Next year that could change. Not far from Thong Noi Pan’s double bay, Kan Air, a domestic airline, has started to build a 3,600-foot runway that will allow passengers to fly in from other parts of Thailand, saving them the hassle of a long bus and boat ride. And although the runway will be suitable only for small planes at first, it could pave the way for extensions in the future — opening Ko Phangan up to tourists with more financial clout than the usual crowd of thrifty backpackers.
Posters hinting at the arrival of a new airport have appeared in Thong Sala, but most of the local people I spoke to seemed unconcerned, or unaware, that heavy machines were already rolling in to work on the landing strip and a small terminal building. My chat with Coco, a bar worker in Hat Rin, reflected the general mood. “I’ve heard something,” he said, “but I don’t know much about it. Maybe it’s already finished.” Kan Air said it expects the first flights from Bangkok to begin at the end of this year.
Thong Noi Pan Yai is blissfully quiet. But for me, one night alone with a lovesick gecko was enough. After lazing on the hot sand, diving headlong into the waves, then drying off with a walk down the freshly tarred street, I decided to return to Thong Sala, the port town where my boat had arrived that first stormy night. It’s a place where ordinary life continues despite the constant flow of Europeans, Americans, Australians and Israelis. Mothers sit at tables by the road, chopping lemongrass and galangal, sipping coconut juice or fiddling with their mobile phones. Kids, carrying the same little plastic buckets that tourists come here to drink from, help wash the rows of cheap Honda scooters, which their dads rent out to backpackers for 200 baht (about $6.50) a day.
To find out more about life in the town, I asked Oi, who runs the local cooking school, to take me to the market. We stopped by a stall selling lime leaves, red snapper and waxy green chilies. “Normally we buy fish or meat here,” she said, nodding toward a row of yellowed chicken parts. “But if you want to do vegetarian, we can make like that.” The result, after 10 minutes next to a searing hot wok, was a feast of tangy soup, fiery papaya salad and a nutty massaman curry. As I sweated through each course, watching the traffic roar by, I thought about the island’s changing face.
Local legend says that the Full Moon Party started here in the mid-1980s, with just a small group of travelers. Since then it has grown every year to dominate life on Ko Phangan and become one of the world’s biggest beach parties. To keep up with the demand, the island now hosts waterfall parties, jungle parties, half-moon parties and black-moon parties in various locations. What difference, I wondered, would an airport make? Will a new influx of tourists destroy the party scene for good?
Or will the backpackers — with their neon body paint and tall tales — hold on to what they’ve created? The answer, like the water lapping at Hat Rin’s main party beach, is anything but clear.