Apr 26 2008
Finding your perfect Thai beach is a balancing act. Tip too far in one direction, end up in a place indistinguishable from Myrtle Beach save for the fact that two-thirds of the bars are named Same Same But Different. Too far in the other direction, and you’re acquiring dengue fever five to seven times per night in a poorly patched tent next to a castaway who insists his name is Marley.
Our shared vision of the perfect Thai beach fell, if you can believe it, somewhere in between. We wanted to spend the final days of our trip reflecting (read: napping) on a quiet beach, with plenty of space to ourselves. Unfortunately, we also have a common addiction which must be fed, and we call that the internet. For reasons unknowable to man, geographic isolation and internet connectivity tend toward mutual exclusivity. The sad truth is that if “Marley” could connect us to WI-FI, we’d probably hunker right down between the mosquitoes and his blacklight on whatever deserted island he’s currently annoying.
But he can’t. So on one of our last evenings at Railay Beach, we spread out the maps and guidebooks, and tried to locate our perfect Thai beach over a couple of coconut shakes. I was reading up on all the islands with names that seemed hardest to pronounce, figuring other tourists might be too self-conscious to try to buy boat tickets there, when Brittany suggested Ko Pha-Ngan.
My first reaction was to laugh. Ko Pha-Ngan is home to the monthly Full Moon Party, a world-famous all-night rave that attracts up to 20,000 people at a time. When I envisioned peace and quiet, Ko Pha-Ngan was the last place that came to mind. But Brittany put the map in my face, and I began to see what she was getting at.
The Full Moon Party is limited to the SE beach of Hat Rin. On the northern side of the island, our map showed another beach, and this one accessible only by boat. This “Bottle Beach” looked to be separated from the rest of the island by impassable jungle, making it a promising candidate for virtual isolation. But at the same time, its location on the developed island of Ko Pha-Ngan meant it was likely to have our highly coveted internet access. Could it be that our perfect Thai beach lay right in the belly of the beast? We decided to find out.
Getting from Railay to Ko Pha-Ngan was an all-day pain in the butt. By the time we landed on our new island, it was 10:00pm, and we quickly learned at the port that no boats would run to Bottle Beach this late at night. In the interest of getting to Bottle as soon as possible, we hired a taxi driver to take us to the north side of the island and drop us off where we’d be able to catch the first boat in the morning. We found a $6 bungalow, and went to sleep.
The next morning, we dragged our bags down to the waterfront, and bought passage on the first longboat heading around the island perimeter to Bottle Beach. Twenty minutes later, we approached the shore and immediately saw that Bottle fit our vision of near-isolation. The beach was only half a kilometer long, and I could see just two people on it, reading books together on a bamboo mat in the sand. Luggage held high, we waded ashore, and immediately split up to do our typical accommodation reconnaissance.
When we reconvened thirty minutes later, we had both made the same chilling discovery: while bungalows here were quiet AND affordable, each one of the limited internet access points was charging 5 baht per minute. That adds up to $10 per hour, a rate eclipsing anything we’d seen from even the most opportunistic French cafes. And as if anything in the world could possibly be worse, dining options were limited to about three hotel restaurants, all of which apparently chose to make up for their affordable room rates with astronomically expensive food prices. We’ve never been a slave to restaurant prices thanks to our stubborn insistence on buying as much food as possible in local supermarkets, but we were blindsided by Bottle Beach’s cunning when we made another revelation: there IS no supermarket.
“Well, that’s it then,” I concluded. “We’re not staying here.”
Brittany didn’t need convincing. The only problem was that we’d dug ourselves into something of a hole. Simply getting to and from Bottle Beach is a tricky endeavor, and getting to another island altogether would require the better part of a day. We realized that this was our likely fate, but in an effort to delay the seemingly inevitable, we decided to check out one more beach on Ko Pha-Ngan before giving up on the island altogether. So a mere two hours after arriving on Bottle Beach, we were wading our way into another longboat, and shoving off once more. This time, toward the East, and to some sort of bay that our map labeled: Ao Thong Nai Pan. I didn’t know how to pronounce it either, so I pointed east and grunted. And once again, we were off.
When our longboat turned into the bay, we saw that it contained two distinct beaches, separated by a tall rocky outcropping. I would later learn their names: Hat Thong Nai Pan Noi and Hat Thong Nai Pan Yai, and that the two beaches do function entirely independently of one another. But when the boat driver paused the engine at this moment to ask which one we wanted to go to, the only difference I could see between the two was that one looked bigger. Hoping that bigger meant more likely to have a supermarket, I unknowingly pointed to Hat Thong Nai Pan Yai, and the motor roared once more.
During the shorts-soaking walk to shore, I looked back out over the water, and noticed that the rocky outcropping between the two beaches extended farther into the water than I’d realized from a distance, effectively making this area a bay within a bay. The beach looked to be twice as long as Bottle Beach, but looking up and down the kilometer of shoreline, I could count only five people. Once more, we split up for recon. But this time, we would quickly discover that we’d happened upon exactly what we didn’t know we were looking for.
Internet: $4/hour (phew)
Food markets: multiple
Restaurants: competitively priced
Bungalows: beachfront. With hammocks.
Sold. And speaking of bungalows, we chose one that sits all the way at one end of the beach – the opposite end from where the boats land. Down here we found the most isolated part of the beach, and relief from any unwanted boat engine noise that might interrupt our much-anticipated hammock naps. We have an overhead fan rather than A/C, but opening our wide glass doors lets in a sea breeze that renders the idea of both extraneous. And with the end of the trip now in sight, we let ourselves indulge in some uncharacteristic high-rolling: choosing a beachfront bungalow set us back $20 a night!
As I’m writing this, we’ve been here at Hat Thong Nai Pan Yai for ten days. Of course, the original plan was to stay for only five days before moving to Ko Tao for snorkeling… but that went out the window on the first afternoon here. So what do we do all day? Absolutely nothing. We eat breakfast in plastic chairs on the sand, we read books that we check out from a hotel down the beach, we swim in the bay when we get hot, and we take walks to open-air restaurants when it gets dark. Oh, and we get visits from Mama in the afternoon.
Mama is a Thai woman who walks the length of our beach every day, with two baskets slung over her shoulder, and a wet black dog by her side. What’s inside the baskets is a daily mystery: she always has fresh mango and watermelon to sell, but she could also be carrying some chocolate cake, banana muffins, sugar donuts… the list goes on. We were reading in our hammocks the first time Mama paid us a visit, and she caught us by surprise. Someone is here to bring us donuts, chocolate, and sticky sticky mango? We were loyal customers from Day 1.
Maybe a little too loyal. At first, we just referred to this woman as “our friend” or “snack lady.” Then, around Day 4, after I had just purchased a large mango from her basket, she began to peel and cut a second one. Confused, I started to explain that I only wanted one, but she put it into my hand and said, “You buy every day. Mama give.” Since that day, whenever we hear the shout of “hello babies!” approaching from the sand, we know it’s Mama.
As luck would have it, April’s Full Moon Party fell on the 20th, right in the middle of our stay on Ko Pha-Ngan. And while we had initially recoiled at the thought of The Biggest Rave in the Universe, we would soon meet four Irish travelers with other ideas. But our Full Moon Party experience is another story.