It is claimed that the official population in Koh Phangan is 8,000. This figure is a few years old. It is likely that with the increase in accommodation on the island along with the increase in revenues from tourism that the population is closer to 10,000 people.
It is believed that 2,000 years ago Malay sailors and sea gypsies started visiting Koh Phangan. It was much later that the island established a permanent settlement. This was 600 years when a group of monks settled at a spot just outside Thongsala and built a temple. This toe hold in the jungle inspired several waves of immigration, mostly from those looking to exploit the resources of the island.
200 years ago Chinese immigration started. They were involved in the coconut plantation industry on the island as well tin mining at Laem Son Lake.
Of course today we see the quasi-official wave of immigration from Westerners, who have discovered ‘paradise’ and who have been able to carve out varying levels of economic stability. There are bars, restaurants and resorts owned and run by ‘foreigners’. There is also a large gang of people who are involved in the party scene on the island.
Among all of this it is easy to lose track of the fact that Baan Tai also has a Muslim community that probably dates back centuries when Muslims from Malaysia arrived on the island. There is a similar community of Muslims at Hua Thanon in Koh Samui. As with the Baan Tai Muslims they were (and in many cases still are) involved in the fishing industry.
There cannot be said to be much (if any) religious tension on Koh Phangan. Muslims speak the same language as the Buddhists and share more similarities than differences in terms of everyday life. The women don’t wear veils (just head scarves sometimes) and aren’t denied a social life. The men wear small white skull caps, again sometimes.
The Muslim community in Baan Tai was clearly discernible up to 2008. Since then they seem to have retreated to elsewhere on the island, or in the Kingdom. This is probably due to the shrinking revenues from fishing as well as the expansion of tourism in Baan Tai taking up space and increasing land prices. The noise from the Baan Tai jungle and beach parties might also play a part in the disappearance of Muslims from Baan Tai.
There is a small mosque near Baan Tai beach and village. There is a much bigger mosque at Hua Thanon in Koh Samui. It is shown in the Youtube clip above.
Baan Tai along with Thongsala have been the centres of immigrant populations in Koh Phangan because they were traditionally the largest settlements with the best chance of providing an income. Since the late Twentieth Century things have changed somewhat with other beaches prospering from tourism; and of course Haad Rin regularly hosts 10,000 or more people once a month for the Full Moon Party. It would not be foolish to point out that Thailand as a whole has successfully integrated a large Chinese community, and can be tolerant of different ethnic minorities. Although the southern states of Patani, Yala and Narathiwat have violent insurgents who want to break away from the Kingdom, the rest of the country is happy to live in a modern multi-ethnic society. It is just a shame they can’t agree on peaceful and democratic solutions to the problems in the body politic.