Each Friday, Roads & Kingdoms and Slate publish a new dispatch from around the globe. For more foreign correspondence mixed with food, war, travel, and photography, visit their online magazine or follow @roadskingdoms on Twitter.
KOH PHANGAN, Thailand—“HELLOOO, FULL MOON PARTY!” the touts holler.
Welcome to Koh Phangan … I guess. The host of tuk-tuk drivers and solicitors who await the tourist ferry-load arriving every hour make no mention of the actual island. It’s all about the party. Or rather, parties. Every night.
The next greeting is a giant billboard that warns, “MARIJUANA AND MAGIC MUSHROOMS ARE ILLEGAL IN THAILAND.” Bottom-right is a photograph intended to terrify anyone fresh off the boat: a white-haired foreigner, eyes blacked out, seated before a bunch of cops. Oddly, one policeman flashes a sinister grin.
Minutes later, our minivan filled with backpackers bounces down the 10-kilometer road toward Haad Rin, where the party happens. Most passengers are carrying coffin-sized luggage and look weary. Where’s a copy of the Daily Mail with the latest about some dead Brit? These kids surely need to be warned.
Koh Phangan’s Full Moon Party long ago lost its original innocence, devolving into a mess of drunken foreigners cramming onto a once-beautiful beach to celebrate nothing more than the party itself. But in recent years, things have gotten much worse. There have been rapes, fatal accidents, suicides, and gang-related murders. “In the nine months I lived there, one guy I admired hung himself, while another died drunk-driving his motorbike,” a former expat told me. Meanwhile, the local environment has been decimated. In fact, one’s first taste of the island pleasures that await can be found in the water itself, which glistens with oil and plastic.
Yet most visitors are blasé about it. “If you’re a girl walking down the beach, you get this all the time,” a British voice in the minivan drawls to her Danish companion, making a firm, pinching motion. “My friend gets drunk and throws up … then she’s fine again,” another brays cheerfully.
It’s nearly 3 o’clock in the afternoon, hours before action time, where I might find, as a disgusted Mail reported, “naked couples bobbing up and down in the water,” a “sordid scene … lit by a beautiful, white full moon,” “a sign saying ‘F*** me,’ ” and “[h]ard drugs.”
This, supposedly, is the best party in Asia.
It wasn’t always like this. The origins of the Full Moon Party on Koh Phangan, which is about 90 percent dense jungle with some gorgeous beaches, are unclear. “The Full-Moon Party started in 1987 or 1988, nobody really knows,” the island’s official guidebook unhelpfully notes, and almost everyone on Koh Phangan has an equally vague explanation for why 30,000 people converge here every month.
The myth is that a farewell party for a dozen tourists somehow mutated into a phenomenon that’s now the island’s virtual raison d’être. The facts are less tidy, but more interesting. They reach back to the end of the Cold War, where on a remote island, flower-power idealists with Indian monikers muttered about Shiva over some bongos. The waves then were said to sparkle with phosphorescence under a blue moonlight. (Thirty years later, phosphorescence sells for a buck a bottle and no one cares about Vishnu.)
Electricity hadn’t arrived when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. Instead, on idyllic Koh Samui, just 13 kilometers from Koh Phangan, the waxing moon brought respite from the ferocious packs of feral dogs and knife-toting muggers who otherwise roamed the darkness. According to Colin Hinshelwood, a Scot who attended the original gatherings, the arrival of power changed everything. For Samui’s foreign collective, electricity was more colonialist expansionism. They looked across the Thai Gulf to a dark, unknown bay where people could continue living unfettered by capitalism: Haad Rin.
Back then, there was “[n]ot much alcohol at all; certainly no buckets,” Hinshelwood writes. Instead, hed kee kwai—buffalo-dung mushrooms—were chewed around the bonfire and nights ended with naked dancing and free love. Soon, Swedish organizers were selling acid to the new arrivals and it was just a few more months before “a gang of Phangan locals chased them off the beach with machetes, after stealing their drugs, of course.”
Later came Ecstasy and electro, Lonely Planet, and what friends back in England called gap-year “wow-yeahs”—Trustafarian types who couldn’t stop muttering about “the experience.” Around Haad Rin, though, local fishermen were experiencing getting strong-armed off their land by mafia-backed mainlanders with a nose for exploitation. On an island where nothing much happened for hundreds of years, the culture soon absorbed nearly everything and everyone, celebrating any excuse for a bacchanal—Half Moon Party, Jungle Party, Midnight Party, Waterfall Party, Boat Party, Solstice Party. The economy, meanwhile has become hopelessly corrupt, urging visitors to join the celebration immediately as they dock.
The Thai authorities make periodic attempts to stamp out more unsavory stuff across the country. Recently, in the coastal resort of Pattaya, two hours from Bangkok, the grimmest sois—home to the most “recondite” predilections—have been demolished and the town even touts itself as a family resort, although the sex trade still figures prominently. Moves are also afoot to “make [Koh Phangan] a drugs-free island,” as the Bangkok Post declared—in 2009.
Of course, purists say, it’s all changed now. Psytrance enthusiasts recall the good times before it went “commercial.” And listening to a dub-trip garage remix (or something) by One Direction for the third time, I wonder what exactly I’m doing here. The decision to visit the Full Moon Party with my girlfriend was last-minute: We saw a sign in a travel agency, realized it was a couple of days away, and thought: “Why not?” The only accommodation still available was a grotty, $25-a-night “bungalow” that would suffice as a base of operations. The six-hour catamaran journey from the mainland was a cattle feast.
I spent the previous night researching field reports. Maybe my search terms were gaming the results (“Full Moon Party”… “vomit”), but they made for grim reading: “I … remember losing my sandals and walking on a lot of glass,” read one. “I even saw a guy attempt to rape a girl on the beach. … The girl was passed out … all I remember next was me and R looking for N and C, finding N with his shirt off being loud and yelling at strangers … blood was pumping out of [his nose] like a faucet. … We hid in the jungle for what must’ve been at least an hour, R’s hand was covered in blood.” This woeful account concludes with the author nursing a dying dog.