A Getaway to Koh Phangan

Heaven is a Mai Tai and Coconut on the beach!

Heaven is a Mai Tai and Coconut on the beach!

We’re smack dab in the middle of rainy season here in Chiang Mai, which means several things:

  1. Mosquitos are everywhere (along with the usual rainy season reports of Japanese Encephalitis cases.  JE is a rare mosquito bourne illness that scares the living daylights out of me.)
  2. Unpredictable downpours and associated flooded roadways.  If you’re read my previous posts with comments about the dog poop everywhere, you can imagine that floating dog poop is right up there in my list of things I dislike.
  3. Inexplicably slow internet speeds, everywhere.  Word on the Chiang Mai Facebook groups is that this is a regular occurrence during rainy season.  If anyone can explain this mystery to me, I’ll bring you $5 worth of dried mango next time I see you.
  4. Sidewalk gushers!  The main road we walk has square sidewalk tiles that are laid poorly, so they get little reservoirs of dirty water underneath them.  When you step on some of these tiles, they’ll tilt and the water shoots up at you!

All of these things combined to give us the rainy season blues, so we decided to head down to the beautiful islands of Koh Tao and Koh Phangan to soak up some sun!  I’ll post about Koh Tao once I get a hold of some photos a travel friend took during our scuba classes, but wanted to sing Koh Phangan’s praises as soon as I could.

Beautiful Koh Phangan, an Island Paradise

My Artsy Sand Photo

My Artsy Sand Photo

Koh Phangan is perhaps best known for its Full Moon Parties.  These monthly shindigs are probably best described as drunken festivals where drug use runs rampant, from what I’ve read and heard online.  We’re old souls who enjoy going to bed at 10pm, and who think it’s absolutely absurd when a hotel breakfast doesn’t open until 8am, so the Full Moon Party is clearly SO not our scene.  Also, accommodations all over the islands charge double or sometimes triple their normal rates during Full Moon Party week, which definitely doesn’t mesh well with our new frugal lifestyle.  We’re basically crotchety cheap old people now.  Luckily, we weren’t there for the full moon.

In spite of the full moon party, Koh Phangan is a great island for inexpensive beach getaways for couples, families, and solo travelers.  Its great-value accommodations, beautiful beaches, and cheap motorbike rentals make it my favorite island I’ve visited so far in Thailand.

Koh Phangan Accommodations

One of the best things about Koh Phangan is its reasonably priced accommodations.  In general, prices are much lower than its island neighbors Koh Samui and Koh Tao.  A bed in a hostel dorm without aircon can be found for under $5 US, and “rustic” beachfront bungalows can be had for as little as $12 US/night.  After spending six nights in Koh Tao without aircon, we decided to splurge in Koh Phangan.

The Baan Manali Resort

We spent our first two nights in Koh Phangan in a little slice of heaven called the Baan Manali Resort.  Our aircon seaview bungalow came out to $35/night, a splurge for us.  Unfortunately, it didn’t include breakfast, but we took full advantage of the beachfront infinity pool, the beach lounge chairs, and our own personal hammock.  It’s a small resort with less than 15 bungalows, and felt more like we were guests at someone’s home than a resort.  This homey feeling isn’t for everyone, especially if you don’t enjoy someone else’s kids running around naked outside your bungalow.  It was a little weird sometimes, but totally worth it for the awesome bungalow:

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Our Sweet Little Bungalow

Check out the bungalow view from our bed:

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View from our Bungalow

The inside was spotless and super nice:

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Inside our Bungalow

And the bathroom was awesome:

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Nice Bungalow Bathroom

The bathroom even had a plant!  I love plants!

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Our Bungalow House Plant

Kevin spent a lot of time working in the hammock:

Hammock Driven Development

Hammock Driven Development

It had a pretty great breakfast area too:

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Baan Manali Breakfast Area

The Baan Manali is about a 15-minute walk from Thong Sala, the shopping/restaurants/ferry hub of Koh Phangan, but it’s still far enough away to be a quiet retreat.  We’d definitely recommend this spot for couples as well as for families.  It’s not located on a great swimming beach, so a motorbike is a MUST if you plan to hit the beaches.

Salad Beach Resort

Sometimes you walk into a resort and know immediately that they’re going to nickel and dime you for everything.  The Salad Beach Resort is definitely one of these places.  The front desk is plastered with signs threatening guests with fees for checking out late or for not returning borrowed beach towels.  In our room, we found a long list of how much each item in our room costs, including the travel-sized bottles of shampoo (that’ll cost you 100 Baht!).

I didn’t take many photos at the resort, but I will say this – at the bargain basement price of $27/night for a huge room with aircon and breakfast included, we would definitely stay again!  Salad Beach Resort is located on the Northwest side of Koh Phangan, situated on one of the best beaches on the island.  It’s about a half hour drive north of the ferry terminals.  The hotel offers a shuttle to/from the ferry terminal for a fee (of course!) of 150-200 Baht per person one-way depending on the time of day.

Their pool was really pretty and clean:

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Salad Beach Resort Pool

And because the resort is located on one of the best beaches, it’s surrounded by lots of other nice resorts.  We decided to live life on the edge, and pool hopped resort to resort.  Here was our fave, a three-tiered infinity pool right on the beach at the Salad Buri Resort:

The Salad Buri Resort pool we snuck into!

The Salad Buri Resort pool we snuck into!

Koh Phangan Spa Treatments

A relaxing beach getaway isn’t complete without a trip to the spa.  We visited Relax Spa, the highest rated spa on the island, which was just down the road from the Baan Manali Resort.  We each got an hour-long foot massage for 300 Baht ($9.35), and it was the best massage of our lives.  We went up to a private 2-person room with the aircon cranked up high, and these ladies knew exactly what they were doing.  Here’s a peek at the room:

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Pure Relax Spa – amaaaaaazing!

It’s possible we may return to Koh Phangan specifically to go to this spa again… it was that good…

Koh Phangan Transportation Scams

Google “Koh Phangan Motorbike Rentals” and you’ll be assailed with many a horror story about tourists being scammed out of thousands of Baht for motorbike scratches that they swear they didn’t make.  All across Thailand, the common practice for motorbike renters is to hold your passport until the bike is returned safe and sound, even though this practice is technically illegal.  The best way to avoid a bad situation is to do your homework – get a rental company recommendation from a friend or from your hotel.  If that’s not possible, stake out a rental shop and see how closely they look at motorbikes when renters return them.  I’ve seen other tourists take video walk-arounds of their motorbikes before riding them off of the property.  It definitely pays to be proactive.

We rented from Kate’s Motorbike Rentals in Koh Phangan for just 150 Baht per day and didn’t have any problems.  A motorbike is definitely the best and cheapest way to explore Koh Phangan:

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Gotta love motorbiking!

Another way to get around Koh Phangan is via Songathew Taxis.  On the islands in Thailand, these taxis are a total racket!  The prices are generally fixed at 200 Baht per person no matter where you’re going in Koh Phangan (that’s 10x the price we pay in Chiang Mai!).  If the taxi is empty, they’ll try to get 400 Baht out of you!  A wise traveler once told me never to seek out a taxi without first figuring out the fair price – ask your hotel reception, ask a waiter or a barista, and don’t be afraid to walk away if they quote a higher price.  There’s always another taxi down the road.

Koh Phangan Beaches

Beach Selfie!

Beach Selfie!

Ao Nai Wok Beach

Our trip started out at Ao Nai Wok beach, where the Baan Manali Resort is located.  This beach is super shallow, terrible for swimming, and a bit dirty because it’s so close to the ferry terminal.  However, it’s a prime location to catch a great sunset, and there’s a swing!

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We Love Beach Swings!

We also did some rock climbing:

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Kevin Rocks

We really like climbing on rocks, apparently:

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Melanie Rocks Too

Haad Salad

Haad Salad, aka Salad Beach, is where we spent most of our time.  Its fine white sand and deeper waters made a great spot for swimming and frolicking.  It’s also a great spot to catch a beautiful sunset:

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Salad Beach Sunset

This beach also had a fun swing:

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Salad Beach Swing

Unfortunately, there were some jellyfish warnings on our last day.  That didn’t really stop us from swimming, but several of these big ugly guys were washing up on the beach:

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Salad Beach Jellyfish!

Mae Haad and Koh Ma

We motorbiked one morning over to Mae Haad, another beach on the Northwest part of Koh Phangan.  This beach has a lot more reef areas, so it didn’t seem like the best spot for swimming, but is supposed to be a great snorkel location during high tide.  It’s also a good spot for beach combing – I saw a lot of great seashells here:

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Mae Haad Beach

The cool thing about Mae Haad is that the tiny island of Koh Ma which lies just offshore is only accessible over a sand bar during low tide.  We went early in the morning during low tide to take a peek:

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Sand Bar to Koh Ma during low tide

Also, they had an awesome toy I’ve never heard of before.  It’s a water tricycle!  Check this out – you pedal and can bike through the water.  Mind blown:

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Water Tricycle at Mae Haad Beach

Koh Phangan Food

Most of the food we had on Koh Phangan was disappointing.  We really only ate grossly overpriced western food and slightly overpriced greasy street food at the night market:

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Koh Phangan Night Market in Thongsala

We did have three good food experiences on the island, though.  The shining star of the street market was the donut lady.  I’m not even a donut person, but I have had dreams of her vanilla-custard-filled masterpieces.  They’re dusted with what can only be a mixture of fine bakers sugar, powdered sugar, and crack.  It’s so good we visited her three times during our four days on the island:

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DONUT LADY at the Thongsala Market

The vanilla-filled goodness:

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Vanilla Cream Donut Delight

If you’ve visited Thailand, you’ll know it’s a bit tricky to find a great sandwich.  A lot of places will serve you a slice of ham and a processed piece of “American Cheese” on wonder bread with the crusts cut off.  In fact, that’s what our hotel gave us when we had to check out super early to get to our ferry.  It was such a sad meal:

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Sad, sad ham and cheese sandwich on the ferry ride. :(

We stumbled onto a little gem called Nira’s Bakery, which served fabulous sandwiches.  They were chock full of veggies and served with POTATO CHIPS, which I haven’t had since before April!  Highly recommend:

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Delicious Chicken Salad and Veggie Delight Sandwiches at Nira’s Bakery!

The best Thai food we’ve had in Southern Thailand so far was a small restaurant we stumbled upon on Salad Beach called Jang’s Thai Kitchen.  It’s run by a friendly Australian expat and his Thai wife, and they serve fabulous food and enormous portions.  We sat at a table on the beach after sunset with the sand between our toes and enjoyed the Panang Curry and Peanut Sauce Stir Fry.  They also offer cooking classes!  It was dark so I didn’t get a great photo, but this sort of catches the ambiance:

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Beachfront dinner at Jang’s Thai Kitchen on Salad Beach

Getting to Koh Phangan

Our travels to and from Koh Phangan were interesting this time around.  On the way there, we saw this guy at the ferry pier carrying a bunny around on his shoulder:

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Man with a Bunny

And on the way home, a woman was washing her cat in the Surat Thani airport bathroom sink, so that was strange:

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Airport Bathroom Cat…

We also noted that at DMK Airport in Bangkok, there’s a golf course right on the airport grounds, with no fence separating it from the runway.  Never seen that before!

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No big deal, just a golf course next to the runway…

The best way to get from Chiang Mai to Koh Phangan is to fly to DMK Airport on Air Asia or Nok Air, then travel onward on Air Asia or Nok to Koh Phangan.  For some reason, you can’t book these two legs together, so you have to leave enough time at DMK to pick up any checked bags and re-check-in with your airline.  Leg number two from DMK to Koh Phangan takes awhile – with Air Asia you fly to Surat Thani Airport (1+ hour), bus to Donsak Pier (under 2hrs), then take a rustic ferry to Koh Phangan (about 2hrs).  The one-way trip from Chiang Mai to Koh Phangan should run just under $100 per person.  It’s a full day of traveling.  The ferry part was interesting – we were booked with Air Asia which uses Raja Ferry Service.

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Raja Ferry from Koh Phangan to Donsak Pier

The inside wasn’t air-conditioned, which was fine because it was morning.  The chairs were sort of old and rickety, but they did have a convenience store for snacks.  The bathroom was a nightmare with an inch of standing water on the floor.  Sigh.  But we made the best of it:

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Ferry Warriors!

There were some pretty great views coming into Donsak Pier:

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Beautiful view coming into Donsak Pier

Donsak Pier was a bit, um, worn down:

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Donsak Pier is just a bit rusty…

It’s also possible to fly Bangkok Airways directly to Koh Samui from Chiang Mai for $170 one-way, take a taxi to a ferry terminal (maybe $10), then ferry to Koh Phangan (abour $8), but the stars have to align for you to avoid an overnight stay in Koh Samui which could run you over $50.

We Want to Hear From You!

What do you look for in a good beach vacation?  Can you offer up any suggestions for us of Thailand’s western seaboard – next on our list is the Phuket and Krabi areas.  The things we value in a good beach vacation are: reasonable price/value ratio, nice clean white sand beaches, and apparently good donuts.

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