Ko Pha-ngan, Thailand

This is the last in our series of Thailand blog posts. To read from the start of our Thailand travel journal, click here

Sam came up with a brain-wave, that instead of flying between Cambodia and Indonesia, as we’d planned (to meet my old work buddies, out on their sabbaticals), we would instead travel overland to Malaysia and squeeze in the Malay Peninsula first. This meant we found ourselves passing back through our beloved Thailand, and we simply couldn’t resist popping back somewhere en route. Given we’d only been to a few islands (because of the rainy season before), we thought we’d swing by backpacker favourite Ko Pha-ngan and see what all the fuss was about.

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Despite it being Full Moon Party time, we decided to skip it (having heard horror stories about it being full of terrible wrecked people, and a bad vibe) and instead made a bee-line for the North West of the island, Huaad Graad. We’d met a hawker early morning at the ferry port who offered us a bungalow for a bargain 600B (£12) then he promptly disappeared, so we feared we’d been scammed – until we were picked up by his colleague on the island! After an exhilerating ride on the back of the jeep through the jungly bumpy roads, passed pristine beaches, we arrived at tiny Huaad Graad Villa.

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The place was super remote, with a 20 minute (scenic) walk along the jungly paths to the nearest strip of shops/restaurants. It had its own private beach and infinity pool, and was nicely tucked away from everything. The restaurant was pretty spenny, so we settled into the rhythm of buying in breakfast snacks from the local 7/11 and trekking to a nearby Thai restaurant – Ying’s – where we could find delicious curries and noodles for a quid. We picked up some smokes and settled into five days of this relaxing routine, swimming in the pristine sea, larking about in the pool, and sunbathing.

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After five days, we were rudely turfed out by the unfriendly staff as they had a gang of Full Mooners arriving. We didn’t really mind, as we’d visited nearby Salaad beach before and found it even prettier than our little private beach, so we hit the road and enquired at My Way – some bungalows we’d had our eyes on – and they miraculously had a bungalow at an even cheaper £8/pn, with hammocks out front! We settled in for another few days of chilling between bungalow, restaurant and beach.

We were pleasantly surprised by the island, and found the North especially to have a really nice chilled, slightly older backpacker vibe – lots of cool jungly roads to walk on (or bike, if you’re brave!), chilled restaurants and bars that shut shop on the right side of midnight. Definitely a great pick for the thirties and up crowd.

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After nearly eight days of wonderful, pure relaxation, we managed to dig ourselves out of our hammocks and make our way to Malaysia, via an agonising journey of late boat, late bus, missing the last train, waiting until 4am at the train station, then catching ANOTHER train, then a bus… to PENANG!!

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Nong Khai, Thailand

So we’d been deliberating for a while about whether to go to the Full Moon Party. At first we’d been so keen that we actually planned our Thailand route around it, so we’d end up in Ko Phangan on the right date. But when push came to shove, we’d thoroughly gone off the idea. We’d met tons of people that said it’s trashy and horrible; we hadn’t booked accommodation; it had rained for the previous three nights in a row (making sleeping on a beach a less than inviting prospect!); and frankly, we missed the less-touristy goodness of the North.

So we headed far up North-East, as far as you can go, to Nong Khai, a little Mekong River town that borders Laos. We could literally see Laos from the river. Pretty cool! After our Open Water we were craving some rest and relaxation, and that was exactly what we got – in the form of food-gorging and celebrations for the end of Buddhist Lent.

  
  
When we arrived they were already setting up stages and marquees in the middle of town for the weekend’s celebrations, and by the evening, festivities were in full swing! There was a full-blown stage of musical festival proportions, with light shows, local Thai pop stars singing hip hop and cheesy pop; a huge long collection of picnic tables flanked on both sides by the most delicious, sumptuous and cheap food stalls you could hope to find, even in cheap, delicious Thailand. 

  
  
And even more excitedly, once we walked further down (after peeling ourselves away from the food stalls) we found taking place, on an INSANELY ornate stage set of glittery waterfalls, deers, and tropical surroundings, a bloody BEAUTY CONTEST! It was like we’d died and gone to (camp) heaven. There was a giggling ladyboy presenter with a straight-acting hunk partner; crazy elaborate hair styles and manic smiles from the ladies; waxed chests and earnest speeches from the boys. In short, it was like a really good reality TV show. They even had an OTT live steel band accompanying the whole thing with soft music and sound effects! 

    
So we wiled away a few evenings (as the festivities ran across our full 3 nights there!) munching away on divine food like garlic and coriander roasted whole chicken and spicy papaya salad (specialities of the North East); delicious tempura prawns; suckling pork; sweet treats like coconut milkshakes and mad icecream/jelly concoctions, and world-class sushi that cost about 5p a piece. 

  
    
 
In our lazy daytimes, we strolled along the Mekong, got foot massages at brilliant little family-run massage parlours where we gossiped with the owners; walked passed impossibly small temples and monk-spotted our way around town; and ate at a brilliant local food court where I ate a divine sweet and spicy crab and calamari noodle soup that will stay with me forever! Town was also flanked by the most comprehensive market you will ever see, selling everything from food, sweets, toiletries, clothes, electronics and toys, so we had a lot of fun fawning over stuff there (that we don’t have room in our bags to buy!)

   
 
We also took a VERY HOT day trip to a nearby sculpture park, which was brilliant in its insanity. The walk there was relaxing and scenic, aided by two giant iced coffees (our Thai addiction) – taking us down the river, through country lanes, passed buddhist temples, and finally to the park itself.

  
So the park – Sala Kaew Ku – was built by a crazy Buddhist dude from Laos, and is supposed to be a mash-up of religious references – drawing from Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim stories. The result is a whacked-out collection of mental-looking sculptures, with anything from giant dragons, buddhas, and religious icons, to men beating frogs to death, with plenty of murder and sex thrown into the mix.

   

  

The most eccentric – and possibly the most enjoyable – entails crawling through a sculpture mouth to be ‘reborn’, finding inside a ‘wheel of life’ that you walk around, depicting life from childhood, to work, to death. We (kind of) managed to follow it all the way around, but soon got distracted by a group of adorable teenage monks that we had to stop and (subtly) stare at.

  
The walk back was one of the hottest experiences of my life, as we decided to take a different route from our leafy walk there, and ended up in BRILLIANT sunshine (well over 35 degrees) for over an hour! Determined as ever not to fritter away money, we managed the walk home, aided by an emergency ice lolly stop, and decided that was quite enough daytime adventuring for us!

So, after a nice few days of (mostly) R&R, we bid Thailand an emotional farewell, and caught a tuktuk over the Thai-Lao ‘friendship bridge’ into our second South-East Asian country, Laos!