Ko Pha Ngan in the Gulf of Thailand is known as the land of coconut trees. The name of the island is derived from the local word for ‘sand bar’ of which the island has many. For years Ko Pha Ngan was a favourite with Thai royalty, especially Rama V, a moderniser and fifth king of Siam under the House of Chakri, whose portrait dominates many a guesthouse.
There are various ways to get to Ko Pha Ngan. Basically, you head to Ko Samui or Surat Thani. From Bangkok, you can get to Surat Thani by train from Hua Lamphong, Bangkok’s main train station, a magnificent structure designed by two Italians and built in the Italian Neo-Renaissance style. There are night buses from Khao San road, the main backpacker area in Bangkok, which is altogether less magnificent. Government buses run from Bangkok’s southern bus terminal to Na Dan ferry piers and are cheaper than those from KSR, and more interesting.
For those in a hurry or without the requisite stamina you can fly to Ko Samui. Bangkok Airways have a monopoly on the route from Suvarnabhumi Airport, and charges accordingly. Air Asia and smaller operators go via Surat Thani. The journey takes longer, costs less and gives another option to being fleeced by BA or enduring hours on buses and trains. From Malaysia minibuses run from Georgetown on the island of Penang.
Beware the buses from KSR. The air-conditioning would chill beer and its widely rumoured bags in the luggage compartments are gone through en route. The sleeper trains have a certain charm and Thai railways get you there with the advantage of having a bed rather than crammed into a reclining bus seat. You arrive in a fairly rested state by train, as opposed to semi-comatose by bus.
On the ferry all the tattooed tourists come out. They also tend to do things they don’t do at home, which is why you often find tourists behaving badly. Unfortunately, Ko Pha Ngan, with its reputation for parties, attracts more than its fair share of the obnoxious and ignorant. Not surprisingly, given years of over exposure, this seems to have rubbed off on some of the locals.
Exploring the island can be done by songthaew, Japanese pick-ups with bench seats; long boat, motorbike or bicycle. Feeling sporty I opted for a bicycle, which was a mistake. I turned off the main road towards Bottle Beach. There was a school and some houses. Lining the roadside menacingly were the local canines. In that heat it was hard going. After about 15 minutes I’d given up. I turned around and headed back down the hill at what suddenly seemed like frightening speed. With the wind blowing into my face it’s like being in front of a giant cooling fan.
As fast as I was going it wasn’t going to deter the local hounds from hell. There were two groups lined up on either side of the road. Once the leader mounted a charge they were all in. I got past the first group only to have the second come at me from the other side. I kicked out at the closest before realising this only increased my chance of being bitten.
Thai dogs, motley hounds ravaged by fleas often covered in scabs with bald patches where they’ve scratched themselves raw, can be dangerous and should be avoided. This is especially true at night, but broad daylight appeared to be no deterrent to threatening passers-by. Territorial, they move about in packs, which only make them more aggressive. Alone they wander the roadsides, often sleeping in the roadway. Careless around vehicles they appear reluctant to move out of the way for approaching traffic. Consequently it’s a common sight to see injured dogs wandering on roads or moving gingerly on three good legs
They also cause accidents when unsuspecting drivers swerve to avoid hitting them. The effects are obvious to see. One Swiss guy I encountered in Bangkok limped into the hotel on crutches. He had large tracts of skin missing on his lower limbs and his foot was heavily bandaged. His foot he explained, had “a hole” in it, the result he said of losing control of his motorbike while swerving to avoid a dog in the road.
After my close encounter I needed refreshment. Resting up with a cold drink and glad to be in the shade, I checked my legs for signs of dog bites. A bite from a Thai dog would likely mean a quick trip to Bangkok for rabies jabs.
Across the road a young farang pulled up on a motocross bike for an altogether different pit stop. The rider was shirtless, helmet less, with his cap worn backwards. Stuck down the back of his shorts was a can of accelerant. He dismounted the machine clumsily, almost losing his balance and tipping the bike over. He withdrew the can from the waistband of his trousers, studied it carefully before placing it under his nose and inhaling deeply.
The effect seemed to stun him momentarily before having another shot for good measure. All this seemed to happen in slow motion. He tried to kick start the bike, which took several attempts. I was amazed that barely able to stand straight he was about to take charge of motorised horsepower on the open road. Eventually he disappeared down the road in a haze of blue smoke, the high pitched engine evaporating into the distance towards Haad Rin, party town.
Once a month, every full moon evening the island throws a party, the Full Moon Party. Full Moon gigs began in the mid 1980s. Today, thanks in part to guide books like Lonely Planet, never shy to ruin a good thing by popularising it, they attract hedonists by the thousands. The parties are all night beach affairs at Haad Rin, a collection of tacky tourism, and tackier tourists, some of whom can become downright obnoxious not to mention violent on booze and drugs. It’s excess, and lots of it, like Ibiza complete with Euro trash.
So popular are these, the islanders thought it an even better idea to have another regular outing, the Half-Moon Party, which can occur twice-a-month. On the basis you can’t have too much of a good thing, there’s also the Black Moon, Jungle Experience (about a week either side of Full Moon party) as well as the Shiva Moon party.
Large collections of tourists, drunk or otherwise, in any place aren’t an especially attractive sight, neither are groups of any particular nationality, where ever and whoever they are. There are so many Israelis in Haad Rin a resident expat told me, they call it the Gaza Strip. That’s funny, but on a point of geography Gaza is where the Palestinians live.
It’s a pity that most visitors don’t acquaint themselves with the local culture, and instead focus their attention on titillation of a less elevated kind. There is evidence that Ko Pha Ngan and the neighbouring islands of Samui and Ko Tao were settled 2000 years ago, probably by Muslim sea gypsies. Artefacts from the Dongson Culture have been found on the islands. For years coconut farming and tin mining were the predominant industries, before petering out and succumbing to that beast, tourism.
Easy to forget most of the island is pristine rain forest with diverse flora and fauna. Head banging aside, Ko Pha Ngan is considered a spiritual place with numerous Buddhist temples and a thriving spa, retreat and meditation industry. It’s tourism but without the bass beat. North of the island is one of the most isolated beaches, Bottle Beach, best reached by long boat as the road I discovered is the worst on the island.
On the island’s west side are collections of guesthouses strung out along rocky outcrops overlooking white sand beaches. Bungalows range in price from the bottom to the top end. Mine came with a fan and no hot water but had a great view. There I met Danny, a Kiwi, and his wife Sonia. They had met on the relief teaching circuit in grim inner London schools and after a holiday in New Zealand, were heading to live in her home town of Burgos in northern Spain. He laughed as he trotted out a list of urban jungle schools he’d taught in, and survived.
A group of English guys sat in the restaurant complaining that their 50 pence pizza was cold. The Thai cook also did all the washing up for up to 50 guests. She had been at work since about 7am and would finish about 11 every night. She told me she worked every day and had not had a holiday in two years. In the mornings, in between breakfast orders, she took her two children to school on a motorbike.
Mama san who owned the facility routinely charged guests for the taxi into town, adding this to the bill. One couple took exception threatening to “tell Lonely Planet” which seemingly brings greater retribution these days than do law enforcement.
At night there were pirated movies. We’d sit in the beach bar with some of the locals and watch the world go by. One visit to the Full Moon fiasco convinced me it wasn’t my scene. The ferry to the mainland was full but quiet, the passengers still recovering. Danny and Sonia were off to Burgos and I was heading back to Bangkok. Behind were the hounds from hell and just another beach party.