One of the best kept secrets of Koh Phangan is its natural beauty. There’s more to the island than the beach parties at Haad Rin and the chilled out bungalows on other beaches. In fact, one of the best ways to experience Koh Phangan is to go hiking on the coastal trails or hire a motorbike to go exploring.
Koh Phangan is large enough to escape, small enough to see in a day, and covers about 170 square kilometres. Its highest point is 627m above sea level, and the interior is a brilliant nature landscape of hills and lush forest almost all year round. Even in the dry season you can find waterfalls, streams and green jungle to get lost in.
From Haad Rin - which is party central - you can start by following the four-kilometre trail over the hilly coast to the north and onto Haad Yuan and Haad Thian; both of which are reachable by boat only. This trail might be a bit hard to find but ask around and you can practically follow it all the way to Haad Namtok (waterfall beach), which is accessible in the dry season by a rough road. A walking trail connects this road with the cool Haad Sadet - which is also accessible by road. The excellent local map displays these trials.
If you rent a bike you can follow a roller coaster road west over the hills towards Tong Sala, which is the main town on the island and where ferries arrive. It passes through Baan Khaay and Baan Tai, which are both one of the few parts of the island with settlements stretching inland from the coast. More on the getting around Koh Phangan.
The roads here wind through coconut groves and there are a few attractions, like the ‘biggest tree on Koh Phangan’, as well as an interesting temple and chedi, plus a lookout. The road also begins here to access the northeast of the island and it’s a wicked ride up through the hills into lush, green jungle, leading eventually to Haad Tong Naay Pan.
You can survive this route on a Honda Dream, or even a mountain bike if you’re fit, and it’s really worth the effort. Two roads lead off this - heading down to the small beaches mentioned above - but they can be difficult; especially the one leading to Haad Namtok. The route down to Haad Sadet follows a cascading waterfall, which was visited by King Rama V more than hundred years ago, and it has some chilled spots to stop off at.
If you prefer to head into Tong Sala, you can visit the local market, get your internet fix, and arrange travel and other services - also available at the beaches. Take the sealed road north to Chalaoklam Bay, which is still very much a traditional Thai fishing community and a cool chance to hang out with the locals. There are a few dive shops here and places to stay, or you can catch a longtail boat to the secluded Haad Khuad (Bottle Beach) on the north side. More on Koh Phangan ferries.
From Chalaoklam Bay you can follow a round trip route that takes in the northwest coast of Koh Phangan and passes the small island of Koh Maa. The latter is joined to the mainland by a sandy beach and is a good place for solo snorkelling.
There’s quite a few cool beaches in this area; some have a few upmarket resorts on but the atmosphere is thoroughly chilled and completely different to Haad Rin and the south. You can stay here and catch a taxi minibus to the full moon party; a great way to avoid the crowds. Haad Salad, Haad Yow and Chao Phao Bay are all found along this stretch of coast. More on Koh Phangan sightseeing.
As you head south again, you come to a flatter part of Koh Phangan - full of coconut plantations and small beaches and bays that aren’t as easy to swim in. Quite a few resorts are hidden here, near Wogtum Bay, with their own tiny beaches. This area has quite a few inland roads to explore (great for cycling), as well as the relaxing and peaceful Laem Son Lake.
There is a waterfall in the middle of Koh Phangan on the way to Chalaoklum Bay, called Phaeng Waterfall, and nearby is a marble Buddha. Further up the road you come to Khao Raa retreat, where you can find the trail to the highest point of the island - quite a hike. Also on the road north, as it descends into Chalaoklum Bay, is paradise waterfall where they sometimes hold half-moon (or dark moon) parties. There is also a colourful Chinese temple which can be seen from the road and is worth a look.
Getting your booties off the beach to go exploring Koh Phangan is really worth it, and you realise this island has more character than you thought. Some people never want to leave and we know of one German character who has been living as a hippie on Haad Rin for around 15 years! More on expat living in Koh Phangan.