Koh Phangan, Thailand – My movie-inspired adventure
7th August 2020
Ever watched a travel movie and thought “What if I would do the same?” or like, “That looks awesome, I want to be there too.”? My movie inspiration took me to Koh Phangan, Thailand.
Here’s my Koh Phangan, Thailand video inspired by movie “The Beach”.
There are lots of movies out there that just scream wanderlust. But there are a few that really inspired me to travel to those places shown in the movie. There are even fewer that impart travel lessons while taking the journey just like in the movie.
Warning: spoiler alert! If you haven’t seen the movie The Beach, i suggest to stop reading here. I won’t be mad 😉
The Beach – My inspiration for this trip
Mine was The Beach directed by Danny Boyle based on a novel by Alex Garland. It follows the adventures of Richard, played by a young Leonardo DiCaprio, in the search for something different, for something called paradise.
Richard is a young American who went to Thailand looking for unique adventures, to try something different . Instead, he finds himself in Bangkok where although it might be different, the tourists are just doing the exact same thing – playing it safe in the comforts of their resorts, partying as they would in their home countries (perhaps even wilder), and flying thousands of miles just to watch TV.
So when an opportunity came in the form of a lunatic called Duffy who held a map to a secret beach too perfect it will give you unbelievable sensations, Richard did not hesitate.
Together with a French couple, they embarked on an adventure from Bangkok all the way to Koh Samui (as shown in the map in the movie) before swimming their way to the secret island which happens to have a lot of weed growing on it.
Okay, I’ll stop there. Weed, secret paradise island. What could go wrong, right? Turns out there will be a bunch. It’s up to you to find out as I’m not here to review the movie. What I can tell though is how the movie was made and how the lessons affected me so much in my travels.
My route to paradise – How to get to Koh Phangan from Bangkok
Even though the movie was released in 2000, it was only until months before my trip to what I call “The Beach Route” that I watched the movie. Since then, I haven’t stopped dreaming about following that route. It was already my 4th time in Thailand. I had already been to Bangkok, Phuket, and Chiang Mai.
And so I went. I took a train from Bangkok to Surat Thani, then a boat from Na Thon to Chaweng which is an area in Koh Samui. But unlike in the movie, mine was more expensive, more modern and more comfortable. None of those shabby looking train and boat rides where they actually slept on the floor. The night train to Surat Thani from Bangkok actually had seats that can be converted to beds. The attendants will give you pillows and clean sheets and blankets.
After the train ride, we were ushered to our boats complete with AC and TV. Of course, you can opt for a more scenic view by sitting at the upper level, exposed part of the boat.
The actual filming locations actually are on the opposite side of the Gulf of Thailand, specifically Krabi and Phuket with the actual paradise island known as Hat Maya Phi Phi Le, Maya Bay in short. But the movie followed the novel’s route.
And so I ended up in Koh Samui where, as the movie and the novel described, it was packed with tourists. The beaches are beautiful though with tropical warm waters. But then again, I was looking for the more rugged, more virginal version of Koh Samui just like what Richard was trying to do.
The truth about Koh Phangan, Thailand
In the map in the movie, the fictional secret island was close to Koh Phangan, Thailand. So I went there. Now, don’t get me wrong. Many of the backpackers who have been to Thailand will tell you how busy Koh Phangan is. The truth is, most of the young backpackers only go there for a few days during its most popular event – The Koh Phangan Full Moon Party on Haad Rin Beach. More on that later.
The truth is, Koh Phangan is very quiet. We barely saw any tourists on the streets, the only some on the beaches. To be fair though, we arrived in August, which is not considered as a high season for tourists in Koh Phangan. Regardless, we enjoyed Koh Phangan in its most unassuming form.
Old and New Koh Phangan
I arrived in Koh Phangan with a promise of reclusion. Someone who has was there about 10 years ago had told me how secret and secluded the area was. He said there were no paved roads going there, only a rocky, steep pathway through the forest. The road was so dangerous that one of their friends had a serious crash. The other way, and much safer was going by boat.
I asked my friend how he would compare the past Koh Phangan to the present. He said that although there are more shops and more paved roads, the island still holds its quiet charm.
In my observation, there are still fewer shops and bars in Koh Phangan than there are in Koh Samui and nearby Koh Tao, which is even smaller than Koh Phangan. There were barely people walking about. Perhaps it was too hot? Maybe they are on the beaches? Nevertheless, the town was quiet, even the hotels are mostly empty, and the restaurants still.
The island itself is a rugged beauty to behold. There’s bare any flat road. The beaches are hidden away in coves and bays. To get there, you’ll have to drive on steep and curvy roads with shard bends. But the rewards are amazing. The white sand beaches is intermittently blanketed by the turquoise-hued cool waters of the Gulf of Thailand, perfect for refreshing after driving under the hot tropical Thai weather. And again, I was surprised that there were barely any tourists on the beaches.
I found paradise in Than Sadet Beach
Then we decided to move to Than Sadet. The secret paradise that wasn’t so secret anymore. This was where my friend lived for months 12 years ago – where he made life long friendships, hid away in a waterfall smoking weed and munching on mushrooms while watching the stars above and the flowing water below. It sure was illegal back then and today and yet i am pretty sure they enjoyed every moment of it.
Where to stay in Koh Phangan, Thailand – Mai Pan Rai Bungalows
The only accommodation in Than Sadet beach is called Mai Pen Rai Bungalows. They offer several bungalows along the beach and on rocks. My wooden accommodation was nestled amongst the huge boulders lining this side of the island. I had to go over and under these rocks to reach my simple yet charming house over-looking the sea. One of the great rewards is being woken up by a beautiful sunrise and being slowly enticed to sleep by the mellow lullaby of the sea gently crashing on to rocks below.
The small beach of Than Sadet is protected on each side by the undulating rocks. To get there, one must drive through a forested area. On the side of the beach is a river, riddled with a couple of gigantic monitor lizard which i mistook for a snake once. This river flowed from the Than Sadet waterfalls. The waters run through rocky terrain from the heights within the island. Truly, it’s a wonder how a small area can hold so many beautiful surprises.
Somehow, I found my own little paradise like in the movie. A small beach with glistening white sand beach and blue crystalline waters. It was as if it was the island’s little secret that only few adventurous hearts had the privilege to experience fully. I was lucky to call it my home for one whole month.
Things to do in Koh Phangan
1. Sunrise in Than Sadet
A usual day would be waking up early to watch the beautiful sunrise from the balcony with a hot coffee in my hand, slowly taking in all of the sensations: the cool breeze and warm sun on my skin, the smell of the ocean, the blues and the oranges on my eyes, the gentle sound of the waves in my ears, and the taste of coffee in my mouth.
2. Swimming nude early in the morning
When the sun is at its healthy glow, id come down to the empty beach, and flood my senses with the cool waters of Than Sadet, sometimes id go skinny dipping for maximum sensation. Because it was the low season, there were barely other guests in Mai Pan Rai and so we had the beach all to our selves. Most of the tourists come by during the day.
3. Thai Breakfast on the Beach
After that, I would order breakfast – sometimes i’d go traditional Thai with a minced pork with basil topped with egg, other times id go for yogurt and fruit. And again, I would have another round of coffee. Nothing beats breakfast with a view.
4. Explore the Island
A few stretches and a little bit of yoga (I regretted not fully practicing it in such a very conducive place), it’s time to explore the rest of the island or the beach’s backyard. Literally, just a short hike up from the beach is the Than Sadet Waterfalls which was considered sacred to many Thais as the King himself has made his mark at the top of the waterfalls.
Hop on a motorbike and drive through hilly roads to reach other white sand beaches hidden away in small bays.
When I’ve had enough sunbathing and tanning, I would grab another coffee, iced this time, or a couple of iced cold Chang or Singha, the quintessential Thai beers. The sunset is not so visible in Than Sadet but you’ll see the sky changing hues as the sun sets on the other side of the island. Another moment that is difficult to take in.
5. Ang Thong National Park
When we were looking for something new to do on the island, we joined a boat cruise that went to Ang Thong National Park. The park features small rock islets, snorkeling areas, lagoons tucked away in smaller islands, and white sand beaches. It is possible to camp on these islands with a fee of course. But i still wanted to go home to my small paradise in Than Sadet.
6. Koh Phangan Full Moon Party
Of course, the quintessential Full Moon Party that Koh Phangan is known for finally arrived. We took a boat from Than Sadet to Haad Rin Beach where the party is. We didn’t want to risk driving the dangerous roads with alcohol flooding our bodies after a fun night out.
It was unique as it was the first time i went on a party at night on a boat on a rough sea. I felt like throwing up and i haen’t had any alcohol yet. But the bright full moon was guiding our boat to what supposed to be a wild party.
There it was – crazy party lights, fire dances, and sounds that stretched the whole Haad Rin Beach which is probably around 3 kilometers in length packed with people. As much as i loved my quiet time in Than Sadet, it was nice to take in a totally different set of sensations. People are dancing, the smell of cigarette smoke, perfume, booze, fire, and the ocean fill the air, the loud music made it hard to talk to friends.
After a month in Koh Phangan, I decided to move on and go to Koh Tao, another island 45 minutes away from Koh Phangan where i stayed for almost one month.
End of a wonderful stay – Koh Phangan Thailand will always be piece of paradise
I might have left Koh Phangan but it will always leave a mark on me. I was glad i found The Beach. My trip wouldn’t be as meaningful i surmise. In the movie, Richard learned his lesson: that paradise is not a place to go but a moment in your life where you are part of something. And if you find it, it will last forever. Now everywhere i go, i think of his words and try to find beautiful moments in my travels and within myself, making my travels more meaningful.