In the local Koh Phangan dialect ‘salad’ means ‘pirate’. Thus, ‘Haad Salad’ translates as ‘Pirate Beach’. Today the pirates have gone and all that remains is a name. As with so many details about the history of Koh Phangan, the facts about piracy in Haad Salad are far from clear. Much of the near past is hidden in Thai documents and the memories of the residents.
It also seems likely that the history of the island is obscured and muddied by the commercial value of the place in terms of tourism. The place name of any tourist destination put into Google results in a string of online travel agents, hotel booking sites and sites intended to gather affiliate income. The same is true of searches like ‘Haad Salad history’ and ‘pirates in Haad Salad’.
Here is what small information I have gathered.
This site claims that pirates went to Haad Salad in order to re-stock supplies and repair their boats. It is an assertion that the beach was a place to ‘lick wounds’.
This page has a different version of events. It gives a time period for a start. To paraphrase: in the 1700s Haad Salad was used by pirates to hide their boats and treasure, and that when a galleon passed up the coast the pirates would give pursuit.
This version puts the pirates very much on the front foot. It also points out that Haad Salad was not just a place to hide, but also of strategic value: it was a good place from which to mount an ‘ambush’.
The extract from a book entitled Pirates in Paradise: Modern History of South East Asia’s Maritime Marauders.
As you would expect in the modern era, pirates in the Gulf of Thailand were far from the ‘Jack Sparrow’ romantic swashbucklers.
Thai pirates in the Twentieth Century preyed on Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees. Since these two countries became communist in 1975 there was a steady stream of people escaping to Thailand on boats navigating the Gulf of Thailand. The practice of robbing and raping rich people fleeing communism continued up to 1981 when the situation was researched and condemned by the United Nations.
The book notes that at most only 2% of Thai fishing boats probably engaged in piracy. Many Thais from Koh Phangan and elsewhere in the Gulf helped the refuges by fixing their boats, giving them supplies and telling them about sea routes.
A few were ‘honorable’ pirates who boarded refugee boats with knives and hatchets and demanded valuables such as cash and gold, but left food and water supplies and told them how to navigate to the mainland.
Later professional pirates caught on to the potential for exploiting the steady trickle of illegal immigrants over the Gulf. Boats were frequently robbed several times during a journey. When the pirates found nothing, they raped and abducted women and sunk boats. Koh Kra just off the coast of Suratthani Province is a collection of uninhabited islets. It became a prison for women who were continually abused. Today there is a plaque remembering the sufferings of Vietnamese boat people on Koh Kra.
In the 1970s the first backpackers made it over to Koh Phangan. The first place that developed for tourism was Haad Rin Village. By the 1980s Haad Salad had become a firm favourite with regulars to Koh Phangan. It thus seems unlikely that pirates would choose such a place for a secret hideaway.
Besides there is a coral reef just off the coast which makes it difficult to land vessels any bigger than a longtail boat. Maybe in the 1700s they moored on the other side of the reef and rowed on to the island. It also makes sense to use Haad Salad as it is tucked into the north west corner of the island and a good spot from which to surprise shipping coming up the coast from Thongsala.
Finally, the possibility of buried treasure must be mentioned. I haven’t found any reports of such finds. I might get myself a metal detector.