Others expressed finger-wagging concern about the unbridled hedonism: “Someone had jumped from the second story of a building the previous night and gotten impaled by a metal rod,” one blogger wrote. “There’s more to life than fist pumping, snorting your brains out, and being an empty carcass the next day or couple of days.”
There are basically three types of business in Haad Rin: bars, pharmacies, and hospitals. Emergency medical attention can be found on every corner, often sporting grandiose names (the Stamford Clinic) or claims (“Because we care.”) After a few hours, you realize why: Almost everyone wears a bandage, or walks with a hobble. (In Koh Phangan, the island’s hilly, ramshackle roads and hairpin corners have bested so many bikes, locals supposedly call their brutal scars “Koh Phangan Tattoos.”) It’s not uncommon to see someone urgently making their way between bars on a pair of crutches.
Combine alcohol, youth, the ocean, and dangerous roads, and you can understand why death has become so much a part of the Full Moon celebration. (Foreigner fatalities in Thailand are not just reserved for Koh Phangan. A newspaper in Phuket, another seedy tourist spot, described the 35 official expat deaths over one six-month period as “surprisingly low.”)
“Death in Paradise” makes for a righteous headline, and in recent years there have been plenty of sensational stories to choose from. In 2009, German tourist Astrid Al-Assad Schachmer, 45, was raped, murdered, and dumped in the shallows after one party. That same year, Becki Beckmann, another German in his mid-40s, faced off against a pair of armed men attempting a home invasion, and a French tourist was found hanging in a police cell under disputed circumstances. Others die en masse, like the 18 who died in 2005 after their taxi-boat sank, or the 10 killed when a tour bus crashed two years ago.
Lately, the casualties all seem to be British, like the 19-year-old who drowned off Haad Rin while drunk, or 22-year-old Stephen Ashton, who caught a stray bullet in the crossfire between rival Thai youths at Zoom Bar. (The party allegedly continued.) A year later, Kevin Liddle lost an encounter with a plate-glass window. Within a couple of months of Liddle’s death, 29-year-old Alex Wyithe fell victim to a full-moon riptide. “He had gone to Thailand on a two-week holiday to have a hair transplant,” the Daily Mail reported.
One Thai woman who’d agreed to an interview pulled out as soon as Ashton’s death was mentioned. (I’d only intended to ask whether the incident had improved safety.) The island’s business community is understandably wary, saying the media has focused too heavily on these deaths. On this topic, local police were particularly terse with me: “No comment. Where are you staying?”
Thai men are hard at work throwing up makeshift sound systems along the 1-kilometer beach as we arrive at 4 p.m.; otherwise there is little indication of the crowd to come.
By 10 p.m. the beach is thrumming, but the party’s only getting started. We take a long trawl. Each stage attracts a slightly different crowd. The wall of “bucket bars”—wooden stands called “Dave,” “Batman,” or “Michael,” selling colorful pails containing a half-bottle of spirits, juice, and Krating Daeng, a truckers’ favorite that makes Red Bull look soporific—is monolithic.
For all the dire warnings, alcohol, not drugs, is the main reason people fall off stages, step on glass, tumble down cliffs, or otherwise do violence to themselves on Phangan. In response to the Ashton shooting, representatives of the Royal Thai Police have cooperated with British consular officials to offer a uniformed presence, via a tented command center in the middle of the beach. The boys in blue exude cool reassurance rather than buzzkill. The cops are smiley, happy to pose for pictures even if your pockets are laden with weed. Just another part of the tourist industry.
On top of the police presence, there are persistent rumors of entrapment operations run by narcs to trick dopey drunks. As I stroll the beach, I’m repeatedly offered to buy “something.” I politely decline.
Meanwhile, the gasoline-fueled fire shows are kicking off, featuring dancers, burning ropes, and baton-twirling displays of acrobatic skill. Despite the proficiency of the teen performers, the Full Moon mob rewards mistakes over merit, chuckling at every dropped ball and roaring with approval after one giant, flaming cotton bud nearly sets a tree alight. (There’s also a high incident rate at the bottom of the makeshift flaming luge, which ejects passengers into the paths of startled passersby.)
As the night wears on—and boy, does it wear—partygoers can find help at the many local pharmacies, which offer a full panel of prescription drugs, no questions asked. Codeine, Xanax, Valium, Ritalin. On the beach, however, open use of drugs like marijuana is not tolerated.
The party continues until dawn—thousands of people, drinking, dancing, and passing out. Haad Rin doesn’t have phosphorescence—not these days, at least—but whoever makes the town’s supply of glow paint is doing well; everyone is wearing the stuff.
Dawn is the ideal selfie time, and revelers line up to take their shots. It’s also the time to take stock of the rejected paraphernalia: thousands of plastic straws, bags, blinking Minnie Mouse ears, bracelets, and empty cups. This is the reality of the Full Moon Party.
“Unfortunately there is no way to measure the impact of a single Full Moon Party on the ecosystem,” says Benjamin Jones, whose recent documentary Trouble in Paradise records the damage. “Hundreds of bottles, cigarette butts, and plastic straws end up in the ocean [every time].”
A small group of dogged scrap-pickers arrives, sent by the Haad Rin Business Association. Formed in 2008, two years later the guild began charging entrance—an administration fee that supposedly includes a cleaning patrol that shows up sometime around 9 or 10 a.m. “Unfortunately by that time, a lot of garbage has already drifted out into the ocean,” Jones says.
Previously, the ocean was actually part of the cleanup plan: Up until 2005, “people [were] actually sweeping the trash into it.” One volunteer described the washing-up of a dead dolphin, its stomach stuffed with trash, as a call to arms of sorts. It was only in 2011 that bins were even installed on the beach (“ludicrous,” says Jones), and soon even these receptacles overflow with debris.
The next day, Haad Rin is silent. Its streets are deserted, the masses from the night before sleeping off hangovers or battling harsh comedowns. The nearest public “bathroom,” a darkened entrance where drunks were gouged 10 baht to enter the night before, is now an unmarked cave.
I sit in a British pub eating bangers and mash (because this is Thailand) and reflect on what I’ve seen. With the deaths, environmental damage, fighting, and general debauchery, you would think that a party that draws tens of thousands of people, month after month, would at least be … fun. It’s not. Not even remotely. And for all Koh Phangan’s “vices,” I was never shocked or appalled. I was disappointed and bored, and for a party that calls itself the greatest in Asia, that’s surely the worst sin of all.