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Koh Phayam the new Koh Phangan

Koh Phayam
To the seasoned South East Asian traveller this comment might be self-explanatory; but for all those greenhorns I’ll endeavour to explain myself.

First it is necessary to give some background information about Koh Phangan. It is the sister island of Koh Samui and today it is a mecca for party goers. There is not only the famous Full Moon Party, but also the Half Moon Party, Shiva Moon Party, Backyard Party, Black Moon Party and a motley array of smaller bashes. It’s not exactly as full blown in its development as Koh Samui but Tesco Lotus has arrived and many of the old basic coconut wood bungalows have been replaced with concrete blocks with air-con and hot water. And the most telling sign of the times – swimming pools are becoming more and more evident. Only the rich will go for a beach holiday and swim in a pool every day.

I first went to Koh Phangan in 1997. I didn’t know what to expect; I just wanted a refuge from the claustrophobic bizarreness of living and teaching in China. I was instantly impressed – the main port town was not much more than a one horse town that had recently upgraded to five horses but still had a one horse mentality. The taxi was a fixed price and within 15 minutes of driving the concrete road had turned into a dusty rutted track through a jungle that soared above our heads. The beach only had a couple of bungalow operations at either end. Where the white sands of the beach ended the coconut trees and granite boulders began. In every direction you had lengthy vistas. The accommodation was a basic 100 Thai Baht bungalow furnished with a mosquito net and fan which sporadically worked when they switched on the generator. There were no mobile phones or internet shops just one quaint phone box, which made me wonder if Dr Who was visiting. And best of all the place was nearly deserted – just a few hippies and backpackers hanging out.

At this point some of you will be thinking, “Well what the hell is there to do?” And that was the genius of the place for me and my girlfriend. Nothing really except smoke weed, go for a swim, lie in a hammock, listen to cassette tapes, play cards and read books. The highlight of the week would be watching a ripped off DVD of the latest rubbish Hollywood movie. In 10 days we went on one walk to a view point. To some of you readers this might sound like tedium verging on the suicidal and to others the inevitable lethargy of the pothead. Each to his own opinion; however, in the words of Wordsworth: “Bliss was it that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heavenly.” It was just me my babe, my hammock, my stash, the technicolour jungle, blue skies and warm water.

one road and no cars

one road and no cars


Well to zoom forward in time by 11 years: my girlfriend became my wife and Wordsworth receded into a dusty part of my brain. We were back in Thailand looking for succor after years of suffering the outrageous slings and arrows of a Japanese work ethic and through a kindly traveller’s tip we ended up in Koh Phayam. And guess what, even in this vastly over-rated 21st century the spirit of the old Koh Phangan is to be found. After 2 hours on a rickety boat from Ranong we arrived on a tiny island (10km by 7km) with a permanent population of about 500. Most of the roads were tracks through the forest, the main arteries were one lane and not one car or pick up truck was to be found for neither love nor money. After 15 minutes on motorcycle taxis going past cashew and rubber plantations we arrived at the beach. Not just any beach, but 4kms of deserted white sands. The bungalow was a funky wooden structure with sea views and the fan was entirely superfluous since the generator was hardly ever switched on, instead just the sound of the Andaman Ocean broke the silence of the night.
art gallery

art gallery


And what did we find the next morning when we woke up to explore? Just those few hippies and backpackers eking out a peaceful existence lying in their hammocks, smoking their bongs and over-using the word “man”. Apparently there’s one policeman on the island and in the north a semi-permanent congregation of sea gypsies. So for the next few days I brushed up on my hammock skills and dusted off the Wordsworth in my brain.
bungalow

bungalow


What am I trying to say? I’m not trying to say go to Koh Phayam or don’t go to Koh Phangan. However, I am slightly bemoaning the fact that Thailand is becoming over-run with commercialism and where once the visitors were respectful and keen to sample local culture, they now want all the comforts and stimulants of back home on a beach with hot weather. And at the same time the locals stop being friendly because they want to be, and instead they are friendly because they can see the dollar advantage in it. It’s Ibiza all over again. I remember being in some obscure place in India in 1982 and seeing banana pancakes on the menu and having a bad feeling about it. Luckily the sheer Indian-ness of India protects it from neo-colonial tourism (that is except Goa).