Koh Panyee,or Flag Island, lies in the magnificent Phang Nga Bay in Phang Nga Province. The village is built on stilts above the shallow waters of the bay and features a school, a general store, selling the basic necessities, a mosque – the only building actually situated on the island, a police station – with just one policeman and a health centre.
The village earns a good part of its income from fishing, but tourism has now become a big part of the local economy and several large restaurants have been built to cater to the rising influx of tourists, offering as you can imagine very fresh seafood. There are also a large number of stalls and shops selling all manner of goods and souvenirs in amongst the residents’ warren of houses. Recently a number of bungalows have been built to cater for overnight stays on the island.
Aerial view of Koh Panyee
The origin of the name of the island stems from the history of its founding towards the end of the 18th century. A group of families left Java in search of fresh beginnings and a new life. They travelled far and wide passing along the west coast of Malaysia until they arrived in the Andaman Sea. Here they decided to split up to widen their search but agreed that whoever should find a suitable place to live where the fishing was good would raise a flag from the highest point to let the others know.
One family led by a man called Toh Baboo (or Bahoo) came to an island, well protected from the elements and inclement weather, where the fishing was more than adequate and the sea shallow enough to build a settlement over the water surrounding the island - land ownership at the time was restricted to Thais. True to his word, Toh Baboo raised a flag on the huge limestone outcrop that towers over the village and in so doing gave the island its name – Pulau Panji, in Malay, Flag Island.
The golden-domed mosque, the only building on land.
There are today about 360 families living on the island with a population of roughly 1,700 people, almost entirely Muslim, so should you pay a visit it is well worth bearing in mind that this is a very traditional society where alcohol is forbidden and conservative dress is expected. The locals, however, are extremely friendly and jolly and seem to be genuinely welcoming to tourists.
The island has a football team, Panyee FC. Inspired by watching the 1986 World Cup, a group of young boys decided to form a football team, but there was a problem – no football pitch or indeed any space that wasn’t already occupied. The boys therefore decided to build one with bits of old wood and anything else they could find on the island.
The pitch wasn’t perfect and the ball frequently went over the side and into the water, as did the boys, but they became very fit and used to playing on a slippery surface, through which they developed great ball control. When someone brought home a flyer one fine day announcing the beginning of that year’s Phang Nga Cup competition, the boys decided to enter.
The old football pitch
The villagers surprised the boys by buying them their kit and boots, which provided a great boost in confidence as they weren’t even aware that their fellow villagers even knew about the tournament or that they were taking part in it.
After understandable initial trepidation and nervousness, it soon transpired that the boys were far better than they had thought and they also benefitted from the increased size of the goals and better pitches. The team made it all the way to the semi-finals of the competition.
Despite the burst of optimism this produced and the support of their travelling fans from their village, on the day of the match the rain came down in torrents and the boys found conditions heavy going. By half-time they were losing 2-0. Some bright spark decided they would be better off playing without boots as they did on their little island pitch.
This tactic quickly brought dividends. Faster and more agile, they fought back to 2-2, but agonisingly lost the game to a last-minute goal. Nevertheless they were heroes to the people of the village who cheered and celebrated as though they were champions.
The island has a new and much better pitch today and football is very much a passion on the island, but the old pitch is still there to show the tourists where it all began. Panyee FC is currently one of the most successful youth teams in southern Thailand, and winners of the South Thailand Youth Soccer Championships on many occasions.
The new soccer pitch.
It is an inspiring story, but perhaps even more astonishing is how the island survived the terrible tsunami of 2005, when most of the southern region was severely damaged. It is thought that the surrounding mangrove trees along the coast acted as a protecting buffer, sparing the village from the devastation that affected so many other areas.
If you fly into Phuket and look out of the window and happen to see what appears to be a town floating on the water this will be Koh Panyee. And, if curiosity compels you to find out more and pay a visit you won’t be disappointed as long as you remember that this is a fishing village and fish do tend to stink!