Koh Phangan, considered by many to be a magical island, is a place for almost anyone.
The contemporary kind of hippies with their dreadlocks, the yoga scene, the health-conscious vegans, ecstatic dance and moon party lovers, families – it had been a while since I last experienced Koh Phangan’s very special atmosphere. After months of holing up in and around Bangkok due to Covid-19, I missed Thailand’s south and its beaches – my lost paradise – and booked a trip from Surat Thani to Koh Phangan with a tour operator called Phangan Tour 2000.
Doing this online was a breeze and completed in just a few clicks.
Since I’m not particularly into noisy hotels situated in the middle of a city, I stayed in Phunphin on the outskirts of Surat Thani the night before my trip. Mind you, this was not much of an issue. Even though Phangan Tour 2000’s office is located in Surat Thani, they collect you from various hotels you can choose from when you make a booking.
As chance would have it, the nearest pick-up location from where I’d stayed was called “Journey Hostel,” so that’s where my journey to Koh Phangan began.
The quick car ride to the tour operator’s office
My voucher read they’d collect me at 11 am, but just for my peace of mind I gave Phangan Tour 2000 a buzz at 11 am to be sure they were on their way. “Yes, we’ll be there in ten minutes,” said a friendly woman in perfect English.
It was 11:25 am when they arrived at Journey Hostel. I took a last sip from my sweet iced coffee and got on the spacious, jeep-like SUV.
I was the only traveler, and sitting in the cool, air-conditioned car, I was flabbergasted at the sight of the white, sparkling Srivijaya-style City Pillar Shrine. Surat Thani’s sacred place catches your eye immediately when you pass by. Its golden elephant and floral motifs, its snow-white structure and 4-faced Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva enlightened beings looking vigilantly in four directions, reflecting the sun at different angles, are just so very magnificent you can’t help staring at the shrine.
“Okay krap, follow me, please,” said my chauffeur, breaking my reverie a moment later. It had only been a ten-minute-car ride to Phangan Tour 2000’s office that’s located at Talad Mai Road just opposite a beautiful temple. He walked me right to the check-in where an affable Thai had been expecting me.
“Bookaway?” the woman asked. A few seconds later, she handed me my ticket, motioned for me to take a seat and said, “Ten minutes.”
There were plenty of seats in the waiting area, both inside and outside, and nibbly-dibblies were available galore for those who hadn’t had breakfast yet. There was also a clean toilet just around the corner where a sign read “five baht,” but nobody asked me to pay for answering a call of nature.
The pleasant bus ride to Don Sak pier
Just as the woman at check-in had predicted, it was only ten minutes later when a guy said, “Samui, Phangan, kap.”
The lady who’d checked me in had stapled my bus and ferry ticket together, but since I’d carelessly put it in my pants pocket, I had to show the driver a crumpled bus ticket that was no longer attached to the ferry ticket. He didn’t mind. This funny bloke just smiled and “tore it off” imaginarily, bantering and laughing.
Twenty-two people were traveling, all Thai but me, and everyone was wearing a face mask on the stiflingly hot bus. I put my backpack in the overhead and saw the flap which I opened, but the cool stream of air was not enough to beat the heat; the AC was fighting a losing battle.
There was also a tv, though nobody bothered to turn it on. The leather-textile seats were comfy, and the relaxing Thai music on the radio made me take the heat in stride. I drew the curtain and looked forward to this trip.
The coach was scheduled for 12 pm, and as if the ride was clocked, a Phangan Tour employee rushed onto the bus at 12:01 pm, said to the driver, “Pai!” (Go!), pulled back the passenger seat and jumped on it.
The driver replied, “pai loei chai mai?” (we’re leaving, aren’t we?), turned the ignition and drove off a second later. After only a quarter-hour, they stopped at a gas station, but this wasn’t a break for passengers, obviously.
The road to Don Sak pier ran along vast stretches of palm and rubber tree plantations, and I enjoyed the view of limestone rocks that towered behind them on the horizon.
Other sights, quite typical for Thailand, were white and colorful spirit houses for people to buy along the streets, and hamlets were like windows into a culture that the average tourist doesn’t get to see on their cookie-cutter trips to Thailand’s main attractions.
For the Thais on the bus, this was nothing new. Most of them had been sleeping, though an infant piped up in time and announced our arrival at 1:25 pm.
Enjoying the trip’s second leg
For the last leg of the (land-)journey, everybody had to get on a shuttle bus that took people right to the pier, which was some 500 meters away. There, snack bars, restaurants, a cafe and a waiting area in the shade awaited the tired traveler, and a majestic sight of karst peaks towering behind a beach with green-tinted waters and moored longtail boats in the bargain.
We’d arrived at Don Sak pier at 1:34 pm, but there was no time to revel in the view and listen to the calm sea lapping the shore. “What time does the ferry leave?” I asked.
“1:30 pm, go now,” a guy advised.
I booked with Phangan 2000 because I’d been hoping I wouldn’t have to ride the Raja ferry, but my hopes were crushed when I saw the huge, old rusty ferry looking at me as though saying sadistically, “Hi Philipp, a pleasure to have you back.”
While this is the slowest and cheapest boat available, it comes with a less than refreshing air-conditioning that’s pretty much non-existent. Even so, the “radiators” outside are connected to the AC and do a great job in terms of blowing out heat from the interior. In other words, it’s difficult to find a place where it’s not hot.
I didn’t let that rain on my parade though. I bought some snacks and drinks from the small shop on the boat, and took a seat in the narrow corridor outside, my favorite spot on the Raja ferry, despite the occasional, potentially offensive diesel smell.
The boat’s engines were revving up at 1:50 pm, billowing clouds of exhaust, and I stayed put for the whole ride. Watching the calm sea slip by, taking in the salty, lukewarm air, I listened to the sounds of the small waves and reflected on Koh Phangan’s island feel.
Phangan’s Thong Sala pier was within spitting distance after a 2.5 hour-ferry ride, and it was now that I eavesdropped on a Thai woman who asked a farang dreadhead clad in nothing but baggy pants, “Are you going to Lost Paradise? It’s free now, you only need to pay for the longtail boat.”
Hearing them rave about the island’s legendary beach party, I perceived the good vibes and realized that things hadn’t changed here; paradise wasn’t lost.