Haad Chao Phao, Koh Pha Ngan
We just got back from our month long trip to “Amazing” Thailand, the one-word marketing slogan that has been used for decades to describe this truly amazing country. For me it was my 4th visit, the first one was in 1991, followed by 1995 and 1996, before this 2016 trip. A lot has changed since then, much stayed the same.
Now and Then
The Beach is the title of the 2000 adventure drama film directed by Danny Boyle and based on the 1996 novel of the same name by Alex Garland. Even though it’s set on and near the island of Koh Pha Ngan (see picture above), the movie was actually filmed at Koh Phi Phi.
After the movie, The Beach came out there was a significant influx of “regular” tourists, in addition to the backpackers that had discovered this jewel of the East several decades ago. Especially on my favorite island Koh Pha Ngan (125 km2 – 48 sq mi) a lot has changed since then. More fancy resorts, with AC and infinity pools, more paved roads, a larger pier supporting larger and more ferries, and MUCH MORE tourists.
This island is famous for its Full Moon party every month at Haad Rin beach. According to Wikipedia: “The first Full Moon Party was improvised at Paradise Bungalows on the beach in 1985, for giving thanks to about 20–30 travelers. The parties gained fame through word of mouth, and the event now draws a crowd of about 5,000–30,000 every full moon evening.”
During my first visit in 1991, I didn’t go to this party at Haad Rin. Instead, we created our own Full Moon party at our own resort, including (not surprisingly) plenty of readily available mind-altering substances. Haad Rin was a quiet beach, some scattered resorts and restaurants with wooden bungalows with a dirt road in the middle of this narrow peninsula beach.
Today it’s a small city, with an unusual amount of shops and firms catering to a Hebrew speaking crowd. It has quite a few run down, dingy areas, the beach is anything from quiet, with the constant coming and going of jet skis and boats. The monthly visit of tens-of-thousands of partying people has left its marks, or rather has scarred this remarkable beach with fantastic views of the deep blue water.
The changes became apparent as soon as we arrived on the island, people were now hauling huge suitcases and were picked up by fancy resort vans, resorts they probably wouldn’t leave until their departure. The changes started back in Bangkok, the night before our bus-boat trip to the island.
I woke up at around 2 am because of a group of hotel guests who were partying in the hallway and being obnoxiously loud. After a few minutes, I decided to see them and ask to have mercy with me, as I had to catch the 6 am bus. I witnessed a group of 6 or 8 girls, dressed and make-upped for a nightclub visit, acting like brats in a dorm. I reminded them this was not a fraternity house, but a hotel with guests. They had a little mercy, and I was able to fall back asleep.
To my surprise, as we were waiting in line to check-in with the bus company the next morning, these same girls (still in nightclub gear!) arrived at the bus stop together with their large flashy suitcases. One girl had a problem with one of the other girls and was on a full rant (in Irish I believe), so loud and long, that everybody present was rolling their eyes in disbelief.
I was afraid they would be on my bus, and of course, they were! Luckily they were in the far back, and we were in the front seats. I knew they would probably fall asleep fast as they were up until the wee hours, and indeed, within an hour they were fast asleep. Adding a boat trip to this scenario (never sit on the top deck in the wind and sun unless you enjoy torture) and their cute looks turned into a disaster look, with runny makeup and knotty hairdos. I didn’t see them on our island, but I’m sure they partied at the Full Moon party, covered in fluorescent paint, drinking booze from buckets…
Pros and Cons
Every country and culture have pros and cons. I also realize that my four weeks of exploration can’t possibly render me with a complete picture. But visiting four times means I now have about four months of experience. I’m not a regular tourist, the one that has everything arranged, including tours and transfers, the one that dresses to the T, the one that doesn’t leave their resort, the one that prefers to eat food that resembles mostly what they eat home, the one that gets upset at the sight of a Gekko or Tjik Tjak on their ceiling, the one that sunbathes on a tanning bed near the pool (too much sand on the beach, and sea cucumbers in the water!).
My daughter and I immediately explore our “hood” and find cute places, fun stores, and sweet locals. Like Nikki, who just opened her nail and tattoo salon (her polish lasted over a month!) Like Gof, who was our guide during our island tour.
During my first visit back in 1991, we rented a motorcycle and crashed on a jungle road, followed by a short hospital visit. Even though the roads have been improved, I’m not used to driving a motorcycle, let alone on the left side of the road, together with other horrible driving tourists. I tried biking, but it’s too hilly and too hot for that. So we rely on taxis for transport, and this is why I signed up for a half-day island tour, to show my daughter a little more.
This tour included a visit to Mae Haad, a great beach for snorkeling, zip lining through the jungle, a lunch, bow and arrow shooting, a visit with the elephants (I refuse to ride them, I just think they need to be protected not exploited), and a visit to a Chinese-Buddhist temple. The whole trip was great (the lunch was exquisite!) and Gof was a great guide, especially at the temple he provided a lot of background information. Thumbs up for Safari Boat (I wish we’d used them for our boat trip as well!).
OK, back to pros and cons. For me, the pros obviously outweigh the cons. The most annoying con is probably other tourists (just kidding a little) LOL. Although I’ve encountered quite a few very, let us say “interesting” tourists. Like this lady from Europe, who was also traveling with her daughter. They were just a few years younger than us, and the lady had, like me, also traveled to the island several times, during the early 90s. We had a lot in common and a nice connection, so when she rented a car, she invited us on a trip into town. There’s only one town on the island; this is where the ferries dock and most of the (larger) shops and banks are.
She confessed that she had never visited this town, other than getting a taxi to her favorite resort (she stayed at this same resort each visit). I couldn’t believe it, as it was a great place to visit, getting a break from the beach, exploring great restaurants and cute shops. My daughter and I had already explored the town several times and were able to guide them around. In the evening I provided directions back to our bay, and she said she didn’t know the name of our beach or bay…what? As we drove through a tiny village, 10 minutes walking from our resorts (she stayed at a neighboring resort) she and her daughter discovered there were stores and restaurants right behind their resort, along the road to town.
I was flabberghasted, you don’t know where you are and you apparently never left your resort? I guess there are tourists like that, flying in and out the country, staying at their resort and then go home. Not my cup of tea.
Other tourists were loudly complaining about the fact they had to wait, or things were not the way they thought it should be. Then there were the ones who had no clue about the Thai culture and traditions. They would step over ten pairs of slippers in front of a store or restaurant and walk inside with their shoes on.
Ok, enough of this! Yes, some things can be challenging, like bargaining with the Thai and make sure you’re paying a fair price, but that is the case in many other tourist destinations, often locals depend on this seasonal income and try to bump up the prices (like my $20 for a 5 minute taxi drive in Italy for example).
Yes, there are bugs in tropical places and often MUCH bigger than you’ve ever seen. You can also eat them; you like your cricket deep fried? No problem. You must avoid too many mosquito bites, as they carry diseases like Malaria and Dengue Fever. If you can’t deal with that, Thailand is not the place for you.
Dos and don’ts
I already addressed some of these in an earlier post, and in this post when I talked about people not taking their shoes off before entering places. My only advice here is to educate yourself a little bit prior to boarding your plane. Some things are just common sense and pretty much the same as at home. You don’t walk around town half naked, even though it’s exceptionally hot, you don’t see Thai doing that!
Bring or leave
I was going to include a travel list, but I think this is better for another post, so please come back and check if you’re interested in that. I’ll be uploading images on my website as well; you may visit www.moniquedicarlo.com
After 28 days, 19276 air miles, 3 train rides, 4 bus trips, 4 boat rides, 7 hotels, 855 pictures, 17 videos, 44 ice creams, 20 Tuk Tuk rides, a gazillion bugs, 6 Buddhist temples, 250,000 steps (each), and 15 amazing sunsets, we’re home. Planning our next trip…