Dim Sum Dialogues in Thailand: Ko Pha Ngan

After what feels like hours, the ferry disembarks on a small dock that ends where a group of Thai people in hats and sunglasses are standing. They’re holding signs for connecting rides to hotels or offering cheap bus fares to various beaches on the island.

I suppose one of the pitfalls of not booking anything ahead of time is suddenly realizing that you have no idea what your next move should be. Haad Rin? Haad Yao? Haad Khuat? Haad Salat? Names of beaches barraged my eyes and ears.

With one full day before the full moon party, all hostels were rumored to be fully booked, so it didn’t matter where I started the search. I only knew that it would be better to stay close to Haad Rin since it’s the center of activity, and staying there would mean avoiding late night taxis or buses when it was time to go home. A couple of tourists waiting to leave the island point to a woman that they recommend for a taxi bus, and I take their suggestion.
I jump in the back of a covered truck and am heartily greeted by a loud American with a southern accent and a t-shirt tied around his head. He uses a slew of expletives to describe just “how [ridiculously] crazy Thailand is” and asks the group of passengers if we can believe how “cheap [stuff] is here”. He says he might not want to leave and mentions that there’s nothing to go back to at the moment anyway. Eventually, he’s drowned out by the sound of the struggling engine as the truck strains to make it over a series of steep, twisting roads that lead to Haad Rin.

The island’s area is roughly 168 km², with an estimated 50 km perimeter, so it really doesn’t take long to get to get anywhere on the island. From the ferry to the beach where the once-a-month festivities are held, it’s about a fifteen minute drive.

We arrive in Haad Rin, and I make a dash for the first cheap hostel in my guidebook – Mellow Mountain Bungalows. The view is gorgeous. Bright sunshine, sparkling water, green hills and white sand. Luckily, there’s one bungalow available and the price isn’t bad – 350 baht per night ($10 USD). I force myself to overlook the fact that the toilet and shower are both out of commission – the likely explanation for the room’s late vacancy – and decide that the communal shower will do just fine. If that fails, there’s always the ocean, right?

Once I’m settled, my initial instinct is to rent a scooter and explore the rest of the island. In retrospect, this should have been my first decision after arriving on the island – and would be my recommendation for anyone traveling without bags that require a taxi. It’s cheaper and more fun to explore the island by yourself. Just remember to wear a helmet and drive cautiously – I think calling the roads of Thailand “unpredictable” would be an affectionate understatement.


Regardless, Ko Pha Ngan is probably one of the best places in Thailand to rent a scooter for the day. All of the roads on the island are quiet, two lane strips of asphalt that snake through beautiful forests and picturesque hills. There’s a few waterfalls that are easy to access, and enough beaches to sample to keep you busy for a few days. On my way around the island, I stop at a small restaurant owned by a Thai woman and her British expat husband. A crowd of British men are huddled around the bar, halfway through a “proper Sunday lunch” of roast lamb and mushy peas.

My favorite beach of the day is a spot on the Northern end called Haad Salad. There are giant rope swings, quaint guest houses and warm, shallow water. If it wasn’t on the opposite side of the island from Haad Rin, I’d opt to stay here for hours, but I’m short on time and decide to head back on the road while the sun sets in the west, and a full moon rises in the east.

I gun the scooter over the final few hills that descend into the beach. I’m relishing every moment of riding the curved pavement, the moon high in the sky, cutting through a paper thin layer of clouds. When I pull into the town, I can feel the buzz of energy in the air. By now, most of the tourists that are staying in Haad Rin for the party have arrived, and the tiny streets of the towns are packed with people.

A group of dutch tourists get neon paint patterned on their arms and legs. Four youngsters huddle around a friend in a tattoo shop. A pair of girls get their hair done at a salon. Hordes of people have already started dancing on the beaches to deep, resonant music.

Internet cafés are filled to capacity. I stop at one and count the number of screens that are logged into Facebook – 19 out of 20…and it’s the same at almost every cafe that I pass. Truly the mark of our generation. Maybe they’re making those last minute rendezvous from the Khao San?

I have no idea what to expect for the next 24 hours, but by the excitement that I feel in the streets, I have a good suspicion that I’ve come to the right place.

If you’ve missed the previous articles in this series, be sure to check out the entire Dim Sum Dialogues column for more on the road from Bangkok to Ko Pha Ngan.

Dim Sum Dialogues in Thailand: The road (+ rail + ferry) to Ko Pha Ngan

The neon pink taxi screeches to a halt. “You must be the best taxi driver in Bangkok.” I declare to the driver, and I mean it.

Moments ago we were at a complete standstill for nearly twenty minutes, in the center of a jammed four-lane road. An everyday occurrence in Bangkok. I had already started considering alternate travel plans, since I was sure that I’d be missing the southbound train.

Could I still make it to Ko Pha Ngan for the full moon party? Were there night buses? How could I have been so foolish as to not account for traffic on the way to the station? And of course, how much would the miscalculation end up costing me?
Luckily, the taxi driver was capable of maneuvers that I didn’t know were possible in a moving vehicle. And apparently, he was used to performing them in these situations. The two previous drivers that I had hailed took one look at the departure time on my train ticket and laughed, telling me it wasn’t likely and then quoting an equally unlikely fare. But this courageous driver gave a grin and said “Don’t know, but think it’s possible. We try.”

He nods at me in the mirror and I hand him the amount on the meter plus a few extra baht. I exit the car and rush towards the departures board in the large open-air station. I find the correct platform and at the end of it, the one sleeper car of the train. The sleeper car is easy to spot – a few gargantuan North Face® backpacks are clumsily making an effort to squeeze through the train’s doors. Bingo.

The train is basic. There are no compartments, but rather fold out bunks – two to a berth, with curtains to shut out the light that would remain on all night. In the berths adjacent to me: a girl from Prague, a couple from England, a DJ from Italy, and a Thai family. The train starts rolling, and the sun sets over small packets of wooden shacks that weren’t visible from the lively streets of the city. As we get further outside of Bangkok, the sharp smell of bonfires becomes more frequent and the landscape gradually transitions into dense palm trees.

With every station stop, vendors come on board carrying tea, small cakes, and snacks down the aisles. Instead, I opt to make a trip to the restaurant car where a few tourists are seated playing card games and staring out the window. A young British man that’s had a few too many Changs is asleep at one of the tables, oblivious to the chatter and laughter around him. I ask some of the others for the best strategy to find lodging on Ko Phan Ngan the day before the full moon party – I’ve not booked anything in advance.

Halfway through the night, the spirited head waiter of the restaurant car begins to hook up a television and an amplifier. I’m unable to figure out what’s happening until it’s too late. Thai karaoke.


I would’ve paid more for my ticket if I’d known the train included karaoke, but I guess some gifts in life are free. I try to keep a straight face along with the rest of the tourists in the car, as the slightly tipsy waiter sings his heart out to the songs and the equally humorous music videos that accompany the audio.

(Listen to a quick sample of the karaoke by clicking play)

There’s an inaudible sigh of relief when the Italian DJ offers to hook his computer up to the amplifier and spin some electronic music. Conversation resumes, and it’s a memorable scene: warm summer air drifting through the open train windows. The unhurried repetition of the train’s wheels on the tracks. Scattered palm trees floating by, reflecting light from a nearly-full moon perched high in the night sky. And a little techno music to help prepare us backpackers for the scene that awaits in Ko Pha Ngan.

At four in the morning, those of us departing the train at Surat Thani are prompted awake by the conductors and shuffle out into the bitter morning air. There is a large coach waiting at the train station for those that bought combination tickets – which conveniently whisks us to another bus stop that is packed with other frazzled, sleep-deprived full-moon pilgrims.

One more hour-long coach ride takes us to a ferry pier, where about 150 people sprawl out in under the early morning sun to catch a few moments of sleep. I’ve never traveled with so many other tourists at one time, and I realize that it’s probably the closest I’ve ever come to being on a guided tour. It’s a nice feeling. I don’t have to worry about where I’m going…just follow the crowd.

Eventually the fatigued mass is corralled onto a narrow boat. As the ferry begins to cut through the choppy sea, passengers take turns basking in the sun on the outdoor deck and retreating to the indoor seating area to buy a freshly made ham sandwich.

There’s not much conversation among the passengers at this point, so I silently take a seat next to a few people dangling their legs off the side of the upper deck. The seawater sprays our bare feet and we stare out across the Gulf of Thailand, searching for a glimpse of our destination.

For the previous articles in this series, be sure to check out the entire Dim Sum Dialogues column. If you’re looking to do a similar trip and would like details on the specifics of the transport, feel free to leave a comment below.