Lunar Lunacy (Ko Phagnan, Thailand)

As the moon waxed in the night sky, I made my way from Malaysia to Ko Phangan just in time for the island’s notorious Full Moon Party.  I could not have asked for a stranger place to begin my time in Thailand.

My first impressions of Thailand were forged in the mad bacchanality of Ko Phangan, where tens of thousands of people flock each month for a night of dancing fueled by electronic music, Thai Red Bull, and alcohol.  I was arriving a few days prior to the party to meet my friend from UCLA, Jay Donnell, and to lock down accommodation for the festivities.  It was one of those experiences that you have to do just to check off the Life-To-Do-List – something my body could probably only tolerate once.

I realize now that Thailand is like a 550 lb. Bengal tiger: beautiful, fascinating and very dangerous at the same time.  Like the protagonist in Life of Pi, I would be drifting for the next few weeks in the company of this dangerous beast and would have to learn how to co-exist to survive.

Within one day of arrival one of my travel mates had lost his mind on drugs and had seen many tourists crash their motorcycles on the island’s dirt roads.  Crosses line the pot-holed roads and hospitals specializing in trauma are everywhere.  The potential for serious fun would be tempered by the threat of serious harm.

After losing my friend late on the first night, he had drunkenly wandered around town before taking magic mushrooms sometime in the early morning.  I next saw him the following morning, as he wandered through the streets, covered in dirt, completely disheveled and babbling incomprehensively.  He remained this way for two or three days before thankfully returning to normal.

Everything is centered around Hat Rin.  Hat Rin is a tiny beach peninsula completely covered in seedy guesthouses, bars, restaurants, souvenir shops and motorcycle rentals.

The beach itself is considerably nice for a party-beach, though the ocean water is mixed with human urine each night as drunkards turn the beach into a giant toilet – not something that a beach boy from San Diego can easily stomach.

The beach stretches for a mile and is bordered by rocky cliffs on either end, the easternmost being known as “Mellow Mountain.”  The name could not be more deceiving: it may be a mountain, but it is anything but mellow.  You get there by climbing up a rocky staircase, at the top of which are about three lounges covered in neon posters of mushrooms and assorted psychedelia.

The owners of the shops aggressively try to sell you weed or magic mushrooms, which can be consumed in a milkshake.  Handfuls of backpackers lie on their backs, staring into the sky while house music blasts over the speakers.  This is where my friend bought a mushroom shake and transformed into a lunatic overnight, and now I understood why.  The vibes of the place were very bad, and places like this gave me a very bad impression of the island.

During the daytime the beach is packed with people sunning themselves, playing soccer and tanning topless.  The alcohol is cheap and the beer flows like wine.

At nighttime the place really gets going – the beachfront restaurants replace the tables and chairs with speakers and DJs and the music goes until dawn every night.  Entertainers juggle fire and bars have various contests to draw crowds (including “Fire Limbo”, to which I lost my favorite Jimi Hendrix shirt).  About 50 shacks line the beach selling “party buckets,” plastic buckets filled with Thai rum, coca-cola and Thai Red Bull.

[Interesting side-note: Red Bull, as sold internationally, is basically a copy of the Thai energy drink.  The founder of Red Bull is an Austrian who came discovered the Thai drink during a business trip to Bangkok.  He copied the logo, added carbonation, removed the some of the stimulants that are probably illegal in most countries, and founded Red Bull.  The stuff is crazy-strong: it costs 50 cents and keeps you awake for days.]

The scene in Hat Rin was also interesting.  Beautiful people walk through the tiny streets, narrowly avoiding the motorcycles that zip along at full clip.  Everyone is either tan or English, every girl is in a bikini and sunglasses, and every guy wears around one of about five identical tank-tops: Singha Beer, Tiger Beer, Leo Beer, Thai Red Bull, or Full Moon Party shirts.  This is the new uniform, and I feel a bit out of place for not immediately succumbing to peer pressure and buying myself one… maybe I will buy one soon so I can go undercover ; )

The crowd is international, though it seems half the people you meet are from Melbourne, Australia.  There are virtually no Thai tourists here.  In fact, I am pretty sure that Hat Rin is not part of Thailand, just some international enclave of debauchery along the sea.  The atmosphere is a combination of Miami Beach, Vegas, Ibiza, and what I imagine Bangkok is like.

It is virtually impossible to get a quiet moment in the midst of this madness because every store is blasting music and most restaurants have movies playing 24/7.  Restaurants compete for customers by advertising their television line-up: one is playing The Beach at 8 PM, The Day the Earth Stood Still at 10 PM, Blow at midnight while others play episodes of Friends, Simpsons or Family Guy on loop.  Take a quick walk through Hat Rin and you will find hundreds of people watching TV.  What better way to learn about Thailand’s culture than by watching Forgetting Sarah Marshall?

But if you walk a few hundred meters away from the center of Hat Rin, it is almost possible to hear the birds chirp… until you run across the most annoying thing I have ever seen: the moving advertisement for the Muay Thai Boxing Stadium.

A small pink car snakes through Hat Rin with speakers blasting the announcement notice over the song The Final Countdown.  After the car passed me for the 72nd time, my ears began to bleed.

I found the entire atmosphere overwhelming and immediately Jay and I rented an automatic motorcycle, also known as a manly Vespa, and took off each day to escape Hat Rin and explore the island.

Though we might have missed a showing of Superbad or a couple conversations with cute girls on the beach, Jay and I visited Buddhist wats, waterfalls, fishing villages and islands.  We rode the scooter around the island for three days, slowing exploring each coast until we had pretty much covered the whole thing.

Then came The Full Moon Party.

The night before the party was eerily quiet – an obvious calm before the storm that would rage through the next night and past sunrise the next day.  Jay and I got Thai massages (which are awesome and only $5 per hour) and went to bed early.  We would need all the energy we could muster to stay awake the next night.

As the sun set over the Gulf of Thailand, the police set up barricades and the crowds swelled to unbelievable sizes.  I don’t have an official figure, but locals said they expected anywhere between 20-30,000 people.  Just think about that for a second.  30,000 on one beach.  Madness, absolute madness.

Everyone comes to the party painted in neon body paint, wearing only swim trunks and sandals (which you must wear to avoid the broken glass littering the beach).  Blacklights illuminate the beachfront clubs and the moon shines white on the sand.  Food vendors are everywhere, selling everything from pizza to felafels to pad thai.

The party didn’t even get into full gear until 1 AM and it didn’t finish until long after sunrise.  Drugs were everywhere: some people took mushrooms and quietly stared at the vibrant colors.  Others took ecstasy and danced around the party like madmen.  Others drank too much too early and passed out all along the beach.  The hospital on the ocean was flooded with people bloodied from bar fights.  Ladyboys walked the streets looking either men with a fetish or men who were too drunk to tell the difference.  Thai women strolled hand in hand with middle-aged Westerners, sometimes two women per man.

The music throbbed all night long and I danced my little heart out. Take my word for it, I dance like a complete idiot.  I was bouncing around like a kangaroo from one crowd to the next and catching stares from everyone along the way.

At the end of the night we went to bed as the roosters behind our bungalow began to crow.  After a few hours sleep, we packed our things and left Ko Phangan for fabled Adaman Coast on the Indian Ocean.

We were drained, broke, and excited for the prospect of sobriety and tranquility on some deserted island.

Next stop: Ko Tarutao National Marine Park

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