Writing about Koh Phangan makes me think of a distinction that was hot in my college days, and that I ended up teaching years ago as part of a History of Culture Course, namely, the difference between denotation and connotation in semiotic theory.
Words have meanings, of course. But, while they have an explicit or direct meaning, they can also elicit a number of associations in the speakers of the language. For instance, the term “paella” denotes a Spanish dish made up of rice, vegetables and meat, chicken or seafood. However, most Spaniards also associate it with weekend family meals, and people from Valencia (its homeland) will inevitably think of barbecues in the country.
Destinations, too. The Maldives are the quintessential connotation of paradise. Ibiza is associated with party. New York is hip and trendy. And so on.
That was my problem before visiting Koh Phangan in Thailand – I wasn’t comfortable with its habitual connotations. Full Moon Party, God forbid. But even the other ones: yoga retreats, sunsets and meditation, hip cafes. A Westernized island: a far cry to what I had come to love in places like Ko Samet and, especially, Ko Kood, which are also beautiful but Thai enough.
Phangan is beautiful, I had been told by a French middle-aged couple I met in Siquijor. But maybe it has changed – who knows?
We decided to stay in the North West of the island, in Salad Bay, and stuck to the North for most of the time. And here’s the thing: while we sure encountered trendy bars, Westernized resorts and yoga retreats, it was the sheer beauty of the place that stuck in our minds, much more than any sort of vibe.
The denoted meaning, as it were.
That included our daily view from our room in Ao Salad:
Beautiful, secluded Bottle Beach but, especially, the mountainous backdrop seen from the boat.
Quiet Thong Nan Pai Yai beach but, perhaps even more, the views from our bike en route to this remote part of the island.
And, of course, Coral Beach, with its rocks and palm trees towering over the white sand:
It was only two full days, and we know that we missed so many sights. But that’s fine: we saw enough to say something rather simple yet far from trivial.
Go to Phangan, by all means. It’s beautiful – whatever else it says to you.