Suratthani City is the staging post for exploration of the Samui Archipelago, a group of islands that consist of Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, Koh Tao as well as the Ang Thong National Park. Koh Samui is famous for its 5 star hotels and not so 5 star entertainment centres; Koh Tao is (along with Khao Lak) the dive centre of Thailand; and Koh Phangan is famous because of its Full Moon Party.
Every month at the height of the moon 10,000 or more people gather on Haad Rin Sunrise Beach to party the night away. It has become a backpacker rite of passage and one of the biggest draws for tourism in Thailand. The party is loud, messy and fuelled with alcohol. While many bemoan how the original Full Moon Party has been hijacked by commercial interests, others just love the scale and mayhem of the event.
For those who have been visiting Koh Phangan for years the Full Moon Party is a mixed blessing. While it brings much needed revenue to the island it terms of the tourist dollar, it also brings with it an unwanted celebrity as a party island.
Koh Phangan was first visited by tourists in the late 1970s. In the 1980s the neighbouring Koh Samui saw lots of development including the building of an airport and island circular road. In contrast Koh Phangan represented a hippy idyll of stunning white sand beaches, cheap wooden bungalows and an escape from the mainstream tourism in Samui.
By the end of the Twentieth Century the secret about Koh Phangan and its cheap prices soon became common knowledge. The small and informal party at Haad Rin started attracting big crowds. At the same time developers cast an eye over the island. By 2008 Thong Nai Pan Noi Beach had 3 luxury hotels – Panviman, Santhiya and Rasananda. All over the island the cheap bungalows were torn down and replaced with air-con units with hot water and satellite TV.
Despite all this development there still remains remote and virtually empty beaches where time seems to have stood still. There is Than Sadet that is reached by a rough track and has one of the best beaches on the island. There is Haad Khom in the north that is off the grid and has basic huts where long haired souls stay for months at the time.
The hippy influence of the island is still apparent in the New Age / Holistic centres such as The Sanctuary and Agama Yoga dotted around the coast. There are also still basic wood and bamboo bars to be found where the spirit of Bob Marley still lives on.
Those who have chosen to call Koh Samui their home still tend to look upon Koh Phangan as a backwater with poor infrastructure and limited facilities. This is still partly true: there isn’t an airport (yet) or a circular road (yet); Conrad and other major hotel brands haven’t set up; and you can’t get an Avis / Hertz car hire. At the same time, Koh Phangan does have better beaches, more virgin forest and more of the romance of a Thai tropical island. For people looking to get away from home to somewhere relaxed and completely different then Koh Phangan is still good option. Unlike Koh Samui, there is no cinema or other similar attractions you find in any medium to large sized city in North America or Europe, but the island has something they do not – peace and quiet.