Beyond the wild party image of Koh Phangan lies a beautiful, unspoilt and surprisingly tranquil tropical retreat, as Julie Miller discovers.
Our destination is locked and loaded: Thailand. But when it comes to what we want to achieve on our family holiday, my 21-year-old daughter and I are on very different pages. I want to lie on an idyllic beach, swing in a hammock and read. She wants to party.
It's time to discuss a somewhat alien concept - compromise.
Finally, we come to an agreement: we will visit Koh Phangan so she can attend the infamous Full Moon Party held once a month on the beach at Haad Rin. In return, I get to choose our accommodation, to seek out a quiet corner of the island away from the mayhem of marauding backpackers. Deal.
I have doubts, however, that my end of the bargain is even plausible. Koh Phangan, which is just off Koh Samui, is one of Thailand's most maligned destinations, scarred by its reputation as the ultimate party island, a place every teenager longs to visit and every mother fears. Tabloid visions of uncontrolled drinking, open drug-taking ... and, of course, who can ignore the dire warnings from parents who have lost children as a result of reckless, irresponsible behaviour?
Party tragedies aside, I also have niggling concerns about finding my utopia. After all, how unspoilt can a place that attracts 30,000 revellers a month be? Instead, I brace myself for disappointment, fully expecting a paved paradise, a la Phuket.
Thankfully, Koh Phangan is no Phuket, not even a mini-Samui. There are no mega-resorts, no shopping malls, no traffic jams. What development there is - mostly along the southern coastline near Haad Rin - is low-key, low-rise and relatively unobtrusive. Despite its growing popularity, this is still the Thailand of postcards - ridiculously beautiful, with lush, jungle-clad mountains plummeting into crystal-blue water, fringed by ribbons of perfect white sand peppered with coconut palms. Swoon.
And, joy of joys, no taxi mafia. Instead, on arrival at the ferry terminal at Thongsala we are shuffled into a songthaew (a truck-turned-share-taxi) destined for the western and northern realms of the island. Our travelling companions, hanging on for grim death along perilous mountain roads, are European couples and two families with young kids - an unexpectedly conservative mix without a dreadlock in sight.
In defiance of Party Central, I've booked two nights online at a budget bungalow resort in the northern village of Chaloklum, as far from the madding crowd as possible. The plan is to use this as a base to suss out other possible accommodation options, moving on if necessary, before indulging in two nights of luxury at the new Anantara Rasananda Villa Resort and Spa, the most upmarket digs on the island, on the island's east coast.
Fortunately, the kitschly-monikered Malibu Beach Bungalows is everything I had hoped for: quiet, laid-back and well-maintained. Our garden bungalow - perhaps a little overpriced by island standards at 1200 baht ($37) a night - is rustic but adequate, comprising a firm double bed with mosquito net and an adjoining bathroom with hot water and flushing toilet. A fan and gaps in the timber flooring provide sufficient ventilation, while a daily housekeeping service ensures clean linen and towels.
A short walk past a decent-size pool and over a bridge leads to a private island, a blinding expanse of silky powder sand lapped by balmy waters of every hue in the blue spectrum. Hammocks sway between shady coconut palms, while a thatched restaurant and bar provide the perfect place to chill to the narcotic beat of Bob Marley, 24/7. It's every tropical cliche and more, from happy kids and dogs playing in the sand, to sun-worshipping eastern Europeans showing a little too much flesh, to the massage sala offering superior Thai massages, the soft sea breeze tempering groan-inducing stretches.
My daughter and I settle into the laziest of routines: a late breakfast, followed by a swim, lying in the sun, lunch, another swim, a massage, then a nap in our bungalow hammock. By then, it's beer o'clock; a short stroll along the twilight shore leads to Chaloklum, a traditional fishing village pungent with the stench of drying squid, where we dine in a seafood restaurant or the acclaimed Cucina Italiana.
A scooter excursion leads us further afield, along verdant mountain passes, through the main town of Thongsala, and up terrifying vertical switchbacks to the southern peninsula, a challenging ride even for licensed motorcyclists. We pause for a well-earned break at Haad Rin, unbelievably pretty and deceptively sleepy during the day, permanent signs hinting at the mayhem to come: "Laughing Gas Sold Here", "Bethlehem Bucket Jesus Favourite" and "Jamie, You Sounds Like You Come From Landan". It's hard to believe that several nights later this lovely beach will be transformed as it hosts the most famous outdoor party on earth.
The island's west-coast beaches - Haad Chao Prao, Haad Yao and Haad Salad - are a revelation, with glorious sunset views and a sophistication lacking in the south. This is where most "mature" visitors to the island head, lured by a higher standard of accommodation, good beachfront restaurants and cool bars.
Not surprisingly, it's also the first part of the island that books out, particularly on Full Moon Week. We make inquiries but, with no room at the inn, we stay put at Malibu, content with the simple pleasures of Thai village life.
Six days into the groove, we are relaxed, tanned and in a tropical stupor. But a new adventure awaits, one that involves waving goodbye to our new best friends in Chaloklum. A longtail boat ferries us around the northern headland past the gorgeous Bottle Beach to Thong Nai Pan Noi, where the red umbrellas of the Anantara Rasananda Villa Resort and Spa beckon.
Like the joy of an airline upgrade, we have gone from the ridiculous to the sublime, from basic to absolute luxury, in one fell swoop. What a difference a 40-minute boat ride makes: Thong Nai Pan Noi - arguably the most remote beach on Koh Phangan - is a veritable Millionaire's Row. Its main appeal is its isolation, with the most exclusive resorts offering speedboat transfers from Koh Samui to avoid the hour's drive from Thongsala.
After years as a backpacker's secret, Koh Phangan is being gentrified - but take note Phuket and Samui: this is the way to do it.
Thong Nai Pan Noi's luxury resorts are subtle and tasteful, blending into the environment rather than dominating it. They have taken what nature has provided and acknowledged that, yes, this is worth paying top dollar for. How can you argue with that?
Our new ocean-front villa, with plunge pool strategically placed beside the beach, is to die for; my daughter does a little victory dance before collapsing on the massive day bed in the open sala to contemplate the fabulousness. All the luxuries we long for at home are on hand: a home theatre with Apple TV, iPod dock, free wi-fi, a Nespresso machine and - how very thoughtful - complimentary decanters of spirits to get us in the mood to party.
For the full moon is rising over the horizon ... which on Koh Phangan means one thing: it's time to get our party on. My daughter rushes to the water's edge, raising her arms in appreciation of the shimmering silver disc reflecting on the sea. It's a breathtaking sight - and if that's not worth celebrating, what is?
The writer was a guest of Anantara Rasananda Villa Resort and Spa and travelled with the assistance of Bangkok Airways and Tourism Authority of Thailand.
The cheapest and most common form of transport on Koh Phangan is the motorcycle or scooter, which can be rented from any resort or myriad roadside shops for about 200 baht ($6) a day. But be warned, the roads on this island are extremely dangerous, with vertical switchbacks, blind corners, gravity-defying hills and rough surfaces. Factor in alcohol, inexperienced riders doubling passengers, inappropriate clothing, speed and riding without helmets and it's little wonder there are so many injuries, even deaths, from motorcycle accidents on the island. Gravel rash and burns are so common, they've become known as the "Koh Phangan tattoo"; while every second structure on the island is a medical clinic bearing a green cross. Also note that unlicensed riders are uninsured — so hospital costs will not be covered in the case of an accident. If you don't have a licence, do not ride — simple as that. And even if you are licensed (as both my daughter and I are), be prepared for a harrowing experience.
Thai Airways International has daily flights from Sydney to Bangkok. 1300 651 960, thaiairways.com.au.
Bangkok Airways offers 23 flights a day between Bangkok and their privately owned airport at Koh Samui. (02) 8248 0050, bangkokair.com.
Combined shuttle-ferry tickets for transfer to Koh Phangan can be bought at Koh Samui airport. The Lomprayah catamaran offers services to Thongsala for 300 baht ($9.30) a person. lomprayah.com.
An Ocean Pool Villa at Anantara Rasananda Villa Resort and Spa starts from 18,200 baht a night, including buffet breakfast for two and private speedboat transfers from Koh Samui. phangan-rasananda.anantara.com.
Malibu Beach Bungalows, malibubeachbungalows.com.