Brits abroad, falling out of bars, eyes glazed and staring. Thumping techno. UV body paint as lurid as the vomit that decorates the asphalt. These, sadly, are the things Koh Phangan is famous for today. So we got some funny looks when we said we were heading to the home of the original full moon party with two young children. To be honest I think I gave myself some funny looks too. After all, we have very different kinds of sleepless nights these days and Calpol is our drug of choice.
However, we were determined to find another side to the island and over the course of two weeks, we discovered a place rich in beautiful bays, excellent food and family-friendly accommodation, both on the spendy and the scrimpy side. We swapped buckets of whiskey for buckets and spades and we loved it.
We've deliberately stayed in a lot of very different places on this round the world adventure so far. Airbnbs, where we feel at home (someone else's, maybe, but home nonetheless). Wall-free jungle lodges with monkeys jumping on the roof and mysterious bumps in the night. Bland but handy airport hotel rooms that we just need to sleep in before shaking a leg and jumping onto the next one. Sometimes, though, we all need a bit of classic luxury. Somewhere with a decent mattress, a room service menu, a great big swimming pool and a minibar. And that's where the Panviman came in. This was no big white hotel looming over the beach, but a sympathetically, architecturally designed series of villas, rooms, infinity pools and restaurants spilling down the rocks and overlooking the glittering ocean.
Did Olivia care about that? No, she did not. "I'VE GOT A TV AND I'VE GOT ELEPHANTS!" came the gleeful squeal as she discovered her room, complete with towels fashioned into pachyderms. She couldn't believe her luck. Nor could we. We had a huge bed, a knockout view and a pillow menu. A pillow menu. We were in the Family Deluxe Jacuzzi Grande room, which apart from said jacuzzi came with a glass barricaded terrace and just two sunbeds, the perfect place for the grown-ups after bedtime, speaking at a normal volume rather than whispering in what we affectionately call 'the climate of terrror'. And both kids actually slept, River in his Rolls Royce of a cot, complete with built in mosquito net, and Olivia, blissed out and comatose after one too many DVDs from the library.
Down in the open-air Pan Sea restaurant the next morning, breakfast was a sprawling buffet with Italian-approved espresso, fresh juices and oozy-yolked egg pans, spiked with chilli and bacon and made to order. There were tuk-tuks to cart us, the kids and our ten thousand mandatory bags around the resort. And as we hit the beach, staff appeared with beach toys and towels, both luxuries that our baggage allowance doesn't allow us to cart around. There is new management at the Panviman and there are plans afoot for both a dedicated kids area and more activities for small people. For the parents, there's a spa, if you are lucky enough not to have a small breastfeeding barnacle attached to a boob at all times. But I wouldn't know about that.
Next up was Seaboard. A very different kettle of fish, we settled into a bungalow. There may have been no room service, no infinity pools and certainly no jacuzzis, but this place had a whole other bunch of benefits. We had asked around before deciding on our next home on Koh Phangan, especially as the full moon was approaching fast and the party was due to kick off while we were there. Time and again, the answer came back: go to Haad Yao. A small but perfectly formed crescent of white sand, the water was clear and unruffled by the waves or the raves. There was life in the form of a handful of guesthouses and good Thai restaurants, twinkling with fairy lights and lanterns, their tables right on the beach so you could eat with sand between your toes.
Run by some very laidback and friendly Italians, the rooms at Seaboard are affordable and the pasta is serious. As much as we love Thai food, we realised we had been craving a huge bowl of proper ragu, and there we found it. There was a beach right outside the door. There was beer. There were hammocks to rock the baby to sleep in and the five year old to fall out of. It was good news all round.
There were also things to do for a family. Not soft plays or parks, but gentle days on the beach, River learning not to eat sand and Olivia learning that cartwheels aren't quite as easy as they look. A short cab ride away, we took a family cooking class with the wonderful Cherry at C&M school (more on that later), and we doused ourselves in mosquito repellent for a feast of freshly caught crab and pretty much everything else on the menu at the wonderfully rustic Mamma Pooh's.
Then there was the Panthip Night Market, where everyone could eat exactly what they fancied, whether that was cheap sushi and summer rolls, skewers of freshly grilled everything from marinated pork to pearlescent squid, or if you insisted, a super healthy superfood quinoa bowl. There was, crucially, pudding, the most theatrical one we've sampled so far and well worth the sugar rush that followed. Rolled ice-cream is currently emerging as a trend in California, but it's originally a Thai tradition. You begin by choosing your base, either milk, chocolate milk or yoghurt, and a fruit to add to the mix. This is poured onto a frozen metal plate, then chopped and mixed like some kind of ice age teppanyaki. Soon you have your ice-cream, which is scraped and rolled into slender tubes of happiness, and topped with anything from marshmallows and M&Ms to caramel and fresh berries. It's entertaining, it's fun, and it's unique to whoever's about to make it disappear.
But what about the full moon? It came as advertised, big and luminous and loaded with significance. We braced ourselves. And then I went out for pizza from the addictively good Loccos. Songthaew drivers called out with a hopeful "party?", but they could probably tell I was a lost cause. Cardboard boxed dinner in hand, I wandered back along the beach, the ocean sucked out by the moon and the sand wide and shining. And then we watched The Polar Express in our pyjamas, ate our body weight in margheritas and passed out before anyone else had even gone out. It was idyllic.
The thing about places with a notorious nightlife is this. Nine times out of ten, they're contained in a very small area. Mallorca has Magaluf. Amsterdam has the Red Light District. Koh Phangan has Haad Rin. That's ok. They're welcome to it, and all the tie dye, cheap burgers and 2 for 1 buckets of booze it can fling at them. Because that leaves the rest of this beautiful, surprising, sleepy paradise for the rest of us to use as our playground.
Panviman Resort Koh Phangan
Tel.: +66 (0)77 445 101–9
Tel.: +66 (0)65 535 9970
Haad Chao Pao, Ko Pha Ngan, Thailand
Tel.: +66 (0)64 723 4197
Panthip Night Market
Tongsala Rd., Ko Pha Ngan 84280, Thailand
Our stay at the Panviman Resort Koh Phangan was provided on a complimentary basis. All other costs were covered by ourselves and all views expressed our entirely our own.