The giant speedometer hits 150 kilometres an hour. The heads of the three sleeping Russians in front of us sway in unison with the next lane change. I’m not sure whether I should close my eyes or start laughing hysterically.
Pickup trucks and scooters overflowing with produce and people crowd the four-lane highway to the Don Sak ferry pier, but our bus driver doesn’t seem to care. He’s going so fast that he has no time to swerve around a metal bar and blown-out tire in the middle of our lane. He speeds over it. The undercarriage clangs and the van swerves dangerously. The driver glances at the Buddha stuck on the dash and continues on.
“You’re sweating,” Steve says, and mimes wiping his forehead with a laugh.
But a few seconds later he reaches down into our camera bag for the “drink-in-case-of-an-emergency” beer we bought on the airplane.
We’re on our way to Koh Phangan, to spend a week on a private beach in the middle of the Gulf of Thailand. The only way on or off the island is by ferry or private speedboat charter. (In contrast, Koh Samui, one island to the south, draws most of the gulf’s sun seekers with its international airport.) Thanks to our driver, we catch our slow boat to paradise with five minutes to spare.
A couple months ago, Steve (my business partner) and I decided to visit the Santhiya Resort & Spa. Hidden just beyond twin coves at Thong Nai Pan bay, on the remote, northeastern corner of Koh Phangan, its best feature is one of dreams: a private beach.
At the time, we couldn’t tell whether our client was joking. A Thai beach to one’s self? On an island famous for its full-moon parties? It sounded too good to be true.
Several hours later, our ferry offloads at Thongsala, on Koh Phangan’s southwestern shore. After a week in Bangkok, the tropical port town feels as different from the city as concrete is from sand. Palm fronds twist in the breeze over corrugated iron roofs. The streets reek of patchouli. They are packed with dreadlocked locals and sunburnt travellers in bathing suits.
Santhiya offers a shuttle service to the resort, which is located on the opposite corner of the island. Three hours after the scheduled time, our driver picks us up at a 7-Eleven (I’m sure it was the nicest convenience store in town) and jokingly asks us each for 300 baht ($9) before winking and unlocking the doors to the van.
After this morning’s white-knuckle ride, his wink gives us a bad case of the church giggles. He laughs, but repeats that he needs 600 baht before he can take us anywhere. Turns out he’s not joking about the cost, which illustrates an important point about luxury on Koh Phangan: This island diamond is still very much in the rough.
If no-hidden-fee service and uncomplicated door-to-door travel is your kind of vacation, choose Koh Samui or Phuket for your Thai beach holiday. Santhiya is remote – washed-out-road-to-the-middle-of-nowhere remote. But Koh Phangan’s rough edges are part of its allure and worth the extra effort. Here, luxury is synonymous with privacy.
When our van finally stops in front of a massive gate, I almost expect a gong to herald our arrival. Instead, the driver turns around and tells us we have to switch vehicles to go further into the property and check in. The beach quickly vanishes below a steep hill and we travel the rest of the way through a bumpy, forested road.
We head straight to the beach and, as promised, no other guests are in sight. For this brief moment, Santhiya’s 400-metre slash of sand and surf, blocked off from the neighbouring cove by a massive stone outcrop, belongs just to us. You won’t find another spot like it on the island.
We discover this The sense of seclusion extends to the resort itself, we discover. Each of its 99 rooms and cabins are hidden, invisible to the other 98 thanks to creative landscape design. Most are private villas, some with their own pools. It’s the kind of place that warrants day pyjamas and a bottomless glass of scotch.
That said, the resort’s mix of Australian newlyweds and topless European retirees can be found pretty much anywhere in Asia. But who says you have to stay on site? We pack our passports, bathing suits and a map, and walk a few minutes to the next village. There, we rent scooters for the day (about $12).
As soon as we take off, the island slowly comes back to life. Cows with giant nose rings chew their way through the underbrush. A motorcyclist passes us with three live piglets hogtied to the back of his bike. Cicadas grind high in the trees and almost every roadside store we pass smells like charcoal and fried chicken.
We stop in Thongsala for a bowl of hot street soup and visit the wet market. For a second, I feel as if I’m walking through the set of a sci-fi movie: durian fruit the size of my torso, a woman squeezing ink from live squid … even a cocker spaniel driving a scooter suddenly seems ordinary.
The local culture is more laid back than Samui or Phuket, but just as polite as Bangkok. A spice merchant asks if she can practise her English and confides, “This is where your resort food comes from.” She also tells us to head to Mae Had for the sunset and to “use our feet.” Later, at the northwestern tip of the island, we figure out that she meant we should wade our way from the beach at Mae Had to Koh Ma, a small spit of an island about 200 metres from shore.
Midway out, Steve and I lose sight of the handful of other tourists on the beach. For a moment, it looks as if we’ll have an entire island to ourselves. Santhiya is clearly on to something. On Koh Phangan, unexpected privacy is a luxury truly worth exploring.
If you go
Koh Phangan is located south of Bangkok in the Gulf of Thailand, off the country’s eastern coast. The only way on or off the island is by boat or ferry. It’s a 30-minute speedboat from Koh Samui or a three-and-a-half-hour ferry from the Don Sak pier by Surat Thani. Air Asia offers very affordable domestic flights to the Surat Thani and Koh Samui airports from Bangkok.
Most of the luxe resorts along the remote, northeastern corner of Koh Phangan offer shuttle buses. You can also charter a truck or shuttlebus from Koh Phangan’s main port town at Thongsala.
The hot and dry season runs January to March in the Gulf of Thailand. December and April are the shoulder months to the monsoon season.
What to see
Koh Maa When the tides are right, you can wade your way from the beach at Mae Had to the small island of Koh Maa. The easiest way to get there is by scooter. Daily scooter rentals start at $12. Check the village closest to your resort for rental shops.
Phangan Wipeout This water obstacle course on Laem Son Lake is a replica of the one from the popular Wipeout television show. Try the course or watch from the lake restaurant. Adult admission is $8 for the day. facebook.com/wipeoutphangan
Where to Stay
Santhiya Resort & Spa This resort stretches over seven hectares of rain forest with a private beach and bay. Grounds include an Ayurvana spa, waterfall pools and the staggering Chantara Restaurant. Rooms start from $380 a night in high season. Ask about their private speedboat to Koh Samui. santhiya.com
Sean Horlor is an award-winning writer and producer. The Tourism Authority of Thailand covered his airfare and some accommodation