The Thai expression ’sabai sabai’ is cousin to our ‘easy does it’. In other words: don’t worry, be happy! It’s a phrase often heard on this island in the Gulf of Thailand and a good-humoured means of reminding tourists that they should slow down and gently fall into sync with the local rhythm. If certain parts of this exotic Eden teem with devotees of the über-famous Full Moon Party, others are a haven of charm and serenity.
The crown’s favourite jewel
Of course, techno had nothing to do with King Rama V choosing Koh Phangan as his favourite island. No, this monarch who ruled Thailand into the early 20th century was likely attracted by the charm of its little fishing villages and the beauty of its white sand beaches. During his reign, Rama V honoured the enchanting island with his presence no fewer than fourteen times. During his visits, he was fond of exploring the jungle and then relaxing at the Than Sadet waterfall. By carving his initials into the rock there, the king left an indelible mark on this paradise where he is well-loved yet today: his portrait graces every home on the island.
The other king of the island: the scooter
They call it a motorbike and you can hire one almost anywhere for next to nothing: the scooter is the king of transport here, as in much of Asia. Though the law now dictates that drivers must wear crash helmets, old habits die hard and few bikers actually bother with headgear. Once recalcitrant motorcyclists have paid the fine of 200 baht (around € 4.90/£ 4.00), they may legally continue to tool about without a helmet for the rest of the day.
With a two-wheeler, the island is all yours! But please don’t forget: go sabai sabai, as the roads are often in need of repair; dirt roads especially can be terribly treacherous when wet. Accidents are common on Koh Phangan, and you will likely learn to recognize unfortunate motorists, as they frequently have (at least) one arm bound in a scarf. But more often than not, discovering the area on a scooter is a pure delight. The infamous ‘Thai driving style’ is much gentler here, as can be seen by the manageable chaos of traffic at Thong Sala, the principal port on the south-west corner of the island.
Speaking of Thong Sala, the town merits more than just a passing glance. There’s notably a very pleasant evening market every day of the week that is rich with the spicy scent of local products. And with its tangle of electric wires all along the pavement, this village port is a relatively accurate reflection of the nature of the kingdom’s inhabitants: imperturbable composure within apparent confusion.
The south of the island is marked by Thong Sala to the west and Haad Rin and its crowds of young (and not-so-young) free spirits to the east. In the centre of the island you’ll find the Than Sadet National Park and its jungle. The island’s loveliest shores are in the north-east: postcard-pretty beaches that seem to stretch on forever. Rumour has it that on some of these beaches, which can only be reached by boat, other soirees are held that are more, shall we say, exclusive than the Full Moon Parties.
To the north-west of the island lies the village of Chaloklum, a town with a handful of bungalows planted in the water. It is the kind of place where someone will wave hello to you at every corner. Very family-friendly, this is where former party animals that used to populate Haad Rin during wilder days come for holidays once they’ve settled down and had children. The small port where locals fish for squid is a fine destination for recreational divers. Even if the neighbouring island of Koh Tao is considered the best for diving, Koh Phangan’s Sail Rock also has a very good reputation amongst enthusiasts.
As far as food goes, Koh Phangan is famous for its thousand and one variations on curry. The preferred curries on this island of fishermen are, naturally, made with fish and seafood. And concerning the abundance of hot spice in Thai cuisine, one last piece of advice: easy does it!