The best things to do on Koh Phangan
There’s a lot more to this Thai island than just its famous Full Moon Party and reputation as a backpacker haven.
The beautiful coastline, the dense jungle, and the authentic cultural experiences offer just a taste of the things you can do on Koh Phangan.
I’ve visited Koh Phangan a few times over the years, always drawn back to the lush jungle and golden sands of the tropical paradise in the middle of the Gulf of Thailand.
The earlier trips were in what can be described as my ‘backpacker days’, when I thought the only things to do on Koh Phangan were partying and sleeping off the partying.
Back then, I would spend the day swimming and chatting to other young travellers. In the late afternoon, we would drink beers on the beach while someone would play guitar (I still, even now, remember one guy singing the same Pink Floyd song for an hour). And in the evenings, we would drink some more as the sand became a dance floor and fire-twirlers seemed to emerge from the surrounding jungle.
But I’m older now. And not quite as foolish (or foolhardy, perhaps). On my latest visit to Koh Phangan, I’ve explored beyond the small beach pocket of Haad Rin where much of the youthful hedonism is concentrated, and discovered there are so many more things to do on Koh Phangan than the parties.
To help you get your bearings, the backpacker area of Haad Rin is at the southeastern tip of Koh Phangan.
The main town of Thong Sala (where the ferry arrives) is on the southwestern corner.
Most of the beaches and popular accommodation options are stretched along the western coast.
The eastern side of the island (more than half of the total land area) is jungle protected by national parks, and is relatively inaccessible.
There’s the gorgeous coastline for starters – and it’s certainly a highlight, with some of the best beaches in Thailand. But head inland and you’ll also find lush jungle with walking trails and waterfalls.
Other than the main town of Thong Sala (and Haad Rin, to a certain extent), the rest of Koh Phangan’s communities tend to be small villages and they offer authentic ways to explore the island, through the local food stalls particularly, but also at the temples.
Compared to somewhere like Koh Samui, which has become quite developed and touristy, Koh Phangan is still laid back. Sure, you’ll find some hippies in happy pants here, but the vibe is mainly relaxed just because most visitors take it slowly, with little traffic and no need to rush anywhere.
You will find cool cafes (could you even call them hipster?), some fun bars, and some new restaurants. But you’re also going to find it just as easy to grab a noodle soup from a street stall, or sit on the beach with a beer from the 7-11.
Is it worth visiting Koh Phangan?
It is definitely worth visiting Koh Phangan, which has developed a reputation as one of the most relaxed tourist islands in Thailand. For travellers looking for the ultimate tropical escape, Koh Phangan offers beautiful beaches, authentic local culture, and wonderful accommodation options.
What is Koh Phangan known for?
Koh Phangan is famous for its Full Moon Party, the huge celebration that takes place on Haad Rin Beach each month. But although Koh Phangan as a reputation as a backpacker party island, it’s also gaining a reputation as a new tourist hotspot where visitors can escape the crowds of Koh Samui and Phuket.
How many days do you need on Koh Phangan?
You can spend as long as you want on Koh Phangan, and many people stay for weeks once they’ve relaxed into the tropical vibe here. For most visitors, though, I would recommend an absolute minimum of three days on Koh Phangan to start enjoying the atmosphere, while a week is probably the average stay.
If you’ve been to Koh Phangan before but not for a few years, you’ll find a slightly different island, with a lot more to do than just its old party reputation.
And if you’ve been to Koh Samui, you’ll find that there are a lot of different things to to on Koh Phangan, even though it may share many of the same tropical attributes.
With stunning water, jungle treks, fascinating heritage, and local food – here are my top tips for what to do on Koh Phangan.
There are at least 30 beaches on Koh Phangan, with soft sandy strips perfect for sunbaking and warm clear waters for swimming. You really can’t go wrong with any of them (even the ones around the main town of Thong Sala), and most people will visit a few different spots during their time on the island.
To help you choose where to head for your swims, here are a few of the best beaches on Koh Phangan.
As one of the most famous beaches on Koh Phangan, it would be remiss if I didn’t mention Haad Rin. But, to be honest, most visitors won’t want to visit it these days.
Haad Rin is where the Full Moon Party (and other beach parties) are held, and it’s the focal point of the backpacker crowd. The beach itself is generally very clean and the water is lovely for a swim, but the neighbourhood is much busier than other parts of the island.
Just a couple of hundreds metres across the peninsula, you’ll also find Rin Nai Beach, which is slightly smaller and can be much quieter. It gets beautiful sunset views and is lovely in the later afternoon.
Haad Chao Phao
On the west of the island, the beach at Haad Chao Phao (Chao Phao Beach) captures the essence of these coastal communities, with palm trees hanging over the sand, congruous bungalows between them, and a few little shops and restaurants a block back.
The nearby Zen Beach is the centre of the island’s yoga scene and that vibe flows over to Haad Chao Phao, which is very chilled. This is a great beach if you’re looking for somewhere quiet to hang out – but still easy to access.
The roads into Haad Salad (Salad Beach) are steep, and I wonder how many people decide not to visit because they don’t want to go back up on their scooter? Perhaps that’s one of the reasons that this beach feels quieter than it should.
I say that because Haad Salad has quite a bit happening for such a small strip of sand. As well as a few resorts, there’s a small collection of bars and restaurants that give a bit more life to the beach than some of the nearby ones.
With a large dramatic jungle headland to its north, the scenery here is also spectacular and it’s a lovely beach for a swim or a day on the sand.
At the northwestern tip of the island, Mae Haad Beach is one of the most popular on Koh Phangan for one main reason – the small island of Koh Ma that is just off the coast.
When the tide is low, a strip of sand appears that you can walk across to reach the island. Although even when the tide is up, you may still be able to easily swim across to the island (it’s only about 100 metres away).
Mae Haad is where you find some of the island’s biggest resorts (although they need a bit of a facelift). For this reason, it’s popular with families because there are lots of facilities here.
Bottle Beach is one of the nicest beaches in Koh Phangan – but also one of the hardest to get to (which is a large part of the appeal). A small arc of white sand surrounded by jungle awaits you, with some boutique accommodation where you can grab something to eat and drink.
Getting to Bottle Beach by scooter is possible, but quite tricky on the unsealed roads. Most people either get a boat transfer from Chalok Lam Beach, or hike through the jungle from Haad Khom, with different trails ranging from about two kilometres to three kilometres (one way).
Thong Nai Pan
The last beach I want to mention is Thong Nai Pan Noi, which is easier to access than Bottle Beach (it has sealed roads all the way) but can feel just as secluded. That’s because it is tucked away on the east coast, surrounded by national parks, far from most of the other development on the island.
There are actually two beaches right next to each other here at Thong Nai Pan, as well as towns around each of them, with lots of places to stay and eat. Although it makes for a fun day trip, this is also a great place to base yourself for some really relaxing off-grid time.
On the water
From the beaches, you’ll be able to swim to your heart’s content. But there’s more to the water than just the beach.
The gorgeous warm waters of the Gulf of Thailand have plenty to offer and here’s what you can do from Koh Phangan to make the most of it.
The waters around the coast of Koh Phangan are generally very calm, so it’s a beautiful spot to head out on a kayak. Depending on which beach you start from, you should be able to go around some of the rocky headlands, along the jungle coast, to explore some hard to reach spots.
There are lots of places that rent kayaks, and you’ll find options at most of the main beaches. If you can’t see somewhere when you arrive, just ask at one of the accommodations.
The islands here attract divers from across the region and there are some great dive sites around Koh Phangan. Probably the most famous of them all is Sail Rock, which many people say is the best in the whole Gulf of Thailand.
Whether you’ve never dived before or you’re an expert, it doesn’t matter – there are schools and trips to cater for everyone (and Koh Phangan is a great place to get your PADI certification – although Koh Tao is probably better known for that).
Ang Thong National Marine Park
The Ang Thong National Marine Park is one of the natural wonders of Thailand and heading out there for a day is one of the best things you can do from Koh Phangan.
The archipelago of 42 small islands rises up from the deep blue waters, little pockets of limestone mountains and thick jungle. Other than two small villages, the islands are uninhabited. Some of them have caves, inland lakes, and even sinkholes. Most of them have beautiful beaches.
There are a few companies that do speedboat trips out to the marine park from Koh Phangan. I would recommend this tour to Ang Thong, which includes the use of kayaks, snorkelling equipment, and lunch.
About 35 kilometres north of Koh Phangan is Koh Tao, the third of the large islands in this string of popular tourist destinations. People with plenty of time on their hands might stay at all three, while other travellers just choose their favourite.
If you’ve just based yourself on Koh Phangan, then you might like to take a day trip to Koh Tao by speedboat. It has some of the best snorkelling and diving in the area, plus the island itself is really pretty.
A highlight of this speedboat tour to Koh Tao is that it includes a visit to Koh Nang Yuan, a picturesque island just off the coast with amazing beaches and incredible viewpoints (which are very insta-popular!).
The coast is often the focus for visitors to the island, but don’t forget that most of Koh Phangan is actually jungle. Diving into the dense and humid interior opens up some fantastic adventures.
Than Sadet National Park
A great way to explore the mountains of Koh Phangan is at the headquarters of Than Sadet National Park, which is easy to reach by road, but then has a series of walking trails that make you feel instantly like you’re in the remote jungle.
The nature trail here is a loop track that takes about an hour to walk (although it’s longer if you stop along the way). It leads through tall tree and gnarled vines, with ferns and even orchids at ground level.
The highlights of the walk are the waterfalls, with the most famous being the Phaeng Noi Waterfall, which is particularly impressive during the wet season.
The highest mountain on Koh Phangan is Khao Ra and, although it’s technically in Than Sadet National Park, it’s not connected to the trails I’ve just mentioned that are around the headquarters.
To get to Khao Ra, you need to start at a trail a bit further north. The whole walk to the summit and back will take between two and three hours and isn’t particularly difficult (the peak is only 627 metres high). The hardest thing are the mosquitos (so make sure you bring repellent!).
The view from the top is sweeping and it gives you a great perspective of the island. With the humidity in the jungle, you’ll also sweat out all those beers you’ve been enjoying!
If you don’t like the sound of all this walking and humidity, then an easy spot to visit is Paradise Waterfall, in the north of the island, close to Chaloklum Beach.
The waterfall itself is beautiful, tumbling down between a series of boulders, and into a large waterhole. It’s the perfect size (and temperature) for swimming, and makes for a refreshing break in the middle of the day.
There is a small hike you can take up to the top of the waterfall, but otherwise you can drive up to a carpark just a short stroll away from the waterhole. An enterprising local has set up a ticket booth, charging 30 baht (US$0.90) for entry, but that includes a cold drink.
Much of the jungle is hard to access on your own, particularly if you don’t have the right kind of vehicle, so one of the best ways to explore this part of Koh Phangan is on a safari tour.
There are a couple of options that will take you off-road, through the lush landscapes to epic viewpoints, and along remote dirt tracks.
The natural attractions of Koh Phangan get a lot of the attention (and fair enough too), but it’s important not to forget the cultural side of the island.
Compared to Koh Samui (which is quite developed) and Koh Tao (which has such an emphasis on tourism), Koh Phangan has some of the most authentic examples of local life here in the Gulf of Thailand.
Thong Sala Night Markets
Markets are such an important part of daily life in Thailand, where locals traditionally come for everything they need, from food to everyday household items. You will see smaller markets in the communities across the island, but the two night markets in the main town of Thong Sala are particularly interesting for visitors.
The first worth mentioning is the Phantip Night Market, which is open every evening and has a large section dedicated to hot food. The small stalls sell all sorts of food, like grilled meats, noodles, and seafood – while larger more permanent shopfronts serve meals on plates. It’s a great spot to pop into for a cheap and local meal.
The other interesting event is the Saturday Night Walking Street Market, which stretches out along the waterfront street near the pier. It also has food, but there are all sort of other things for sale, including clothes, gifts, and local products. There’s a great vibe here and it’s a fun place to hang out.
So, you can buy a full meal at the markets, but what’s the fun in that, right? Another approach is to just buy the ingredients and then cook them all up yourself.
To learn how to do some authentic Thai cooking, there are some great cooking classes in Koh Phangan that you can join. As well as focusing on the special local products, you’ll get an understanding of the basic flavour profiles of Thai food, and come away with some recipes that you can even replicate at home.
You may see a few places offering cooking classes around the island – for one of the top schools, have a look at what’s available at the C&M Culture Centre.
Is it the relaxing atmosphere of Koh Phangan that attracts the yoga crowd, or is it their presence that helps make the island feel so chilled? Either way, yoga is a big activity along the west coast and there are some great studios here.
One of the oldest and still one of the best known is the Yoga Retreat, near Haad Salad. For something a bit more modern (and on-trend), there’s the Wonderland Healing Centre. And if you’re looking for a luxurious and remote yoga holiday, The Sanctuary is on a remote jungle beach that will take you away from the real world for a while.
Some of the best local cultural experiences I’ve had on Koh Phangan have been when I’m just exploring the roads that lead between the communities. It’s here that you’ll pop into small shops, grab from fruit from the street stalls, and see all sorts of interesting daily life taking place.
One way to see all of this – but with an expert local guide – is with this bicycle tour of Koh Phangan. You’ll stay on relatively flat ground (phew, no hills!) and be led through local farms, temples, markets, and other sites. You’ll even get to taste local snacks along the way.
I think this is a fantastic way to immerse yourself in some of the local culture in Koh Phangan, and the things you learn will likely improve your whole time here.
Although you’ll find cultural experiences in Koh Phangan just by exploring the streets, some of the particular sites that are worth looking out for are the island’s temples. These colourful (sometimes garish) complexes are a fascinating insight into a slice of local life, and you’re always welcome to pop in and have a look around.
Here are a few particular temples on Koh Phangan that I think are worth visiting.
Wat Samai Kongka
Of all the island’s temples, Wat Samai Kongka is certainly the most memorable. It’s famous for its garden sculptures that depict the torture of people in Buddhist hell, including being boiled alive in a pot and all kinds of unpleasant pokings.
Other than those gruesome images, the complex at Wat Samai Kongka is quite large and there are often events held here, including meditation sessions that you are able to join.
Wat Phu Khao Noi
Set back from the main road and at the top of a small hill, Wat Phu Khao Noi is the oldest temple on Koh Phangan and is said to have been founded in the 15th century.
The main pagoda building is a ten-metre-high white tower surrounded by eight smaller pagodas that each have their own design. Around it, in the tranquil environment, are some more modern buildings that have interesting artefacts on display.
Wat Ruese Pa Saeng Tham
Although it is alongside the main road that connects the north and south of the island, Wat Ruese Pa Saeng Tham feels like it could be in the middle of the jungle, with the lush greenery surrounding the site.
A large courtyard filled with interesting statues is a highlight of the complex, as is the small carved Chinese shrine. Climb up the stairs of the main building for views out across the island’s jungle.
Wat Pho Temple
Not to be confused with Bangkok’s Wat Pho of the same name, the Wat Pho on Koh Phangan is not the most impressive looking temple on the island – but it is popular because of the Baan Tai Herbal Sauna on the site. (It’s location between Haad Rin and the Thong Sala Pier doesn’t hurt either.)
The herbal sauna is not a luxurious spa and it was originally established for monks. The concept is that steam mixed with a blend of herbs fills the sauna and helps detoxify you (perhaps useful after a Full Moon Party?).
Go a bit crazy
You’re on holiday, right? And it doesn’t have to be all local culture and beaches. Sometimes you just want to do something fun – and Koh Phangan’s background as a backpacker island means there are a few great options.
If you fancy yourself a ninja warrior (of the television variety), then try to complete the obstacle course at Challenge Phangan. With inflatable stepping stones, ladders, swinging bags, flying foxes, and much more – it’s a great way to spend a few hours trying to improve your time along the course.
Unfortunately Challenge Phangan is still closed from the pandemic and I don’t know when it’s going to reopen – but hopefully it comes back soon, because it’s a lot of fun.
Slip n Fly
A bit of a backpacker institution on Koh Phangan, Slip n Fly may look like a waterpark, but there’s much more to it than that.
The main attraction at Slip n Fly is the twin waterslides that finish in a large pool where you can hang out. But perhaps the real reason lots of people come here is for the music and drinks. The venue turns into a party pretty quickly and is often an unofficial meeting place during the Full Moon Party period.
Slip n Fly is also still closed from the pandemic (and looks like it needs a bit of work to get it running again) but the plan is still to reopen, apparently.
The main paintball venue on Koh Phangan is running post-pandemic, though, and it’s a fun way to see the island’s jungle… while shooting your friends in the back!
The game zone at Paintball Battle Koh Phangan has bunkers, trenches, obstacles, and all sort of other cool constructions amongst the trees. There are a few different scenarios you can choose from for different styles of play – which also means you can do it more than once.
Full Moon Party
And then, of course, there’s the Full Moon Party – which may need no introduction. It’s been going for almost 40 years and what began as a word-of-mouth backpacker party has now become a large event each month with plenty of businesses offering packages and transfers from Koh Samui.
The focus is Haad Rin Beach, although other parts of the island also have events during the festival period (particularly at bars in Thong Sala). And although the party has a reputation these days for drugs, alcohol, and petty crime, it’s generally a very friendly event.
Because of the success of the Full Moon Party, there are lots of other parties in Koh Phangan during other parts of the month, including Half Moon and Black Moon parties. They can sometimes be a better choice for travellers because they’re just as fun but don’t have some of the logistical issues.
Where is Koh Phangan?
Koh Phangan is located in the Gulf of Thailand, about 400 kilometres south of Bangkok. It’s about 50 kilometres from the mainland, and about 10 kilometres from the nearby island of Koh Samui.
The closest main city on the mainland is Surat Thani, about 100 kilometres away.
How do you get to Koh Phangan?
There is no airport on Koh Phangan so the only way to arrive is by boat. Most visitors get to Koh Phangan with either a direct ferry from the mainland, or by getting a flight to Koh Samui and catching a ferry from there.
When is the best time to visit Koh Phangan?
The best time of year to visit Koh Phangan is from December to March, which is considered to be the dry season.
From April to June/July gets very hot – but perhaps that’s not so bad if you’re going to spend your whole time in the water.
September to November is officially the wet season, which can make long days on the beach a bit tricky, but it is less crowded and things like accommodation can be much cheaper.
I’ve spent a lot of time on the Thai islands over the years – during various trips since I was a youngster, and Koh Phangan has always been my favourite of them all.
There are also lots of things to do on Koh Samui and lots of things to do on Koh Tao, but I feel like Koh Phangan has the perfect blend of nature and culture with that relaxed escape atmosphere. If you also find the perfect place to stay, it’ll make for a wonderful time.