Is Koh Phangan worth visiting? Why, yes…It most certainly is. This is one of the most iconic islands in the Gulf of Thailand, after all. It ticks oodles of boxes for those in search of sun, sand, and sea in the Land of Smiles. What’s more, it’s home to one of the most bucket-list backpacker experiences in Southeast Asia – nay, the world! (That’s the Full Moon Party, in case you’re wondering!).
Take the glorious beaches that string the western and northern coastlines. They range from laid-back runs of yellow sand backed by palms to hidden Shangri-Las where it’ll be just you and the swinging macaques. Then you get the yoga towns, filled with New Age meditation retreats and detox hotels that promise to get you pulling the best downward dogs you can imagine. Topping the lot off is a wild backcountry laced with hiking paths and lookout points – one for the more intrepid traveler.
So, stop asking ‘is Koh Phangan worth visiting’ and let’s get stuck into the finer detail. This guide will run through seven of the top highlights of the isle. They’re so darn good that we think you’ll be reaching for the passport and the Thailand Lonely Planet guide by the time you’ve finished reading.
The Full Moon Party – obviously!
Legend says that the infamous Full Moon Party of Koh Phangan was started way back in the late 1980s. The founders? A group of wandering hippies that arrived on a longtail boat. Since then, it’s grown and grown to become one of the biggest blowouts in the world. It now draws up to 40,000 revelers on the largest nights and accounts for an estimated 500,000 of the island’s annual visitors. Wowza!
There’s no question that it’s totally off the hook. Things begin in the beach-side bars of Haad Rin around noon, as partiers gather to clink Chang beers with their feet in the sand. It’s a pretty low-key affair until around 9pm. That’s when the hordes arrive in their neon-paint and techno-tribal getups. Soon, the whole stretch of coastline is positively pumping, with EDM and house bouncing out from the DJ decks and elaborate pyrotechnics shows to watch.
The Full Moon Party has undergone a few changes over the decades. For example, there’s now a small entry fee that covers cleanup after the shindig. It’s also important to be vigilant throughout the night – reports of thefts, scams, and even Police spikes (AKA – don’t be tempted into buying anything untoward!) are pretty common these days.
The scuba diving
Koh Phangan is one of the veritable diving meccas of the Thai Gulf. Although still not as popular as its near neighbor, Koh Tao, it still manages to pack in all sorts of amazing dive sites and some seriously accomplished scuba schools. They’re particularly popular with first-time divers looking to score a PADI qualification. The main reason? You can get that starter course for around just $400 in these parts – it can cost upwards of $1000 in Europe and North America!
But it’s not just the price that means diving in Koh Phangan is a doozy. It’s also the fact that you’ll be going under in a world of uber-clear seas filled with amazing marine creatures and all manner of exotic fish. There are loads of iconic spots surrounding the isle. They include the jagged out-at-sea stone of Sail Rock, where you can meet nudibranches and sea slugs in the nooks and crannies. Then there’s the protected Mu Koh Angthong National Marine Park, which covers 50 square kilometers of pristine tropical islands, sand bars, and coral reefs.
Most of the dive outfitters in Koh Phangan are to be found in the bustling port area of Thongsala. That said, it’s usually easy to book onto PADI packages from your hotel. Just ask at the desk. Also be certain to check reviews of your would-be school and make sure they have all the proper instructor certifications before you pull on the oxygen tanks!
Don’t go thinking that Koh Phangan is all about kicking back with a Chang in the sun. There’s some serious adventure to be had in these parts too – if you’re up for it! Yep, the whole inland of the island is a wild dash of mountains and hills, completely covered in lush jungles filled with teaks, figs, and holy bodhi trees.
We’d say that our favorite hike of all on Koh Phangan is the one that takes you over the hills on the north coast to the hidden cove of Bottle Beach. It’s a stunning swathe of perfect white sand that’s washed by Greek-turquoise seas. There’s plenty of space there to relax and soothe the leg muscles after the walk through the jungle, but push on for 45 minutes more and you can reach a soaring lookout point that has some of the best views over the north coast.
The most famous hike on Koh Phangan has to the be pretty arduous trek to the top of Khao Ra. It’s the highest summit on the whole island. Taking 1.5 hours each way, it will bring you to a viewpoint that has sweeping 360-degree views of the forest canopy and the Thai Gulf in the distance. A good pair of walking boots, a strong bug spray, and plenty of water are all musts if you’re planning on hitting the trails here.
Is Koh Phangan worth visiting just for the beaches? Hell yea! The truth is that most beach-loving travelers will focus on the Andaman Islands (places like Koh Lanta) or nearby Koh Tao and Koh Samui if they’re after a stint on some of the most photographed bays in the Land of Smiles. We think that Phangan has more than enough to hold its own against them, though.
Start by skipping the buzzy south coast and moving north to Haad Chao Phao on the western shoreline. It’s secluded and backed by grassy dunes that sprout coconut palms. There are big boulders and a wide sandbank that gets lapped by clear blue seas. Next up is the much-loved Haad Salad. Nope, it’s not a healthy lunch dish – it’s a gorgeous dash of powdery sand with a white tint.
Still, we think the zenith of the Koh Phangan beaches comes with the north coast. That’s where the likes of Bottle Beach make their home. Hidden around totally deserted headlands at the end of a jungle-clad valley, that one touts Maldives-worthy white sand with hardly a single other soul on them. Heaven.
The yoga camps
Just when you thought Koh Phangan was all about raising the roof and watching the sunrise with 10 bucket cocktails under your belt, you find the relaxed western shoreline. That’s a whole different kettle of fish. The folk here are content to let the partiers hit the raucous south coast. They’re from a more laid-back cohort of yogis and New Agers.
Things begin on the Hin Kong Road that heads north. As you swing into the secluded bays of Srithanu Beach and appropriately named Zen Beach, expect to see all sorts of yoga studios. Some, like the Ananda Yoga & Detox Center, focus on bolstering the body (perhaps after a heavy Full Moon?) with their mix of healthy eating and exercise classes. Others, like The Yoga Retreat, beckon you to the lush jungles behind the shore for a real escape from civilization.
And it’s not just in the official yoga camps. You should find there’s oodles of chilling to be had all up this run of beaches. It’s all slow-paced and lovely, right up to Mae Haad on the top north-western corner of the isle.
Fitness camps and Muay Thai
As if trying to balance out its reputation as the home of Thailand’s biggest booze-fueled party, Koh Phangan has also risen to become one of the main hubs for those interested in doing a little Muay Thai training. If you’re not familiar with that, it’s the national combat sport of the Land of Smiles. But it ain’t really that smiley at all! It’s known as ‘the sport of eight limbs’ – probably because pretty much anything goes, from roundhouse kicks to jabs to elbows to the chest. Gnarly, eh?
If you’re the strange sort of dark traveler or fitness hound that’s tempted by all of that, you’ve come to the right place. Yep, there are now oodles of Muay Thai training camps on Koh Phangan. Many do packages that are specifically aimed at international visitors wanting to learn the techniques of the local fighters.
One of the most popular (and highest-rated according to TripAdvisor) is the Diamond Muay Thai gym. They do ‘Train and Stay’ itineraries that include introductions to the sport with local Thai masters, morning yoga sessions, and accommodation.
Koh Phangan is a haven for foodies who want to get stuck into the spicy cuisine of South Thailand. We’re talking lemongrass-infused coconut curries with a generous dollop of chili paste and tofu and chicken and ginger all whacked inside. It’s a whole different smorgasbord than up in the northern parts of the country, and perfect if you like to feel the tingle of capsicum on your tongue.
Head down to the body-packed Panthip Food Market in Thongsala to get stuck into it. That’s a hubbub of smoking meat skewers and broiling pots of BBQ satay. You can try pretty much anything from the local kitchen, including the ubiquitous pad Thai noodles, rich masaman curries, green curries, deep-fried spring rolls – the list goes on.
In recent years, Koh Phangan has also become a gathering point for international eateries. You’ll find everything from slick steakhouses to Mediterranean fusion joints in the big hotels, and there’s a decent contingent of Italian wood-fired pizzas around the tourist resorts of Haad Rin.
Is Koh Phangan worth visiting in the rainy season?
The rainy season in Koh Phangan lasts from July to August, but the rains don’t stop completely until around early November. However, it’s rarely a nonstop monsoon like you get in India. In fact, it’s typically characterized by short, sharp but very heavy thunderstorms that roll over in the afternoon and the evenings. What’s more, the temperatures tend to be lower, as do the hotel rates! The upshot? Koh Phangan is definitely worth visiting in the rainy season, especially if you like paying less for beach bungalows and don’t mind dodging a few downpours.
Is Koh Phangan worth visiting for just the Full Moon Party?
We LOVE the Full Moon Party on Koh Phangan. The famous shindig is still going strong and probably will for some time to come. It’s easy enough to whizz over from Samui to hit Haad Rin for the event if that’s what you want. However, it would be a darn shame to leave right after it’s finished. There’s just so much to explore beyond those popular parts of the island. From the yogi mecca of the west coast to the hidden beaches of the Robinson Crusoe north, it’s rather enticing. Our advice? Plan at least a week to see it all.