A white sand beach glows under the light of a magnificent full moon — a brilliant orb whose own shining light reflects like crystal in a placid gulf made black by night. On land, a sea of people numbering in the thousands move to their own beat as the thumping sounds of techno music fill the air with a mixture of hypnotic rhythms.
Koh Phangan is famous for its Full Moon Party, a chance for backpackers, bohemians and lovers of good times to dance wildly on the beach, lose their inhibitions and revel in some good old-fashioned tropical ecstasy.
Over the years the Full Moon Party has gained prominence as one of the world’s premier beach bashes, and party promoters have on several occasions attempted to hold an international music festival akin to the Love Parade in Berlin, replete with DJs from around the world. But while Koh Phangan was completely unaffected by last December’s tsunami, as it lies in the eastern Gulf of Thailand far from the tsunami-devastated provinces in the country’s southwest, violence between Muslim rebels and Thai security forces in the troubled south has caused prudent planners to postpone any type of large-scale international event — at least for now.
Having been assailed with stories of the Koh Phangan experience, I had been planning my trip to the island since the moment I arrived in Thailand. Unfortunately, my weekly nine-to-five job had kept me from picking up and going on a whim. After all, the full moon comes only once a month, and it’s beyond my control if it happens to rise in the middle of the work week.
Yet after a long and patient wait, the heavens finally shined my way and spun the earth around so the full moon rose on a Saturday. And so, with visions already dancing in my head, I began my journey in the early morning hours.
My ride arrived promptly at 8 a.m., and I settled into the back of my friend Eki’s pickup, along with three other enterprising friends. From my hometown of Hua Hin, it is a four-hour drive to Chumpon, the town where the ferry to Koh Phangan is stationed.
The jaunt itself was largely uneventful; it was only once we arrived on the island that things started heating up. Tired and hungry, we made our way to Casanova, one of the many restaurants lining the beach road in Had Rin, a beach town on Koh Phangan’s southern coast. There are two sections: Had Rin Nai, (where we were going to stay) is the serene sunset beach on the southern side of Had Rin town, and then there is Had Rin town itself, which is where the Full Moon Party takes place.
Like nearly every eatery on this part of the island, the Casanova’s menu offered everything — from a dozen different kinds of mashed potatoes to pizza to pad thai (traditional Thai-style stir-fried noodles with tofu, peanuts, bean sprouts, garlic, green onions, a touch of lime juice) — and the large-screen TV at the front showed screenings of films like The Beach, (2000) starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
Living away from Thailand’s tourism hotspots has distanced us from the beach scene most visitors to Thailand experience. As we waited for our greasy cheese-and-mushroom pizza, we all agreed that it was weird and yet slightly wonderful to see so many young backpackers in the same place at one time.
We eyed the blonde and bronzed, and pointed out our favorites while discussing the dangers of blackouts and buckets. Perhaps Koh Phangan’s second-greatest claim to fame, the bucket is a plastic beach pail that comes complete with a bottle of Thai rum, Coke and soda water, and retails for the knockdown price of 140 baht (US$ 3.50). Other variations substitute the rum for vodka or the Coke for Red Bull, but the end result is always the same: raving madness. In fact, the frequency with which this concoction leads people to do what they normally wouldn’t, lead to the coining of the phrase “blame it on the bucket.” As we made our way to our bungalow, we agreed that was exactly what we’d do, regardless of how the night would unfold.
Several girls in our group who were in charge of accommodations had arrived in Koh Phangan a day earlier. They had apparently scored the VIP cabin for us, which meant it had an extra mattress and a bathroom, though even that was debatable. Built on stilts, our cabin creaked with every step, and the rotten wood floor beside the concrete box we called our toilet bent like rubber, threatening to give and send the person standing on it plunging to the ground.
Nonetheless, it was better than the beach, where passed-out partiers are easy prey for dirty pranks. After a brief rest, we made our way down to the bungalow bar to get our party started. The resident DJ was already spinning tunes to get us in the mood, and judging from the atmosphere, the buckets had been broken out hours earlier.
The night naturally progressed from there, blurring more with each passing hour. On Had Rin Beach, stands were set up everywhere selling buckets, beer and energy drinks, and touting piles of pizza and stacks of satay (strips of marinated meat, poultry or seafood grilled on skewers and dipped in peanut sauce) to supplement intoxicated appetites.
Other vendors sold bracelets and eyeglasses made of glowing neon gel and light sabers commonly found at local carnivals or fairs. I bought a pair of yellow specs, which proved to be a major hit, and several of the girls in our group got temporary tattoos in neon paint.
Clubs with names like Zoom and Vinyl had erected giant speaker sets, the tops of which served as stages for half-naked dancers. Farther down the beach a fire flared, and intrepid onlookers tried their hands at twirling flaming batons. Late in the night a kerosene sign was set alight, its flames spelling out the phrase “Full Moon Party.”
The night wore on and my dancing feet grew weary. Through the glare of my glowing glasses I stared up at the object of our celebration and discussed whether it was a man or a rabbit I saw there. According to most Thais, the moon is occupied not by a man, but a rabbit — though given the hour, party revelers could claim to see many things here.
The sky began to change as signs of dawn breeched the horizon. Despite the coming daylight, the party continued full swing. There is something uncanny about catching yourself on the beach surrounded by hordes of people ― many of them shirtless and senseless ― at 7 o’clock in the morning. Yet that is one of the most endearing things about the Full Moon Party. Regardless of one’s sense of sobriety (illicit substances are not this party’s main theme), the full moon, for one night, gives people of all ages the chance to let loose, to get lost in carefree wantonness. For just one night, it sets us free.
If You Go
Kho Phangan Full Moon Party
Tourism Authority of Thailand