Last Updated on September 20, 2023 by Nicole
There are over 1400 islands in Thailand. This is an overwhelming number from which to choose when planning a holiday in Thailand. Unlike many of the Thai islands, Koh Phangan (also spelt Koh Pha-Ngan or Koh Pha Ngan) and Koh Samui are very close to one another with easy access to each other. However, they are remarkably different. Is Koh Phangan better than Koh Samui or vice versa? The answer, of course, is “it depends”. One is comparatively underdeveloped and authentic while the other is filled with all kinds of resorts waiting to offer you an effortless vacation in Thailand.
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Background: Koh Samui or Koh Pha-Ngan?
My husband and I spent a week exploring Koh Samui and Koh Phangan in November with five other couples. We rented Upni Duniya, a gorgeous house on the beach in Koh Samui with a private chef and staff. We spent most days asking ourselves how we got so lucky.
I wrote about Koh Samui specifically in another article entitled Koh Samui: Fun Things To Do For A Sensational Holiday I highlight a bunch of fun excursions that we did that would appeal to anyone who loves a little adventure.
What Is Koh Samui Like?
Koh Samui is a very different island than Koh Phangan and it is really important to understand the differences.
From a positive perspective, Koh Samui offers a carefree Thai getaway. It is easy to reach, has a sophisticated tourism infrastructure in place, and allows you to step off your plane, head to your resort, enjoy the beaches and your days, with little to no planning. It is like many other internationally recognized beach resort destinations in the world.
From a negative perspective, Koh Samui is very touristy with lots of big and small hotels and tourist driven restaurants, and towns that are packed full of massage parlours. It is very hard to find remote beaches or jungles (we tried). It is not the right island if you are looking for a more authentic Thai experience.
What Is Koh Pha Ngan Like?
From a positive perspective, Koh Phangan offers a more remote and authentic Thai experience. It is a large Thai island (although smaller than Koh Samui) with lots of gorgeous beaches, and great hotels and restaurants, but they are tucked away from the roads and beaches, yet accessible to both. It offers a laid back vibe.
From a negative perspective, Koh Pha-Ngan offers a less developed infrastructure. There are basic paved roads that allow you to follow the coastline for half the island. The other half is less developed, harder to reach and more untouched. There are great restaurants and hotels, but less than Koh Samui. There are some tours and activities offered, but again, far less than Koh Samui.
Koh Phangan vs Koh Samui: Which Is Easiest To Reach?
Koh Samui is very easy to reach. The most convenient way is to take a direct flight to Samui International Airport (USM). Another option is to transfer to Koh Samui by ferry shuttle from Surat Thani on the mainland.
Koh Phangan does not have its own airport. This is a fundamental reason for why it has stayed such a beautiful tranquil island (like Koh Lanta). Nevertheless, Koh Phangan is extremely easy and inexpensive to reach.
Koh Phangan is about 2 1/2 hours from Surat Thani and 35 minutes from Koh Samui Island by ferry boat. The ferry terminal is only a 15 minute drive from Koh Samui airport.
Our Experience Traveling From Koh Samui To Koh Pha Ngan
Our accommodation in Koh Samui was literally a 5 minute walk to the ferry terminal to Koh Phangan. We easily purchased ferry tickets minutes before we boarded.
However, we visited in November which is low season and this was a day trip. I’d probably pre-purchase tickets beforehand if we were staying on Koh Phangan and definitely needed to reach the island on a certain day. Ferry tickets are a few dollars each way.
In November, there are a few ferries in the morning and in the afternoon. If you are planning on only doing a day trip, the last ferry from Koh Phangan leaves in the late afternoon.
You should purchase a return fare right away or purchase your return trip upon arrival on Koh Pha-Ngan. The last thing that you want is to spend the day worrying that there won’t be any tickets left for the last ferry off the island.
Koh Samui Vs. Koh Pha-Ngan: Which Has Better Transportation?
Koh Samui offers better infrastructure. You can easily rent a car, book a taxi or ride-share, or rent a scooter or motorbike and see most of the island on your own.
On Koh Phangan, you can also rent a car or motorbike, but only half the island is accessible on paved roads. There are also Songthaew Taxis, a combination of a taxi and a bus that is usually a utility vehicle or pick-up that has been converted to carry people. Not necessarily the safest option, but one that is available.
On Koh Pha-Ngan, you can also easily negotiate a private car and driver upon arrival at the ferry terminal for a reasonable amount.
Our Day Trips From Koh Samui to Koh Phangan
We did two separate day trips to Koh Phangan from Koh Samui. On both occasions, we simply arrived at Koh Phangan and negotiated a van for transportation.
On our first day trip, we only went to Leela Beach, a quick 7 minute drive from the Koh Pha Ngan ferry terminal. On our second day trip, we arrived and booked a van for the whole day as we wanted to explore as of the island as possible. In both cases, it was for 10 people and it was very convenient and extremely well priced.
Best Beaches: Koh Samui Beaches Or Koh Phangan Beaches?
Both of these islands offer spectacular white sandy beaches and crystal clear waters. However, there are differences.
On Koh Samui, most beaches are easily serviced by several hotels. You have access to lots of amenities like sun loungers, food and drink choices, water sports, and even, in some cases, life guards. There aren’t really any remote or untouched beaches.
On Koh Phangan, you can definitely find beaches with lots of amenities similar to Koh Samui. Leela beach is an example of this.
However, there are also lots of stunning beaches that are more difficult to access, without lounge chairs or restaurant service on the beach. Many of these feel like you have landed on a deserted island except there is normally a restaurant or two nearby.
Examples of beaches that offer you a feeling of seclusion and remoteness but which also have a restaurant or bar within walking distance are Mae Haad Beach and Haad Son Beach.
Overall, what is better depends on what you prefer.
Are There Better Things To Do On Koh Samui or Koh Phangan?
Koh Samui offers a phenomenal amount of activities and attractions, much of what you would expect from an international resort destination. We rented jet skis, took an ATV tour in the hills, and did a day tour exploring the cultural sites of the island. That only scraped the surface of what was available.
Most beaches have kayaks and paddleboards and some even have water trampolines.
For more information about some of the best activities on Koh Samui, please check out Koh Samui: Fun Things To Do For A Sensational Holiday.
There are also plenty of things to do in Koh Pha-Ngan as well. Koh Phangan offers more laid back activities, with many spiritual workshops, snorkeling opportunities, and relaxing meditation. You can laze the days away in a hammock by the water.
If you are looking to finish that amazing book that you can never find the time to read, or you have a young family that simply wants to build sandcastles and splash in the water, then Koh Phangan is the place to be. However, if you think you might get bored, then Koh Samui would give you lots of options to fill your days.
Koh Samui Nightlife vs. Koh Pha Ngan Nightlife
Both islands offer amazing night life for all kinds of people. The main difference is that on Koh Samui, there is more of everything. It is likely that you can find what you prefer near your hotel versus having to find transportation to get there.
The only other difference is that Koh Pha Ngan offers full and half moon parties and Koh Samui does not.
A Full Moon Party is held once a month on the night of the full moon in Koh Phangan’s Haad Rin beach. It lasts throughout the night from sunset till dawn breaks. It’s a non-stop party with continuous music and dancing all night.
A Half Moon Party is held twice a month – one week before and one week after the official Full Moon Party.
Food And Accommodation: Koh Samui vs. Koh Pha Ngan?
Neither Koh Samui or Koh Pha Ngan will disappoint you when it comes to food or accommodation options. There are many fantastic choices for every budget. Once again, Koh Samui will just extend you more of everything.
As for food, Koh Samui offers more “fast food” (Thai style) and heavier foods than Koh Phangan. If you prefer delicious healthier food without temptation, then Koh Pha-Ngan is the island for you.
Our Day Trips To Koh Phangan From Koh Samui
If you are interested in following what we did on our two day trips to Koh Pha Ngan, then read on. I discuss where we went and ate, how we discovered each destination, and our impressions.
Overerall, we loved our experiences on Koh Phangan, especially as we were easily able to find safe and convenient transportation, discover incredible beaches, and eat and drink some of the best food and cocktails on our Thailand getaway.
Leela Beach: First Day Trip From Koh Samui To Koh Pha-Ngan
Our first stop on our first day trip to Koh Phangan from Koh Samui was Leela Beach. This was a 4 minute drive from the ferry terminal (mostly on a steep incline for those of you who prefer the exercise). From there, we just started walking along the beach to see where we could enjoy the day.
We didn’t know what to expect on Koh Phangan and there was 10 of us. We hadn’t done any planning or booked anything so we decided not to go too far from the ferry terminal on this day trip to Koh Phangan.
We ended up at The Sea Terrace restaurant, right on the beach, and part of the Sarikantang Resort. We grabbed a large outdoor table on the patio.
Some of us hunkered down there for the day eating and drinking to our hearts content. Others took towels and sat on the beach closer to the water. Still others, lounged on hammocks and bean bags scattered throughout and lazed the day away. The resort staff were amazing. We were happily welcomed and given free use of the resort without any questions asked.
The food was exceptional. The calamari was some of the best that we have ever eaten. Our friends had the grilled fish and it was also amazing. We were stunned by how inexpensive the food was in relation to the quality.
The water was warm and the beach was beautiful and clean. There were people scattered about but in November, it felt relatively untouched and quiet. Even though we were minutes from the ferry terminal, we felt a million miles away.
Second Day Trip To Koh Phangan From Koh Samui
After our day at Leela Beach, we were all keen to go back to Koh Phangan and see what else we could discover. Once again, we arrived without any plans. But this time, we knew once we got to Koh Phangan, there would be people and cars ready to hire.
Sure enough, we landed and quickly organized a large van with a driver and guide for the day for a few dollars per person. We told them we wanted to explore the island and beach hop. We left it to them to plan our day.
Mae Haad Beach
First stop was Mae Haad Beach, on the other side of Koh Phangan. This was about an hour drive, partly along the coastline and then, through the middle of the island.
I liked the drive. It showed an island that was largely undeveloped but yet offered enough amenities to keep most tourists happy. I spotted lots of different classes of hotels and restaurants, all of which were tastefully tucked away into the landscape.
At first glance, Mae Haad Beach was beautiful. It was surrounded by jungle with a sandbar that occasionally connected it (depending on the tide) to another island called Koh Ma.
There were a few beach restaurants and hotels set back from the beach. The water was warm and inviting, and it was relatively free of tourists. We found another great restaurant on the beach and enjoyed lunch and drinks while we were there.
The one downside? Garbage had washed up along the sandbar. This was a short walk away from the main beach, so it didn’t directly impact our stay. But, it did make me wonder what was floating beneath the water on the beach where we were hanging out. I wasn’t super keen to swim for too long after noticing the garbage.
After a few hours there, we headed off to our next beach.
Haad Son Beach
Haad Son was about a 20 minute drive from there. In keeping with our tradition of using a restaurant on the beach as our home base, we followed the signs to the Koh Raham Restaurant and Bar. However, unlike our earlier experiences, this restaurant was on a rocky perch overlooking the sea with no beach access. The beach was a five minute walk in the opposite direction.
Undeterred and with the promise of more delicious cocktails, we grabbed a table and looked around. This place was incredible. There were hammocks perched over top of the water that would have you feet from it when the tide was in.
Steps were cut into the rocks which allowed you to climb up and down the rocky ledge and swim in the water. For fearless souls, you could jump into the water from the restaurant, about 20 feet below. And even better, there were schools of fish everywhere.
I loved this experience. We swam, jumped from the rocks, swung from the hammocks and of course, tried as many cocktails as we could.
Return To Koh Phangan Ferry Terminal
We spent a couple of hours enjoying Haad Son and then, it was time to drive back to the Koh Pha-ngan ferry terminal to catch the last ferry to Koh Samui.
Should You Go To Koh Phangan or Koh Samui On A Thai Vacation?
Koh Phangan really appealed to me. I liked the laid back vibe and the small towns with cute restaurants and bars. It felt a little more removed from the hustle and bustle of Koh Samui, a very busy and tourist driven island.
There were lots of locals prepared to drive you wherever you wanted on the island and to recommend experiences. The beaches were very beautiful and for the most part, clean with lovely soft sand. I liked that it felt and looked authentic – the jungle was everywhere. Hotels and roads complimented the landscape. They did not overtake it.
However, it did feel very sleepy and relaxed, with little night life for people uninterested in the craziness of full or half moon parties, or tourist excursions other than snorkelling or boating.
This was very different from Koh Samui where the island offered a lot of diverse tourist attractions and a strong night life for people of all ages and interests. Koh Samui also had some amazing shopping and night markets that were worthwhile to visit. I could see Koh Phangan becoming a little boring after a few days.
If I returned for a Thailand getaway and was trying to figure out what would be the best island for me, I would probably head directly to Koh Phangan for a few days to relax and unwind, and then, finish off in Koh Samui for some more day and night time activities.
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