There’s no doubt about it: Koh Phangan is famous. The problem? It’s for all the wrong reasons. At worst, it’s been labelled one of the most ‘dangerous places on earth’ by the worldwide media. And at best? It’s just home to the notorious monthly Full Moon Party - which is, allegedly, the main event accountable for injuries, accidents and even deaths.
Without doubt, it’s a far cry from how the island used to be. Twenty five years ago there weren’t even any roads. You’d get from beach to beach via longtail boat and sleep at one of the very few basic bungalows in operation – or failing that, at a local Thai family’s home. Fast forward to 2013 – and the island is renowned. As well as Full Moon, there are more parties here than on any other island in Thailand. Festivals such as Half Moon, Black Moon, Shiva Moon, Jungle Experience and Sramanora Waterfall Party have ensured that Koh Phangan is 'the' party island of the Gulf – and that’s before you’ve even touched upon all the other underground gatherings!
Koh Phangan has long been famous for the notorious Full Moon Party.
Says Graham Gold – one of the biggest UK DJs on the island who moved here five years ago, “There are so many similarities between Koh Phangan and Ibiza. Koh Phangan is the bastard child of Thailand. Ibiza is the bastard child of the Balearics. The free spirited hippies discovered Ibiza in the late 60s, as hordes escaped Spain and the rule of Franco, while, over on this part of the world, they discovered Koh Phangan in the 70s, most of them migrating from the psy-trance scene in Goa”.
These days, the majority of backpackers arrive on the island a couple of days before Full Moon, then leave straight afterwards - sometimes even on the first ferry out the next morning. Few get to experience the ‘real Koh Phangan’. Talk to anyone who has chosen to make this their home, though, and they’ll all say the same. This island is special. It’s creative, eclectic, underground, spiritual, artistic; it’s got a great, free-flowing vibe; a tight community that integrates both expats, locals, and travellers who keep coming back.
The strong integration between the ‘farang’ (foreigners) and locals may come as a surprise. You wouldn’t be alone in imagining that, what with the chaos that is Haad Rin during Full Moon week, there’s probably no love lost between us all, let alone good relations. Not so. These last few weeks, for example, the Annual Police Cup (or ‘Poo Ton’) tournament of the island has been in full force at the Koh Phangan Police Station grounds, with teams that include Jungle FC, FC Farang, the Haadrin Team, Chaloklum Team, and two Police Teams! And the new Chief of Police, Prachum Mot, has been instrumental in ensuring that the event reaches out to all members of the community…
The football teams, comprised of both locals and expats, get competitive.
Last week, two of the island’s artists, Luana and Andrea Steffen, both raised in Miami but resident here for the last three years, were in attendance as cheerleaders (along with DJ Annie G), and also provided games and painting activities for the children. Also cheering from the sidelines was Graham Gold, who along with others, are now police volunteers, , thus taking on responsibilities that will include nighttime patrols in a bid to deter crime and help keep the island safe after dark. Meanwhile, Brahm Olszynko, from Canada, was showcasing his skills on the Djembe drums during half time (before moving down to the Kiteboarding festival in Ban Tai to do a full stageshow as we, the audience, munched on BBQs while sat on the beach).
Brahm arrived to live on Koh Phangan eleven months ago with his partner Mae after completing a yoga course at the world famous Agama yoga school back in 2010. The couple fell in love with the island, and now organize weekly drum jams (‘Brahm’s Tams’) on Sri Thanu beach every Sunday at sunset. It’s donation only, and in high season, regularly attracts up to 400 people, either drumming, dancing or picnicking on the beach with their friends and families. Another free event they launched just last month was the wildly successful Made By Love Art Exhibition at Baan Jai Dee on Wok Tum on the west side, just slightly north of Thong Sala. The event showcased art in all mediums courtesy of the islanders: from painting to sculptures, photographs to installations, live art…and everything in between. “Thirty five people turned up at the first volunteer meeting, which was an incredible show of solidarity,” he told me. And the turnout for the actual event? Over 600 people; most of them Thais.
“Over the years, a balance has emerged on the island – to party, and not to party,” he added, when quizzed about what he loves most about Koh Phangan. “And it works. You can go crazy for however long you want – then blitz out on a deserted beach; do art, yoga; detach.” In a nutshell, then, Koh Phangan is pretty incomparable in terms of its variety and free-style underground spirit. Many people talk of the special energy here; it attracts a lot of people all searching for an alternative life. This is an island small enough to sustain a strong community, and big enough for all kinds of people to find their own piece of paradise – whether they’re into partying, yoga, Muay Thai… the list is endless.
RUMOURS OF A NEW AIRPORT?
The only potential fly in the ointment is the alleged opening of a new airport on the other side of the island – near the idyllic, private beaches of Thong Nai Pan. According to reports, the domestic, privately owned airport will be open by the end of 2014, and will accommodate small planes that will carry up to 20 people at a time. Support for the venture is split 50/50. The question on many people’s lips: Will it spoil Koh Phangan? Will it become just ‘another Samui’? Will there suddenly be a whole load of expensive resorts built every other week, along with a McDonalds and a KFC? Ninety five percent of Koh Phangan is jungle – will huge acres of it be done away with in a move towards another commercially-driven hotspot?
Probably not. The jungle interior of Phangan is in fact a protected National Park. And, as Brahm points out, “We’re just at the beginning of really positive growth here. There is so much potential, and the island being just that little bit more accessible with a small airport can only be a good thing. It will give us more kudos, more of a platform on an international stage. People not familiar with the island are only just starting to realize it is not just about Full Moon.” Graham Gold agrees. “I love doing my 16k bike circuit here, taking in the long stretch from Hin Kong to Wat Tum. It’s just lovely, riding along slowly and engaging with your surroundings. Then there are the waterfalls. Phang Waterfall in particular is beautiful. It’s nice to sit at the top of that rock seat, look over the west coast, soak it all up and remind yourself why you chose to live here in the first place.”
It's hard to fathom that such natural beauty co-exists with such an infamous party.
“When Discovery Channel came to film a few months ago, they wanted to focus on all the other things that go on here, besides Full Moon Party. They filmed the hugely successful Half Moon Festival (which showcases one of the best production set-ups on the island), Lek from Fisherman’s Restaurant teaching Thai cooking, Srie from Chorenhit gym doing Muay Thai classes on Bottle Beach, diving with Sail Rock Divers in Chaloklum, the fundraising event for Koh Phangan Puppies at the beautiful club resort Mer Ka Ba, and Luana and Andrea (aka Queen Luana and AiA), the island painters responsible for most of the murals at bars in Haad Rin, including Mellow Mountain and Kangaroo Bar.”
But what of Full Moon itself? Word on the island is that the world famous party is set to be become more regulated, so that it becomes a safer place for all the young travellers who make their pilgrimage here each month. Graham, who’s been the main resident at Tommy Resort every Full Moon party for the last three years, and Aaron Fevah, resident DJ at Mellow Mountain (and island resident for eight years), have been working on a three-year business plan to make the Full Moon Party a world class event. The proposal has been presented to the Haad Rin Business Association, and includes doing away with the fake alcohol bucket stalls in favour of properly labelled spirits, and increasing the door charge to 200 baht (to go towards cleaning up the beach during the event as well as after the event has finished, and also for 100 uniformed security).
Who wouldn't want more of these guys around, helping to keep the party safe?
Meanwhile, Mrs Sukanda Saungmeung - or ‘Ning’, as she is better known, is the wife of one of the two mayors here on Koh Phangan, and also a member of the island’s Red Cross. “We opened a Red Cross Tent at the party for the first time last month”, she told me. “Many partygoers cut their feet on bottles on the beach, or become dehydrated. We wanted to help people who suffer injuries throughout the night”.
But is Full Moon really the demon it’s portrayed to be? Says Jourdan Bourdes, resident DJ: “The Media, to me, is the biggest weapon of mass destruction. The problem is when tourists come here and get so drunk that they wreck out on their scooters. The reality is that this place is so positive and full of amazing vibes. The nature and outdoor life is breathtaking. Come to Koh Phangan!Just be smart when you want to have a good time!”
5 UNEXPECTED THINGS TO DO IN KOH PHANGAN...
1) Join the Vibrant Art Community
Led by Queen Luana and AiA (who are currently repainting the murals at Jungle Experience), there’ll soon be plenty of opportunities to get your paintbrushes out and experiment. Having founded their own art organization ‘Tomorrow Is 2 Late’, they’ve just opened the Underground Workshop in Thong Sala, the island’s town. As well as providing a space where everyone can get creative, they’ll be offering Body Art sessions where you can choose a theme and get professionally painted – with or without fabric and gems, with or without costume and props! You’ll then have the option to get photographed by the island’s resident photographer, Sharon, who offers a number of different options, including black light photography to highlight your fluorescent body!
Unique, vibrant, and most definitely in the island spirit!
2) Teach Thai Children English
Echo Beach Backpackers in Baan Tai has 100 beds, a bar on the beach and all the normal services a large hostel has to offer. All profits go towards the new FREE teaching program where Mark, Sarah and Ella teach children, Burmese and Thai adults English in small classes of 10 or less, and one-on-one, in a classroom at the school. The local community are responding in droves, and the trio are now set to launch stage two where they’ll train volunteers to help with the program. If you’d like to be involved in the program email [email protected] for details. You can also help by just staying at the hostel. Guaranteed a fun and friendly stay, with prices ranging from just 99 baht a night!
3) Foster a Puppy
Koh Phangan is an island of animal lovers. Those who end up staying more than a month usually end up adopting one of the dogs found homeless and injured in the jungle. Two organizations are instrumental in caring for Koh Phangan’s furry friends: PAC, and Koh Phangan Puppies. They will be joining forces to implement a spay program for female dogs in the coming months. Want to volunteer / donate / support fundraising events, or foster / adopt an animal?
Always wanted a puppy? This good cause makes it hard to say no!
4) Build an Eco-Village in the Jungle!
Jourdan Bourdes, 31, from California, is a DJ/producer who lives on Koh Phangan and has DJ residencies at Jungle Experience, Sramanora Waterfall Party, Loi Ley, and the Full Moon. Right now he is also working hard on his Eco-house vision, right in the Jungle where you’ll find the legendary Jungle Experience festival! “After watching a documentary called Garbage Warriors, a lightbulb went off in my head,” he says. “If we can build houses from dirt, and recycles materials like glass, car tyres, plastic bottles and such… then why are there homeless people in the world? With that question resonating in my head, the dream came to me: Build sustainable homes for the homeless, and teach our younger generations how. The world is full of trash we’ve dumped; it’s everywhere – in our oceans, streets, rivers and sidewalks. My goal now is to build the first prototype, then take that model and find people and resources across the world that want to band together and start an eco-revolution!”
5) Do a Vipassana with an Aussie Monk
Nestled up in the hills and into the jungle lies the beautifully situated Wat Kow Tahm. Here you can participate in 7-day silent Vipassana retreats, taught by Anthony Markwell, a monk from Melbourne. “The most challenging – but ultimately rewarding – aspect is just being able to sit with your mind,” says Anthony. “No internet. No books. You’re unplugged from the matrix, and instead, tapping into nature that exists within us all.”
Words by Karen Farini, Photos by www.phanganist.com