Koh Phayam – still like Koh Samui in the 70s?

Travel writer Ian Neubauer revisits and old love, Koh Phayam, and discovers while quite a lot has changed over ten years, it’s original charm remains. 

Ten years have passed since I first encountered Koh Phayam. After seeing it described in a brochure I found lying on a table in a cafe in Bangkok’s Khaosan Road as “Like Koh Samui in the ’70s,” I bought a ticket to go. And stayed for six months. This small kangaroo-shaped island on Thailand’s Andaman Coast attracted me not for what it had – the real lure was what it came without.

Koh Phayam, Sun Restaurant Buffalo Bay

No traffic. No full-moon parties. And none of the unfettered development that has turned Koh Samui and many Thai islands into parodies of their former stunning selves.

Last time I visited, the only way to Koh Phayam was on a slow passenger ferry from the city of Ranong, 300 kilometers north of Phuket. There were no cars because there were no roads – only a concrete motorbike track. It wasn’t connected to the electrical grid – only diesel generators and solar panels for a few hours of power each evening. There were no luxury hotels or resorts.

Returning a decade later, I was anxious to see what had changed.

Mostly it was good news. The old Koh Phayam remains largely intact – still a throwback to the golden times now lost from other popular islands. Inevitably though, there were changes. For starters, the journey there is quicker.

Koh Phayam Pier

Ten years ago my days on Koh Phayam involved fishing with villagers off the concrete pier where long-tail fishing boats came and went. These days there are no fishermen lazing about the pier. Instead it’s busy with a rush of human traffic as men load and unload boxes and crates from ships.

Riding a moto-taxi to Long Beach, I notice that what was once a pleasant cycle ride through greenery is now a strip of restaurants, stores, bungalows, massage pavilions and construction sites.

I cannot help feel disappointed by the fact this little island had, apparently, been well and truly discovered.

Cede Resort, Koh Phayam

Patrizia Togni from Switzerland, manager of CEDE Boutique Beach Resort, says Koh Phayam is changing but she believes it doesn’t have the environment to go the way of popular Thai resorts like Koh Samui

“We have a very short season – only four months of the year when it doesn’t rain. There is not enough infrastructure on the island to accommodate thousands of people and I don’t see them bringing electricity here anytime soon. So that means no ATMs, no jet skis and no big parties.”

koh phayam hippy bar

During my first visit Koh Phayam I slept in a flimsy bamboo bungalow. This time I stay at CEDE. It’s among one of a half dozen new barefoot-style micro-resorts on Koh Phayam appealing to a new generation of switched-on, eco-friendly travelers.

The arrival of luxury hasn’t changed some things. Looking out to sea the view is absolutely blue, with fishing boats and islands shimmering on the horizon. Looking back at land, tall green mountains and thick misty jungle catch the eye in every direction.

Long Beach, Koh Phayam

While population pressure now renders my two old favorite activities on Koh Phayam – bike riding on the main track and fishing off the pier – unviable, it doesn’t take me long to find new eco-adventures on pristine parts of the island.

I rent a kayak and paddle around Ko Phayam’s south coast, where I take a nap on a little beach on an uninhabited islet and discover a river banked by mangroves.

Buffalo Bay, Koh Phayam

I also rediscover Aow Khao Kwai (Buffalo Bay), a beach with lagoon-like water, blinding white sand and little bars and restaurants hidden in rocky, forest-fringed alcoves .

And most importantly, for the first time ever I see the hornbill and its giant yellow beak – not just one bird but an entire flock of the magnificent creatures exploding like fireworks from a tamarind tree.

It’s as if I’ve been reunited with my first love and all the years we spent apart are forgotten in an instant.

koh phayam cafe baan nam cha

“A lot of the write-ups I have seen about Koh Phayam say it’s like Thailand was 20 or 30 years ago, when you could leave your bungalow unlocked and not have to worry about things.

“So I think what’s happened is that a lot of the people who traveled to Thailand back then are now coming back here with their kids. They choose Koh Phayam, because it’s like the Thailand they remember.”

Places to visit:

  • CEDE Boutique Beach Resort. Email to
  • 1-Self-Yoga on Long Beach offers yoga classes at 5:15 p.m. for 200 baht ($6). Friends Restaurant on Long Beach sells curries for 100-160 baht($3-5).
  • Baan Nam Cha cafe and juice bar has fruit shakes for 70 baht($2).
  • Kayaks, surfboards and SUPs are available for rent from Bamboo Bungalows on Long Beach for 150 baht ($5) per hour.
  • Sea Gypsy village in the Buffalo Bay offers insights into prawn fishing, cashew-nut farming and salt-making.
  • Phayam Divers on Buffalo Bay Beach offer daylong snorkeling trips to the Surin Island Group for 2800 baht ($86).

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