Thailand's secret beach
It takes some determination to get there, but you'll have no regrets - as Peter Malherbe can attest
You don't have to tell the backpackers criss-crossing Asia where they can find the world's best beach parties. Every month, thousands of them stream to a small island in the Gulf of Thailand to celebrate the arrival of the full moon, making Koh Phangan one of the most popular stops on the travel trail for the young and young-at-heart.
Although it is not as famous as Phuket or the nearby Koh Samui, for many travellers, Koh Phangan is the Thailand they long for: quiet beaches, virgin jungles, cheap food and friendly locals.
When I was planning a trip to the island, I asked a Thai friend which beach I should head for. "Thong Nai Pan Noi," he replied. "But it's not so easy to get to." He wasn't joking.
You can rent a boat - or organise a boat transfer with a hotel - which will deposit you in ankle-deep surf. But most people come by road from the ferry pier, which is a bone-jarring experience second to none. Just when you finally decide that you have taken the wrong road and there couldn't possibly be anything ahead, you pass over a mountain ridge and are confronted by two perfect bays, fringed with golden beaches and tropical forests. About 10 minutes later, you rattle into a small village, jam-packed with restaurants, bars, massage shops and shops. This is the heart of the resort.
A few minutes' walk away is the beach, a spectacular bay framed by two headlands covered in rainforests. Here the sand seems softer and silkier and the weather clearer and fresher. If there is a finer beach in Asia, I haven't found it. Such is the impact of this magnificent beach that you barely notice the bungalows tucked beneath the palm trees.
One of these resorts, the Anantara Rasananda Resort, is developing a reputation as one of the finest hideaway beach resorts in the world. I first heard of it when Katie Price, the busty British model and reality star, was snapped there by paparazzi while she was on honeymoon.
I wasn't on honeymoon but I couldn't resist checking in. Each of the 64 villas has its own plunge pool and the vast rooms are kitted out with everything a holidaymaker could wish for: huge flat-screen TVs with satellite channels, iPods loaded with music and movies, indoor and outdoor showers, even three free carafes of liquor topped up daily.
Of course, it's not cheap. I paid $400 (about R3300) a night for a one-bedroom beachfront villa, but you can pay less than half of that one row back. But it's hard to beat the view from the beachfront rooms - and the fact that it only takes a dozen steps from bed to beach.
In keeping with the resort's barefoot luxury feel, you can dine with your feet in the sand and sip cocktails on the beach. But you'll also want to venture out into the village, which is less than 100m away. There, for the price of a beer at the resort, you could enjoy a Thai dish and a fruit shake. Some of the village shops have charming names, such as Mr Handsome Sandwich, Rasta Baby bar and BetterThanSex restaurant.
Bobbing in the sea one afternoon, I chatted to a Hollander who told me he had been travelling in Asia for the past few years. On retirement, he decided to travel the world and ended up on Thong Nai Pan Noi. After negotiating a cheap rental on a wooden hut in the hills, he decided to put down roots for a while.
I later spotted him sharing beers with some locals in one of the village bars. The mood in these little bars is engaging. Here time seems to run slowly and there is plenty of time to chat. One of the characters I met had a cart selling roti on the side of the road. This young guy had moved there from the mainland, so I expected him to tell me he was saving to move to Bangkok or start a business. But no, he said he was very happy fishing by day and selling rotis by night.
We were interrupted by an elderly woman who said she was the best masseur around. "Young girls no good," she said. Did I want a foot massage for the equivalent of R25? No thanks, I said. Did I want a beer, she asked, saying she would tell the supermarket owners to open up for me. "Very cheap, very cheap," she emphasised.
Locals will be quick to offer you boat rides and sightseeing trips at far less than the hotel charges. Few people resist the opportunity to go snorkelling at nearby Bottle Bay or take a hike through a rainforest to a waterfall. And you can hitch a ride or help to bath an elephant, where you'll get a shower no five-star hotel can match!
You can also take a local taxi to check out the rest of the island, including Haad Rin Beach, where the full moon party is held every month. If the party is on, you can arrange transport between the resort and the venue. There, along with tens of thousands of revellers, you can dance the night away.
There's plenty of budget accommodation around Thong Nai Pan Noi and its sister bay, Thong Nai Pan Yai. In the heart of the village, you can stay in a fan-cooled room at Sandee Bungalows for only R125 per night. Right next door to Rasananda is Phuwadee Resort. Here you can rent an air-conditioned bungalow from R400 per night, a small price to pay to share the beach and the same view as the well-heeled guests next door. Phuwadee even has its own swimming pool and you'll be able to swing on a hammock as you swig a beer and order a fresh pizza from their oven on the sand.
A great family option is to rent one of the luxury villas on the hills above the beach. There are only a handful of them, all privately owned. Rates range from R1250 to R4000 per day, for villas sleeping up to eight people. It's a long trek to the beach from some, but most have infinity swimming pools and views to die for.
Still, if you can afford it, there's nothing to touch Rasananda. It hits the jackpot not only for its stylish resort but also for not isolating its well-heeled guests from the local community. When we had to drag ourselves away after four heavenly days, the staff came out to see us off. "Come back soon," said one.
I will, I will. I can already feel the soft sand creeping between my toes.