Getting to Koh Pha Ngan, or Koh Phangan (pronounced by most people as “koh pang-gan”, probably closer to “koh pah-ngahn”), was as easy as hopping on a songthaew to Big Buddha Pier and buying a ticket on the Haad Rin Queen for 200 b. The Haad Rin Queen runs four times per day, and the tickets are a set price. Don’t be tricked into buying a speedboat or any other type of conveyance, the Queen runs daily, without fail! Travel agencies will try to psych you out over getting to Haad Rin near the Full Moon time, saying you won’t find a way over if you don’t book in advance with them, etc. etc. Don’t listen.
Arriving at Haad Rin Pier after a brisk hour spent clinging to the foremost railing, you disembark to find yourself in tourist central. And a different kind of tourism than Bangkok. Koh Phangan caters to those moneyed youths who consider themselves experimental or “hippy” and the place is chockablock with neon tanks, tees, swimsuits, fake-flower headbands. A popular emblazoning is “Same Same” on the front of the shirt, with “But Different” on the back. I finally accosted a young man about what his shirt meant. If you took it to mean, things are the same, but different, you were right! Although I still don’t understand why that’s a Koh Phangan thing. However, a few of the international crowd I met used it continuously, so maybe you have to be an ESL person to get it.
Continuing on, the whole feel of the place is psychedelic-neon vomit, and it’s a mass of international bros and girls; stumbling against traffic, breaking flip-flops, looking horribly sun-ravaged… Haad Rin is considered a must-see for the tourist crowd, as it’s here that the Full Moon Party happens, once a month. Haad Rin Nai is where you land, it means Sunset Beach, but it’s on Haad Rin Nok (Sunrise Beach) that the party’s at–the beach on the other side of the town. It’s walking, eg. stumbling distance from any venue in Haad Rin, and at night the streets are lined with bucket vendors, selling 200 b buckets of mixed drinks. Each vendor has his own name, scrawled on the front of his little box lined with sandcastle buckets and two-gulp bottles of Smirnoff. Oddly, some of these impromptu baristas also hold signs, declaiming things like, “I fuck midget retards”, and something equally offensive on the other.
The beach itself is a warring blast of top-40 hits, with bigger bars offering bigger sound systems and consequently attracting more people. There are also amateur Thai male fire dancers strewn up and down the beach, attempting to twirl and toss flaming batons, and later in the night you can see flaming jump ropes. My favorite place on the beach is the perched on the far left, hugging the cliff. It’s known as the Mellow Mountain. The music is Psy-Trance, and the walls are painted in an actually well-done psychedelic mural. You can buy mushroom shakes here, but I’ve heard from most people that you should save your money and try elsewhere on the island.
Speaking of drugs, this island is a weird haven for all kinds of them. You can buy mushroom shakes all over the island, with varying degrees of strength. I heard that the White Rabbit in Ban Tai offers an all right shake for 500-700 b. You can also find drugs at Stone Bar, in Haad Yuan–apparently sketchy–and at Eden (no good link), also in Haad Yuan, where they’re supposed to be “safe”. It seemed like everyone on the island had weed, and tons of it, so it must be easy to come by. Acid is 400 b per drop, supposedly strong, and MDMA is 700-800 b per tab, but don’t buy it from the locals because it’s “not clean”. If you’re after drugs, you’ll be able to find someone who knows where to get them, is the upshot of all of this. Foreigners come to sell; there was a tiny Japanese raver dude selling drugs where I was staying.
Speaking of where to stay, don’t stay in Haad Rin. I spent one night there, in a dormitory called The Gallery. That place was the pits. Downstairs, it was a cafe/bistro with WiFi, upstairs, it was a bunch of beds jammed together and a closet toilet. The AC only worked until you went to sleep, then it stopped working and you sweated to death. Honestly, the place looked like a slave galley. I booked at 150 b per night, but others there were paying 350 b for the privilege. The proprietress was overdrawn and scatter-brained, she upbraided her help and then tried to kiss your butt. Don’t come here.
Then, I camped by the ocean in a copse of trees between someone’s summer house and a clutch of bungalows. There was no one in the summer house, or this probably wouldn’t have been ok. I stayed one night, driving into town for food and WiFi on me ol’ motorbike (120 b per day–Kung Bikes [kung means shrimp]). I’d actually hooked up with a cool group from the Gallery, through our shared misery. We were all trying to find a better place to stay, and the Italians hit on it first. Someone had clued them into an excellent bungalow situation, and they had to rush out to make sure it was still available. I said I’d look for it later. Trying to find Mac Backpacker in the dark proved to be a challenge. But when I found it, I was blown away.
The place was at the end of a tiny unnamed road, findable only by the landmarks on my Koh Phangan tourist map (right before the gas station, after the 7/11 on the left). At the end of this road, on the right, sat a cozy little open-air reception area, replete with hammocks and a bookcase. Walking back, the main walk is lined with bungalows on two sides. Each bungalow is screened by an overgrowth of bougainvillea, plumeria, and some Thai creeper. Each bungalow has a hammock strung outside on the porch. Each bungalow is lifted on stilts, and features one big bed, with mosquito net, small shelf, and fan. No WiFi, no TV, no running water unless you walk up to the common bathrooms. The place was crammed with backpackers, the cool kind. I found my Italians, and begged leave to sleep in their hammock.
Speaking of common bathrooms, have I mentioned squat toilets yet? This type of toilet is a feature of Thailand, especially the more rural areas. It looks like a bidet, or a urinal mounted in the floor. You stand with a foot on either grooved side and let it fly. Then, if you’re lucky enough to carry your own toilet paper, you dry yourself and throw the paper in the trash. If not, you shake dry and curse your own misfortune. If you have refuse of a more solid nature, there is a lightly pressurized hose mounted on the wall for your enjoyment. Once you’ve finished these ablutions, you fill a bowl from the tank or bucket standing by and dump bowl after bowl of water until the mass is gone. It’s polite to refill said bucket via the spigot placed above. You just turn it on and wait. Otherwise, for some soothing background noise, turn it on low and hear it gurgle as you work out that extra spicy green curry.
Squat toilets aren’t really so bad though, in my opinion. It’s tidier and better than wiping and re-wiping, and you don’t blow through toilet paper so fast. What I don’t like are literal “squat toilets”–toilets in which the lid and tank have been removed, leaving only a basin. You know you don’t want to sit on it, because there’s no real accountability concerning aim, as the entire bathroom can just be hosed down. This seat is usually wet, accordingly, and you have to yank your pants down far enough to get your legs a bit around the basin, so in the end you’re awkwardly poised, trying to push your pants out of the way, not touch the rim, not pee down your thigh, or back-spatter on yourself from not being far enough over the bowl, and actually go. The bathroom is humid, and smelly depending on where you are. You’re probably also trying not to breathe. And you forgot your toilet paper. And you’re sweating. You want to put your hand on the wall behind or beside you for stability, but you fear the worst. These are the worst kind of toilets.
So back to the awesome bungalows. They’re located at a place called Mac Backpacker, across the street from Mac Bay. You can’t book in advance, your only chance of securing a spot in this highly sought after community is to show up and be at the top of the list. After sleeping on the porch, I decided this was the place for me. The price is 150 b for the bungalow, regardless of how many people stay. If you have five people staying, you’re paying $1 a night for this oasis. I waited for an hour at the reception desk, in front of a sign proclaiming, “FULL. We have NO idea where you can find a room. No booking here. Good luck.” As luck would have it, after about five minutes, a man came up to the desk asking if I’d seen the owener, and one-two-three he tells me he’s checking out today and that I can have his bungalow! I thought it was a done deal. I sat around to wait until he decided to check out, whilst several other parties meandered through, each one making me more nervous than the last.
Eventually he did leave, at which point I approached the proprietress, Melanie, and asked about his room. She seemed surprised, and told me she had two people in line ahead of me, but perhaps the sight of my crumbling face convinced her otherwise, and she gave me the “1 minute” index finger. She wandered around a bit, checking outside, talking on the phone, then she came back and told me that she couldn’t get ahold of the girls who had been waiting, and the guys had just left, so it was mine if I could make it look like I hadn’t just rolled up. SCORE! I jumped right on it. Number 5 was more perfect than I could have imagined, a literal bower, with a heavy screen of foliage in front, and the only point of access through a hedge down the way. I had also taken the opportunity while waiting to begin a book from the lending library.
So begin my time on the Island of the Lotus Eaters. Because that’s what Mac Backpacker is. A haven for like-minded travelers, expats, and chillsters to just hang out. During the day, I’d get up, ride my motorbike or walk over the half mile to the restaurant that served Khao Tom (you know I gots to have my rice porridge. Daily.), wander back, read my book, do some yoga, hang out with friends, talk about lunch, have coffee, read more, sit in the hammock, talk about going to the beach, read more, decide to go to Thongsala–5 km down the road–to my favorite internet spot, Khunpen Restaurant (hot coffee, 30 b, tastes like espresso, comes with milk), walk around Panthip Market (just an empty square), bad time to come, no good food carts, motorbike back, stop by the old lady on the side of the road’s tarp shack of miscellaneous goods, buy a big knife, headphones, and some hair pretties for a couple bucks, stop by the fried chicken stand conveniently located in front of where I buy my morning porridge, wheedle as much fried chicken, sticky rice, and deep fried garlic as I can out of the stern countenanced man who works there, back to the bungalow, eat the chicken, keep it away from the hoards of friendly kitties, meet up with friends, go to the beach, read more, sun goes down, walk home, do I need more water?, motorbike to Big C, buy the daily pastries that have gone on sale (corn puff, anyone? 6 b), come home, read more, apply bug spray, apply more bugspray, light anti-mosquito incense coil, put down mosquito net, read more, sleep before 10.
This is what I did, every day. Sometimes I’d mix it up, go to Thongsala in the morning for some Patongo–fried dough xs for my Khao Tom. Then I’d have to get some Khanom Krok from the old lady in front of the mechanic’s shop. And a snowcone. Sometimes I’d go to other beaches, on the other side of the island. The best beach, in my opinion, is Ao Thong Nai Pan Yai, on the east side of the island. The water is so clear, no coral or seaweed, just a few tiny stinging jellies. You can reach it by motorbike or car, but the road is under construction and some is unpaved. I managed to pop a tire with a screw on the way back, and had to beg a ride to the repair shop. I thought the driver of the truck quite gallant, even going so far as to tie down the bike, until we reached Ban Tai and he said, “Don’t say thank you; pay me!” I only had 100 b, so that’s what he got. He wanted 300. And it turned out his truck was already full of people, Westerners and locals alike. I’m really not sure what I stumbled into, but at least I got into town.
Then I had to deal with the repair shop, who spoke English as well as I spoke Thai. No, it was not possible to just patch the hole, it required a new tire. It would cost 800 b. Well, I didn’t know if it would be cheaper to call the rental company and tell them the tire was busted and see what happened, or to just pay the bill and see if I could get some money knocked off at the end from ol’ Kung. I decided to pay, and shop was generous enough to lend me a bike so I could go get money from an ATM. I also scored a 50 b discount (woo, woo). I’m not sure what kind of deal I got, but in the end it didn’t help me much. When I tried to return the bike before I left the island, the guy started pointing to some dings and scratches, but I showed him the rear tire and we figured it was cool.
But, back to best beaches, the best beach of all was definitely Haad Yuan. It’s reachable only by taxi boat or by a 4-wheel Indiana Jones ride. I walked over from Haad Thian, where I had been enjoying Guy’s Bar, and it was perfect. It has a deep, heavy surf, unlike most of the island, but the floor is still sandy, instead of cut-your-feet coral. The only people there are either staying at the Eden bungalows, or at the yoga camp at Haad Thian. Speaking of Guy’s Bar, that place is dope! It’s spoken of more as a thing than as a location, for example, Guy’s Bar is happening tonight! Guy’s Bar starts Friday night, pumping out Big Beat House all night long. It’s free to go, disregarding the 300 b taxi fare (one way, ugh). This goes until the afternoon of the next day, at which point everyone who doesn’t want to go home straggles down the hill to Eden, which begins it’s own thing at Saturday noon.
A group of us decided to wake up at 3:30AM to take one of the last taxis to Guy’s Bar around 4, for a friend’s birthday. It is extremely hard to wake up in the early morning and go dance, even if it’s the coolest party/bar/thing you’ve ever been to. No coffee, no nothing. By mid-morning, I was ready for sleep. I staggered down to the beach, past the yoga retreat, up a stone staircase, down a stone staircase, past Eden, past Stone Bar, had breakfast at the Bamboo Hut (not bad prices, good food, and amazing scenery–right on the ocean), and eventually slumped into a sun chair on the beach at Big Blue and fell asleep. Until it started raining. Then I switched out clothes for swimsuit and had an amazing time getting bowled over by the waves.
A not-so-amazing time I had was at the Full Moon Party. My expectations were low to begin with, seeing the crowd it drew, but it was even duller than I imagined. We showed up around 12 midnight. It’s supposedly free, but I had to pay 100 b to get onto the beach–ostensibly the money goes to pay the people who pick up afterwards. I can support that. There were several different stages, each offering a raised platform for dancing. The one we gravitated towards was playing Industrial Techno, and it wasn’t bad, but the place was full of drunk people (which I wasn’t) and drugged people (also not) and so without even caffeine to aid me I felt, well, tired. I didn’t have a crazy rave outfit and I wasn’t out of my head, so it was just another party at that point. A party filled with lost shoes and worrying about where you’re putting your feet.
The entire shoreline was dudes peeing in the water. I felt better walking through the break than on land, but with every warm wave I knew I was being laved with urine. I trudged back and forth, back and forth; determined to remain until sunrise. I had left my German friend at the Mellow Mountain, I returned to find him standing outside with a glazed expression. When I asked him a question, he answered in German, and when I laughingly told him so, he said, also in German, “Ahhh *face palm* I’m speaking in German! Why am I speaking in German?” and continued to try to talk to me in German. I assumed he was just tired, and was having trouble remembering his English, but I kept an eye on him, as for the rest of the night he simply stood wherever we were standing, and when addressed, turned silently to the speaker, then turned back to stare at the sea.
Early in the morning, a huge scaffolding was lit on fire, spelling out, “Full Moon Party Koh Phangan”. Soon after the flames were out, people began scaling the construction, clinging shakily to the greasy bars. I myself had a go, until I was nailed with sand balls by the Thais telling me to get down. There were vendors selling cut fruit and meat sticks at exorbitant prices; for some reason a kindly Thai man with such kept giving me free BBQ pork sticks. Who was I to decline? I love pork sticks!
Finally, the sun rose. As the giant orange ball drifted up from the grey sea, a scene of devastation was revealed. The shore was littered with broken flip flops, discarded buckets, clothing, and cigarettes. People feeling the dregs of their drugs were frolicking with blown-out pupils in the sea, tripping over their own garb.
At this point, I was ready for breakfast. I dragged everyone to my favorite local joint, a place I call Green Awning. It’s on a dirt road that shortcuts the longer main road into Haad Rin. It’s covered by a green tarp awning. I wish I could give better directions, as this is my favorite place to eat on the island, besides the fried chicken man. If you go before 9:30AM, you can get Joke (Chinese style khao tom), with chicken, egg, and toppings. The only thing missing is patongo, but it’s only 40 b for the whole shebang and the lady is super nice. I went every day when I was near Haad Rin, and she always laughed at me and asked if I’d come for the Khao Tom. You can also get a variety of local dishes, should you miss the joke cut-off, and I can assure you that the Thai Curry (pronounced Gang Pet) and the Green Curry (Gang Kee-Ew-Wan) are exceptionally good. It usually comes out to 80 b for curry and rice, but you get a heaping bowl and plate of same, and you won’t want to eat again for awhile.
Anyways, back to my friend, it turned out he got rufied by a beer seller. Apparently that’s a common scam–rufie a tourist and then follow him or her discreetly and wait until they’re dazed and alone, then jack ’em. He says the last thing he remembers is buying a beer and the woman refusing to sell him a large, unopened beer, instead offering him a smaller, pre-opened one. The rest of the night is gone, with a brief memory of the sunrise. When he woke at home in the afternoon, he had no memory of how he got there (on the back of another friend’s motorbike, mumbling in German the whole way), and had rediscovered his English vocabulary. A situation that could have gone so much worse for someone solo, and one to be aware of if you plan to buy drinks on the scene!