Difference between revisions of "Ko Pha Ngan"
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Ko Pha Ngan (เกาะพะง้น, pronounced KOH pa-nGan with G as in mango) is an island off the Central Gulf Coast of Southern Thailand, halfway between the islands of Ko Samui and Ko Tao. It is known as a land of coconut trees and, above all, the world (in)famous full moon parties.
Cities & beaches
Places below are listed clockwise starting at Thong Sala:
The best time to visit the island and also high season is during December-March when the water is high, clean, and good for swimming. It's also not rainy and temperatures are pleasant. Another high season time is during July/August after dry season when the water is rising. Avoid visiting the island during dry season, Apr-Jun, when all of the best beaches on the northwest coast (Mae Haad, Haad Yao, Chalok Lam, Haad Khom) are useless for swimming due to shallow water. Swimming in this season is possible only on the north coast on beautiful Bottle Beach and on the dirtier, less accessible east coast (Thong Nai Pan, Haad Sadet, Haad Rin), where the only beach with good access and swimming is Haad Rin, which is not as crowded at this time. The south coast should be avoided all year due to bad water and sand.
The closest airport is Ko Samui (USM) which has frequent flights from Bangkok and Phuket, daily flights from U-Tapao and Singapore, and several direct flights each week from Chiang Mai and Kuala Lumpur. Transportation to the ferry dock is easy to find at the airport. Ferries depart several times a day with the last one around dusk.
The next nearest airport is Surat Thani (URT) on the mainland. Flights from Bangkok there are significantly cheaper (1,000-1,500 baht in advance, or 2,000-2,500 if booked same day, instead of 3,000-5,000 if flying to Samui), as there are low-cost carriers (AirAsia) flying there, and even Thai Airways charge 30-50% less than to Samui. However, you'll then need combined bus + boat travel to get to Ko Pha Ngan, which will surely take several hours. AirAsia uses the old airport in Bangkok, Don Mueang, while Thai Airways uses the international airport, Suvarnabhumi.
Nok Airways is now selling a combined package ticket including airfare to Surat Thani or Nakhon Si Thammarat, bus ride to the pier, and a ticket on the Lomprayah high-speed catamaran. This should be simpler for travellers than arranging the individual segments separately. Nok uses Don Mueang Airport in Bangkok.
Watch out for scammers at Ko Samui airport who try to sell you a bus/boat combo for an exorbitant price. Make sure to walk towards the exit of the airport where there is an Information counter and taxi stands.
From Ko Tao: there is fast Lomprayah catamaran operating twice a day to Ko Tao for 400 baht at 08:30 and 13:00 or leaving Ko Tao for Ko Pha Ngan at 09:30. The ride between these islands takes 1.25 hours. A cheaper, but slower ferry operates from Ko Pha Ngan to Ko Tao by Songserm express and costs 300 baht, leaving Ko Pha Ngan at 12:30, and takes 2 hours.
From Surat Thani: night ferry leaving at 23:00 from Surat Thani city (walking distance from bus stations Talat Kaset 1 and 2) arrives at Thong Sala pier-Ko Pha Ngan at 06:00 and costs 400 baht for a space on a mattress on the boat. The night ferry leaves from Thong Sala-Ko Pha Ngan for Surat Thani at 22:00 for 400 baht arriving around 05:00-06:00.
By bus and boat
The best way in by bus is by Government Bus to the Na Dan ferry piers: these are the most direct, quickest, reliable, safest, and hassle-free services. Tickets for these services can be bought at Sai Tai Taling Chan (southern) government bus terminal in Bangkok.
Buses also arrive in Surat Thani, capital of Surat Thani Province, . From here you can buy a ticket for a bus + boat ride for the slow ferry (320 baht for the 3 hour ferry and bus ticket to Don Sak) or the fast ferry (400 baht for the 2 hours ferry + transportation to Don Sak pier). both ferries stop at Ko Samui first, and will drop you off at the pier of Thong Sala. Please note that both options will require you to change buses. This should be a quick and easy change over.
If there are no available options listed above (usually only if you've arrived to the bus terminal quite late in the evening before a weekend or holiday), you can also try a bus to Chumphon and board a ferry there, see "By train" below. You can buy a combo ticket on the bus station, it will cost same as if purchased separately (and the bus arrives 2-3 hours before ferry departure, so you shouldn't be late).
Buses originating from Khao San Rd (or other buses operated by travel agencies) are famous for thefts from passenger luggage. Under no circumstances should passengers on Khao San Rd buses leave valuables in bags that will go in the luggage storage areas, even if the bags can be locked. Consider it inevitable that every bag will be opened while the bus is in motion. Bus + boat joint ticket costs at the cheapest Israeli travel agencies at the west end of Khao San Rd (better said Chakrapong Rd) cost only 500-550 baht depending on whether it's before/after Full Moon party and your bargaining skills, so if you are aware of risks using these buses and careful you can really save money instead of taking pricier government bus which does not leave from KSR but requires you to go to a bus terminal.
A very good option, a little pricier, is using the morning bus (06:00) and ferry combination from the Lomprayah company. A reputable company with an office near Khao San Rd and the option to book online through their website. The air-con bus is very new and the connection to the ferry gives the opportunity for a toilet break and to eat something. Leave early in the morning and arrive mid/late afternoon on the island. One way is 1,300 baht. They also have a night bus. 
By train, boat, and bus
An overnight train from Bangkok is an interesting option. Trains arrive in Surat Thani or Chumphon, and from there you can transfer by bus and then boat. Chumphon is the option if you're planning to stop at Ko Tao, but if you're heading straight to Ko Pha Ngan, consider Surat Thani. Both stations are on the southbound Hay Yai line, but arrival times in Chumphon (when using night trains) are annoyingly early in the morning. For example, the (recommended) express train number #85 arrives around 04:00 after which you'll have to wait about 3 hours for the ferry. On the other hand, if you continue down to Surat Thani you can sleep an extra 3-4 hours plus you will arrive in daylight. Considering the waiting time in Chumphon and the longer ferry trip you will eventually get to Ko Pha Ngan at about the same time.
Combined train-bus-boat tickets can be bought direct from the official Advance Booking Counter at Hualamphong station in Bangkok, although if your train is late, and your boat is already gone then you will have to pay extra for the next boat. Thus the joint ticket may not be the best choice.
If e-booking is not available or not suitable to you for some reason, train tickets may be reserved up to 60 days in advance and paid for by email. In reality, the Thai authorities are lax in returning emails and/or will give the runaround, or flat-out refuse to reserve seats for non-Thais during peak travel periods (Dec-Jan and the Songkran holiday in Apr). If your heart is set on going by train, start early, be persistent, and have a backup plan to go by bus or plane.
Upon arrival at the pier or all around island don't forget to pick up a free guide book Phangan.info with a lot of useful information for travellers (ferry timetables, prices of taxi boats, taxi trucks, where to eat, what to do/see, party dates, maps, accommodation and more).
There are many rental locations all over the island. 100-125 cc motorbikes can be hired from 100 baht/day for semi-automatic scooters (no clutch, just change gear up/down, easy to operate after a couple of hours and saves some fuel compared to an automatic) to 150 baht/day for fully automatic scooters; larger capacity models cost 300-700 baht/day (700 baht for a big enduro motobike). These are asking prices before bargaining and any discount. If you rent motorbike for longer, you can get bigger discount. For example, for 3 days rental at 150 baht/day you can bargain it to 120 baht/day or from 100 baht/day to 90 baht/day. For 2 weeks the price drops even more, from 100 baht/day to 75 baht/day. There is good rental shop, Sak, with low prices just next to Nira's bakery in Thong Sala, a short walk from the pier with a couple of other rental shops with similar prices. Rentals are for 24 hours, so if you rent motorbike at 16:00, you have to return it before 16:00 the next day if you don't want to pay a surcharge. Motorbikes are rented without fuel, so you have to go first to petrol station (figure on about 40 baht per litre of 91 octane gasoline at big petrol stations), more in remoter places like jungle road to Thong Nai Pan 50 baht/1 l). Foreigners are asked to leave their passport as a deposit, or a copy of their passport and a large cash deposit (1,000-10,000 baht). You are strongly advised not to leave your passport. Renting through the place you stay might be a better option, but does not guarantee that you will avoid the bike repair scam.
Some rental shops overcharge for every scratch or dent. They don't fix, but rather replace the whole part - so note damages to the bike on the rental contract. Be aware that your passport will be held until you pay the extortionate repair cost. You can negotiate the costs down from exorbitant to high, but keep your cool, don't yell and stay polite. This practice is very common all over the region. It's not unheard of that you are asked to pay for damage you haven't done. In most cases, it's the combination of very bad & dangerous roads and inexperienced or intoxicated driving that causes accidents. Some good advice is to take pictures of your bike as you rent it, but if the guy has your passport, this won't do any good. If you don't know what you're doing stay on the safe side and stick with Songthaew.
Avoid riding at sundown, when the bugs are out en masse, and result in brief periods of riding blind, while you desperately try to clear your corneas. Try not to go home with a "Thai tattoo", this can either result from your tender body sliding along a bitumen road at high speed with few clothes on, or from the inside of your leg touching a hot exhaust pipe. Also keep in mind that many, if not most, travel insurance policies will not cover motorcycle accidents, especially if you do not have a Thai drivers license.
Care is needed if attempting to go over the notorious Haad Rin hills, the roads at the eastern side of the island, and north of Haad Yao. Especially the "Hill of Tears" (first steep ascend from Thong Sala towards Haad Rin) needs caution - use low gear only and have your passenger walk. This is still quite good concrete road where you need only use brakes compared to mud roads on the northeast part of the island to Bottle Beach, Had Sadet which are the worst on the island with many potholes.
Drunk driving in the West is illegal (not on Ko Pha Ngan, where police don't check). On Ko Pha Ngan it's suicidal. Better to sit in the back of a taxi than hitting one's head on at night, or end up in hospital.
Wear a helmet (police can fine you 200 baht and do it occasionally (before noon in Thong Sala for example)) and stay within your limits. The slower you drive, the less it's gonna hurt.
It is also possible to rent small Suzuki 4WDs, however you will find that you can circle the island in a day.
Songthaews criss-cross the island asking from 100 baht a ride, if you share the taxi with other people. You can and should bargain for a lower price, especially if your destination isn't that far. The taxi driver cartel trys to fix prices at 200 baht a ride. Do not accept the price at the pier and walk rather 300 m to the roundabout in Thong Sala where there is a taxi station with normal prices. From Thong Sala to Baan Tai/Khai or Chalok Lam should be priced around 100 baht/person, Haad Rin 150 baht/person, Haad Yao/Salad 150 baht/person, Thong Nai Pan or Had Sadet 250 baht.
It is important to note that ALL taxi service on Ko Pha Ngan is provided by songthaew (pick-up truck). Should you choose to go with a freelancer on a motorbike or in a pickup, make arrangements quickly, quietly and pay surreptitiously.
Usually is the best option to save money and be flexible and avoid using songthaews at all is to rent a motorbike after arriving in Thong Sala as you will be probably leaving from this pier. You can later return the motorbike here and it can save you a lot of money. If there are two of you and you pay 150 baht/person for one taxi ride, your total expenses to/from beach will be 600 baht. For that you can have a semi-auto motorbike rental for 6-7 days or a fully automatic for 4-5 days and you are free to ride anywhere between arrival and departure and it's also the best way when looking for accommodation instead of taking taxi and walking around with a lot of baggage.
Cruise the bays with your snorkelling gear until someplace takes your fancy. The round-the-island, all-day boat trip is a great way to see some of the best beaches in the island.
Under Thai law, travel agents that offer ticket, tours, tourism services, hotel reservations in Thailand must be registered with the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) to improve quality of service and help protect customers from fraud. Please check to make sure you are booking through a TAT registered travel agent.
In both Thong Sala and Haad Rin vendors sell pretty much anything you can think of, and probably some things you don't need at all. You can try to bargain, but realistically, the prices are set. You may get a deal every now and again, but it's the exception to the rule. Remember that you're in a tourist area and that prices usually are above the level of, say, Bangkok. The further you go from the ferry piers, the better your chance of haggling gets.
Main purchases you will find on Ko Pha Ngan include hammocks (check out "Hammock Home Gallery" in Thong Sala) as well as some of the local artist's works. Most of the clothing is of the variety that you will find in Bangkok, but generally it is a bit more expensive, as it has been imported to the island for sale.
Art Galleries are considered to be a rising business on Ko Pha Ngan. Most of the places will offer variety works and services including custom orders and art reproductions. These galleries have reputations for affordable prices and fine quality artistic skills.
For the most part, this is not the place to come to experience Thai food or culture. For a slightly more authentic experience (and cheaper than the well-decorated cafe/restaurants by Haad Rin beach), patronise the more modest street carts where you might see some Thais eating.
The best area for cheap eats is definitely the food carts in Thong Sala, the main town on the island. In the evening you can eat at the night market (from 40 baht/meal (usually curried meat with rice or fried rice or pad Thai), soups from 30 baht, pancakes from 20-30 baht, meat on sticks 10-30 baht/stick.) Free WiFi in a roofed hall. Across the road from 7-11 in Chalok Lam are also some Thai street stalls where you will find locals eating. In front of Tesco you can buy sticks with fried meatballs for 5 baht/stick and at the junction next to entrance to Tesco parking lot you can buy in the morning (7-9AM) sticky rice with pork/chicken/livers packed in banana leaves for 10 baht for a small portion. There are also a few street stalls. There is also a small market next to 7-11 in Thong Sala in the direction of Haad Rin (after Walking St traffic lights) with Thai meals for 30-50 baht.
As a general guide: As further you walk along the beach to the last resort, the better and quieter deal you get!
You can usually find accommodation at the pier when you arrive, many of resorts offers taxi service from pier for free! However, during Full moon period it is worth booking ahead unless you want to sleep on the beach or spend the night in one of the more expensive lodgings. If you are thinking of booking accommodation on-line before you arrive, make sure you book with the actual resort or a trustworthy booking site as there are numerous fake sites for several well-known Ko Pha Ngan resorts appearing on the Internet.
There is more to Ko Pha Ngan than the Full Moon Party and Haad Rin, so don't be afraid to venture out to other beaches. You can still get to the party from just about everywhere.
The decent rooms tend to run out a few days before the Full Moon Party, and throughout the peak season (Dec-Feb). If you have a short vacation or like to have a soft landing, you might want to book a room in advance. This can be quite hard on the less accessible beaches, such as Haad Tien or Haad Yuan.
If you decide to test your luck, try to arrive as early in the day as possible (09:00 seems to be a good time) to have the most time and options for accommodations.
If you come in relatively low-season in Jul and Aug, it is a good idea to book a room in advance just for the first night and rent a motorbike to look around. Beaches differ a lot (some of them are good for diving/snorkelling, some are good for swimming), so do villages (some are really quiet, some are packed with bars). Motorbike trip by the seaside to Chalok Lam and all the places on the way, and to Haad Rin on the other end of the island. Should not be a problem even for less experienced riders and will help you to choose the perfect place which suits your preferences. More remote places are harder to get by motorbike, so if you are thinking about staying in Thong Nai Pan or Bottle Beach, you have to rely on reviews.
For a cheap bungalow, literally moments from white beaches (but no surf whatsoever), turn left from Thong Sala and you will pass strings of quiet bays, each with one or more resorts, featuring a bar, a restaurant, rooms and bungalows, and a few dozen laid back tourists and travellers for company. Try Haad Yao, Haad Son, Haad Salad or any of the others along the same strip.
For long-term stay, you can rent whole house (1 bedroom, small kitchen, bath, Wi-Fi, electricity/water included) for 5-6,000 baht/month, not on the beach. Bigger houses with 2 bedrooms from 10-12,000 baht/month. For a 2 week booking, don't expect half of the monthly price. Two weeks in a 2 bedroom house costs a minimum of 7-9,000 baht, 1 bedroom 3-4,000 baht.
Yes, the Full Moon Party (as well as others) is full of drugs, but these days it's also full of plain clothed policemen out to bust you. Be very careful if you intend to consume illicit drugs. Roadblocks are common, particularly in the week before the FMP between Thong Sala and Haad Rin. Thai police have also been known to force urine tests. Remember that the Thais have harsh penalties for drug offences and the police are working to meet their "quota". Be aware that you may not be able to bail yourself out of trouble, especially if you get transferred to Surat Thani - and that bribing Thai police will at least cut a deep hole into your travel budget, if it is possible at all. Do not keep drugs on you, in your room, or in your vehicle.
If you plan to drink at a party, make sure you have reliable transportation set up beforehand. The roads here are nothing to mess with, and too many people try to drive home because they don't have a taxi waiting. If nothing else, find a safe corner and sleep it off before you head home.
It's not a good idea to accept drinks or food from strangers; there are reported incidents of spiked drinks (from both locals and "fellow" travellers). There have been reports of LSD buckets foisted upon unsuspecting partyers in Haad Rin. Drugged drinks are often and unfortunately followed up by robbery, sexual harassment, or even (gang) rapes. The best idea is to take your own drinks and stay with your friends.
On closer inspection of the buckets sold, most liquor bottles are unsealed, so there is uncertainty about the true contents of every bottle. This may be why so many people get sick.
However a local club owner states "we use the small bottles for the buckets and it is cheaper and easier for us to re-use the small bottles. The local stockists always run out of small bottles so we often replace the contents with that from a larger bottle of the same liquor (some clubs use cheaper liquor. Ask politely at the bar for original liquor and be prepared to pay more for original liquor).
Hangovers come from dehydration. Most kids drink buckets all night, then party in the morning sun on alcohol. Best advice is to drink water regularly, even at night as its hot and sweaty.
Before buying a bucket, check the seal of the bottle and politely ask what's in it if you are worried. Apart from that, remember the fact that buckets can be very strong and unpredictable. If you intend to drink a lot, try to have solid food beforehand, or you might "lose it" very fast.
It's advisable to leave all valuables in a safety deposit box or in your guest house owner's hands instead of taking them to the party.
Wear shoes or sandals to avoid injury from broken bottles or burning cigarettes.
If you're averse to getting knocked on the head with flaming batons, then don't venture too close to the fire poi swingers on the beach, as skillful as they may be, the fire sometimes gets out of hand and hits nearby tourists. "Fire Skipping Rope / Jump through Fire Hoop" are dangerous games provided by a few of the beach bars. Take care when participating in these games, especially if you are drunk!
If you plan to leave the island the day after the Full Moon Party, be aware that the boats are usually packed with other tourists who have the same idea. Make sure you're not getting on an overloaded boat. The same applies to taxi-boats before and after the FMP. Thais frequently overload their longtail boats and lost luggage is at your own expense. Better to get off, reclaim your money and wait for the next one.
There are many good places to stay in Ko Pha Ngan. If you want to stay close to the action, but not TOO close, you may choose the resorts on the "sunset side" of Haad Rin. You can stay just about anywhere on the island and still get to the Full Moon Party, so don't be afraid to venture away from Haad Rin, which is the most developed and least Thai beach of them all. There are over 30 coves and beaches on the island, each with it's own distinct qualities. Check out local information to find which beach suits you.
Walk away from every potential conflict with locals. You will stand no chance and it's a surefire way to get hospitalized. Do not get inappropriately rowdy or swear at the beach bar staff. In April 2007 an Israeli tourist got stabbed to death right on the dance floor in one of the bars on Haad Rin beach. Violence is frequent. Locals will not help you in a fight and will in fact gang up on you whether you are right or wrong, and "fellow" travellers will do their best to stay out of it. If you find yourself targeted, LEAVE THE PLACE IMMEDIATELY and don't come back the same night.
Compared to most of Thailand (and especially the north), citizens of Ko Pha Ngan are generally agressive, rude, and unfriendly after decades of particularly rowdy tourism. Don't expect to be treated as much more than a human ATM. However, it is worth bearing in mind how you would feel if you had to tolerate some of the appalling and disrespectful behaviour from foreigners that you will see here in your home community. Beware also of other travellers who can also be pretty agressive when drunk, male or female.
If you walk on some of the smaller backroads of the island, dogs can be a real danger. Many of the dogs you encounter will be highly territorial and unfriendly (barking, baring their teeth, getting very close), especially if it is a group of dogs. Getting bitten means an urgent flight to Bangkok to get rabies treatment, so this is important to avoid. Do not stare directly at the dogs (but do look at them every once in a while as it seems to deter them somewhat), and do not run. Try talking to them continuously in a calm and friendly voice ("what a good dog", etc) and move slowly but surely, either away from the dog, or, if it's critical for you to pass, then as far away as possible from the dog's "home territory" (e.g., if it ran out of a house on the left side of the road, move along the right side). In an emergency, remember that they're probably as scared of you as you are of them, so any violent motion (like throwing something) will likely send them running back, but only temporarily. Do this only as a last resort.
Internet cafes are plentiful and typically also offer international calls, fax services, and flight confirmation. The connection and speed is generally good. Expect to pay 60 baht/hr (1 baht/min) for Internet in central locations. One baht per minute is typical for predominantly tourist-oriented shops, many of which also offer lower rates for pre-paid blocks of time. In travel agency Tan Tour (50 m to west of 7-11 next to the pier) the friendly owner Tomas is famous for not taking charging customers very seriously, so if you stay only a short time you can usually use the Internet for free, or for a longer time you will usually end up paying only 20 baht instead of 40-60 baht.
Next door to the 7-11 in Thong Sala at the pier there is free (open) WiFi for everyone in Sweet Cafe, so if you don't mind sitting in the sun you can use it for free. Also in the food court in the Thong Sala night market (actually open all day) there is free WiFi for everyone. It's not difficult to find well-equipped, quiet, air-con Internet cafés that charge 60 baht/hr. Shops that can accommodate users who want to hook up their own laptops can easily be found. Printing (black/white) is usually 10 baht/page (30 baht/page for colour).
When you venture away from the more developed beaches, expect to pay up to 3 baht a minute. It can be cheaper just for staying in touch (e-mail/IM) to buy a SIM card where you can activate a 30MB data package for 1 month for 107 baht (D-Tac or AIS) or a 100MB data package for 1 month for 214 baht (AIS), which is enough for basic mobile Internet without images/videos in your mobile phone.
Mobile phone/SIM cards can be bought and topped-up all around island in many 7-11s. Mobile signal strength for D-Tac (Happy) or AIS (1-2-Call) is good all around the island. Avoid using the TrueMove network which has very bad coverage.
Overseas calls can be made from many agencies and Internet shops, as well as guesthouses/hotels and the like. Most advertise a rate of 15 baht/minute (or 25 baht/minute to mobile phones). Pretty much every Internet place will have headsets for Skype use, which will be free if you don't have to call to a telephone.
Ko Pha Ngan's post office is located southeast of Thong Sala. As well as the usual postal services, it handles Western Union transactions and hosts a large number of post/security boxes. On weekdays (except public holidays) it's open 08:30-16:30, and on Saturday and Sunday and public holidays it's open 09:00-12:00; tel. 077 377 118. There is also a smaller but still official post office in Haad Rin, very close to the ferry pier on the west side. Open similar hours to the main post office but possibly slightly more restricted, as it is really only a quarter the size of Thong Sala's.