All You Really Need To Know
- Cost: Technically free, but expect to spend upwards of $50/day on the island
- What: Beach Party
- Where: Haad Rin Beach, Koh Phangan, Thailand
- When: The night of the full moon each month. The New Year’s full moon is the busiest, but the wet season full moon is the best.
- Why: Because you just watched The Beach and now you love the idea of getting lost on an island somewhere, as if every other westerner on the planet hasn’t gotten there first.
The Full Moon Party
I met Black Eye – her defining feature if not her real name – first thing upon settling down in my hostel on Koh Phangan. She had offered me a cigarette. I don’t normally smoke, but I’d come to learn that cigarettes are a traveler’s handshake, so I took it and let her light me up. She followed suit. Black Eye was short and grungy, the kind of hair that’s mid-congelation into dreadlocks, and her new bamboo tattoos still had a red border around the Chang Beer logo. She was beautiful, the kind of person I wanted to be.
She told me stories, as we soaked in the wet heat. Drunk, clean cut kids getting obscenities tattooed on their sides. Pool parties where the water turned frothy and brown as it filled with fornication and spilled drinks. I laughed as Black Eye carried on, each story more ridiculous than the last. The hostel was near enough to the epicenter of the party, and outside I could watch as more and more Europeans on their gap year filed through the dirty streets, looking for a place to set down their packs. I wondered about each one – thousands of people going home with tens of thousands of stories of the things that happened on that island.
Black Eye was in the middle of explaining how she had gotten her eponym. It was in a bar, dancing on a table. Somebody had elbowed her in the face.
“I never want it to fade,” she said, “it’s how everybody knows me here.”
Black Eye had been on the island for two weeks now and been to all the major parties. I had never known it before, but while the Full Moon Party is its tourist Mecca, Koh Phangan waxes and wanes with the lunar cycle. Full moon. Half moon. Black moon. Each is greeted just as enthusiastically, with little to no downtime in between. I could already see some of the locals setting up their bucket stands along the main walkway to the beach. For 150 baht (roughly five dollars), patrons of the “Fuck My Bucket” stand could get a pail with up to 10 shots of cheap rum (Sangsom, the alcoholic edition of Dr. Jekyll’s dram) topped off with Red Bull, Coke, and ice. The “Jack Sparrow Fuck Bucket” stand was giving out hand stamps for discounts later in the night. There was a rumor going around that some of the stands put meth in their drinks to keep patrons coming back. I didn’t give it much thought.
Most of the party is located right in the middle of Haad Rin Beach, a few hundred meters of white sand and palm trees bounded by rocky hills. And even more of the party is centralized within that at Cactus Bar and Drop In Bar, two huge restaurants that look fairly respectable during the day but reveal their inner monsters once the sun goes down. Cactus Bar has the biggest set-up on the beach, and is usually the first stop for newly single female tourists ready to pretend Thailand itself is a contraceptive. Since everybody buys drinks from stands instead of bars, Cactus instead tries to kill tourists by literally setting them ablaze. It and Drop In Bar next-door offer fire jump rope, fire breathing, fire slides, and burn cream priced by what the drunk idiot can afford, sold with a smile.
Further down the beach, on a cliff, are Kangaroo Bar and Mellow Mountain. If the signs advertising “happy fun shakes” on the menu don’t clue you in, the legions of bug- eyed teenagers pissing their pants and calling it the Universe’s plan for them certainly will: drugs are sold here. Lots of them. Buy from the bar for a mind-opening experience in the beautiful Gulf of Thailand night, or buy from the guys hanging around just outside for a more home-like experience in a jail cell.
Be careful when doing drugs on Koh Phangan. The police are there, despite what the atmosphere may dictate, and they pay random dealers to sell white people drugs, then point out who they’ve sold to to the cops so they can all go and get a fat bribe. Generally speaking, it’s safe to buy from Mellow Mountain and Kangaroo Bar up on the hillside, and Eden further from the beach to the north. But that’s obviously not a rule, and anything you do, you do at your own risk.
The other major scam to watch out for involves motorbikes, where people scratch them and charge you huge amounts for the damages. Just don’t rent them.
I was in Koh Phangan for five days, and I only knew Black Eye for a few hours. I saw her sporadically over my time there, but she wasn’t staying in the same hostel and we never had another full conversation. Whatever stories she had told me were ultimately inconsequential; I was making my own. I did the fire jump rope and the fire limbo. I caught bioluminescent shrimp between the tips of my fingers. I drank buckets. I drank shroom shakes in a mountain-side open air electro bar during an apocalyptic thunderstorm with a paratrooper and three burlesque dancers. I fell in love, if only for a few nights, as I’m sure many others did. Those are stories for another time.
People will sing the praises of the Full Moon Party everywhere. They’ll do it because in the end, it’s fun. Because it’s exotic. The Full Moon Party is an esoteric rampage of fire, sex, and moonlight that connects the thousands of people who, months later, will dig through their pockets, find a few crumbs of white sand, and smile. But there’s another layer to it that you won’t hear from an enthusiastic backpacker on the ferry. A translucent filter, something you get used to. But when it’s pointed out, it becomes impossible to ignore.
Because there’s also something sinister going on on Koh Phangan.
The morning after the party, I walked out onto the beach to survey in sunlight what remained. I don’t know what I expected. It wasn’t dead bodies. There were at least four of them, sprawled in various positions down the beach. There was a word in my mind then – crepuscular. It means “to do with twilight.” I always thought it was an ugly word to describe a beautiful time of day, chunky and sour, but it’s hard not to appreciate the sentiment of it in the pink kenopsia of a hungover Haad Rin. I strolled for a bit, taking in the sights. Cleaning crews were raking the beach, but every so often I’d see the pile of vomit, the condom, the half burned joint. I wondered if somebody had dropped it on purpose, afraid of being arrested and being forced to pay high bribes to stay safe.
I had come as a graduation present to myself, a kind of half-genuine alembic of the soul where I told myself that I valued culture as much as getting drunk on foreign liquors and doing irresponsible things for the sake of saying I’d done them. I was in a not-quite-post-college mindset, and it was in that spirit that I’d planned my itinerary. I had told my parents it was called the Full Moon Festival to make it sound more respectable.
And maybe everybody had. There’s a culture of naivety on Koh Phangan that seems lighthearted and fun – all neon paint and bucket. But when it boils down to the actual reality of life on the island, the reality that becomes visible in the crepuscular light, it’s a weaponized promise of memories by a culture (if you can call it that anymore) all too willing to rake in the easy money. Now, I wish I had paid more attention to the rumors of locals sprinkling meth in the drinks. They are savvy bordering on scheming in a way that’s obvious unless obfuscated by the visitor’s desperate desire to come away from their adventure with the self-assured knowledge that they had done something right. I was the party’s perfect prey.
When I think back to my time there with this in mind, those memories are there. They’re filtered by a focus on the better ones, but there nonetheless. As shocking as it may be, I wasn’t actually all that drunk on the evening of the full moon. I had had a lot to drink the night before, and – to say the least – had made an ass out of myself. Such is life on Koh Phangan, but it allowed me to have distinct recall of what I saw. There was a section of the beach cordoned off, labeled as the Sleep Area – “Free!” it had the decency to advertise. How noble. Needless to say, those people woke up with empty pockets. There were at least two people with blood pouring down their face. Who knows how that happened. There are around 40 medical centers on Koh Phangan, and the biggest ones had lines going around the corner. The fire jump ropes are a popular story by those who did them, but what they won’t mention is the group of locals standing by ready to sell burn ointment for a steep price.
I sat on the beach one day with a guy who had lost his wallet. We cheered him up by looking at pictures of the night before – he had partaken in the fire jump rope, and based on the video, he was pretty damn good at it. About fifteen seconds in, of course, a small black square flew out of his pocket and landed in the sand unnoticed. “That’s my wallet!” he had shouted. The wallet sat there for a few seconds until, from left of frame, a local walked in, picked up the wallet, and walked out.
But despite everything, I can’t argue against going. The first night there, the power went out on the entire island. A group of us bought a bottle of cheap rum and carried it down to the dark beach, laying in the cool sand and playing drinking games. As the sun went down, the air went still, and we could see lightning exploding over the horizon, carried in the warm dampness of the atmosphere. If that wasn’t why I went to Thailand, i’m not sure why I did at all.
But Black Eye had been on the island for two weeks. She had been to the Black Moon Party, then the Half Moon Party, then the Full Moon Party. She’d had that black eye for the entire time, and never wanted it to fade. It’s how everybody knew her there. I’ll bet she knew, in the back of her mind, exactly what that meant.
But the instant you come close to that realization, the moon starts to rise once more.