This is the island time forgot.
More significantly, this is the island McDonald’s forgot. No regimented French fries, conformist fried chicken and skinny lattes here. Instead we roll out of bed and slouch across to Rambutan café next door, for strong local iced coffee, sweetened with condensed milk, served in a tall glass clinking with chipped ice. Two fat puppies tussle under the table, coming up every five minutes or so to rub their cold, wet noses on our knees.
The lady that runs the restaurant takes our order with a shy smile. As we start on our coffee, her husband bows and disappears, like a zippy little magician. We watch him zooming towards the local market on his scooter to buy ingredients for our breakfast. Brown, airy omelettes served with crusty garlic bread fluffy, brushed with a generous amount of golden butter. Pad Thai, bright with flavour. Fresh, local, regional. It doesn’t get better than this.
We’re in Koh Phangan island, Thailand, famous for its notorious Full Moon parties. It’s a ‘girl gang holiday’ (five of us in all) and we decide we’re too grown up for Full Moon’s drunken shenanigans, involving buckets of vodka, fluorescent body paint and overly-rambunctious 18 year olds. So we fly into Surat Thani and take a three-hour ferry ride to the island as the moon begins to wane. The party crowd is heading home, resplendent in striking tattoos, golden tans and Ray Bans. As they leave, massage parlours empty, restaurant lights dim and beach bars grow quiet.
Thailand’s a conveyor belt for tourists. Everything geared towards quick and profitable service. Whether you’re in a gaudy Bangkok bar or waiting in line for a pancake from a vendor in Pattaya, you’ll be served with impersonal efficiency. Eventually you get so used to the practical commerce of tourism, you stop expecting to make connections or have conversations. In Phangan, we rediscover the joys of travel. And food.
After cautioning us against hurling his TV through the window, Canadian Scott Williamson, who runs Baan Tai Backpackers, where we are staying, draws us a map, pointing out the best places to eat. Fresh cheap sushi at the night market. Mexican tacos with frozen margaritas down the road. And an honest to goodness French restaurant right opposite the hotel. Our reaction: ‘But… But why would we throw your TV out of the window?” Well, this is Koh Phangan. Party island. You never know.
As it turns out, we’re probably his best-behaved guests, despite our penchant for frightfully pink Bacardi Breezers with breakfast. Fortunately, the island is so laid back, no one seems to mind. At chic Nira’s Café by the pier, as we eat fluffy pancakes sprinkled with tart, sweet lemon sugar, the waiter asks my Breezer-addicted friend if she’d like a cup of coffee. It’s 8 a.m. after all. Then he notices her drink, and laughs, “Ah. Alcohol. That’s better!” Nira’s was started by a couple who took the wrong boat, landed in Phangan by accident in the 1980s, and fell in love with the island.
We hear stories like that all the time. And wonder if we’ll be able to get on our planes home when the time comes.
Every restaurant charms us in different ways. The French restaurateur at Franck’s introduces us to Calvados, an Apple brandy from Normandy, served with hot water and honey to deal with bad throats caused by too many beers at the neighbouring pool bar. In crazy Haad Rin, site of the full moon party, we find a shack on the beach, where they serve a pancake bigger than our faces.
Later in the week, we shake ourselves out of our island stupor, and head to Koh Samui, an hour away by ferry. Our cab drops us at Chaweng beach, right opposite McDonald’s. That’s when we realise this is the first food chain we’re seeing all week. Breakfast is at a fancy hotel buffet — featuring food as disappointing as the hotel is pretty. We relocate to trendy Arc Bar for lunch throbbing with funky house music and Louis Vuitton tourists. The food’s tasty and stylish, designed for jet setters who want to nibble on demure canapés as they work on their tans. Frou-frou ham and black olive sandwiches with icy Caipirinhas.
Rambutan welcomes us back to Phangan with open arms and spicy pork fried rice. When we finally leave the island, they give each of us a hug and a postcard. The message scrawled carefully across the back: “Thank you very much. May you succeed in life. We hope to see you again. Love you so much.”
How can we not go back?