As Koh Samui developed into an international hot spot, travelers looking for a more laid-back scene headed for Koh Phangan. Decades ago, the few wanderers who arrived here stayed in fishermen's houses or slung hammocks on the beach. Investors bought up beach property with plans for sprawling resorts, but before commercial development marred too much of the island, the allure of Koh Tao's crystalline waters starting drawing away a lot of the attention.
Haad Rin Town has many good restaurants, shops, and bars. It's densely built up, and not very quiet, but full of fun. The town is sandwiched between the beaches of Haad Rin West and Haad Rin East.
While Haad Rin boomed as a result of its world-famous Full Moon Party, most of Koh Phangan's smaller beaches continued to develop, but at a much slower pace. For now, most of Koh Phangan remains a destination for backpackers looking for beautiful beaches with budget accommodations, and hippies (old-school and nouveau) searching for chilled-out beaches and alternative retreats.
Boats from the mainland drop passengers off at the main pier in Thong Sala. It's an uninteresting town, but there are taxis that can shuttle you around the island.
If you want to find the beach that most appeals to you, take a longtail boat (a simple motorized vessel named for its shape) around the island—the trip takes a full day and stops in many places along the way, including Haad Rin. Close to Haad Rin are Haad Sarikantang, Haad Yuan, and Haad Thien: good choices for those interested in going to the Full Moon Party, but who want to stay on a nicer, more relaxing beach.
If you aren't here for the Full Moon Party, head up the east coast to quieter Haad Thong Nai Pan, or even farther afield. One of the island's most remote beaches—and the most beautiful—is Haad Kuat, which has gorgeous white sand and simple accommodations. Haad Salad and Haad Yao, on the northwest coast, are similarly remote beaches for those looking for relaxation.