Couchfish Day 238: A stroll around Ko Pha Ngan

Couchfish Day 238: A stroll around Ko Pha Ngan

Time to explore

While this is part of the itinerary series, I’ve made it a free–to–read post, as everyone wants to walk around an island.

Some people see a mountain and have to climb it. I’ve some of that in me, but give me an island and that is something I must walk around. Few islands are higher up on the circumnavigate by foot rankings than one of my favourite Thai islands, Ko Pha Ngan.

Some spots are worth the walk. Haad Saikantang. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

The following is a rough guide on how to walk around the island in 11 days. You can do it in five or six (less if you are a masochist), but I’ve slowed the pace to allow for those islanding with kids. Why? Speaking from experience, kids tend to get a bit feral after four or five kilometres—well, mine do anyway! At the other end of the spectrum, you could spend two months doing this.

For a couple of legs, consider doing it by longtail, as otherwise you’ll be walking interior roads for hours. Not much fun in the midday heat. Unless you are into bouldering, it is not possible to stick right to the coast the whole way around. Haad Salad to Mae Haad is absolutely not possible along the rocks—something I learned the hard way.

Pack light. Leave the bulk of your gear at whatever guesthouse you start at. All you need is a couple of changes of clothes, swimmers, a sarong, sunscreen and a hat. Make sure you have large refillable water containers.

There is plenty enough shade to go around on Plaay Laem. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

I’ve planned the stops at beaches that I know have solid family digs. You can easily swap out one beach for another. For example Haad Yao instead of Haad Salad. The west coast beaches are all so close together, it is easy to swap around. The northeast and east coasts are the most rugged. Ask around before leaving to make sure you have the right trailhead. It is easy to get lost, so a smartphone with mapping is worth sticking in your pocket.

I’ve started at Thong Sala as that is the arrival point for most visitors to the island, but you can start anywhere. The island is more or less round after all.

Ok, enough of the travel advisories—time to get walking!

Day 1: Thong Sala to Chao Phao via Laem Son (9-10km)

The road out to the north will take you by Nai Wok. As far as beaches go, this is a working beach and far from Ko Pha Ngan’s best. You can walk the length of the beach or stick to the road. Matters improve a little to the north at Plaay Laem. The beach is still a little scruffy, but sleepy. Shambala is a good family option if the kids are petering out, but otherwise press on.

Enjoy the sea breeze at Castaway. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

If you decide to press on (you started early right?!), take the interior road north to Hinkhong. This is a long sweeping bay with a fishing port along its length. There are a few seafood restaurants along here if you’re looking for a lunch break and a cold beer. Want to stay? Try Castaway.

Refreshed and refuelled, at the top end of the beach you’ll need to break inland a little to pass by Laem Son. The road runs around the east of the lagoon, but if energetic, cut through one of the resorts to walk Laem Son’s white sand. At the northern end you’ll reach one of Ko Pha Ngan’s most famous nudist beaches. When you see the sign and more flesh than you may expect, cut right, back to the road.

The road leads to Chao Phao and you should make a beeline for Seaflower. It is my favourite family–friendly place to stay on the island. Feet up, have a swim, grab a hammock, you’ve earned it. Today has been long and hard, but the next few days will be a breeze.

Getting all frosty at Seaflower. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

If the kids are baulking at a ten kilometre walk on day one, get a songthaew to Plaay Laem and start from there.

Day 2: Chao Phao to Haad Yao or Haad Salad (2 km or 4km)

After yesterday’s epic, today comes in two flavours—Haad Yao or Haad Salad. Either way, take the road running north out of Chao Phao and consider breaking the trip at Secret Beach for a swim. On the northern headland sits Rahm’s Bar, one of the best appointed bars on the island. Swim and drinks done, it is a short walk on the road, then cut through a resort to the southern tip of Haad Yao.

A gorgeous beach, there are a tonne of places to stay here—Silver Beach is a good family option. If you’re pushing on, walk the length of the beach then follow the trail beside Haad Yao Bayview Resort. This will take you by the road to Haad Tien then lead to the southern end of Haad Salad near Cookies.

Chilling out at Haad Salad. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Haad Salad was where I first fell in love with Ko Pha Ngan—at the time there were just two places to stay—My Way and Salad Hut. Both are still in business and the latter is the better family option. By the time you drop your bags and collapse in a hammock the shadows should be getting long. Snorkelling the dropoff at sunset is pretty special. Enjoy!

Day 3: Haad Salad to Mae Haad (3km)

Mae Haad looks close on the map, but it is not possible to walk there on the rocks. The inland route is both hilly and not all that pleasant, so consider hiring a longtail for the run north. Either way it is about three kilometres.

Mae Haad’s accommodation is not great, but it is worth staying here a night to enjoy the sand pinnacle out to Ko Ma. I’ve heard of people camping there—you brought a tent right?

Day 4: Mae Haad to Chalok Lam (3km)

Mae Haad to Chalok Lam is another that is more pleasant by boat than via the inland roads. If you go by boat, make a day of it and arrange stops at Thong Lang and tiny Hin Ngam. Both are beautiful and isolated with some reasonable snorkelling along the way.

Lunchtime crowds at Malibu. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

If you’ve had enough of thatch huts or want a real shower, Mandalai, in Chalok Lam village is a solid bet. If you’re fine with rustic, Malibu is popular with younger travellers. Fanta at the far eastern end of the bay is another option worth considering. If you have the energy, hop over the headland to quieter and prettier Haad Khom where there are a few spots to stay.

Day 5: Chalok Lam to Bottle Beach (5km)

Most take a boat from Chalok Lam to Bottle Beach, and once you’ve walked it, you’ll understand why. The trail is hard to follow and has many diversions. Allow a few hours as you most likely will get lost a few times—or just take the boat.

Oh Bottle Beach. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

White sand Bottle Beach is pretty and one of those spots where tight itineraries go sideways. If you’re trying to decide which beach to allow a few extra days on, this should be one of the top options. Ideal for kids, Bottle Beach I has the better accommodation.

Day 6: Bottle Beach to Thong Nai Pan Yai (6km)

I’ve only ever walked this once off road, it took all day and I got so lost it stopped being funny. I emerged behind Santhiya after sunset looking like something the cat dragged in. Pack water—lots of it. Looking at Google Earth, it appears the trail is clearer now, but if in doubt, hire a longtail.

Take us to your leader. Thong Nai Pan Yai. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

The first beach you’ll hit is Thong Nai Pan Noi, where most of the beachfront accommodation is upmarket. Unless you’re happy to bend the plastic, head over the headland to Thong Nai Pan Yai for more reasonable prices. Long Tail and Dolphin, both at the southern end of the beach are excellent options.

Day 7: Thong Nai Pan Yai to Than Sadet (3km)

The trail south from Thong Nai Pan Yai to Than Sadet is almost all inland and well hilly. If you have the energy, consider a diversion to Hide on High. It is roughly three quarters of the the way and worth the legwork to reach. Describing the joint as eclectic is a slight understatement—bring your own dayglo.

Plaa’s delivers great views over Than Sadet. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

On Than Sadet, long–running Mai Pen Rai Bungalows remains a solid, if rustic, option. The bungalows at Plaa’s Than Sadet on the northern headland have amazing views, but the huts can be variable. Take a look at both.

Day 8: Than Sadet to Haad Yao then Haad Thian (8km)

Another leg to file under the “possible on foot but better by boat”, this one is best done with a bit of each. Take a longtail south to Haad Yao and then walk to Haad Thian from there. Haad Yao is long and nearly undeveloped—a sweeping beach with a shallow run out. Lose an hour or so swimming and sunbaking, then follow the trail from the southern end of the beach. The trail is easy to follow and deposits you at glorious Why Nam. From there it is a simple walk over the headland to Haad Thian.

Haad Thian. Please sink the longtails and let me stay. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

This beach is famous for the Sanctuary and its new age tilt, but also for the monthly parties at Guy’s Bar. Truly the yin and yang of Ko Pha Ngan in a single bay. The sandy stretch is small, but the sea is great for swimming. The Sanctuary is the pick of the crop, though there are some cheap digs back off the sand. If you want more options (and a better beach) traverse the southern headland to Haad Yuan.

Day 9: Haad Thian or Haad Yuan to Haad Rin (3km)

Regardless of which beach you stay at, it is about a two hour hike on a jungle trail from either beach to Haad Rin. There are also regular longtail services if you simply cannot face another walk.

Haad Rin: Bloody awful. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

On Haad Rin, where to stay?! There are three main beach areas, Sunrise—where the Full Moon Party happens—is a great beach. Sunset is no great shakes, but you get the sunset (duh!) and a sleepier vibe. A third option is Saikantang, which is on the sunset side but further south and has more midrange digs. Of the three, if outside the party times, I’d go with the Sunrise side, if party time, Saikantang.

Day 10: Haad Rin to Baan Kai (3km)

You’re on the home stretch! You can walk almost all of the way from Haad Rin to Thong Sala in a day on the beach, but it is more relaxing to break it up, overnighting at Baan Kai.

No shortage of swings on Baan Kai and Baan Tai. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

There are dozens of places to stay, many of which are affordably priced. We’ve a soft spot for Golden Beach, but there are plenty of others to choose from. Regardless of where you stay, the sunsets are free.

Day 11: Baan Kai to Thong Sala (6km)

A last long slow walk along the beach will bring you to the periphery of Thong Sala, where this stroll started. Once you arrive, go pick up the rest of your gear and head back to whichever beach you liked the best!

Have fun exploring—I’m jealous already.

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