Koh Pha Ngan is shedding its party-hard, backpacker-friendly image and broadening its appeal to an upscale audience through sumptuous accommodations and an array of classy culinary options.
It is late October 1999 and time is about to be called on the 20th century. In the real world, Pakistan’s government is in the process of being overthrown while the rest of the planet nervously awaits the consequences of the Y2K bug, with conspiracy theorists warning of an imminent Armageddon.
Pre-millennium tension, though, is in short supply here on Haad Rin Beach, home to Koh Pha Ngan’s famous Full Moon Party.
I made my way to the island alone a day or two before. Now I’m holding court in a party of compadres – spinning yarns of travel in Southeast Asia as colourful as the garish fake designer T-shirt I’m modelling proudly and unselfconsciously. With bars and sound systems lining the beach pumping out a pounding soundtrack of Goa trance, I dance until daybreak.
Exhausted, I make my way to the far end of the beach, find a spot in the sand, hitch up my sweat-drenched fisherman’s pants, and let the waves lap at my toes. The beats in the distance provide a comforting cocoon and I gently close my eyes. I could stay in this place forever and ever….
I wake up with a start as a Thai masseuse applies her nimble-fingered skills to my feet. I’m still on Koh Pha Ngan, but the scene has changed. I’m no longer on a beach but in a plush cabana built into a jungle hillside at the Anantara Rasananda resort. The soothing sound of spa music has supplanted techno. And what happened to my fisherman’s pants? I wouldn’t be seen dead in fisherman’s pants.
“I think you drifted off for a while there,” laughs the therapist as I drag my conscious self back to the present day.
She’s right – for 21 years to be precise. After leaving the island shortly after the Full Moon Party, I swiftly left the backpacker life behind. Out went the love beads and questionable style choices and back came a visceral dislike – miraculously upended for a few select nights – for psychedelic-trance.
As a former Full Mooner, I have observed as the event has grown in size and notoriety. Negative reports of the event surface regularly, mostly focussed on real and perceived dangers from drugs, alcohol abuse and unscrupulous individuals as well as bad behaviour on the part of revellers. Despite the bad press, its popularity has barely been dented, with an estimated 50,000 people attending shindigs before the pandemic.
Unfortunately for Koh Pha Ngan, its chief claim to fame has also tended to define it, with many – even here in Thailand – regarding it as an unreformable wild child.
“It is a potent image,” admits island-based author and writing coach Brian Gruber, who is one of the administrators of the Koh Pha Ngan Conscious Community Facebook Page, an online hub for island-relevant events, information and discussion with over 50,000 active members. “But I think that the message that there’s far more to Koh Pha Ngan than the parties has been filtering through for a while. It is a big island, which offers boundless possibilities. And although it is developing, it is still way behind Koh Samui in terms of construction and that also enhances its appeal.”
Samui is an obvious yardstick. The two islands are a mere 20 minutes apart by ferry and share similar paradisiacal qualities. Koh Pha Ngan has traditionally acted as an overspill for alternative types turned off by Samui’s commercialism. The bigger island remains the Gulf’s tourism heavyweight – despite the carnage being wrought there by the pandemic – but it is hard to argue that over-development hasn’t robbed it of some of its charms.
From my perspective, Koh Pha Ngan appears to be managing its evolution in a more considered way. Existing backpacker haunts and low-rise resorts are being complemented by a growing selection of high-end boltholes and private villas.
A case in point is Tong Nai Pan. In 1999, a crew of us endured a bone-shaking ride over the mountains in a songthaew (converted pick-up) that took around two hours and witnessed at least one near concussion due to head being applied inadvertently to roof. Now the road from Thong Sala (the island’s main port) to the far north-eastern tip is paved, and families and young couples populate the gorgeous gently sloping stretches of sand.
The upscale feel of the place is encapsulated by my digs at the Anantara Rasananda. Villas and suites at this upscale hideaway all have private plunge pools, while the signature spa built into the mountainside is the perfect place for pampering.
Other luxury lodging options on the island come in the form of often-stunning private villas. For the second portion of my stay, I bed down at Chao Pao Villa. Nestled on a hilltop above gorgeous Haad Chao Pao, the property is built entirely out of teak wood and offers the ultimate in tropical chic. Making full use of the villa’s immense 600-square-metre outdoor area, I flit between a 16m-long saltwater infinity pool and a hammock in a shaded sala. As I rock myself gently to the rhythm of the waves before, I once again ponder the contrast between this elegant life of luxury and the island’s reputation as a backpacker paradise.
“The island has changed a lot,” agrees Sylvie Masui, Operations Manager at Pearl Properties, which managed 12 luxury villas on Koh Pha Ngan, including Chao Pao Villa. “The roads are wider, private speedboat companies are operating on the island, there are more five-star hotels and upscale restaurants. All the infrastructure is now in place. It’s evolving into a destination that has a strong appeal for high-net-worth visitors.
It’s difficult to tear myself away from the 180-degree views of the Gulf and the islands of the Ang Thong National Marine Park at the villa, but I’ve still got some exploring to do.
Given that my Full Moon Party diet consisted of little more than banana pancakes, noodles and beer, stellar dining is another marker of the island’s evolution. The gourmet scene is particularly righteous on the west coast of the island. From my next base, a gorgeous villa located in the hills above Haad Yao, I strike out for international cuisine that wouldn’t feel out of place in Bangkok.
At Fisherman’s, fresh seafood creations are the order of the day. L’Alcove, meanwhile, offers stunning French fare in a romantic beachside setting. Its cheese and charcuterie platters are gloriously abundant while a wine list that encompasses over 60 bottles from around the world is the island’s oenophile highlight. Equally memorable is is Sati Pot, which lays strong claim to be Thailand’s finest Persian restaurant. Such is its reputation that it is often necessary to make an advance booking for a table. The food justifies the hype with a lamb shank slow-cooked in saffron and yoghurt sauce and served with aromatic rice mixed with crushed pistachio and almonds, caramelised onion, paprika and raisins as just one standout.
Although dining is a pleasure here, the island does restraint as well as it does excess, with a host of options for detox retreats and other holistic holidays. The wellness community on the island is concentrated on the west coast around the village of Sri Thanu, home to countless yoga centres and vegan restaurants.
One of the few things I have in common with the 1999 version of myself is that I’ve never had much time for hippies or New Age trappings. Therefore, I do feel slightly out of place as I peruse the various raw-food menus and eavesdrop on earnest conversations about chakras and moon cycles. I soon get into the groove, however, and appreciate sessions of yoga and breathwork at Jaran’s, one of the most renowned studios on the island.
Overall, though, I’m happier exploring the island’s nooks and crannies on a vintage scooter. On my final day, I take the mountain road to Than Sadet National Park, home to attractive waterfalls and another stunning stretch of sand. As I drive, I’m struck once again by the sheer beauty of the place.
As the shadows lengthen in the late afternoon, I cruise back to the west side of the island to Zen Beach, where the island’s various tribes gather for sunset. As the sun reluctantly makes its exit for the day in a riot of red, gold and orange hues, the DJ switches his playlist between reggae, house, dub and rock and roll.
The rhythms may have diversified, but Koh Pha Ngan continues to dance to its own distinctive beat.
This article first appeared in Prestige Thailand.