Buddhist Adventures On The Crystal Island of Koh Phangan

Thailand was easily the most memorable, tropical country I’ve been to. It has everything you could possibly want in a sunny paradise: beaches, palm trees, parties and breathtaking islands. But that wasn’t why I went backpacking northern Thailand. I went because I wanted to learn more about the country I’d heard so much about. I’d heard about all the dodgy red light district stuff, I’d heard about the full moon mayhem, the markets and the tribal cultures, which I wrote extensively about in my blog ‘A Week In The Mountains With The Karen Long Neck Hill Tribe’. I’d heard about all of these things and I wanted in.

You can find tropical sunsets and beaches anywhere in Asia, but Thailand is a different animal altogether. It seemed to attract the weirdest people I’ve ever met and this was in stark contrast to the ancient kingdoms, Buddhist temples and tribal villages that I also explored in this country.

But what I really came to do in Thailand was to participate in a film called Un Indignado.

Un Indignado

So let me start from the beginning. A major part of my 8 month backpacking journey journey involved volunteering. Volunteering allowed me to save money abroad because I could work and do jobs for other people in exchange for food and accommodation. I used websites such as Workaway.com to find new gigs.

That is how I found myself on the film set of Un Indignado in August 2016, when I went backpacking northern Thailand.

And by film set, I mean, beach hut. The whole thing was organized by an older German guy called Leon.

He was making a film about political activists in Spain, from his hut in Thailand. As well as directing the film, he also played the part of the main character who is pursued relentlessly by shadowy authorities who want to silence him for speaking out against the state. 

I inquired about why he was filming this in Thailand instead of Spain where he used to live but always got vague answers….

Eventually, I was given a starring role in the film, even though I’d originally signed up to be his yoga teacher. He also wanted to put my journalism skills to good use and write previews and snippets for the film. And so I did. Our days mostly consisted of filming movie scenes, writing snippets and lounging about on Srithanu beach, in central Koh Phangan.

My Humble Srithanu Beach Hut

In return, I got a beach hut located on the beach. The hut was nothing to look at. It had no running water, half a toilet bowl and ants that covered one half of the wall.

what to do in thailand for 2 weeks

There was a pile of dirty dishes in one corner of the hut and an ancient-looking bed with a mosquito net draped over it. But as soon as I opened the hut door, I was greeted with paradise. Glistening blue waters, white sands and the relentless sun. This hut was right on the beach and opening that cranky wooden door every morning reconnected me with my purpose and made it all the more worthwhile. Although I was initially only planning to go backpacking north Thailand, I fell in love with the southern islands too. And I’d landed in the perfect spot in Koh Phangan. But when I returned to Thailand in November 2016, I ended up in a different spot.

This time around I met a Greek man called Panos. I’d returned to work for Leon, and he put me in a beach hut 30 minutes away from Srithanu. It happened to be right next to the hut Panos was in. Although he tested my patience at times, I was glad we spent so much time together in the beach hut. This is because in November, there was a lot of torrential rain and it would have been harder to get around without him. 

Also, at night it was pitch black in my hut. So black that if I held my hand in front of my face, I couldn’t see it at all. It is the kind of darkness your eyes cannot adjust too even after an hour or so. Welcome to the world of island power cuts. I’d hear large rats scurrying in the background during the power outages. It would have been so much more disturbing without Panos by my side. But that’s a story for another time…

The Two Faces of Koh Phangan - The Crystal Island

All I had to do was sit on the beach for long enough before I was eventually joined by a friendly soul who enquired about who I was and what I was doing there. I loved that meeting new friends was as simple as lying on Srithanu beach. And ‘work’ was simply a question of waiting until it was time to film the next scene in Leon’s conspiracy movie. If I wanted to eat, I merely had to walk a few steps to the nearest restaurant tent to order some delicious Thai curries.

It was the easiest gig I’d ever landed and certainly an unforgettable part of my journey.

Many backpackers on the island were there for the infamous full moon parties. That is what the island is known for. But there’s another side of it that people don’t see. And that is the spiritual side. I wasn’t interested in the crazy, drunken parties. But the meditative vibes of the place was definitely something I could get behind. 

backpacking northern thailand

Many people compared it to Ibiza – which is an island in Spain known for its wild and boozy parties. Some of the revelers were older Western people. I caught one of them – a 70 year old German guy sniffing plants underneath his beach hut – high as a kite. My oh my, it did get bizarre. He says he’d only smoked a little weed 😉. 

But on the other side of the island, people come to practice yoga classes, meditation classes and spiritual get-togethers. Legend has it, that Ibiza is also a crystal island.

It was so strange for me to see or hear about the two sides of this infamous party island of Koh Phangan. I only experienced the sweeter side. Most of the people who had come for the parties spoke about their desire to take drugs. That was more than enough for me to steer clear of it. Being out of my mind in the midst of weirdos on a foreign island didn’t appeal to me. I’d heard the storie

Late Night Beach Talks

backpacking northern thailand

Going to Koh Phangan to work on this film was the best experience I could have had. I learned that it was a crystal island. This means that there were atomic shards of quartz crystals that were mixed in with the soil and the sand.

Some speculated that this was the reason it attracted so many spiritual people. Koh Phangan was chock full of yoga workshops, energy classes, meditation gurus and strange groups. I remember sitting in a vegan cafe late one night and watching a group of people huddled on the floor in what was called a ‘touching workshop’. I left before it got too crazy.

There were other groups, which I suspected were cults. One of them had members that dressed all in white that I would see regularly around town. It was operated by a man that had previously been convicted of sexual abuse and running cults in Romania.

At night I got talking to a pretty interesting bunch of people. This included a guy who was on the run from America after developing energy software that wasn’t approved by the government. Like me, he’d started out by backpacking northern Thailand before making his way to the islands. On Koh Phangan, there were the conspiracy theorists, who would wax lyrical about lizard people and David Icke’s theories. All pretty interesting to say the least. But mostly, people just wanted to practice yoga and meditation in the midst of paradise.

But the late night chit chats with ‘those in the know’ sure didn’t bore me!

backpacking northern thailand

Then there were those who had come to Thailand to participate in Mantak Chia’s energy workshops. Others just wanted to tour the island and have fun like I did.

Some of them would take me on motorcycle rides around the island and we’d split the cost. This is because I was too much of a wuss to ride my own motorcycle.
The best rides took place late at night on abandoned beaches and forests.

Occasionally,  I would join other travellers around large campfires and sing songs or participate in drumming sessions under the midnight moon.

There’s a certain sense of freedom that comes from staying up until the early, early hours speaking with a bunch of people you don’t know in an abandoned restaurant beach hut, surrounded by the ocean waves. 

I can’t quite describe it but the feeling was intense.

But I digress. And anyway, there was so much more to the adventure than lounging around on the beach all day or backpacking northern Thailand. The country is a land of many surprises. So I also wanted to experience its history and its culture.

Ayutthaya Temples

Ayutthaya temples

Before I started backpacking northern Thailand, I visited the ancient Thai capital of Ayutthaya. It was originally founded as the second capital of the Kingdom of Siam. From Bangkok, I took the BTS line to Victory Monument, where I waited to get a minivan to Ayutthaya.

The journey took about an hour and I spent a pleasant day walking around the ancient ruins, snapping photos for Instagram and taking in the sites.

I dived in deep to learn more about the history of these ancient structures and develop more of a connection to the cultural traditions and belief systems of the country I was in. What I learned was that this hidden archaeological gem dates right back to 1350 until it was destroyed by Burmese in the 18th century.

Wat Lokaya Sutha

Wat Phra Sri Sanphet thailand

I didn’t get around to seeing all of the wats (ancient temples), but some of the main ones I saw were Wat Lokaya Sutha (temple of the reclining buddha). This is a monumental reclining Buddha statue, 42 meters high and eight meters wide.

Not much is known about this statue. However, what is known is that the temples around it were massively destroyed over the years and the only thing that remains is the sleeping buddha.

Sometimes it is wrapped in orange fabric, while at other times it is not. So it may appear differently depending upon what time you go.

Wat Phra Sri Sanphet

wat phra sri sanphet ayutthaya

Wat Phra Sri Sanphet was the centerpiece of the Siamese capital over 700 years ago and was comprised of three ancient chedis or chapels. The platform is surrounded by a walled and roofed gallery lined with Buddha images. 

The city was occupied by one million inhabitants and functioned as a trading hub that connected Asia with the West.

Not only was it the most important temple, but it was also the holiest temple on the site of the old Royal Palace. The first structures were built during the 14th century. It seems strange to imagine these once great and powerful structures teeming with royal families, their armies and the people that served them. However, it gave me a sense of the great empires that Thailand once had and the spiritual legacy that it has left up until the present day. 

Wat Phra Mahthat

Wat Phra Mahthat

Another site I visited was Wat Phra Mahthat. This is easily one of the most popular sites. Although I don’t usually do tourist hotspots, I’m glad I got to see this. I’d never seen a buddha head stuck in the middle of a tree, and it’s worth going for that alone.

Nobody really knows how it got there, but it is thought to be linked to the immense flooding and destruction and the rapid vegetation that grew around it. According to local legend, two brothers fought violently over who would succeed as the King of Siam.

The one who came out on top was King Ramathibodi I. He subsequently built the palace and all the Buddha statues here in honor of his defeated brother. The head in the tree is believed to originate from one of these statues, and so is thought to be a spooky representation of his brother.

Backpacking Northern Thailand: Chiang Rai White Temple Tour

backpacking northern thailand, wat rong khung white temple

One of the most memorable trips I took when backpacking northern Thailand was to Chiang Rai. In Chiang Rai, I wanted to visit Thailand’s White Temple, Wat Rong Khun. It is one of the most ornate temples in Thailand. It has plenty of religious symbols and imagery. It is guarded by two statues of kinnaras, the half-man and half-bird creatures of Thai mythology that are believed to protect people.

The artwork was inspired by Buddhist beliefs and teachings. It also focuses on the problems of modern society. It contains both heavenly and hellish images, which represent the unification of the two dimensions. There are also sculptures pertaining to the cycle of rebirth and unrestrained desire. 

backpacking northern thailand, wat rong khung white temple

It was built as a centre of learning and meditation and for people to gain benefit from the Buddhist teachings. The artist who rebuilt the temple is Chalermchai Kositpipat, who funded the temple with his own money. 

It was 100 baht to enter. Honestly, I could have stared at this temple all day. It is one of the more modern temples and works were completed on it in 1997. It took a 4 hour trip from central Chiang Mai to get there. 

Chiang Mai Markets

backpacking northern thailand

Another popular hotspot that I visited when I went backpacking northern Thailand is Chiang Mai. It is famous for its sprawling night markets.The biggest night market was the Sunday night market in central Chiang Mai. If you don’t like crowds, this market is a bit of a challenge, but it’s also great fun. 

There are plenty of places to buy almost anything you can think of including food, clothes, souvenirs, and more. It was exhausting, but if you set aside enough time and put your best walking shoes on, you’ll find all sorts of treasures there. 

Chiang Mai also has plenty of smaller local markets that operate during the day. The ones I visited in or around central Chiang Mai were pretty average as far as Thai markets go, but I did encounter some curious sites. 

These included toasted spiders,  a bone-carved opium pipe, and a dog dressed up in mini jeans and shoes (see below).

backpacking northern thailand

So it’s definitely worth a trip to the Chiang Mai markets at least once if you do go backpacking northern Thailand. 

Thailand Is a State of Mind

backpacking northern thailand

I had a lot of experiences in Thailand. It’s hard to point to a single one of them and explain exactly why I loved it so much. The experiences of beaches, temples, film sets and markets may not seem like much to the seasoned traveller.

But understand one thing. Thailand is a rich tapestry of experiences that bombards your senses with exotic noises, colours, smells, food and the weirdest bunch of local and foreign people you’ll ever meet. It was the 3am beach conversations I had with refugees, expats, conspiracy theorists and runaways from America. It was the experience of sneaking through a dense forest at 2am in the morning with a total stranger. I never imagined I’d be standing on a deserted beach in the dead of night watching the ocean.The sense of danger, stupidity and untamed adventure was the thing that burned Thailand into my memory.

In other words, there’s so much more to a country than simply beaches and the usual things that tourists enjoy. It’s the entire package of experiences that went along with it that made it so magical. Thailand simply set the scene. But it seemed to attract the most powerful experiences because of the wonderful people, the crazies and the eclectic weirdos that it seemed to pull in.

Then there were the other experiences I didn’t write about in this blog – like staying in an authentic longneck tribal village and exploring mountain caves. 

All of those things made Thailand real for me. The rest was simply a bonus.

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