I recently spent two months on the beautiful island of Koh Phangan, with a short gap of a few days in the lively and vibrant Malaysian town of Penang (also on an island – yes, I have a thing for islands!). I was actually meant to have spent most of January in India, but sometimes, life has other plans for you, and I was re-directed in January by the universe to stay on Koh Phangan.
The first time I came to this island was in 1994, when I was 20 years old. It was my first trip out of Australia, with my boyfriend at the time. We were both very young and very naive. He had had some experience of international travel with his family, but I had none. And arriving in Bangkok – looking like two young hippies as we did, was metaphorically throwing ourselves in the deep end, so to speak. We had no idea what we had got ourselves into…
Amongst other adventures, we ended up checking ourselves into a what we called the Bangkok Hilton (a low budget hotel that was the unofficial HQ of the expat ‘We-are-in-Thailand-for-the-cheap-Heroin’ community), got scammed into tuk tuk ‘tour’ which took us to a gem shop where we were drugged (an attempt to make us buy expensive jewels we didn’t want), and finally we were thrown out of a Thai train in the countryside in the middle of nowhere in on the way to the islands, because we had moved carriages to first class because we were afraid of some scary old Thai people with ducks and chickens in the 3rd class where our official seats were. Probably in hindsight there was nothing scary about them, but at that point we were suffering from culture shock and from the after affects of our experiences in Bangkok.
So by the time we arrived in Koh Phangan, we were totally exhausted. So much so, that, arriving at the port town of Thongsala in the evening, we decided we would go north to stay in the fishing village of Chalok Lam, but somehow, we ran out of steam at the police station (a few kilometres from the port) and I had the bright idea of asking if we could sleep there. Luckily the Thai policemen took pity on us and let us sleep in an officers room which was unoccupied on that particular night.
After that eventful beginning, we did make it to Chalok Lam, and checked into a bungalow on the beach in Coral Bay, a beautiful beach and small bay in the very north of the island, which was blessed with crystalline water, and was thankfully fairly quiet, with just a few guesthouses and a few beach bars. Finally, we were safe, and had made it to the ‘sooooooothing waters of Kooooooohhh Phangan’ as one friendly Thai man had said to us in Bangkok right in the middle of our misadventures.
The great thing about Koh Phangan is that now, twenty five years after my first trip here, the island hasn’t changed all that much. Definitely compared to the neighbouring island of Koh Samui, which has undergone a complete transformation, Koh Phangan is still relatively peaceful and unspoilt, despite the influx of young hedonists from around the world each month for the famous full moon party. And in the last ten or fifteen years, the island has also become a mecca for spiritual types and yogis, with an abundance of yoga shalas, retreat centres, detox centres and healing destinations available – something to suit a wide range of needs and budgets.
Along with this, the island has also developed another party culture to rival the full moon tribe, but one that’s geared to an older and more ‘conscious’ crowd.
These are the people who might have been ravers tripping their heads off on acid in their twenties back in the early 90s but who have now re-focused their inner search to a more body-mind-spirit based adventure, fuelled by yoga asanas and tantra workshops more than chemical brain candy.
Here are my five top reasons to visit this charming island gem in the Gulf of Thailand, and one of my top five must-see islands in the world thanks to the mix of perfect tropical weather, an interesting local culture replete with riches such as Buddhist (and Chinese) temples, delicious Thai dishes, friendly and welcoming local people, and the amazing smorgasboard of spiritual offerings and events available each day.
1. Ecstatic Dance
Each Sunday morning at the Pyramid Yoga Centre, on a hill just north of the popular yoga / spirit mecca of Srithanu there is an ecstatic dance which has been running now for many years. Starting at 11am, and running until about 3pm in the afternoon, this is a full on journey into the inner an outer realms, connecting with spirit, self and others while being guided by island DJs who expertly take the pulse of the crowd and curate the music accordingly.
More often than not there are also live musicians who accompany the DJs either on flutes or hang drum, or sometimes singing over the music.
At the end of the journey, if you made it all the way, there is a closing circle where everybody holds hands and shares some silence and meditation together and perhaps some intention setting for the week or the day. And then outside in the cafe there are delicious morsels for sale such as carrot cakes with cashew cream frosting, date and nut filled bliss balls, veggie samosas and chai.
Pyramid is high on the hill and you can see through the coconut grove over to the crystalline sea at Had Yao. On offer here there is also regular sound healing sessions in some beautiful white domes that are silent and temple-like on the inside, decorated with buddhas and scented with sandalwood incense that invites you to relax into the space.
FIND OUT MORE
Go to Pyramid Yoga’s website for more info.
On Tuesday and Friday nights there is another ecstatic dance at Jaran’s Yoga and Wellness Centre – also not far from Sri Thanu. This one is upstairs in the open air yoga shala, and is a two hour journey that starts at 7pm and goes until about 9 or 9:30pm. This also features a welcoming circle and intention setting, and also a closing circle where people are invited to share any of their experiences or feelings at the end. The DJs here are also great, with a repertoire of music that includes afro beats, Brazilian bossa nova as well as the more mainstream dance and house tracks.
There are also often live musicians towards the end of these dances, on hang drum, or the cora (like a kind of African sitar made from a gourd) and flutes. The drinks downstairs in the cafe are fresh coconut, cacao, as well as juices. This is what everyone is drinking here on a break from the sweaty sea of dancers upstairs. And there’s a nice grassy space outside where you can lie down and look up to the stars and connect with the universe if you need some me-time.
FIND OUT MORE
Go to Jaran’s Yoga and Wellness Eatery website for more info.
2. Vipassana Meditation
I did my very first Vipassana retreat here on the island at the Wat Kow Tham Buddhist monastery in the Ban Tai area, fifteen years ago now, with the legendary Steve and Rosemary Weissman, the teaching couple who led the retreats there for 25 years, until they returned to Australia in 2013.
Then, by chance and good luck, Anthony Markwell, an ex-monk, also Australian (like Rosemary), was sent by the head monk at Wat Suan Mokkh monastery on the mainland (near Surat Thani) to Wat Kow Tham to take over the retreats there. He stayed until about 2017, and now he has set up his own centre, Indriya Retreat, which opened officially in November 2019. Indriya Retreat is a dedicated Vipassana Centre which offers two retreats each month, starting on the first and the sixteenth of the month. These are intensive silent Vipassana retreats that go for nine days with the first and the last day as registration and farewell days. So the intensive practice is seven full days.
Anthony was a monk in Thailand and Burma for thirteen years, speaks fluent Thai, and thanks to his monk training has very solid knowledge of the original Pali Buddhist suttas, which he has studied and translated himself for his own book, ‘Truly Understanding the Teachings of the Buddha: a comprehensive guide to insight meditation.’
This is a purely donation-based centre, in keeping with the Buddhist tradition of Dana – meaning the cultivation of generosity through selfless giving. The retreats are offered to all who wish to receive the teachings of Insight Meditation in the very long (2500 year old) tradition of the Buddha, and each person is invited to also be generous in giving whatever is right and appropriate for them given their financial circumstances and the value they see in what they have received.
It’s a great addition to the island’s extensive offering of spiritual teachings, many of which are more yoga and tantra focused. The Buddha was also from India, so the ancient wisdom of Indian spirituality (Yoga, Tantra and Vipassana) is thriving in many forms on the island.
FIND OUT MORE
Go to Indriya Retreat website for more info.
3. Yoga and Tantra
Yoga has blossomed in many places on Koh Phangan in the last ten to fifteen years, and many of the centres are concentrated around the Sri Thanu area. While I was on the island, as well, there was a guy running free Acro Yoga workshops every afternoon on Zen beach (see left), teaching anyone who wanted to join in the tips and tricks of this amazing new yoga art form which is taking off worldwide.
The original yoga centre on the island, Agama was embroiled in a sexual abuse scandal that is still yet to be resolved in the courts. The founder of the centre was ordered to leave, and is not allowed back as a teacher, and also many other teachers had to leave thanks to this scandal. There was evidence that the abuse was systemic and not only the founder was involved. Agama is still functioning, and is in a recovery phase now, since the old guard has been swept out and new people have taken over the yoga and tantra courses. There is an ongoing tantra yoga course that starts each week, and they also offer a teacher training, and Bhajan singing each Saturday.
Samma Karuna (where I did my yoga teacher training) is another world unto itself on the island. Founded by Uruguayan spiritual teacher and Osho follower, Ishi, Samma Karuna is an ‘Awakening and Healing centre’. They offer traditional Hatha yoga, as well as Tantra workshops and also Ishi’s own modality BioDevelopment, which is ‘platform of self-development based on acceptance that helps to harmonize body and mind by balancing emotions and bringing body awareness using human interactions, music and movement’ according to the Samma Karuna website.
As a follower of the Osho teachings, Ishi is passionate about helping people to connect with themselves and others and find their inner joy. There are also many interesting workshops on offer at Samma Karuna, such as an Intimacy and Relationship series offered by a long time Vipassana teacher, as well as regular Chi Gung and Tai Chi sessions offer by a Kung Fu master and ex-Shaolin monk from China who is also skilled and knowledgeable in Chinese medicine.
Based on my month or so on the island, I would say there is a Tantra class or workshop almost every day. It seems that the island has become a place for people all over the world to come and work on themselves and seek inner peace and harmony, while also investigating their relationship patterns, both in intimate relating and otherwise.
Tantra is a mystery to many people, and in general the impression is that it’s all about having better sex. This is a part of it, sure, but it’s more a possible outcome rather than the main part of the practice.
Tantra is all about investigating our ways to connect with self and others, and involves a lot of work around communication, boundaries (having a clear ‘Yes’ and clear ‘No’) and discovering what you want and need in intimate touch through connection with others. It’s like a training ground for better intimacy in all realms of life. An unlike yoga, where class attendance is generally heavily skewed towards women, tantra workshops seem very popular with men, and have a balance of genders or even more men. Hmmmm. Interesting.
FIND OUT MORE
Go to Samma Karuna’s website for more info.
4. Connection and Community
Being a relatively small island (only 125 kms squared), it is very easy to ride from south to north in about a half hour. So everywhere is not far away. This means that it’s a small community of Thais and Farangs (foreigners) and everyone gets to know each other quickly. For those of us who come from more anonymous big cities in Europe, Australia or North America, its a very different feeling to live in such a small place. I am sure that many people come here for the community and for connection with like minded people. Many people I met during my six weeks on the island either live there long term, or come each year during the Northern Europe / American winter. The high season in terms of tourist numbers, thanks to this, is December through the March / April.
The famous meeting spot in Sri Thanu is Zen beach, a pretty beach strip where one end is informally known as the nude bathing area, and up the other end, there is a daily Acro Yoga jam, in the afternoons, followed by an evening gathering for a drumming and dancing circle. This ‘happening’ is very informal and organic, and is different each day depending on who shows up. On busy nights it feels like the whole Farang population of the island is there, playing music, singing and dancing, or just meditating and watching the sea and the stars. During the day, Zen beach is a popular spot for sunbathers and swimmers, and it’s also very social – the atmosphere is very open and friendly and new connections are made every day.
5. Thai Culture
Lastly, what is interesting for me is how such an open and experimental community has flourished on this small island in the Gulf of Thailand. It feels to me a bit like Goa must have been like in the 60s when it was a mecca for hippies travelling overland from Europe, or flying in from North America, and living a paradisical beach life, while investigating spiritual practices or just smoking lots of ganja. What about Thailand is it that supports this movement?
For me the fact that it’s a Buddhist country is important. And even though most Thais are not meditation practitioners, many of them as young people (especially young men) join the monastery for a year or two and study the Buddha’s teachings. So most people are well versed on the triple gem (the Dhamma (the way out of suffering), the Buddha (the teacher) and the Sangha (the spiritual community) which are essential to the development of mindfulness. Buddhism is a very pacifist religion – even though in Burma recently there have been instances of monks using violence against the Rohinga population, this is completely contrary to Buddhist teaching. Buddhism is a tolerant and open religion which promotes harmony and wellbeing between all peoples and does not advocate any proselytizing.
Thai people are also experts at relaxing, with their famous ‘Sabai Dee’ greeting which actually translates to ‘comfortable, good’. Are you feeling comfortable and good? And if they day ‘sabai, sabai’ that means – really comfortable or relaxed. Thais are experts at the middle of the day siesta, which is the common nap time here. So I would say they are in general a relaxed and easy going people. And they also love a good party!
The full moon party scene was started on Koh Phangan by the local Thai people, and slowly over the years became a world famous event. So it’s not surprising that the island is then a fertile ground for the flowering of yoga, tantra, ecstatic dance and a whole host of healing modalities, not to mention all the free flowing happenings on the Zen beach. Even though being nude is formally illegal in Thailand, there is a blind eye turned to this both on the Zen beach and many other hidden beach secrets.
Have you spent time on Koh Phangan? We would be happy to hear of your experiences in the comments section.