After deciding to stay put in Bangpor, Samui, for as long as our tourist visa allows, we extended the stay in our apartment. (It was too good to give up!) We just had to move out for a couple of weeks two thirds of the way into our stay because of another booking there. This gave us a great opportunity to take a holiday from our holiday (not to mention test our ability to pack up and move – a test we narrowly passed with a lot of stress, sweat and spats, while gazing enviously at the agile backpackers!).
We decided to hop on a Lomprayah ferry across to Koh Phangan. It had been tough to find a place online that had a kitchen and didn’t completely blow our budget (as the extent of our little tot’s Thai restaurant eating is still rice, chips, the odd masamam curry, and maybe a few bites of pad Thai, if the earth and moon are appropriately aligned). The majority of accommodation comprised of basic, overpriced bungalows, with no cooking facilities – clearly aimed at the tens of thousands drawn to the full, half, and dark moon parties. Then most villas with kitchens were at the other end of the spectrum – large, modern apartments appealing to upmarket tourists looking for secluded villas with views, and carrying hefty price tags. (Once we were there we realised that, if we got a Baht for every sign we saw advertising a house for rent, we’d have some serious jangle in our pockets. So, if you were staying any length of time, the best thing would be to source more accommodation once there, but we didn’t want the stress of moving once we’d managed to heave ourselves there for just 12 nights.)
We settled on a secluded villa in walking distance to Srithanu beach, hailed as a dream destination for both families and vegan travellers – and having big ticks in both those boxes suggested it was made for us!
Our little villa was something very special. Set in amongst palm trees, with uninterrupted views across a striking green lawn onto an isolated bay, which at low tide left the few bright fishing boats it housed awkwardly stranded on the sand, and, as the tide came in, gently lifted them onto the glassy turquoise water. Even at high tide it was too shallow and corally to swim, but offered the most spectacular view to lose your thoughts in. With only one neighbour and the odd person with a dog going out at low tide to collect clams, or a fisherman working on his boat once in a while, it was supremely peaceful.
The living space was very open, without walls, so you couldn’t not take in the scenery and sounds of nature. Perched on a chair, up in the stilted house, enjoying a breeze off the water, half watching bright blue and black butterflies dart in and out of view and flocks of birds practising their choreographic sequences, you didn’t need to bury your head in a book. Of course you can’t pick and choose which parts of nature you get to experience, and we did share the cottage with a fair few bugs, tons of mosquitos, lots of cute geckos, and one massive blue gecko that was amazing to see, but wasn’t someone you wanted to come across unexpectedly! l also once spotted a tree snake on a palm tree when taking a photo of the epic view – someone else I didn’t want to come across again!
And, if I thought I needed to cook in my bikini in our Samui home, I had to live in it here! Luckily there was a hosepipe outside, which was repurposed as an outdoor cooling off shower, for when we (often) got to melting point. There was also a separate gazebo where we set up a couple of pots with some cups to make the perfect pouring station to keep our tot amused and cool.
Srithanu beach, a short walk away, was spectacular. Soft white sand led to shallow turquoise waters, in which you could walk hundreds of meters, and a little tot could run round and splash away to her heart’s content. This also meant that, on a scorching hot day, you couldn’t cool off in the higher than bath temperature water, but on any other day, especially if the tide was coming in with fresh cool water, it was magic.
Unfortunately the view back to the beach wasn’t as enchanting, with rows of simple modern bungalows, built in different styles and colours, and with the goal of minimising costs and maximising earning potential. But you can’t visit Thailand expecting the vision, uniformity and discreetness of a Maldivian resort island. It’s a patchwork of businesses and dreams, and is what it is.
Srithanu village is small and cute, with everything you’d need on holiday, and stacked full of yoga and health retreats and vegan restaurants, alongside lots of Thai restaurants. We broke our budget, but ate like vegan royalty! And, having come from Samui, where you have wait for a gap in scooters and cars to cross the road, it was refreshing to meander through the town with the pram lent to us by our unconventional neighbour (who has built a life focused on waste avoidance and collects and stores anything and everything discarded by other people).
He would pop over (with some skimpy underwear on his head to keep his bobbed hair back) 3 or 4 times a day to give us something useful; torches, pegs, numerous toys, a blow up kids’ boat, balls, and sometimes just a bit of advice. Despite his imposing solid gold teeth, being lavished on meant our little tot warmed to him immediately and always expressed appreciation for his gifts, which got the gold flashing even more. This random experience with someone so eccentric and kind is what going to new places and meeting new people is all about. Giovani is permanently etched on the memories of our trip.
We hired a car for a couple of days to explore further afield. We sunk our feet into a few other beaches, and had some meals with different views, including one comprised of veggie spring rolls, finger licking falafel wraps, and mango sticky rice, in the Pantip night food market in Thong Sala. (We’ve always been the tourists that only eat local food on our two week holidays, but going without falafels for 2 months meant we just had to eat them at every opportunity, no matter how amazing Thai food is!) Much to our toddler’s bemusement, we were like kids in a Willie Wonka factory walking round Limpipong shop, stocked will all sorts of vegan goodies, including a huge variety frozen, tinned and dried meat replacement products!
We also took a trip down memory lane, through the jungle to Thong Nai Pan, a beach we’d stayed on and been captivated by in a past child-free life. The first time we visited was about 9 years ago when we’d rented a snug bungalow, with a palm tree growing straight through it. It was right on the powdery sand, looking out onto a beautiful bay, where we spent many happy hours gently bobbing up and down. The last time we visited, 4 years ago, this bungalow had been replaced by a set of modern double story apartments, but the town still felt small and sleepy. This time though the area was jam packed with shops, restaurants and bars, the beach with people, and the sea with private speed boats. We of course reminisced about our previous Robinson Crusoe-esque experience, and how lucky we were to have discovered a piece of the magic before the masses did, since having to share diluted it. But revisiting past places reminds you that change is inevitable. Whether your travel path leads you somewhere different or somewhere you’ve trodden before, the experience is always new. And you can appreciate what you had before and what you have now, even when they’re different.
Having spent time on 2 islands in close succession also led us to draw broad comparisons between the two. Koh Phangan has a very different feel from Koh Samui. Ask any traveller and they’ll tell you Phangan is where it’s at, and they’ll likely recommend bypassing Samui. We found Phangan to be full of hippies and hipsters, partying students, longterm travellers, and expats calling it home. And it doesn’t feel very real – it seems as though it’s been set up just for travellers, with a significant expat influence, as opposed to being a place where Thai people have long lived and gone about their lives. Samui, on the other hand, (outside of the main tourist areas), while still heavily reliant on tourism, feels like it’s owned and run by Thai people living their lives, and setting up little businesses, as they would anywhere else in Thailand.
Don’t get me wrong, Koh Phangan is full of charm and character, and is a very unique and special place that is great for a holiday. We just seemed to interact with so many more non-Thais than Thais in our time there, and a large part of it felt like a place that had been built specifically to appeal to hedonism and egotism, as opposed to having more slowly been evolved by people living there. (I know this is a somewhat naive way to view either island, especially when Samui has the heaving tourist hubs of Chaweng, Lamai and Bo Phut that could almost be anywhere, but our experience in quiet Bangpor was very far removed from this.) So Phangan was awesome for a change and for a couple of weeks (and of course we could easily have stayed a good while longer) but, when choosing somewhere to live for as long as a Thai visa will permit, it wouldn’t be here because we prefer the hustle and bustle of Thai life around the less touristy areas in Samui to the barefoot eclecticism of Koh Phangan.