Saturday, 16 November 2013

Bookings for Christmas 2013

I am not going to bore you with a graph showing visitor numbers to Thailand. Since 1998 the Kingdom claims it has seen year on year increases in visitor numbers. Starting in 1998 with 7.76 million foreign arrivals to 2012 when 22.3 million came to the Land of Smiles.

Many involved in tourism in Thailand feel that the good times will never end. Despite blips caused by the SARS epidemic and the Bird Flu epidemic, the flooding in 2011, the tsunami in 2004 and the coup in 2006 Thailand is more popular than ever. The massive downswing in the world economy in 2008 might have seen a drop in visitors from Europe and the US but it looks like the shortfall was made up for by large numbers of Russian and Chinese tourists. It is thus curious that authorities have been clamping down on Russians and Koreans working as translators and tour guides illegally. The assumption that they are taking jobs away from Thai people is spurious.

This year (2013) has seen the government propose another airport tax to cover unpaid medical expenses. It turns out that most of these expenses are from illegal immigrants. The policy is unclear as if the payment would provide any health cover and how the money would be distributed.

More seriously the Shinawatra government has been trying to push through an amnesty bill that would allow Thaksin Shinawatra to return to the Kingdom. Nothing is more guaranteed to stir up the feelings of the divided political activists in Bangkok and the country as large.

To a casual observer, it seems like the powers that be are testing whether they can do anything to stop the escalating tourist numbers. It also seems that inflation can’t curb the influx of visitors.

However, I’ve been checking the Christmas and New Year bookings in Koh Phangan this year and it is clear that Christmas bookings are down, but New Year is sold out as usual.

Although there is a Haad Rin ‘Moon’ party at Christmas, it is clear that Christmas is more of a family time for hotel bookings. These people are staying way from Koh Phangan this year. Maybe the problems in Bangkok are causing this, or perhaps the continued squeeze caused by the rocky economic recovery in Europe.

In contrast the young people, the backpackers, the gap –year people and the ravers are undeterred by the politics in the capital and the rising prices.

The trouble for Koh Phangan is that it is becoming too dependent on the Full Moon Party for its revenue. If something were to happen to the party then the visitor numbers could half within a month. Last New Year a young Brit was shot. More such tragedies could conceivably close the party down. After all, this is Thailand – not the most predictable place in the world.

And by the way the fish and chips in the place in the photo is not bad at all.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

East Coast vs West Coast

The east and west coasts of Koh Phangan vary considerably in terms of geography and culture. It is instructive to compare these two areas of Koh Phangan.
East Coast: no corals, good swimming and boat access

The east coast of Koh Phangan is the most mountainous region of the island and contains the most remote and inaccessible beaches. Than Sadet is reached by a rough track (that is being improved); Haad Nam Tok is down a very rough path and has only camping; Haad Yuan East is only reached by jungle foot path or boat; and the same is the case for Haad Yao and Haad Thian.

And yet these beaches are gorgeous. They have perfect white sands and are ideal for swimming as the seabed is sandy and they get deep fairly quickly. There aren’t any coral reefs on the east coast and there isn’t a large tidal difference. For these reasons the east coast beaches are often considered better than the west coast ones. And, of course, the two beaches of Thong Nai Pan are often cited as the best on the island.

The potential to develop the east coast as a major up-market tourist destination has been realized in Thong Nai Pan Noi; behind the scenes negotiations are on-going to develop other east coast beaches. This is all underlined by the placement of Koh Phangan airport at Than Prapad on the east coast.
West Coast: good roads, coral reefs, poor swimming in the sea

The west coast in contrast does not receive the same spot light in terms of tourism. Many of the beaches on the west coast have large tidal variations. From May to October those wanting a paddle in the sea need to walk out a long way. The beaches are very long on the west coast. The bay containing Hin Kong and Wok Tum is the biggest on the island. Much of it turns into mud flats that form a habitat for birds and other animals. Haad Yao on the west coast translates as long beach because it is 1 km long.

There is about 15 kilometers of coral reef running parallel to the west coast from Haad Chao Phao to Mae Haad. It is a big draw for the area as it attracts snorkelers. However, for many it is just an annoyance as the sand gets rough as it is mixed with dead coral. It also creates a rocky sea bed in parts that makes getting in and out of the water uncomfortable. Reviews of popular beaches on the west coast such as Haad Yao and Haad Salad make frequent reference to the dead coral in the sand and the problem with swimming in the sea.

Despite the success of Yao and Salad the beaches of the west attract fewer tourists than Thong Nai Pan, Than Sadet and the party beaches in the south (Haad Rin and Ban Tai). The west coast is flatter, less scenic but more convenient. On this side of the island are lots of bungalows and houses for long term let. This has been the traditional ex-pat area, away from the holiday makers. Places like Nai Wok, Sri Thanu, Wok Tum and Hin Kong are just a few minutes away from all the facilities and amenities of Thongsala. If you are living and working on the island it makes sense to live on the west coast. They also experience less power cuts, water shortages and have the lowest rainfall.

The west coast of Koh Phangan has more markets, temples and places of interest to visit including the island’s largest lake, Laem Son. It is an area easier to get around, to beach hop. You feel more connected with the rest of the island when you stay on a west coast beach. Staying on east coast beaches give you a feeling of being cut-off, isolated. There are few things nearby that are easy to visit and people tend to stay put and just enjoy the beach.

The prices for cheap bungalows are about the same on both coasts. Camping on Haad Nam Tok is the cheapest option but virtually nobody gets to this beach in the east. Haadlad Prestige (Salad beach) Mae Haad Bay Resort (Mae Haad), See Through Boutique Resort (Haad Yao) and Kupu Kupu Phangan Beach Villa (Plai Laem) offer luxury but they cannot compare in either price or style with Santhiya, Rasananda or Panviman in Thong Nai Pan Noi.

It is worth trying to spend time on both sides of the island just so you can enjoy two different experiences and perspectives of Koh Phangan. Probably the side you like best says something about your personality.

Sunday, 14 July 2013


Local markets are fascinating places in Thailand. These are groups of small stalls that are intended for Thai consumers with little money to spend. The items are often parceled into small servings to reduce cost. For many of these items the price is fixed or the price is at least commonly known. Stall owners are not used to dealing with foreigners and probably couldn’t explain in English what a lot of their wares are.

The market running along the top road of Thongsala that starts at the large bar on the corner of the main road is very much a local market.

I have been down the stalls many times over the years and I have purchased the odd vegetable or bag of bean sprouts. The other day I was with a Thai friend. We were strolling down the line of stalls, killing time. I spotted something strange in a plastic bag. It looked like, no it couldn’t be, yes it was…

A rat.

My Thai friend asked the stall holder, and yes it was a rat. In fact a whole stack of grilled rats. They are very common on the island and for those old skool Koh Phanganers living in the jungle and using a handmade rifle grilled rat makes a good meal with a bit of rice and no doubt a liberal amount of chilli.

Getting over the initial shock, it makes sense to me to eat ‘bushmeat’ in Koh Phangan. The animals are straight from the jungle and not carriers of disease; also, one hopes, not rubbish scavengers. There is apparently a rodent bigger than a rat found not only in Koh Phangan but all over Thailand that is something of a delicacy.

The picture above is of turtles in the market place in Thongsala. Turtles are meant to be protected animals as their numbers have declined sharply. Many people fear certain species could soon go extinct. I was surprised to see turtles in the market. Maybe I shouldn’t be since turtle soup is a Chinese favourite.

I have never seen deer meat. I presume the injunction to not kill the royal animal generally prevents open sale of the meat.

I have seen locals chowing down on giant lizard and I’m sure snake is also sometimes on the menu.

It might all sound a bit grim but until fairly recently Koh Phangan was a remote part of the Kingdom that did a bit of trade in coconut and squid but whose inhabitants were mostly self-sufficient. They lived off the land and the sea. That is real island life.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Bantai Revisited

Bantai is now the second most popular beach in Koh Phangan after Haad Rin. And just like Haad Rin just down the road, its popularity is largely based on the party business.

Over the past few years Bantai parties have dramatically increased in number. The Jungle Experience and the Half Moon Party has been joined by Rhythm and Sands. There are also the after parties at Baan Sabai. Last year saw the opening of Loi Lay Floating Bar that holds regular DJ events. Most recently the Ku Club opened its doors offering supposedly Ibiza style events on the beach.

The party goers are flocking to Bantai. The long beach has some good hotels and resorts. It also has plenty of budget backpacker places.

Another draw for Bantai is that it is located on the main road to Thongsala. There are plenty of bars and restaurants along this road including the small but infamous red-light district in Koh Phangan. The less seedy bars have live sports and some have live music.

However, putting all this aside, what is Bantai beach like? Well it is a beautiful long stretch of white sand. The sand is fine and is mostly kept clean. The biggest problem is the tide. There is a seasonal tidal shift that affects the waters around Koh Phangan. The high tidal months are October to April. At other times the water recedes a long way at low tide.

The photographs above were taken from the Lime N Soda Resort in June. The tide gets really low on Bantai beach during June and July. Indeed sometimes it’s awkward for big boats to get into the main ferry pier just down the coast in Thong Sala during this time.

At the time the pictures were taken you had to walk 1 kilometer out from the beach before it became deep enough to swim. There are also lots of rocks just below the surface that can cause injury.

Considering July and August are the high season for the island, I would suggest that many people who don’t choose the beach exclusively for dancing to techno and trance will end up disappointed with Bantai.

The best all-year-round swimming beaches in Koh Phangan are found on the East Coast of the island where the tidal changes have minimal impact. The most famous of these beaches are Thong Nai Pan Noi and Yai and Than Sadet.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Monitor Lizards in Bottle Beach

The picture is a scan of a photograph taken at Bottle Beach in 1999. I remember the occasion fairly clearly. One of the Thais working at Cookies had caught a giant monitor lizard and had put it in a wicker cage.

The lizard had awful smelling breath. Its tongue flicked menacingly through the gaps in the cage. From head to tail the creature was nearly a full arm-span in length.

The lad who had caught the lizard was full of pride and glee. He kept making the joke that it was going to be chicken curry tonight.

That same holiday we saw more giant monitor lizards sunning themselves on the rocks below the Panviman swimming pool in Thong Nai Pan Noi.

It seemed at that time that these harmless (if left alone) but nasty-looking creatures were all over the island.

In 2008 I encountered a group of Thais and Burmese on a building site. They were a friendly bunch and I sat and had a glass of lao khao with them (Laotian white spirits). They also offered me some sun dried meat. Much to their amusement I declined their offer when they had managed to explain to me that the meat was lizard.

Since that time I have spotted fewer and fewer monitors around the island.

It is tempting to suggest that as beaches such as Bottle Beach and Thong Nai Pan Noi got more developed the lizards had less space to lounge and prey on insects (and whatever else they eat) in peace and quiet.

There are also deer on the island around Than Sadet. They were released as a tribute to the King who loved the waterfall next to Haad Than Sadet. I’ve never seen these deer. I hope the East Coast changes caused by the new Airport don’t reduce the numbers of deer.

The challenge for Koh Phangan is to develop its infrastructure and tourist industry without damaging its beautiful natural environment.

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Bangkok to Koh Phangan Travel Prices May 2013

I recently made the trip from Bangkok to Koh Phangan. I stayed one night in Bangkok and then took the Air Asia flight from Don Muang Airport to Suratthani Airport.

The biggest city in the south of Thailand is Suratthani. It is a travel hub. It has an airport, a train station and a port. However, none of these travel options are close to the city part of Suratthani. This means you always have to factor in the time and money needed to get between the city, the port, the bus station, the train station and the airport.

Suratthani is on the main north-south train line. The station is actually in the nearby town of Punpin. It is about an hour away by minibus.

Songserm has a pier in Suratthani; however, the other ferry companies use piers in the Donsak region that is about an hour away by minibus.

All of this means that the Bangkok Airways flight between Suvarnabhumi and Koh Samui remains an attractive, if more expensive, option. It also involves less moving from one form of transport to another.

I took the Air Asia flight to Suratthani and then the Raja Car Ferry from Donsak to Thongsala in Koh Phangan. It takes a few hours more but it saves nearly 2,000 Thai Baht, and makes the journey possible in a day rather than the over-night options of train and boat or bus and boat.

At the airport

I arrived at Suvarnabhumi Airport on Saturday 27th April.2013 at 7.30 pm. I had to wait 1 hour in an immigration queue. Most obvious were large groups of Chinese people on tours. None of them were filling the arrival/departure cards in correctly and this slowed the process down even though 95% of the police immigration desks were open. Queues reached down the ramp into the main concourse. In fairness to the airport staff they set up a snaking queue system that made the process slightly less chaotic.


Surat Thani Airport to Koh Phangan by bus/raja ferry = 445 THB per person

Suvarnabhumi airport to Central Bangkok by taxi from Kiosk: 400 THB fare, 50 THB service charge, 70 THB toll (total cost 520 THB).

Suvarnabhumi airport to Central Bangkok by meter taxi: Approximately 220 THB fare, 50 THB service charge, 70 toll THB (total cost 340THB). I got the taxi at the kiosk but the guy decided to do it by the meter anyway.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Raja Car Ferry

The Raja Car Ferry is in many ways the life blood of Koh Phangan. It is the only car ferry serving the island. As such it is responsible for bringing in many things to the island which allow it to cater to hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.

In 1981 the Samui-Kanom Ferry Co., Ltd was set up. It was only later the company changed its name to Raja. The company found quick success setting up car ferry services between the mainland of Thailand (Donsak) and both Koh Phangan and Koh Samui. The company capitalized on the booming tourist industry developing on both islands with its need for vehicles, motorbikes, imported food goods, furniture, electrical equipment and so on.

Now there are 40 boats in the Raja fleet. They all have plenty of sitting space, a bar, a restaurant, a shop and lots of deck space. You can always find a chair to sit on.

The car rental business in Koh Phangan is still very much in its infancy. It is thus a big advantage to be able to bring your own car to Koh Phangan. Another big benefit of the Raja is that it is a big boat that is more stable in the water. It is the ferry that is least likely to cause you to be sea sick. The Lomprayah tends to bounce through rough waters. The combination of hung-over full moon party people and choppy waters leads to an unpleasant Lomprayah catamaran service.

Raja Car Ferry has teamed up with Air Asia to provide one of several fly and ferry services connecting Bangkok and Koh Phangan. Outside Suratthani Airport there is a bus waiting for passengers disembarking from the Bangkok flight (Don Muang). The combined bus and ferry ticket to Thongsala in Koh Phangan costs 420 Thai Baht. Tickets can be bought in the airport as well as outside by the bus rank.

The 7am flight from Don Muang arrives at Suratthani at 8am. You then transfer to a bus and then the Raja Car Ferry. The boat leaves at 10am and arrives in Thongsala at 12.30. Thus, the trip from Bangkok to Thongsala takes 5 and a half hours. The afternoon Air Asia flight leaves Bangkok at 14.35 and gets to Suratthani at 15.35. This connects with the 18.00 Raja that gets into Koh Phangan at 20.30. There are few taxis waiting to meet this ferry. You will be unable to get a shared taxi to anywhere other than Haad Rin at this time of night.

A good place to stay in Thongsala is Buakao Inn. It is a short walk from the pier and has clean comfortable rooms. Downstairs there is an excellent bar and restaurant.

Overall, Raja is a reliable and comfortable ferry service to Koh Phangan. It is excellent value for bringing small motorbikes onto the island - only 280 Thai Baht. The only drawback to the Raja is that it takes 2 and a half hours to ply the route between Thongsala and Donsak on the mainland. Lomprayah catamarans are much quicker vessels

Raja Ferry Timetable

Koh Phangan Donsak
5.00 7.30
7.00 9.30
10。00 12.30
13。00 15.30
17.00 19.30

Donsak Koh Phangan
7.00 9.30
10.00 12.30
13.00 15.30
16.00 18.30
18.00 20.30


Foot passenger - 220 Thai Baht
Monk and student in uniform - 11o Thai Baht
Children under 110 cm - 110 Thai Baht
Bicycle / small motorbike with rider - 280 Thai Baht
Large motorbike with rider - 460 Thai Baht
Car with driver - 620 Thai Baht

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Jungle Bar Closes

It is very much in the nature of businesses in Koh Phangan to change hands periodically. In many cases the land is leased and when the business stutters it is eventually sold to another party who re-names and launches.

There are, of course, very successful ventures like Panviman (Thong Nai Pan), Haad Yao Divers and Drop in Bar (Haad Rin) that seem solid business ventures and are not likely to close. In Haad Rin the lease costs are very high and one bad Full Moon Party might be all it needs to make the leaseholders walk away. By many Koh Phangan landowners it is seen as the safest option to lease land for resorts, bars, shops, spas and restaurants rather than attempt to develop a business themselves.

Another common story is that a place was successful for several years but hits a decline. This is the tale with the Jungle Bar in Thong Nai Pan Noi. It started in 1997. I remember it was my birthday and I went there to have a couple of cocktails. The lad serving us had no idea how to make our drinks. Still I liked the place. It had plenty of relaxed seating on mats as well as a couple of hammocks. The nightclub lighting and the feeling of being on the edge of a jungle all made it a cool place to me.

Now fast forward to 2007, ten years later. The Jungle Bar’s Monday night is packed throughout the high seasons and still busy at other times. The bar has become something of an institution, and the Thai couple running it minor celebrities.

For a long time it was DJ Ton on the decks. It went from vinyl to CD and never really made it to computer mixing. He played all the crowd favorites and often ended the night with an hour of hard and loud techno. People would get drums out and bang along. From 1am to 5am there would be continual whoops from enthusiastic revelers.

The success of the Jungle Bar in Thong Nai Pan Noi had one obvious consequence – the setting up of another nightclub bar on the beach. A good business idea in Thailand needs to be copied. The Hideaway got going around 2006 and had a big Friday night party.

The other consequence was that Noi got a bit of a reputation as a party beach; so much so that a German business started having a 10 day minimal techno festival every summer. They bought with them a large group of Europeans, most of who stayed at Baan Panburi, as well as big name DJs.

The loud noise put people off staying at Sandee Bungalow. The other dubious types of behavior that goes with a party scene put off the traditional visitors to TNP – the hippies. Prices and accommodation quality both started to go up.

Then the beach took the next leap to a high end resort beach. And it wasn’t long before the party scene evaporated. It was this change of scene that caused the Hideaway to close in 2011 and for the Jungle Bar to finally bite the dust in 2013.

The lease has been allowed to run out. The Jungle Bar will be torn down and replaced with small units for rental as businesses. The land is next to the new Buri Rasa ‘Village Square’ and could well be used to create a profitable business that caters to a different and richer clientele.

The story of the Jungle Bar has no doubt similarities to the history of many businesses in Koh Phangan and Thailand. The country is moving fast and so is the business scene.