Paradise retained

Much of the natural beauty that first drew tourists to Koh Phangan is still intact

Koh Phangan (pronounced pha-ngan) may have a name that’s not the easiest for foreigners to say correctly, but it’s definitely one of the Kingdom’s most famous islands — thanks, largely, to its legendary Full Moon Party, celebrated as one of the most insane revels on the planet.

From a hilltop near Mae Hat beach, on the northwestern side of Koh Phangan, you can get a good view of this sandbar which links the beach to an islet called Koh Ma.

Yet the truth is that Koh Phangan has a lot more to offer than the Full Moon, Half Moon, Black Moon and all the other crazy parties regularly held there.

Let’s start with the first thing most visitors expect from a tropical island: the sand. Apart from Hat Rin in the southeast, the venue of the Full Moon Party, Koh Phangan boasts almost 30 other beaches, many of which are still in near-pristine condition, especially those on the remote eastern and northern coasts.

Their unspoilt condition can be attributed to the fact that much of the island is a protected area, the Namtok Than Sadet National Park. With such a designation safeguarding Koh Phangan from massive tourism development, the island is still blessed with forest-covered mountains that are home to many natural attractions, such as hiking trails, scenic lookout points and waterfalls.

Tie-dyed clothing is popular with many of the young tourists to the island. By dropping into one of the local workshops, visitors not only get better prices, but can also learn more about this dyeing technique.

The park was named after one of its many falls which was a favourite of the highly revered King Chulalongkorn (Rama V). That monarch visited Koh Phangan as many as 14 times during his long reign which lasted from 1868 to 1910. He and his entourage always made a stop at Than Sadet waterfall, on the eastern side of the island, to relax, have a swim and replenish supplies of fresh water for the ship that had carried them down south.

That such a great ruler made so many trips to their island is, not surprisingly, something of which the locals are very proud and in their homes one often sees a portrait of King Chulalongkorn placed next to one of the present monarch, both images occupying an elevated position to signify the respect in which the two men are held.

Speaking of people’s homes... it should be noted that traditional dwellings and coconut plantations are still common sights on the island, even along the main roads. While tourism now undoubtedly plays an important role in the local economy, some families still adhere to many of the old ways.

At Chaloklum village in the north of the island, for example, small-scale fishermen are still very active. Their daily catch goes to their families’ kitchens as well as restaurants across the island.

To cater to the tourists, restaurants, resorts and a variety of other services have popped up on the island over the past few decades. New attractions such as the Saturday “walking street” at Thong Sala have been created. The weekly street market, where local goodies as well as handicrafts and creative art works are offered for sale, not only allows Koh Phangan residents to earn some extra income, but also encourages them to keep their cultural heritage alive. This week it’s very likely that the walking street and the entire Tha Sala area, where the island’s main piers are located, will be thronged once again with tourists flooding in for the Full Moon Party, which is due to kick off on Sunday night.

While some old-timers may whine that Koh Phangan has changed quite a lot over time, it is not an exaggeration to say that, in general, the island as it looks today reminds me of what its neighbour, the much more built-up Koh Samui, was like 20 years ago.

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