Despite its less-than-tranquil reputation that put the island on the global tourist radar, Koh Phangan has plenty of other beaches and attractions that are as serene as the parties are boisterous. The pace of life runs on tropical island time, and save for the few high resorts you can count on one hand, the island is relatively low-key in atmosphere.
The island is often compared to nearby Koh Samui, generally along the lines of “like Koh Samui was 10/15/20 years ago”.
As with most places around Thailand, temples are an integral part of the way of living, providing visitors a glimpse of local beliefs and traditions.
Travel tip: Koh Tao ranks in the top's most active PADI certification destinations. If you're considering a detour to the nearby island, here are some dive resorts to consider. [link to blog post] – ok for KP
The Full Moon Party beach of Haad Rin and Thongsala, the latter where the main ferry disembarks, are more or less the only areas where you can get your shop on.
The main drag on Thongsala is sprinkled with souvenir and clothes shop, including Pantip Plaza for your beach accessories and handicraft souvenirs. There is a Thongsala walking street that springs up along Talad Kao Road every Saturday from about 4 p.m. or 5 p.m. until 10 p.m. or so.
On the days leading up to the Full Moon Party, there's a certain buzz around the shops at Haad Rin as the month's party goers stock up on beach hats, bikinis, fisherman pants, jewelry, and the range of beach-related goodies from hammocks to flip flops.
Other than the full moon celebrations, the island also hosts other all-nighter raves, including Half Moon Festivals (a week either side of the full moon), and Black Moon Culture parties (two weeks on either side of the full moon), both held at Baan Tai. The only difference is that the Black Moon party is held on on the beach in front of Mac's Bay Resort, while the Half Moon bash is held in the hills.
Also in the Baan Tai forests, the Jungle Experience happens twice monthly, typically held the night before, and four nights before the Full Moon Party. The party location is a “secret”, so ask the locals – the setting is a garden clearing in the woods with a trickling stream and fluorescent-lit. A THB 300 entrance fee applies to the Jungle Experience and Black Moon Culture and THB 600 for the Half Moon.
Other parties on the island include the seasonal Waterfall Party and Shiva Moon Party – keep your eyes out for leaflets or ask the locals in the bar where the next party is at, because chances are, there will be one happening soon.
During off-peak hours, songtaew's can also be hired on an exclusive basis, but do remember to agree on the price beforehand.
Car rental is a possibility, though most visitors to Koh Phangan tend to spend longer at each beach, making the aforementioned songtaew a more cost-effective and convenient choice. None of the big car hire firms are on the island, but there are dozens of locally-run rental shops. Four wheel drives are more suitable for the island's hilly terrain.
When not using a songtaew, a large number of tourists on Koh Phangan rent motorbikes. Large sections of the road are not tarmac'd, and when combined with the steep gradient of the hilly roads plus potholes, it's best for inexperienced riders and all partygoers to stick to public transportation. If you insist, though, do at least wear a helmet.
The closest airport is on Koh Samui, but with construction underway for the island's first airport, come 2014 Koh Phangan will be even more accessible than it is now.
There are several scheduled ferries and catamaran connecting Koh Samui and Koh Phangan, including from Big Buddha, Maenam or the main Nathon piers. Main operators are Lomoprayah and Seatran.
If traveling outside of the scheduled times, speedboats and long-tail boats can also be hired to take the 10 to 20 minute journey to Koh Phangan.
Low cost carriers Nok Air and Air Asia also offer combo tickets for flights from Bangkok to Suratthani or Nakhon Si Thammarat, including a transfer to the pier and ferry directly to the island.
From Chumphon, Lomprayah offers convenient combination bus+ferry tickets to Koh Phangan, a sea route that is also serviced by Songserm.
From Phun Phin, Phantip Travel offers a combination land and ferry transfer from train station to Koh Phangan for THB400 (US$13).
Most ferries (which also transport cars to the islands) leave from Donsak Pier, about a 1.5 hour transfer from the train station. Raja offers five daily journeys from Donsak from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., a 2.5 hour journey that costs THB250 (~US$8) per passenger, or THB620 (~US$20) for a vehicle plus driver.
Lomprayah does a Bangkok to Koh Phangan journey in between 10 to 14 hours – either all day or overnight – for THB1,300 (~US$42) all in.
If driving, the ferry from Suratthani's Donsak pier costs approximately THB620 (~US$20) including vehicle plus driver on Raja ferry.