Koh Pha Ngan is undoubtedly linked to drinking bucket after bucket of long island iced-tea while dancing around a campfire with neon paint in every shade of the rainbow on your face. The full moon party that takes place here once a month is famous worldwide and draws in huge crowds of young backpackers that come for nothing else than partying. But is Koh Pha Ngan any fun if the moon is not showing its full face? I decided to travel there exactly in the middle between two full moon parties to find out.
– What to do –
Sights & Activities
When I visited Koh Pha Ngan I had two missions. First, I wanted to see if it lived up to its reputation as the party capital of the Thai Gulf. Second I wanted to know if there was anything else to do besides partying. If you take my words here very literally the answer to my second question is yes, but if you want to know whether there is anything special or unique on Koh Pha Ngan, you will be left disappointed. Let me elaborate.
The first thing I do when I am researching a destination to visit is checking out what lonely planet has to say about the place and perform a google search to see what other travellers think. It took me only an hour to find out that firstly, I had to go check out the waterfalls. Secondly, I had to do a bunch of activities that can either be done anywhere in Thailand or that are actually located on or around the neighbouring island Koh Tao. Therefore not being Koh Pha Ngan activities at all.
“Go chasing waterfalls”
Chasing waterfalls left me disappointed. On my second day on the island, I convinced a couple of dormmates to rent scooter bikes and cruise around the island. I visited Ko Pha Ngan in February (late) and almost all waterfalls were running dry, the most promoted one, Nam Tok Phaeng, included. After having witnessed two sad trickles dripping of a cliff into a tiny puddle (probably better during the rainy season), we stopped for lunch and contemplated what to do with the remainder of our day. We asked the restaurant owner and went online and found out that apart from jet skiing, kitesurfing or visiting tacky waterparks there is really not much to do. We decided to stop fighting the current and to do what you are supposed to do on Koh Pha Ngan: sipping cocktails on the beach.
The other activities on offer include diving, island-hopping tours, snorkelling, doing a cookery course or elephant riding. Diving, snorkelling and island-hopping will all take you to the waters surrounding Koh Tao, cookery courses can be done everywhere in Thailand and the best schools are certainly not located on the island. You really should not even think about going elephant riding at all. Here is why. I would have loved to tell you differently and write an article about the hidden gems on the ‘supposedly’ party-only destination but I simply did not find them. If you are looking for anything else at all than partying, skip Pha Ngan, and go straight to Koh Tao. Did I mention there is a great party scene on Koh Tao going on as well?
So what about the parties when there is no full moon party going on (you can see look up the dates of the full moon parties here). Well, the good news comes in threes this time.
1. Yes, there is excellent partying on the island every single day, whether it is in one of its many bars, hostels or clubs.
2. Every week there is a ‘special party’ to ensure that backpackers and other travellers alike can go crazy in any chosen week. A week after the full moon party that is the ‘quarter moon party’, also known as the Black moon party, which takes place at Baan Tai beach. Check out the schedule here.
3. Right in the middle between two full moon parties the island organises a ‘half moon party’ dubbed the jungle party. If you ask anyone that spent a little longer on the island, they will tell you the jungle party is an exceedingly better pick than its famous older brother. Due to its success, I heard it is nowadays even organised bi-weekly (schedule here).
Half Moon Party
Everybody was excited to go. The evening before, my hostel had organised a social night (barbeque and drinking games) for all guests to make sure everybody knew each other before going to the jungle party. So when everyone gathered around the bar for pre-drinks, the vibes were instantly good. People that bought their ticket at the reception desk (I bought mine online because I was convinced that was better value for money, 1400B – it was not) and the hostel had arranged for neon-paint and glowing wristlets so everyone tried their best to decorate themselves to the best of their abilities. Sadly our abilities weren’t much. Instead of the awesome tribal face pattern that I had imagined, I left for the festival with a bunch of bright yellow smears on my face.
That’s right, festival. The half moon party is nothing else than a festival, similar to many EDM-festivals that can be found anywhere in Europe or Northern America. Who am I kidding? Anywhere in the world nowadays. But who doesn’t like a good festival? The exception is that this festival is located in the middle of the jungle, which makes for an awesome decor.
Getting to the festival is easy. Red Songthaew taxis drive up and down from Haad Rin and Thong Sala and costs only 20-50B (depending on the number of people in the taxi, your haggling skills and probably your level of intoxication). Our hostel arranged for a private songthaew that got us there for free.
It took not much more than half an hour before our whole group fell apart because people either wanted to see different stages or just lost the group and found new friends on the spot. There are a few big stages that play EDM music, a techno cave and a pop & 90ies stage. Plenty of choices, but small enough to get a grip on the layout of the place fairly easily. The music was good, don’t expect a famous lineup, but it is the jungle setting that makes this party pop. Sipping buckets while dancing between people with neon decorations all over their bodies in the middle of a tropical jungle island is just pretty awesome. The big downside of the half moon: the prices. A small beer is about 140B so even if you only buy a few, this one will undoubtedly gobble up a large part of your budget.
– Eating and sleeping recommendations –
As is true for any destination in Thailand, the food is good in most places. Incredible value for money can be found in the small streetside family restaurant Sawadee Restaurant on Moo 1, 112/39, right across the street of Outlaws Saloon (which is a terrible choice for dinner). Also recommendable is the Thong Sala Nightmarket, which an abundance of cheap seafood street food.
There are many good hotels, resorts and restaurants on Koh Pha Ngan but they don’t all offer the best value for money. An awesome hostel located at the beach which a huge pool and incredible staff (Teddy is golden) is Goodtime Beach Backpackers. Their cheapest beds 350B are a night but you will rarely get this deal and are more likely to pay around 500B (Koh Pha Ngan is not a cheap place). This is for a dorm room with an ensuite bathroom and airconditioning. It is also perfectly located for the half moon party.
Lime & Soda is great because it is both a backpackers spot as well as a resort. They have a swimming pool, a social bar, good staff but their biggest draw are their private bungalows (with AC) for about 800B (which is great value for money on Koh Phangan).
Who said that luxury and sustainability couldn’t go together? Santhiya Koh Phangan Resort and Spa is one of the prettiest resorts on the island with all the comforts you need. Luxury suites with AC overlooking the beach? check. Incredible service? Check. Awesome pool hugging the coast? Check. It might be a bit costly (starting at 100USD a night), but if you want to end your holiday with partying in style this is an awesome choice. And the whole hotel is run in a sustainable way, scoring those extra green eco-points.
– Practical information –
Definitely avoid October and November as the monsoon around this time hits horribly. Think floods, thunderstorms and downpour lasting multiple days. Best time is late December until early April when the days are long and sunny and the humidity low. European summer months are humid, but on average, the weather isn’t too bad. Those months the Andaman Coast endures monsoon making the Thai Gulf islands an attractive alternative.
Unfortunately, I believe Koh Pha Ngan might be the least budget friendly place in the country. Accommodation and food are more expensive than elsewhere and considering the main activity is consuming alcoholic drinks, the ‘sights’ aren’t cheap either. A small beer will cost you 100B and cheap street eats start at 50B. A dorm in a boutique hostel is about 600B and expect to pay 2000B for a 3-star boutique hotel.
In & Out
Because Koh Pha Ngan is located on an island your only options are taking the boat fly in.
There are three airports that can be considered when visiting Koh Pha Ngan. The first one is located on Koh Samui, the next door neighbour island. Because of the location, this airport is the most expensive one of all the options. After you land on Koh Samui there is a shuttle that takes you to one of the piers, from where you can get to Koh Pha Ngan in about 20-30 minutes.
Cheaper is flying on Chumphon or Surat Thani. For about EUR 30/USD 35 you can get from Bangkok or even Chiang Mai. From both airports, it is about a 3 hour trip by bus and boat. On both airports and on the island you can buy a ticket for the whole transport, organised by the ferry operator. Check out their website for the schedule here.
Koh Pha Ngan has multiple piers, the most frequented ones are the Haad Rin pier and the Thong Sala pier. If you come for the half moon party you want to be closer to Thong Sala. If you are coming for the full moon party Haad Rin will enable you to crawl back to bed. Book months in advance if you want to stay in Haad Rin during the full moon.
What to bring
So now we established that we go to Koh Pha Ngan for sun and alcohol let me recommend you a couple of items to bring.
Sunscreen is really something you shouldn’t be cheap about so I recommend Sun Bum (or any other premium brand really). I love this one because it doesn’t stick and you can easily spray it on. The SPF30 protects you well enough but doesn’t block out all the UV-rays. So you can still get a little tan on.
On every backpacker trip I lose or break at least one set of sunglasses. So I never take an expensive set with me. This bamboo version from Wish Club looks cool, gives proper UV protection and is still very affortable. Plus its made out of sustainable materials. Bonuspoints.