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Dim Sum Dialogues in Thailand: Ko Pha Ngan
After what feels like hours, the ferry disembarks on a small dock that ends where a group of Thai people in hats and sunglasses are standing. They're holding signs for connecting rides to hotels or offering cheap bus fares to various beaches on the island.
I suppose one of the pitfalls of not booking anything ahead of time is suddenly realizing that you have no idea what your next move should be. Haad Rin? Haad Yao? Haad Khuat? Haad Salat? Names of beaches barraged my eyes and ears.
With one full day before the full moon party, all hostels were rumored to be fully booked, so it didn't matter where I started the search. I only knew that it would be better to stay close to Haad Rin since it's the center of activity, and staying there would mean avoiding late night taxis or buses when it was time to go home. A couple of tourists waiting to leave the island point to a woman that they recommend for a taxi bus, and I take their suggestion.
I jump in the back of a covered truck and am heartily greeted by a loud American with a southern accent and a t-shirt tied around his head. He uses a slew of expletives to describe just "how [ridiculously] crazy Thailand is" and asks the group of passengers if we can believe how "cheap [stuff] is here". He says he might not want to leave and mentions that there's nothing to go back to at the moment anyway. Eventually, he's drowned out by the sound of the struggling engine as the truck strains to make it over a series of steep, twisting roads that lead to Haad Rin.
The island's area is roughly 168 km², with an estimated 50 km perimeter, so it really doesn't take long to get to get anywhere on the island. From the ferry to the beach where the once-a-month festivities are held, it's about a fifteen minute drive.
We arrive in Haad Rin, and I make a dash for the first cheap hostel in my guidebook - Mellow Mountain Bungalows. The view is gorgeous. Bright sunshine, sparkling water, green hills and white sand. Luckily, there's one bungalow available and the price isn't bad - 350 baht per night ($10 USD). I force myself to overlook the fact that the toilet and shower are both out of commission - the likely explanation for the room's late vacancy - and decide that the communal shower will do just fine. If that fails, there's always the ocean, right?
Once I'm settled, my initial instinct is to rent a scooter and explore the rest of the island. In retrospect, this should have been my first decision after arriving on the island - and would be my recommendation for anyone traveling without bags that require a taxi. It's cheaper and more fun to explore the island by yourself. Just remember to wear a helmet and drive cautiously - I think calling the roads of Thailand "unpredictable" would be an affectionate understatement.
Regardless, Ko Pha Ngan is probably one of the best places in Thailand to rent a scooter for the day. All of the roads on the island are quiet, two lane strips of asphalt that snake through beautiful forests and picturesque hills. There's a few waterfalls that are easy to access, and enough beaches to sample to keep you busy for a few days. On my way around the island, I stop at a small restaurant owned by a Thai woman and her British expat husband. A crowd of British men are huddled around the bar, halfway through a "proper Sunday lunch" of roast lamb and mushy peas.
My favorite beach of the day is a spot on the Northern end called Haad Salad. There are giant rope swings, quaint guest houses and warm, shallow water. If it wasn't on the opposite side of the island from Haad Rin, I'd opt to stay here for hours, but I'm short on time and decide to head back on the road while the sun sets in the west, and a full moon rises in the east.
I gun the scooter over the final few hills that descend into the beach. I'm relishing every moment of riding the curved pavement, the moon high in the sky, cutting through a paper thin layer of clouds. When I pull into the town, I can feel the buzz of energy in the air. By now, most of the tourists that are staying in Haad Rin for the party have arrived, and the tiny streets of the towns are packed with people.
A group of dutch tourists get neon paint patterned on their arms and legs. Four youngsters huddle around a friend in a tattoo shop. A pair of girls get their hair done at a salon. Hordes of people have already started dancing on the beaches to deep, resonant music.
Internet cafés are filled to capacity. I stop at one and count the number of screens that are logged into Facebook - 19 out of 20...and it's the same at almost every cafe that I pass. Truly the mark of our generation. Maybe they're making those last minute rendezvous from the Khao San?
I have no idea what to expect for the next 24 hours, but by the excitement that I feel in the streets, I have a good suspicion that I've come to the right place.
If you've missed the previous articles in this series, be sure to check out the entire Dim Sum Dialogues column for more on the road from Bangkok to Ko Pha Ngan.