Koh Phangan: The Island That Set My Soul on Fire

As I sit in the Denpasar airport in Bali, I struggle with how to begin this post. There hasn’t been a place on this trip that has affected me like the island of Koh Phangan. Thinking of this enchanting place, the words magical and miraculous come to mind. It felt like a place where dreams come true- as cheesy as that sounds. I look back on pictures, and I long to be on the sandy beaches, wading through the crystal clear turquoise water, and letting the wind blow freedom through my hair as I zip around the winding roads on a motorbike.

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The journey to the island was a long one- 33 consecutive hours and every form of transport imaginable. We went from Pai (in northern Thailand) all the way to the southern island of Koh Phangan in one shot. The trip consisted of a 3 hour bus ride from Pai to Chiang Mai in the morning, where we took a taxi to the train station, and boarded an overnight sleeper train to Bangkok. The train was 16 hours long, and ended up being one of my favourite forms of transportation thus far. The landscape of Thailand scrolled by, and the sun set over the mountainous jungle as we rattled through. The seats got folded into beds, and one bunk came down from above. In the evening they put up tables between the seats, and we got served a huge dinner. The beds were surprisingly comfier than our beds in previous hotels and hostels, and you had your own little curtain to pull closed when you were ready for bed. In typical Thailand style we arrived almost 2 hours late, at 7am the day after we had left Pai. The train station in Bangkok was buzzing with people, and dozens of tracks met up here, with trains of every colour parked at the station.
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We found a cab from the station and drove to the airport through the hectic Bangkok traffic. A man on a scooter got sandwiched between our cab and another car, and the guy chased after us screaming at our driver. This must be a pretty normal occurrence as our driver calmly looked forward and completely ignored the enraged man beside him. Once on our plane to Bangkok, I watched as the seemingly endless city stretched out and away below us. The urban jungle transitioned into forests of palm trees covering every inch of the landscape below, and we landed outside Surat Thani in the southern mainland of Thailand. After a long bus ride to Donsak Pier, we were finally welcomed by the bright turquoise water of the Pacific Ocean. Seeing the same ocean that surrounds my home in a completely different setting was a little bit surreal. The ferry took us across the sea and we finally stepped onto the island. The pier was in the main town, and our taxi wove through the bustling market. The roads were bumpy and hilly, lined with trees, and we travelled along the ocean, the blue water coming into view with every break in the tree line. We finally arrived at our resort, an adorable place called Seaflower Bungalows on the ocean on the west side of the island. The first thing we did was throw on our swim suits and run into the ocean. The water was unbelievably warm, and in the ocean’s waves I felt at home.
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Our first day on the island was one of complete relaxation. We lounged around in hammocks and on the beach all day reading, ordering food and drinks. I realized how lucky I was to be able to live like this, if only for a little while. Its so easy to forget and to stop living in gratitude when you get to wake up in beautiful new places everyday. In the evening we went by the dive shop that we did our PADI Open Water Certification through, and picked up our manuals. We ended up having to read and do quizzes all night, but finally got sleep, our minds buzzing with depth and pressure relationships.
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In the morning we walked back to the dive shop for day one of our course. Our instructor Thomas was an enthusiastic young guy from Paris with a thick French accent. In the morning we did classroom work, and after lunch we got fitted for wetsuits, fins, goggles, snorkels, BCDs and regulators- all of which made no sense to me at first. We drove up to a pool at another resort, and spent several hours going over different skills. I had only scuba dived one other time in Mexico, and getting back in the water was both exciting and nerve wracking. Trying to maintain a constant buoyancy is harder than it seems, and we had fun floating and swimming around the pool.

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On day two of our scuba diving we finally got to dive for real in the ocean. We had two dives planned at 12 meters each, and I was filled to the brim with nerves and excitement. We got picked up early in the morning, and piled into the open taxis with the other divers, our gear in bags in a trailer behind us. The ride through the island was lined with palm trees, huts and shops. The mountains of the island came into view, and we eventually made it to the pier where multiple diving boats waited to go out to the dive site. We boarded our blue boat on the glistening water, and left for Sail Rock, a popular dive site around a huge rock in the middle of the ocean, teeming with life all around. An hour ride later, we pulled up next to the boulder where several other diving boats were docked as well. We went down to the lower deck where all of the gear was, and set up our tanks, regulators and BCDs. Finally we were ready to dive, and I took a giant stride off the back of the boat into the warm ocean water. I put my mask under, and immediately I was struck with the image of hundreds of fish below me; an entirely new world right below the surface all along. I took my last breath above water and descended into the underwater paradise that awaited us. I couldn’t believe my eyes or stop smiling and laughing out of pure disbelief. The rock was covered with coral, clams, pink and purple marine plants that swayed gracefully with the current. Schools of hundreds of fish and huge barracuda swam around us, as if we were one of them. At one point Thomas pointed up to the surface, and right above us, its tentacles stretching meters long, was a ginormous pink jelly fish flowing fluidly through the water. I never wanted to come back up. Our 48 minute long dive felt like 5, and once we reached the surface we all rejoiced about how insanely awesome what we just did was. I couldn’t believe how in love I already was with diving- I wanted to go back under right away. After lunch and a rest, we did our second dive where we saw more of the small marine life; plants and sea snails stuck onto the sides of the rock. The colours were unbelievable- there was an overwhelming scene to take in every way you turned.
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Day three of diving included more classroom material and our final exam, which we passed with flying colours. Thomas had decided that instead of the pool we would do a shore dive off the beach and practice some skills in the ocean, then explore the nearby reef with out remaining air. We were so excited, and after lunch we got suited up and walked to the beach with all of our gear on. We had been warned that there were baby jellyfish in the water, but we went to check it out anyway. It turned out to be infested with them- we were constantly surrounded by hundreds of brown baby jellyfish. They stung every bare section of my skin, and although a couple of bites isn’t too bad, I got dozens of them. With no success in finding a better spot, we swam back to shore where I looked at my legs. Red streaks marked the places where their tentacles had zapped my skin, and my legs broke out in hives. One bite on my arm swelled up into a huge welt, and I tried not to give off how much pain I was in. At the shop I doused the bites in vinegar (a preffered option to having someone pee on you). We had to take all of our stuff of and go do our training in the pool again. It was definitely an experience I will never forget. That night was the full moon, and it blared a red tinged white in the dark sky, lighting up the night. Sitting on the beach soaking up its powerful light, I was so filled with potential and gratitude.
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When our last day of diving came around, I found myself unusually sad. The experience had been so eye opening and exciting that I didn’t want it to come to an end. We were back on the boat for two more dives, this time to 18 meters. Unfortunately the visibility wasn’t good at all that day, and we mostly stuck to the rock and surrounding reef. By our second dive the visibility had gotten so bad that I could barely even see Thomas in front of me. Looking out into the open water I could see only dark blue, foggy nothingness, so I focused my gaze on the rock and on Thomas in front of me. The current was incredibly strong as well, and swimming against it took it all out of us. When we were finished our dive and got back on the boat, we were congratulated on being officially certified divers! Back at the shop we filled out some paperwork over beers and got our pictures taken for our certification cards- we were sunburnt and tired and the pictures weren’t our best. We thanked everyone repeatedly for the incredible experience, then drove back to our resort.
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That night was the famous Full Moon Party, so the first thing we did was nap in preparation. We took a taxi out to the south end of the island where the party is held, along with almost 20 other young people from our resort. We were dropped off on a street filled with shops, food and drink stands, and of course body painters. We got our arms painted with flowers, lizards and stars and headed down to the beach. The music reaches you before anything else- thumping and deafening, it shakes the whole beach. The entire beach is lined with neon bars, and different music is played at different spots along the water. We each got a bucket, a deathly mix of liquor, mix and red bull, and joined the thousands of people dancing and hanging out on the sand. Fire dancers spun burning flames around their bodies, the waves moved up and down the shore, and the moon hung white, bright, and beautiful in the sky. After a few hours and one lost friend, we were exhausted and ready to head home. We found a taxi, and joined a guy so drunk that his lanky limbs flailed around as he zigzagged down the road, finally collapsing on the bench in the back of the cab. We had to wait around for the cab to fill up, and we finally left for our resort with a bunch of other partiers. We were all very grateful for our beds, and we slept until late morning.

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This is as close to a picture as I got, but once again I took a ton of videos which will be in our travel video!

The next day was for recovery, and we all lounged around the resort reading and taking in the ocean. A sadness had crept in that I couldn’t identify- so many amazing things coming to a close, perhaps. Sadness is an interesting thing; the more you fight it, the heavier it gets. I’ve found that accepting your state as it is is the only way to become truly free. Realizing you are not your emotions is extremely powerful, and allows you to move on, even with those feelings accompanying you. That evening I swam way out into the ocean while the sun was setting. I find my centre in the sea. The way the water supports you and reminds you that it will always move with the tide, and that the sun will always rise and fall with brilliant strokes of orange and pink and gold. I felt gratitude slip back in.
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Our last day was all you could hope for on a beautiful tropical island. We rented motorbikes, which none of us had ever driven before, and drove to the dive shop where they let us rent snorkelling gear for free. We drove to the remote Haad Kohm beach, up and down hilly dirt roads filled with huge potholes and deep ridges. Finally at the beach, we parked our bikes and walked down the steep hill to the water.
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The beach was in a bay, and the sun shone on the water, creating a glistening turquoise. We went out into the water with goggles, snorkels and fins, and swam a fair way out into the sea. Below us were fish of different shapes and colours, clams, corals, rocks and huge sea slugs. We swam around for quite a while, then hung out on the beautiful beach. It was the most picturesque scene, with the bright blue water, sunny sky and jungle around. On our way back from the beach we took a different route, and this time we drove down perfectly paved roads lined with palm trees. This is paradise. In that moment I knew I would have to come live on the island in the future. We went for lunch at a vegetarian restaurant in a treehouse-like setting, then dropped of our snorkelling equipment. That evening we went for a sunset swim, and again I let the ocean teach me both the fleeting and steadiness of life. I said goodbye to the ocean and went up to bed.
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For the first time on this trip I felt a strong resistance to going home. The island reminded me about the limitless of this life, and of the infinite possiblities we have during our time on Earth. I felt stifled by my regular life, by the seemingly boring routines and day to day obligations. I realized with an almost painful clarity how much more adventure I crave. How I ache to meet people with wild dreams and a fearlessness for life. I uncovered so many truths about myself during our time on Koh Phangan. Dreams and desires that I hadn’t yet become aware of. Possibilities and infinite potential- opening my eyes up to the miraculous. We need not be held back by the norms or by judgements. It is up to us and only us to take control of our own lives. Nobody is going to hand you the life you have only dreamed of- it is yours to go out and create. The potential is there, we are here to manifest it into reality. Some flame was ignited inside of me during my time on Koh Phangan, and I don’t think it is ever going to die.

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