Changing Face of Koh Phangan

Harbingers of change

Tourists started visiting the Thai island of Koh Phangan in the Gulf of Thailand in the 1970s. For many years visitor numbers to the tropical island were comparatively low compared to Koh Samui just 12 km away. In the early 2000s that started to change due to the huge popularity of the Full Moon Party in Haad Rin and the emergence of a luxury hotel market on the island. Now Koh Phangan airport is under construction and already comment boxes on blogs are covered with predictions of Koh Phangan being ruined.

Chaweng in Koh Samui

Koh Phangan, Koh Samui and freedom

I first went to Koh Phangan in 1997. Since then I have returned more times than I can count. I even lived on one of its beaches for 16 months. I am hopelessly in love with the island. Its majestic white sand beaches, its tree covered mountains, its lush jungle and its friendly people make it heart breaking to leave. It is a place that is free of the shackles of regulation. There is only one traffic light on the island. The laws concerning closing time are largely ignored. Until two years ago no one bothered wearing a motorbike helmet. Thailand is often called the land of the free, and Koh Phangan life epitomizes that freedom to me.

In contrast Koh Samui is built up. Along most of the coastal road hotels, bars and shops crowd out the natural scenery. Even in the quieter south-west much of the hillsides with sea views have been turned into ambitious private residence developments. Koh Samui seems like it cannot do enough to develop quick enough to pull in the tourist dollar. The airport, big supermarkets, modern hospitals, big nightclubs, marathon events, jazz festivals, international schools and expensive branded hotels all are there to entice more visitors. Koh Samui is very keen to attract high end tourists interested in ‘Western standards’ and luxury amenities; and, of course, with these ‘Western standards’ come regulations and a sense of restriction.

The fear

This is what people fear for Koh Phangan – that it will become too developed; that the price for everything will increase; that the cheap bungalows on the beach will vanish; that suddenly the police will clamp down on the freedoms everyone took for granted. I, like many certainly don’t want Koh Phangan to become like Koh Samui. I don’t care a fig for Irish bars, 5 star hotels and shopping malls. I go to paradise to experience nature in its glory not to lie around a swimming pool.

Tesco in Thongsala

Not all Development is bad

Many people who bemoan change fail to recognize that nothing stands still; this is particularly true when it comes to tourism. It is a multi-billion dollar global industry that is a massive engine for change. Even the sea gypsies that live on remote islands in the Gulf experience the changes caused by tourism.

However, Koh Phangan has managed to maintain its tree cover. It is still 90% virgin rainforest. Rangers have doggedly prevented development encroaching on the forests. Although most of the roads on the island have been concreted no new roads have been built. No one seems interested in building an island circular road like in Koh Samui. For one the mountainous scenery makes it very costly.

Not all development is bad. The electricity supply to the island has been upgraded and now all but a couple of the beaches are on the grid. The power doesn’t go off every time it rains like it used to.

Thongsala, the main town, is still the same old sleepy and unpretentious place. I, like many others, am glad that I can get a better selection of food and drink at the Tesco Lotus store.

None of these developments are bad. Indeed, I have never had a bad accident on a motorbike in Thailand but I would be happy if they upgraded Koh Phangan hospital since it is presently lacking in everything but dedicated staff.

Rasananda in Thong Nai Pan Noi

Parties and luxury enclave

The party culture of Koh Phangan has had a huge impact on the finances of the southern coast of Koh Phangan. Haad Rin, Bantai and Bankai are changing rapidly to supply the demands of those who come to frequent the Full Moon Party, the Half Moon Party, the Black Moon Party, the Jungle Experience, The Shiva Moon Experience and the numerous other techno, trance and house events in the area. As a result a lot of mid-range accommodation has been built – hastily erected air-con bungalows next to a pool.

In contrast in the north-east of the island the small beach of Thong Nai Pan Noi has emerged as the leading luxury destination on the island. It has 3 supposedly ‘5 star’ hotels and building is still underway. It is no surprise that Thong Nai Pan Noi has been chosen as the luxury enclave – it is a perfect beach set in a stunning amphitheater of mountains.

These are changes I don’t like so much – there are too many fool mooners wandering around out of their minds oblivious to everything except their own buzz. And it is a shame that most of the cheap bungalows in Thong Nai Pan Noi have gone. However, these changes affect only a small part of the island. Other beaches like Than Sadet, Haad Thian, Haad Chao Phao, Haad Khom, Plaay Laem and Bottle Beach are free of both constant party noise and 5 star resorts. Many of the bungalow resorts are pulling down old bungalows and putting up upgraded accommodation but the general tenor of the beaches remain the same. They remain wonderful retreats from the straitjackets of our normal lives.

Koh Phangan Airport

Hope

Koh Phangan airport is going to be small. The planes are going to carry just a dozen or so people at a time. It is not going to be the herald of mass package tourism to the island. Most of those arriving by plane will go directly to Thong Nai Pan. It is hard to see how this will impact on the whole island. Koh Samui has over a dozen flights arriving every day, bringing in thousands. Most people arriving in Koh Phangan will still be coming from either Koh Samui or the mainland by boat. Only those prepared to make the extra journey will come. Those wanting bowling alleys, strip joints, go karts, Conrad Hotels etc. will still go to Koh Samui. That is the way I think it will remain. Considering Koh Samui occupancy rates are under 50% it is not in Koh Phangan’s self-interest to emulate its sister island.

Long live a Koh Phangan that devotees of Koh Samui turn their nose up at.

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