Friday, 23 June 2017

How to get from Koh Phangan to Koh Phi Phi

Koh Phangan is ridiculously laid back and the beaches are ridiculously beautiful. The same is even more true for the two Phi Phi islands. One island is so laid back it is deserted (Phi Phi Leh). The other island is jungle that gives way to a perfect sandy beach. There are the cliffs at Phi Phi and of course the scenery used in the movies. Phi Phi just off Phuket doesn't have the Full Moon Party, or even the Half Moon Party, but it does have perfect beaches. Thus, those beach junkies visiting Thailand will certainly want to check out Koh Phi Phi as well as Koh Phangan.

There are 2 companies that currently offer travel packages to get tourists from Koh Phangan to Koh Phi Phi. They are Seatran Discovery and Phantip Travel. Of the two Seatran is slightly more expensive for online booking (1,100 THB) compared with the Phantip price of 900 Thai Baht.

The Seatrain service departs from Thongsala pier at 8am. It is a combined ferry- bus-ferry ticket. The bus gets to Chaokoh ferry pier at 3pm and gets you to Koh Phi Phi at 4.30pm.

Phantip Travel uses a different route. Passengers take the car ferry from Thongsala to Donsak, and from there transfer to a bus. The journey starts at 7am and you get to Koh Phi Phi at 4pm. Thus for the 200 Thai Baht saving you get a journey time that is 30 minutes longer.

In terms of comfort, reliability, safety and level of service there is very little between the 2 companies. The Seatran Discovery boat is a bit faster than the Raja car ferry. However, the Raja is a much bigger boat and can deal with worse nautical conditions.

You can book tickets from Koh Phangan to Koh Phi Phi online here. It is a straight forward process. You receive an instant email confirmation. The prices are the same as if you bought them at the pier in Thongsala. Best to book early if you are planning to leave Koh Phangan after a Full Moon Party.

Friday, 28 October 2016

Hotel Groups in Koh Phangan

Kupu Kupu Beach Villas and Spa in Plaay Laem

Since tourism really got underway in Koh Phangan in the late 1980s the majority of guesthouses, hotels and bungalow resorts in Koh Phangan have been independent operators. In most cases the family owning the resort would also be managing the resort. However over the years this situation has become to change. Leasing resorts has become popular and there is the slow emergence of a new level of capitalism - hotel groups. 

The Full Moon Party has been the making of Haad Rin. It guarantees an influx of thousands of visitors every month including the highly lucrative Christmas and New Year period. This made land on the Haad Rin peninsula valuable as accommodation is needed for the hoards that descend on the party. As a result many of the resorts are leased out by silent owners. A few leases come up for renewal every year, often at increased prices. This has driven up prices, especially during high season and party times. 

The first recognisable chain hotel appeared first in Haad Rin. It was the Best Western Phangan Buri Resort. It tried to bring international standard 3 to 4 star rooms to Koh Phangan. It ran for many years before changing to Buri Beach Resort in 2015. It seems the attraction of chain hotels in Haad Rin faded away or the lease got too high. 

In Thong Nai Pan Noi the hotels did so well that they created the opportunity for sister resorts elsewhere in Thailand. The best example of this is Panviman which started life as a small hotel on the headland that developed into a luxury resort at the same time as launching a Panviman resort in Chiang Mai. 

The same story is repeated by Santhiya Resort that takes over the hill at the northern end of Thong Nai Pan Noi. Its lanna architecture, lavish pool and high end customer service has been replicated in Santhiya Koh Yao Yai and Santhiya Tree in Koh Chang. 

Slightly different is Buri Rasa on Thong Nai Pan Noi. Originally the site was Star Huts, then it got partly taken over by Baan Panburi Village before it eventually became the 4 star Buri Rasa Hotel. Baan Panburi Village was the template to capture the flash packer market who wanted air-con bungalows next to the beach. However, the owner realised that he was going for the cheaper, less lucrative end of the market. He moved Baan Paanburi to Thong Nai Pan Yai where it slowly declines from neglect and will surely soon be replaced. 

The vacated space on Thong Nai Pan Noi was used to build the latest luxury hotel for the area - the Buri Rasa. This is not the first in a chain. Rather it is the second rendition. The original is Buri Rasa Village in Chaweng in Koh Samui. The concept was to aim for the middle-high position. To offer air-con, cable TV, swimming pool, restaurant and gym but to charge in the region of 4,000 Thai Baht a night rather than 20,000 Thai Baht that many big luxury beach hotels charge. 

It looks to be a winning idea as a series of financial shocks since 2008 has diminished the spending power of European visitors to Thailand. The numbers have partly been made up by increased tourism from China but these tourists often come on package tours where the operators bargain heavily for group discounts on mid-range rooms. Aiming for this market seems to make short term sense. 

A fairly recent addition to the chain hotel pool in Koh Phangan is the Kupu Kupu Beach Villas and Spa. It is a smart resort in Plaay Laem on the West Coast. It has 32 luxury villas and 2 suites. The resort combines traditional crafts and materials with cutting edge design. There is La Plage Restaurant that focuses on Thai food and fresh seafood and there is also a spa by L'Occitane. The resort also boasts a beach front pool and its own yacht for group excursions. 

Kupu Kupu has quickly established itself as one of the best hotels on the island. The business model is repeated at Kupu Kupu Barong (Bali) and Kupu Kupu Jimbaran (Indonesia). In each case the resorts have produced traditional resort architecture with a modern twist. They also feature beach locations and extensive spa services by L'Occitane. This chain has successfully captured market share of the high end of the accommodation spectrum in Koh Phangan. 

The last hotel to make this list is Rasananda in Thong Nai Pan Noi. Although this is a one-off hotel with no sister establishments the owner has decided to team up with the management brand of Anantara. They manage several hotels in Bangkok and across Thailand. 

It seems as Koh Phangan develops and moves away from cheap wooden bungalows on the beach it has inevitably attracted outside brands and hotels built to a certain formula for success. There are not any Hyatt hotels or Conrad hotels yet (they are in Koh Samui), but perhaps it is just a matter of time.

Although the traditional hippy backpacker to Koh Phangan will see all this as further evidence of the decline of Koh Phangan as 'cool destination' and how he or she is being priced off the island, other visitors might welcome the attempt to bring better service to the island and maybe who knows proper car rental by a company such as Avis or Hertz and maybe even jet ski hire without the scams.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Doing Something Different in Koh Phangan

The popularity of Koh Phangan has mushroomed over the last decade. The island has gone from obscure backwater status, to being just as famous (if not more) than neighbouring Koh Samui with its 5 star hotels, airport and ring road. Koh Phangan isn't as developed as Koh Samui, but it does feel sometimes just as touristy. For those wanting to escape the feeling of being caught in a tourist trap here are a few notes about doing something different in Koh Phangan. Let's start by making a list of what is not, in my humble opinion, something different; what lots of people do are (in no particular order):
  1. Learn Muay Thai boxing
  2. Have cookery classes
  3. Have scuba lessons
  4. Go to the Full, Half, Black Moon Parties, or go to any of the big parties
  5. Sleep with a bargirl in Baan Tai
  6. Do an island boat tour
  7. Organise a fishing trip
  8. Extend your visa by pretending to study Thai
  9. Take up kiteboarding
  10. Rent a motorbike and chance riding the roads around Koh Phangan
  11. Go snorkelling at Koh Ma
The list could go on. There is now a lot to do in Koh Phangan. I didn't even mention the water obstacle course at Laem Son Lake, archery, elephant rides, gun range, mountain biking, teeth whitening, free diving, trekking, tattoo possibilities or having a herbal sauna at Wat Pho in Baan Tai. I am impressed by the few wild and crazy souls who approach Koh Phangan with a different mind-set. Those who shun the beaten tracks and the organised activities.
Most recently I read on Facebook about a Latvian man. The picture on Facebook showed him in the sea with a raft he had made himself. It looked like 2 planks and random bits of wood lashed together with a bit of rope. The poster didn't mention his name. What was mentioned was that the guy had managed to get his homemade raft from Koh Samui to Koh Phangan.

While being dangerous and reckless, it shows the Latvian has balls. From the picture I'd say he was in his 50s. He is currently living on the deserted beach of Haad Khontee, next to Haad Rin. He forages for fresh water and fishes for sustenance. Apparently he makes the odd visit to Haad Rin to stock up on coffee and other essentials. Is he off his rocker? Maybe. Is he over-staying his visa? Maybe. Is he doing the usual stuff in Koh Phangan? No.

 A few years ago Greg Spurgin started in Koh Samui and kayaked to Koh Phangan and other places in the Gulf of Thailand. He was clearly an expert kayaker. He circumnavigated Koh Phangan staying in obscure inlets and islands and avoided paying accommodation and the company of others. He stayed one night on the tiny island of Koh Kong near Thong Nai Pan. He made a blog about his journeys on his kayak. It is one of the best records of a holiday to Koh Phangan I have read. He has visited places I suspect very few other Westerners have on and around Koh Phangan. Here is his blog -

You read various things about the treks to be done in Koh Phangan, but you meet few people who have actually done them. It appears the easy option of a taxi or the exciting option of motorbike rental seems to be the winning options for most people.

And then there is the interior of the island. The island is 90% virgin forest. It holds a wealth of flora and fauna (supposedly including deers) that nobody gets to see who are doing the typical beach and party holiday. Thong Nai Pan Magazine blog has some information about snakes, birds and other animals that inhabit the forest.

 The closest to eco-tourism on Koh Phangan is Jungle Flight. It is run by a local farmer. He has ziplines in the jungle just outside of Baan Tai. He also takes people on tours into the jungle and sometimes gets a sighting of a rare bird or monkey.

 I'm not suggesting anybody takes upon themselves to explore the interior independently, and I certainly don't recommend over-staying your visa (the authorities are cracking down on over-stayers), but I would love to read a blog about some wild, romantic soul living in the heart of the forest - foraging and getting a bit Walden. There was a Japanese soldier in the war who had a solo look-out post up a mountain in Koh Phangan. He apparently didn't discover the war had ended for quite a while. If only he had written a blog.