Bottle Beach, like the other beaches on Koh Phangan, doesn’t really have any written history. Prior to the internet, information about Koh Phangan was severely limited. Even today the older generations on the island are reluctant to commit their memories to digital posterity. Even something as fundamental as when and where the first Full Moon Party was held in Haad Rin is very much open to debate.
Up to the late 1970s the infrastructure on Koh Phangan was basic. The power grid was old and patchy as were the roads. Locals had a long and gruelling walk to get over the hills and into Thong Nai Pan from Baan Tai. Chaloklum was easier to reach thanks a flat road and the importance of the squid industry to the local economy.
The addition of extra piers that could handle bigger boats in the 1980s was a major boost to the island. It increased ferry traffic and helped to promote tourism.
The only mention of the history of Bottle Beach is that it was settled 200 years ago by Chinese fishermen. This is plausible since there is a Chinese community scattered over the island, notably In Thongsala, Baan Tai and Chaloklum. The Chinese influence can be seen in the wooden fisherman’s houses still standing in Thongsala and Chaloklum.
In the 1980s Koh Samui became a popular backpacker destination. This opened up the islands for large scale tourism. Koh Phangan being just 30 minutes away by boat benefited from Koh Samui’s growing prominence as a tourist destination.
A trickle of hippies disillusioned with the growing commercialisation of Koh Samui made the move over to Koh Phangan as island of preference. While most gravitated towards Haad Rin, a few looked for more secluded, beautiful and cheaper beaches to stay.
Word got out that Bottle Beach, only accessible by boat or jungle trek, was the perfect hippy hideaway. In the 1980s Bottle Beach witnessed their first ‘farang’ tourists. The locals built a few simple bungalows to meet the new demand for accommodation on Bottle Beach.
It is written that in the early days of Bottle Beach tourism there was no electricity, no shops, no road and no phone coverage. Ice the only luxury was bought in by foot every night in order to sell cold drinks to the hand full of tourists that were staying at any one time on Bottle Beach.
As with Thong Nai Pan, Bottle Beach was the reserve of the ‘in’ crowd of hardened Asia travellers spreading the lore of great and ‘unspoilt’ locations. This lasted until the late 1990s.
As the internet grew along with the fame of the Full Moon Party, Bottle Beach lost something of its hippy character. It became more mainstream; no longer was it the reserve of the hirsute few. It was part of the clichéd backpacker route of South East Asia. Bottle Beach devotees started sharing their beach with families and those on short stay trips.
Places move with the times. The crucial date was 2004 when a road was established between Bottle Beach and Thong Nai Pan Noi. For many it was a symbolic gesture that shattered the perfection of Bottle Beach. At that point Bottle Beach no longer felt ‘free’. The police could turn up, hotels could appear and prices would go up with better access.
These predictions have mostly come true. Prices have gone over. Bottle Beach 1 has been joined by 3 other resorts. A swimming pool has been built (pure sacrilege). The police probably make it to Bottle Beach no more than once a year, but victimless crimes are committed with far greater discretion.
The descendants of the Chinese fishermen that colonised Bottle Beach 200 years ago still own Bottle Beach. Their new-found comparative wealth has not blinded them to their responsibility to maintain the beauty of Bottle Beach – they modernise and improve. There are no plans for more resorts. So far outside developers seeking to re-brand Bottle Beach as a luxury enclave (like Thong Nai Pan Noi) have been resisted.
The good thing is that ice is much easier to come by in Bottle Beach.