Noi boasts a chedi erected during the Rattanakosin era, about a hundred years ago.

“Only a few hundred families lived on the island back then, making a living from coconuts and fishing,” Luong Mon, a resident monk at Wat Phu Khao Noi, suggests.

The royal connection

King Rama V lifted Ko Pha Ngan out of obscurity and into the Siamese consciousness. The Thai monarch first visited the island in 1888. Enamoured by Than Sadet (Royal River) waterfall on the island’s rugged east coast, the monarch returned 14 times over the next 21 years. Today more than half of the island has been designated as the Than Sadet–Ko Pha Ngan National Park, home to monkeys, mongoose, snakes and tropical birds. The highest peak, Khao Ra, rises 627 metres above sea level—a three-hour slog best attempted with a guide.

Somewhere to pull a boat in

Chinese refugees, political, economic or otherwise, arrived both from the Siamese mainland and China, from the 19th century onwards. Kiem Tanawit Nam was born on Ko Samui in 1930 and owns one of the shophouses along Thong Sala’s old main street. His father had arrived on Ko Samui in 1925, escaping from Hainan Island which was a refuge for communists who in turn had fled crackdowns in Shanghai.

Kiem Tanawit Nam, owner of a shophouse in Thong Sala, is 90 years old and first came to Ko Pha Ngan in 1943. Photo: Tom Vater.
Kiem Tanawit Nam, owner of a shophouse in Thong Sala, is 90 years old and first came to Ko Pha Ngan in 1943. Photo: Tom Vater

“A lot of Cantonese boats came into the Gulf to fish. Some settled on Ko Pha Ngan, along with Siamese people already living here. Wok Tum on the island’s west coast was the first place they landed, it was easy to pull a boat in and there was no town or anything. These refugees were looking for a new home and Ko Pha Ngan had everything—fresh water, great fishing grounds, coconuts.”

Nam first came to Ko Pha Ngan in 1943.

“At that time there were Japanese soldiers on Ko Samui. Their subs sunk rice barges to starve us. They wanted to kill everyone.” Nonetheless, his family was adamant he make the journey from Ko Samui to Ko Pha Ngan to find himself a wife.

“The working girls had central Thai accents. In the 1940s opium dens also thrived. The police from Ko Samui came to visit—to do the same as everyone else.”

Sangaan Tipmanee.

“I married a local woman who owned a thatched wooden house, exactly where we are now, what would become the main street in Thong Sala. There were just a few houses then. We raised pigs. But the real wealth was in the sea. The amount of crab and fish was incredible. We’d break mussels off the rocks and have them for dinner.”

A street scene in Thong Sala, 1988. Photo: Darren Hansen courtesy of Jakkra Brande.
A street scene in Thong Sala, 1988. Photo: Darren Hansen courtesy of Jakkra Brande

Ko Pha Ngan remained a remote hideaway in the 1940s and 50s. A sailing boat to the mainland took three days. Getting around the island was a challenge.

“To get to Chaloklum in the north was a hard, half–day walk. We didn’t have any motorised boats. But we did march up there to mine tin which we sold to passing trade ships. Then we discovered and dived for pearls. There were so many that we used the meat as fertiliser on our fields. Behind the house, layers and layers of shells built up.”

As sea traffic and trade grew, so did the main town.

“Thong Sala came into its own when I was 17 or 18. Large ships came from Bangkok. They sold tea and coffee. We sold them fish, pearls and coconuts. We decided to open a tea house.”

Sangaan Tipmanee, a retired school teacher, remembers the pioneering 50s and 60s on Ko Pha Ngan. Photo: Tom Vater.
Sangaan Tipmanee, a retired school teacher, remembers the pioneering 50s and 60s on Ko Pha Ngan. Photo: Tom Vater

Nam’s daughter Sangaan Tipmanee was born on Ko Pha Ngan in 1949. Early impressions of town life remain vivid memories.

“I started working when I was eight, at 4 am and we didn’t close till midnight. We were the only tea shop on the island. There was no electricity and customers sat under gaslight. Fishermen came from as far as Phetchaburi. Gambling houses, whisky houses and ladies’ houses lined the road. The working girls had central Thai accents. In the 1940s opium dens also thrived. The police from Ko Samui came to visit—to do the same as everyone else.”

Tipmanee recalls the gradual changes that slowly pulled the island into the national administrative system.

“The first police station opened in 1974. In 1977, we became an amphoe (district). The main road in Thong Sala was not surfaced until the 1980s,” she muses.

A new wave

But it was the Songserm ferry, which started ploughing the waters between the mainland, Ko Samui and Ko Pha Ngan from 1976, that brought a new wave of visitors—foreigners, many of them long–term–travellers, hippies in search of paradise.

Buffalo taxi, Haad Rin Beach, 1988. Photo: Darren Hansen courtesy of Jakkra Brande.
Buffalo taxi, Haad Rin Beach, 1988. Photo: Darren Hansen courtesy of Jakkra Brande

Brande saw them arrive when he was a young boy in the mid-80s. “Haad Rin was a small community then, just a few coconut huts and turtles on the beach,“ he says. “Travellers arrived on a longtail boat from Thong Sala. A buffalo carried their luggage to their bungalows.”

“It just got bigger. More musicians showed up. Bars opened, sound-systems appeared.”

Jakkra Brande.

Many of the visitors stayed on and on and brought music, heady conversations, and drugs.

“People came to party. There was a lot of weed and Sangsom and Mekong whisky. Some of our staff were from the mainland and brought heroin. My father tried to help these kids, but some died. A few foreigners also got addicted, but generally the islanders and travellers smoked weed. The hard drugs always came from the mainland. There seemed to be a lot of LSD and magic mushrooms around in the 90s.”

All this anarchic merry-making eventually moulded into what was to become the Full Moon Party.

“My father organised concerts. We had musicians from around the world performing in our restaurant. There was one disco at the time, set back from the beach, popular with local kids.”

By the end of the 80s, numerous full moon bonfires accompanied by live music made for other–worldly events.

“It just got bigger. More musicians showed up. Bars opened, sound-systems appeared. By 1992, the live music had all but stopped, DJs took over and the event changed into what it is now.”

A tropical right of passage

Sharon Kahati first visited Ko Pha Ngan in 2001—friends in hometown Tel Aviv had told him about the island—and the parties. Today he runs The Phanganist, the island’s primary media platform, which started as a digital newsletter covering the island’s party scene.

Fire dancing at the Full Moon Party, 2014. Photo: Tom Vater.
Fire dancing at the Full Moon Party, 2014. Photo: Tom Vater

“Back then, Haad Rin reminded me of Goa, the bars with carpets and pillows and low tables. The Full Moon Party was all about Trance and mainstream MTV–type stuff. Even then, there were thousands of people. The Trance sound stages have since given way to House. The main bars still play popular music—you might hear YMCA or Oasis. There’s no other dance event in the world that has been running for so long so successfully. And then there are countless other parties—Half Moon, Black Moon etc.”

“Haad Rin—the most beautiful beach on the island—can’t make up its mind what it wants to be.”

Sharon Kahati.

Kahati sees the Full Moon Party as a tropical rite of passage.

“Imagine you’re between 19 and 24, you travel for the first time and you meet tens of thousands of others in your age group from around the world. You’re a bit afraid, it’s a different culture. It’s no wonder that some people can’t contain their excitement and are dead drunk by 8pm. Twenty years ago, we were just as dumb as young people are now. I fell in love at my second Full Moon Party...”

He acknowledges that any event that has run for three decades would have good and bad sides.

The Full Moon Party is far from a foreigner only affair, Haad Rin, 2014. Photo: Tom Vater.
The Full Moon Party is far from a foreigner only affair, Haad Rin, 2014. Photo: Tom Vater

“On the plus side, the money is considerable and spread around widely. Hotel owners, restaurants, drivers, boat crews, massage shops and retailers in Haad Rin benefit. But they didn’t succeed to make Haad Rin a place that’s attractive between the parties. And having a monthly three–day peak season also has pros and cons—the number of beds and employees, everything is oriented towards the Full Moon Party. Haad Rin—the most beautiful beach on the island—can’t make up its mind what it wants to be.”

Lifting the veneer on utopia

While the Full Moon Party raged, others looked elsewhere. Ko Pha Ngan’s diversification beyond parties was driven by businesses in the Sri Thanu area on the west coast. Traditionally a more “local” part of the island, at least from a foreign tourism point of view, it was a blank slate. Yoga centres, vegan restaurants, spas and shops selling esoteric accessories now front a vibrant community of fringe workshops including ayahuasca sessions, tantric sex seminars and post-truth events where the world’s latest conspiracy theories are voiced, discussed, fought and ridiculed.

“Still, a vision of wanting to contribute to the world and offer people a retreat to find transformation amidst natural beauty lingers.”

Brian Gruber.

American writer Brian Gruber moved to the island in 2016 and is one of the administrators of the Ko Pha Ngan Conscious Community Facebook page.

The great tree at Sanctuary: Ko Pha Ngan’s original healing centre. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
The great tree at Sanctuary: Ko Pha Ngan’s original healing centre. Photo: Stuart McDonald

“Yoga teachers migrated from Haad Rin a decade ago, as the Full Moon Party shifted from alternative to full on drunk party. Travellers had long visited a place called The Sanctuary on the east coast for immersive detox stays. Similar businesses, with great ethical ideas, set up shop here. It started as a small community with a vision—no chain stores, a libertarian lifestyle.”

But as the community grew, that vision started to fray, and eventually came to the attention of the international press (though not, particularly, the Thai authorities).

“More and more damaged people showed up, in search of self–esteem, or with a heightened sense of themselves. They called themselves light workers and shamans. And then the Romanian leader of Agama, a popular yoga school, began to face a large number of accusations of sexual malfeasance. He still runs Agama but its reputation has died,” Gruber says.

Nai Wok Beach, near Sri Thanu, deserted in March 2020. Photo: Tom Vater.
Nai Wok Beach, near Sri Thanu, deserted in March 2020. Photo: Tom Vater

He sees this sordid affair as part of a larger malaise.

“The veneer of utopian kindness and spiritual purity was lifted and there are frequent comments about a lack of consistency between high-minded Eastern spiritual ideals and the daily behaviour of people living here. Still, a vision of wanting to contribute to the world and offer people a retreat to find transformation amidst natural beauty lingers.”

Then it all crashed down

When Covid19 shut down the parties and almost all the tourists disappeared, Ko Pha Ngan’s Burmese community bore the brunt of the economic downturn. Legal and illegal Burmese and Khmer migrants, along with those from poorer regions of Thailand—primarily the Northeast— have long underpinned the economics of Thailand’s tourism success. An underpaid, often undeclared and routinely exploited workforce, their low wages and hard work is one of the main reasons why Thai islands remain as affordable as they are today.

Ko Than Aung, a former schoolteacher from Burma’s Rakhine State, now managing Signature Restaurant in Thong Sala. Photo: Tom Vater.
Ko Than Aung, a former schoolteacher from Burma’s Rakhine State, now managing Signature Restaurant in Thong Sala. Photo: Tom Vater

"At the beginning of April, the government ordered a halt to hotel bookings and most hotels laid off many of their staff. Four to five thousand Burmese workers found themselves stranded on the island, without money, without food, without shelter," Ko Than Aung, a former schoolteacher from Rakhine State in western Burma who’s been managing Signature Restaurant in Thong Sala for the past decade, explains.

“I just had a third child and I don’t want to go back to Burma. There is nothing for us there.”

Ko Than Aung.

Signature ran a food bank for three months feeding up to 450 people every afternoon. Today for Tomorrow, an island–wide initiative, managed to serve around 4,000 meals a day throughout April, May and June to different communities. A group of local officials and foreign business owners also started a community garden where everyone, locals, foreign travellers and Burmese, can work in exchange for food.

"I just had a third child and I don’t want to go back to Burma. There is nothing for us there. We don’t want to end up quarantined at the border. We would have to spend 21 days in a camp in the jungle with two toilets for 500 people. But if the tourists don’t come back this year, all of us will be forced to return. Thai people are entitled to official aid, but migrants are dependent on charity and moneylenders in their community, and their debts are getting out of hand," explains Ko Than Aung.

Since July, most Burmese have left the island.

A crossroads bigger than Chicken Corner

Ko Pha Ngan is at a crossroads and Covid19 affords its inhabitants an opportunity to reset the clock. Kahati thinks that the Full Moon Party’s eventual return is desirable.

“It’s a golden goose. We should try and build a farm instead of beheading the goose.”

Whose love will win out? Thong Nai Pan Yai, 2016. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
Whose love will win out? Thong Nai Pan Yai, 2016. Photo: Stuart McDonald

This is easier said than done. The kind of redevelopment Haad Rin needs to lose its slummy ambience is hard to finance.

Kahati concedes, “Significant investment can only come with the arrival of major hotel brands. And that would change Haad Rin and the island significantly.”

With change comes concern. While a few high-end properties have cropped up on the northeast coast, the Full Moon Party’s reputation for drugs, crime and lawlessness damage its image in the eyes of many investors. Keeping the party in its current form would likely hamper further high–end development. Alternative paths beckon, but official direction is limited, just when it is perhaps needed the most—ironic given many early settlers were attracted to the island by the lack of governmental interference.

Brande is ambivalent about the post-pandemic future. “There is more than enough development. Future construction should be in tune with the environment. The government did not allow us to use natural resources because they were afraid of fire. But there’s been no guidance on how to develop differently.”

He feels that it is his generation’s task to make improvements.

“It is not impossible to bring some spirit back to Ko Pha Ngan. We need to talk to the older generation. The old business practices are no longer appropriate. We want to start a ‘back to our origins’ project with fewer visitors, live music, bonfires… Perhaps even bring back wood and thatched roofs, like in Bali. Invest less and get more. That is island life.”


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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