The story of Koh Phangan is a story of the people who have come to settle on the island over the past 3,000 years. Koh Phangan has experienced wave after wave of migration ever since the first people settled here and this has continued in modern times with the large number of tourists who go there now. Establishing the exact times people came is impossible as there little in the way of written records. However, the evidence that they were there is to be found throughout the Ang Thong Archipelago
Homo Sapiens remains (modern humans) dating back to the period of 36,000 to 25,000 BC have been found in Lang Rogrien cave, in Southern Thailand. Other such remains, ancient tools, and cave paintings have been found in most of the Provinces of Southern Thailand suggesting a thriving Stone Age population of early humans had spread out across the Kra of Isthmus long before the start of the Buddhist era. Whilst no archaeological artefacts this old have ever been found on Koh Phangan, there have been some significant finds on the neighbouring Island of Koh Samui.
The most important of those artefacts are the metal drums found on Koh Samui dating from 1,000 BC to 500 BC. These are the earliest definite evidence of human settlement in the Ang Thong Archipelago. The drum has been dated by the design which is uniquely associated with the Don Son culture of Northern Vietnam. The first of the drums was found at Wat Talingping (Koh Samui) in 1977 and is now on display at the Chaiya National Museum on the mainland. Another of these drums was found in Lamai (Koh Samui) in 2000 and is on display at the Lamai Cultural Hall.
An ancient stone axe has also been found on Koh Samui which is evidence that the Semang people of Malaysia visited the islands in the past. They are known to have lived in many parts of Southern Thailand at least 5,000 to 10,000 years ago. The Semang are only one of the Negritro ethnic groups in Asia, but the most likely of these to have come to Southern Thailand. The Thai know them as the Mani People. This ethnic group has diminished in number over time but still live in isolated pockets in the Andaman Islands, the Philippines, Mayalsia, Thailand and Indonesia. The Semang people are sometimes incorrectly referred to as ‘Pygmies’. Although they are short like the African Pygmy peoples they are a different ethnic group.
The Semang people are the indigenous people of Southern Thailand in local folklore. The Nang Talung Puppet Show, for which the Southern city of Nakhon Si Thammarat is famous, depicts the indigenous peoples of Southern Thailand with characteristics more closely associated with the Semang than the Thai people. Perhaps not conclusive evidence in itself, but it does offer us clues as to the pre-history of Thailand.
The Moken People
Whilst we can’t know for 100% certain that the Semang people where the first to inhabit Koh Phangan, what we do know is that the Moken people have inhabited Koh Phangan for a long period of time. There is a still a community of Moken on Koh Paluay Island in the Ang Thong National Park. The Moken, also known as the Urak Lawoi or Orang Laut, originate in what is now Malayasia and have a unique and partly nomadic seafaring culture. They are sometimes described as ‘sea gypsies’ and the Thai people refer to them as ‘chao ley’ (sea people) or ‘chao nam’ (people of the water). The biggest concentration of the Moken people in modern day Thailand is in Krabi province on the west coast of Thailand. The Moken aren’t formally recognised by the Thai government and their inability to access schools and hospitals has meant that they have maintained their traditional culture and lifestyle rather than becoming part of modern Thai society.
The Moken people have maintained traditional, and inventive, fishing skills. The two they are best known for is spear fishing from their long boats, the fore runner of the Southern Thai ‘Longtail Boat’, and for holding their breath for long periods to collect shellfish and other sea creature from the sea floor.
Another Moken industry is the collection of bird nests for use in birds nest soup. Elaborate bamboo scaffolding is erected to reach the nests in caves. The Moken are known for making death defying ascents up cliff faces to collect this highly valued commodity.
Early Thai Visitors
By the second century AD the Thai people of the central and northern parts of what is now Thailand had created permanent settlements in the south of Thailand, which at that time was heavily forested and difficult to travel to by land. The earliest surviving written records of these settlement comes from Chinese merchants around 1,000 AD. They reported settlements along the eastern seaboard of Thailand, including large settlement in Surat Thai province at P’ai P’an (near Phun Phin where Surat Thani railway station is located) and at the Bandon Bay Tapi River area where most of the ferries to Koh Phangan depart. The earliest evidence that Thai people came to live on Koh Phangan is the Wat Nai temple. Wat Nai temple is a small chedi located near Ban Tai beach. It is believed to be the oldest structure on the island and is around 400 years old. Its not known how long these first monks stayed on the island, although the small size of the Temple suggested that the monks failed to create a permanent community. The island was sparsely inhabited at the time, and many of these inhabitants (such as the Moken) were not Buddhists. Life for these first monks was likely to have been very hard as there would have been few people to give alms.
The Hainan People
Hainan is the Southern most province in China with a sub-tropical climate and a distinctive culture. It comprises several hundred small islands clustered around the large Hainan Island. The migration of the indigenous Li People to Thailand began in the 16th and 17th Centuries as they were slowly pushed out of Hainan by migrating Han Chinese from neighbouring Fujian and Guangdong regions. The Li People finally rebelled against the Qing Government in the middle of the 18th Century. They lost their struggle and the majority of the population migrated. Today the Li People make up less than 15% of the population of Hainan.
The people of Hainan proved to be industrious and free from the oppression of the Chinese state they built thriving and successful communities in central and southern Thailand. In Bangkok they settled in the swampy riverside area in the Sampanthawong district of Bangkok. At the time the Thai people favoured living on boats on the Chao Phraya river and trading in floating markets. The Chinese settled on the land, most famously in Sampeng Lane which is the heart of Bangkok’s modern day China Town. They also created the first large land markets which were at the centre of Siam’s commercial life until industrialisation of the central region in the early Twentieth Century, and the descendants of the early immigrants went onto to build Thailand’s largest companies. There were less opportunities for trade open to the Li People in Koh Phangan and they took up coconut farming, fishing and tin mining. The main tin mining centres were in Thong Nai Pan and near Sri Thanu. On the way into Thong Nai Pan Noi you will see a large excavated area on your right. This is an old tin mine. In Sri Thanu the lake (Leam Som) was a large open cast tin mine.
The Li people integrated into the local Thai culture all over Thailand, and this is true of Koh Phangan which has its own mini China Town areas in Thong Sala and Ban Tai village. There are some excellent examples of Chinese style wooden shop houses. You will find the same style of shop house throughout Thailand: Phuket Town and Bangkok China Town are famous for them. The other major influence the Li people brought to Thailand was their cuisine. Hainanese chicken and rice (Khao Man Gai) is eaten throughout Thailand. In Koh Samui and Koh Phangan the local people eat some unique Hainanese foods which is not common in the rest of Thailand. The most famous of these is Hainanese dried fish. The picture above is taken in a market in modern day Hainan. If you go to the small shops and market stalls of Thong Sala and Ban Tai today you will see the same rings of dried fish hanging from pieces of string. There are lots of ways to cook with them. Fried in oil they can be eaten as a tasty accompaniment for a meal or a salty favouring.
Later Thai Visitors
By the Nineteenth Century Koh Phangan was starting to become well known to Thai people and this was the start of the modern period on immigration of Thai people to the island. Bear in mind that formal government did not come to Koh Phangan until the 1970s and the first permanent police station on the island came in the 1990s. Koh Phangan was a place of wild and natural beauty with settlements confined to the areas around Thong Sala and Ban Tai in the South, Sri Thanu in the West and Thong Nai Pan in the East. The most famous of the early Thai visitors, King Rama V, came as a tourist to visit the waterfalls at Than Sadet and Than Prawes Waterfall in Thong Nai Pan Noi. The King first visited in 1888 and a further 13 times during his reign and left his signature in the rocks at both Than Sadet and Thong Nai Pan Noi.
During the reign of King Rama V it was recorded that there were already 300 families living on Koh Phangan. Thai Law has allowed these early immigrants to lay claim to the land on receipt of proof that they have occupied the land for a long period and that this claim is not disputed by their neighbours. Certain families have become very closely associated with certain parts of the island such as Haad Khuat, Thong Nai Pan Noi, and Haad Rin (amongst other areas) and the current owners of much of the land are directly related to this wave of Thai immigrants to Koh Phangan.
The big industry on Koh Phangan for this group of Thai immigrants was coconut farming. Much of the Island was given over to coconut farming and the most prized areas of land were away from the beach areas. Fishing was also an important industry with piers built in Thong Sala and more recently Chaloklum. Sadly the local fishing industry gave way to the larger industrial fishing boats who scour the Gulf of Thailand and catch fish more cheaply. Much of the fish eaten on Koh Phangan is now imported from the mainland, with the exception of a small supply coming from fishing boats operating out of Chaloklum and Thong Sala. Coconut farming is not a massively profitable business and, with the decline of the fishing industry, Koh Phangan was not a wealthy island. The situation was made even worse by the end of the small tin mining industry in the 1970s.
On the 8th December 1941 the Imperial Japanese Armed Forces invaded Southern Thailand. The Japanese came in large numbers and landed in multiple locations along the eastern seaboard of Thailand. One of the initial invasion points was Ban Don in Surat Thani Province. The Thai army and police force briefly attempted to resist the invasion. The Provincial Administration building in Surat Thani was destroyed in the battle. After a few hours the Thai Government ordered the army and police to capitulate. The invading Japanese Armed Forces promised the Thai Government that they would not enter Bangkok and would only use the country as a staging post for invading British controlled Burma and Malaya. The Japanese did not keep this promise and spread out over the country. Koh Phangan was not formally occupied, but Japanese soldiers were stationed there. The main purpose of the soldiers coming to Koh Phangan was as a look out post over the Gulf of Thailand. Soldiers were permanently camped out on the hills above Thong Nai Pan where there are the best vantage points over the Gulf. There are still the remains of a Japanese armoured vehicle in the jungle on the slopes of Khao Ra mountain.
The Japanese occupation carried on until the war ended in 1945 with the surrender of the Japanese following the atomic bomb attacks on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
Then Came The Tourists
Tourism on Koh Phangan started on a commercial scale in the 1980s. Foreign tourists started coming to the neighbouring Island of Koh Samui in significant numbers in the 1970s. The first tourist resort on Koh Samui opened in 1974: First Bungalow Beach Resort on the headland in Chaweng. Tourists were visiting Koh Phangan in the 1970s by boat from Koh Samui but there weren’t any resorts or hotels on the island at that time. No doubt some travellers stayed overnight or longer by camping rough, as had King Rama V in 1888. Alex Garland’s apocryphal story ‘The Beach’ has its origins in the tales of these early visitors.
The first resorts were set up on Koh Phangan at the end of the 1970s. The earliest resort was probably Mai Pen Rai Bungalows in Than Sadet. The next resorts to be built on Koh Phangan were in Haad Rin in the early 1980s. Paradise Bungalows might well be the oldest resort in Haad Rin. The tourism industry picked up considerably towards the end of the 1980s with a cluster of resorts being built: Wattana Resort (Chaloklum) in 1985, Phangan Rainbow (Ban Tai) in 1986, Panviman (Thong Nai Pan Noi) in 1987. Other similar resorts followed throughout the 1990s on the back of the growing popularity of the Full Moon Party.
The origins of the Full Moon Party are hotly debated. There are two competing versions of the story. One version is that the first Full Moon Party was held in 1983, when Mr Suti, owner of Paradise Bungalows, held an impromptu birthday party for one of the guests at his resort with a small sound system and bar provided by the resort. The other version of the story comes from Scottish journalist Colin Hinselwood who has written an account of his visit to the first ever Full Moon Party in October 1988. Colin was living in Koh Samui and claims to have visited and partied on the beach with a small group of foreigners for the night. Colin doesn’t explain how he knows that parties had never happened before his visit, and he doesn’t explain why there was a party there in the first place. For this reason, it appears likely that the Full Moon Parties probably started before Colin came to stay the night. Full moon is a significant time in the Thai Buddhist culture and it has been celebrated for centuries. The decision to hold a party on Full Moon night is more likely to have been taken by the Thais.
The latest phase in the development of Koh Phangan is the development of luxury resorts. Panviman in Thong Nai Pan Noi was the first with an upgrade to luxury status in 2005. This coincided with the construction of Santhiya Resort, also in Thong Nai Pan Noi in 2005. This was followed by a third luxury resort, Rasananda, in Thong Nai Pan Noi in 2009 and then a fourth with Buri Rasa opening in Thong Nai Pan Noi in 2012. Thong Nai Pan Noi is now the centre of the luxury tourist trade in Koh Phangan, with a number of private serviced luxury villas in the hills above the beach. The luxury tourist trade is also expanding to other parts of the island with the completion of the luxury Chantaramas Resort in Ban Tai in 2012 and two further luxury resorts in 2013: The Coast (Haad Rin) and Kupu Kupu (Nai Wok).
Koh Phangan is still a long way from becoming a mass tourism destination in the same way as Phuket or Ao Nang because of the poor infrastructure. It takes a long time to get to Koh Phangan, and the roads are pretty bad in places. The shopping options are limited. The water supply on the island is unpredictable in the dry summer months and the electricity still stops frequently. The next phase in the development of Koh Phangan will involve addressing those issues. Lots of things are happening at the moment. There is a major road building project to create a wide concrete ring road around Koh Phangan. The electrical system is being upgraded and a dam building project in the centre of the island has been approved by the Thai government. Perhaps the most significant of these projects is the plan to build a small airport near the Than Sadet National Park. When Koh Phangan can be reached directly from Bangkok tourism levels are likely to really take off.