Koh Phangan’s rugged terrain offers excellent hiking and stunning viewpoints
While it’s undeniably tropical and postcard perfect, even the coasts of hilly Koh Phangan are riddled with uneven terrain. And while some may think of this as a downside—since yes, it certainly makes swimming in the ocean a challenge, and bicycling practically a confrontation—it makes this island a hiker’s dream. Here now are two treks well worth checking out.
There are many popular treks on the island, the most hyped of which is Khao Ra, more than likely because it leads hikers to the island’s highest vantage point—at 627 metres in altitude. Its viewpoint affords Koh Phangan’s most panoramic views, making it well worth the effort to reach the summit.
Leave early in the morning, around 4 or 5 am, or in the afternoon around 3 or 4 pm, to ascend to the peak by sunrise or with enough time before sunset to make it back down before dark. The entire hike takes between one to two hours, depending on your fitness level. Bring along a backpack with plenty of water—at least a 1.5-litre bottle per person should do the trick—as well as hiking sandals or, better yet, shoes. You never know what slippery or snippety creature lurks beneath that tuft of grass you’re about to step on. Mosquito or bug spray is nearly as essential as water, particularly if you’re going during the recommended times, when the bats—little flying vampires—come out in droves to play. A phone is always a good idea, even if it’s just to take photos once you reach the peak, as well as a towel or sarong to wipe away the sweat.
To get to the base of Khao Ra, head north from Thong Sala on the main highway (you’ll go straight at the broken traffic lights). Continue along the road about 10 minutes until you pass Slip N Fly waterpark. There is a right-hand turn just after—look for signs reading ‘Khao Ra’. If you see the Chinese temple on your left, you’ve gone too far. Head to the foot of the mountain, park your bike or car, and get ready for a hefty climb. You’ll walk about five minutes uphill before you come upon a reservoir, which specifies “no swimming”, and you’ll continue past. Next, you’ll see a few wooden bungalows on the right, followed by a basic Thai restaurant with a superb view of the island’s northwest—and this is just the beginning.
The dirt trail is pretty easy to find and follow, with the odd red arrow spray painted on trees (and very occasionally a proper sign) to guide you in the right direction in areas where the path could be open to interpretation. As with most semi-challenging treks, this climb is not without its steep steps, jagged rocks, and twigs and branches poking out onto it. So do be careful!
You’re unlikely to encounter many other hikers—if you see any at all—on your trek, since this isn’t a particularly touristy thing to do on this resort-y, party-centric island. And that is precisely what makes it that much more rewarding when you reach the top. Up here, the magnificent view looks out onto Koh Tae Nai and birds’ nest island (which, rumour has it, is manned by armed guards stationed to protect their lucrative swiftlet spit nests from intruders).
If climbing mountains isn’t your thing, there are a few coastal treks that might tickle your fancy. Bottle Beach, sitting in a cove at the very north of the island, is practically inaccessible by car. The allure of its isolation draws many to its white-sand shores, which are most easily reached by boat. However, there is another way to get there: on foot.
To get to what’s called Bottle Trail, likely because it’s lined by bottles stuck into the ground which guide the way, head to Chaloklum’s main intersection. You may want to stop at the 7/11 here for water and mosquito spray. Take the road with the sign that reads ‘Haad Khom’. Follow this road—a pleasant ride along the coast—until you come upon a trail on your right side denoted by bottles at the start of the path. As with Khao Ra, this is a relatively challenging trek, and unlike the Khao Ra trek, there are no panoramic vista rewards (though there are some lovely coastal views on the routes up and down the hill), but rather a beautiful beach at the end. Not only that, but you may get a chance to meet the locals, as monkeys and other wildlife are commonly spotted along the path. The entire trek takes around an hour, once again dependent on fitness levels, and it’s not recommended to do it in the dark. There is accommodation on Bottle Beach where you can spend the night, and it’s best to book ahead as the few rooms fill up fast. This hypnotically quiet beach is the dividend payment for your troubles, and should you wish to catch a boat back to civilization in the morning rather than hiking back, we wouldn’t blame you.
A day spent off the beach makes days on the beach that much more rewarding, so next time you hit Phangan’s shores, bring along your hiking shoes should you come here. You’re guaranteed an experience that exceeds the expectations of a typical beachside holiday, with the glory of being able to tell your friends that you did something on Phangan other than attend the Full Moon Party and nurse the hangover afterwards.
By Kaila Krayewski