The number of Western delights on these southern shores is rapidly growing
The fact that Koh Phangan is home to the world-famous (or “infamous”) monthly Full Moon Parties, that draw revellers in hordes that ebb and flow with the tides, has, in turn, created a local community of hardcore partiers and DJs who live—and die—by Phangan’s lunar cycle. What many don’t know, however, is that there is much, much more to Koh Phangan than its party-hardy reputation. Thought by many to actually be made out of crystal or gemstone at its very core, the island draws spiritual healers—and those seeking to be healed—from all corners of the world.
These are all relatively recent developments, of course. The once sleepy island was originally colonized by Thai-Chinese fishermen and farmers who found great bounty in and around the island’s fertile soils. Nowadays, somewhere in-between the local founders, the healers, and the partiers, there is a burgeoning expat community on the island who are working to expand its offerings to appeal to general Western palates, while still maintaining its authenticity and natural beauty. And they’re succeeding.
What was once Koh Phangan’s only supermarket, Tesco Lotus, must now compete with the likes of Big C and Makro, supplying the island’s ever-increasing number of hotels and restaurants, while also providing options galore for island dwellers. Where there were once only Thai coffee stands for one’s morning caffeine hit, there are now a slew of cafes—including Bubba’s, a newly-opened slow-drip coffee and breakfast joint in Baan Kai, with all the workings and vibe of a true New York coffee house.
While beaches and shanty roadside set-ups were once the go-to spots for massages (and in many ways, some of these spots still offer some of the best—and most authentic—Thai-style pampering on the island), there is now Pure Relax, a Western-run spa in the southern part of Thong Sala that feels like it should be far more expensive than it actually is. For those who aren’t fans of Thai massage, options here include Swedish massage, Indian head massage, Balinese massage, and sports massage, along with many more.
Other activities, put together with Western tastes in mind, have been popping up to give locals and tourists alike things to do outside of partying and lazing on the beach or by the pool. Kiteboarding is quickly becoming one of the most popular activities on the island, and Koh Phangan’s most well-known kiteboarding school, Breeze Kiteboarding, is even grooming a young local Belgian to compete in the Youth Olympics. Just head to the long stretch of Baan Tai Beach when the wind picks up to catch the aquatic athletes at play—it’s entertainment in itself. Indeed, adrenaline junkies are spoiled for choice on Koh Phangan.
One of the island’s most popular attractions, Slip N Fly, is equipped with 40-metre slides that send people flying into the air to do whatever tricks they can pull off—even if it’s just landing straight—before diving down into the island’s biggest pool. The venue is inland, in an area called Madeawan, and potential participants should note that this is an adult-orientated playground, with plenty of booze and loud music. As such, those looking for a more family-orientated type of activity can opt for The Challenge—an inflatable obstacle course bobbing atop Laem Son Lake in Sri Thanu. Think of the game show Wipeout and you’ll get a glimpse of what you’re in for.
As for the growing number of restaurants, here’s where things gets really juicy (literally and figuratively). The island offers everything from the more obvious high-end seafood restaurants, to the totally unexpected, including Greek tavernas, Parisian-style French bakeries with fine cheeses and wines, and even a traditional British pub that the original owner built based on the designs of his local back home. Up until now, the island hasn’t really attracted the kind of clientele to draw five-star cuisine restaurants, but even that has now changed. The recently opened Valentino’s, nestled in the island’s posh cove known as Thong Nai Pan, serves up authentic, five-star Italian cuisine in an elegant setting. Though it may not be beachfront, patrons can practically hear the waves crash from the upstairs balcony as they look into the starry sky, taking a break from their succulent dishes. The menu includes the likes of Linguine all’Aragosta—a pasta dish literally hugged by an entire Canadian lobster (pre-shelled for diners’ convenience)—and a medallion of Australian grain-fed beef tenderloin served with fine dining-sized portions of lemon-roasted potatoes and asparagus, all coated in homemade pink pepper gravy. The delectable food menu is, in true Italian form, accompanied by an extensive wine list, and the friendly owner Andy is nearly always onsite and happy to help with dish-pairing recommendations.
Of course, it’s important to discuss the finer details of “Western delights” on Koh Phangan—including some that may be less “delightful” than they are a “luxury” necessitated by Western demands. This includes a well-equipped and Western-run hospital, First Western, ideally located in the island’s busiest area between Thong Sala and Baan Tai. Meanwhile, the Learning Tree and Sri Panwa, along with many new schools cropping up on the island, provide a Western education to children up to 12 years of age (they are hoping to increase the age range as the island continues to attract growing numbers of families).
This has all been done while maintaining Koh Phangan’s true roots—whether or not they are entrenched in gemstone—leaving the island with all the allure of a wistful deserted island, while endowing it with all the appeal of a well-furnished resort haven.
By Kaila Krayewski