There’s a small plastic paddle boat slowly making its way from the shore towards us, on board, a wiry little nugget of a man, he’s all muscle, tattoos and happy white toothed smile.
We’re sitting, becalmed, in the bay of Haad Yeo east, a beach on the eastern coast of the Thai island of Kho Phangan.
We ask what’s going on, why have we stopped, the captain of our little wooden boat explains with a grin, “ we wait here for a time, we swap vodka for coconuts”.
And so we sit, there’s no rush, we all sit and wait and watch, and sit and wait and watch a bit more as the little paddle boat drifts closer and closer, he’s clearly in no hurry, just a gentle stroke every now and again to help him propel himself nearer and nearer.
Soon enough he arrives and the business is done, a bag of fresh coconuts swapped for a bottle of vodka, and some mixer drinks.
The entrepreneur businessman seems to live alone on the beach, the deal seems to be very much in his favor, a few coconuts for a full bottle of vodka, now that’s a great deal in anybody’s language. Suspiciously good in fact.
We’ve arrived in the “party” capital of Koh Phangan, a bit smaller, a lot more rugged, and a little quieter than it’s bigger brother next door, Koh Samui, a couple of hours north in an old wooden ferry sees you land at the main port town of Haad Rin.
Exactly why we’re here is a bit of a mystery to us, we’re not exactly the demographic suited to the town, it’s mainly famous (or infamous) for it’s full-moon party, a full on frenzy of booze, drugs, fluro paint, foam and booming bass back-beats that attracts backpackers from around the region once a month to blow off some steam.
The town has two beaches, sunrise and sunset, the sunset beach faces Koh Samui and is pretty grim to be honest, stones and gravel pepper the shore, and a line of rocks not far offshore block any waves that try to arrive, in our few days staying on the beach we fail to see anybody either on the sand or in the water.
The other beach, Sunrise, is where the full-moon part is held, in the recent past it’s been hugely popular, but, like the moon, it seems to be on the wane now.
The Lonely Planet guide describing it.
“Most travellers come to Koh Phangan for a short time and just to see the infamous Full Moon Party on Haad Rin beach. This is unfortunate, as the party has degraded in recent years to just a huge crowd of drunk or drugged up people trashing the beach. There are no longer artists, performers, special djs or anything at all to set this party apart from any other in the world. Haad Rin is also one of the most developed and least authentic beaches in Thailand. So, if you must go to the full moon party, at least make sure you attempt to see the rest of the island as well”.
To be fair that sounds a little harsh to us, ok, we were warned not to walk on the beach without footwear, the full moon party leaves plenty of smashed glass, but it seems to be a pretty little bay all the same.
We’ve certainly seen worse beaches, there’s the usual conga line of competing bars and restaurants along the edge, most specializing in the sale of “buckets”, a small plastic bucket with a little bottle of your booze of choice and a mixer or two, ready to pour into the bucket and enjoy ,tip it in, add a straw and hey presto, you’re a backpacker. It’s ideal for the backpacker party crowd but not what we’d usually find ourselves up to.
Which brings us back to the mystery as to why we’re here.
While we were in Koh Samui we took to talking with an expat Brit who had gone native, taken a Thai girlfriend and opened a bar, and we fell for the classic mistake, listening to a guy in a bar.
He’d suggested heading to Haad Rin as the best and easiest option to approaching Koh Phangan and so we took his advice, hopped on the ferry and, well,here we are.
We couldn’t find anything much in the town to amuse us for very long and so on our second full day we hired a longtail boat to whizz us up the coast to one of the many beautiful little coves that dot the island and make it such an attractive place.
There is no road into these beaches in many cases, and most have tiny little bars and restaurants serving a few hits and misses to the day trippers out from Haad Rin and to the lucky few who are staying in the beachside huts. We catch the longtail up the coast to the bay, Haad Yuan.
It’s your classic postcard picture perfect beach, a bar at one end, a few cabins spread out along the beach, and some impossibly beautiful European guests, we overhear them explaining to somebody that they are all on a six week yoga break on the beach. Of course they are, we think..
We spend the day, swimming about, lunching, wandering along the beach and watching the yoga bunch stretching, bending, doing the downward dog and the crazy date and slowly killing themselves with endless French cigarettes.
Lunch is surprisingly good for such a small little beach side cafe, tucked away from any main town, they whip up a really good seafood larb for us.
Lots of tender squid and prawns chopped finely and tossed through shredded cabbage, lemongrass, some herbs and a bit of fish sauce, really tasty and not what we’d expected.
Soon after lunch, while we lounge about the beach swimming and doing nothing much in particular, the weather starts to put on a big show for us, we’ve been in South-East Asia for nearly three months now and have seen almost no rain at all, save for a morning in KL and a few hours here and there in Penang, it’s been dry, dry dry, most bizarre, we’d arrived fully expecting to have to deal with torrential flooding rains on a regular basis, and we do fully expect that to still happen, however, nothing much so far, but, as we sit on the beach, the clouds, start to build, big and fat and black and menacing.
Here comes that storm we’ve been waiting on.
The sky goes almost black, lightening flashing through the gloom as we all gather along the sand to watch the free show.
We start to wonder if we should try and outrun it and hightail it in a longtail back to Haad Rin, but luck again seems to be with us and absolutely nothing come to pass, not a drop of rain, not a puff of wind, the sea stays like glass, the bar stays open, the yoga bunch keep smoking and we eventually catch that longtail back.
There’s not much to do in Haad Rin itself so we decide to buy a ticket the next day on an island tour, a pretty popular tourist attraction on not just this island but pretty much everywhere, we pick the tour on the strength of the fact that we recognize the girl handing out the leaflets from the bar we were in the night before, it seems as good a way as any to choose.
It’s a rickety old barge full of a united nations of travelers, greetings made, territory marked out and away we sail, accompanied by the never ending beats of the late great Bob Marley.
It’s an all day jaunt, set to travel up the east coast of Koh Phangan, stopping here and there along the way for snorkeling, swimming, lunch on the beach and a short jungle trek to visit a waterfall.
We’re by far the most “senior” of the boatload, a fact that comes home pretty quickly after we set sail and the tour guide, (lets come back to him in a minute) starts to hand out big fat joints around the boat.
Now, call us old fashioned, but the thought of getting a boatload of young backpackers, many with hangovers, many who are clearly not going to be strong swimmers, stoned and then tipping them off the side of an old boat to go snorkeling seems a little, well, stupid.
Could anything go wrong? of course not!.
.And of course nothing does go wrong, we snorkel and raise anchor to head off to another beach for lunch.
Now, back to the tour guide, a young South African kid, we managed to get out of him the information that he’s been doing the tours for about 10 weeks now, but that’s about all we could get from him, he sat mute staring out to sea for pretty much the entire trip, not a word passed his lips unless we prodded and poked and asked questions, “what island is that” we asked which elicited the response, “umm, I’m not sure” .
The captain on the other hand was hilarious, a giant local man, full of good humor and quick with a tale or a funny response.
He was the life of the party, and party it was, the longer the day, the more joints that got passed around the louder the reggae music played .
All good fun. We spent the rest of the day puttering along the island, stopping every now and again for a few planned activities until the sun started to dip and we then we headed for home.
With one last stop…..
To swap coconuts for Vodka.
All photos copyright Ross Duncan: firstname.lastname@example.org