A latter day Angkor Wat, apparently.
By Claire Brownell
If you’ve only heard of one thing about travelling in South East Asia, chances are it’s Koh Phagnan’s full moon party. The stuff of myths, lies, legends, and rumours. These giant monthly beach parties in the south of Thailand are a magnet for young travellers of the waste case variety. There’s a t-shirt sold in Thai souvenir shops that lists one of the “Ten Commandments of Backpackers” as “Thou shalt make a pilgrimage to a full moon party on Koh Phagnan at least once in your life.” And it’s true: Koh Phagnan takes on a Mecca-like quality for backpackers. I met people in Laos, Cambodia, and in the north of Thailand who swore that they had finally left the south for good, who then checked their calender and — discovering the full moon was in a few days — scrambled to book 36-hour bus trips back to Koh Phagnan in order to make another party. To hear people talk, South East Asia had two wonders of the world: Angkor Wat, and full moon on Koh Phagnan.
Koh Phagnan and its neighbouring islands actually experince a monthly high and low season based on the full moon. The hype surrounding it is about two-thirds positive and one-third negative. Prior to going myself, I couldn’t get much out of the people who loved it and kept going back except, “It’s amazing… you’ll love it… you have to go.”
The details on the negative side were more specific. There’s a huge market for drugs in a party environment like that, which means an equally huge opportunity for Thai police to take advantage of the country’s extremely strict anti-drug laws. Stories of bank accounts being emptied by people bailing their friends out of jail for thousands of dollars are common. Thefts also seem to happen more often than not; everyone I talked to seemed to have either gotten their wallet stolen on the beach or their bungalow broken into. Finally, there is the no fail equation of Excess Drinking + Stupidity = Disaster. An often quoted statistic that I believe to be true, but for which I have no reputable source whatsoever, is that at least one person dies every full moon party. Alcohol poisoning, drug overdose, drownings, drunk motorbike driving — the opportunities for biting the dust on Kho Phagnan are as limitless as human stupidity.
After finally experiencing it first hand, I give Koh Phagnan a mixed review. The things that are good about it are great, but the things that suck about it are truly awful.
I’ll start with the pros, and things that are awesome about Koh Phagnan:
1) PARTYING ON THE BEACH: Have you ever danced by the ocean in moonlight on a tropical island? Trust me, it’s nice. Haad Rin, the beach on Koh Phagnan where the action happens, is set up like one giant dance floor. Instead of being self-contained, the bars all open up onto the beach, with speakers directed outwards and fire shows grabbing people’s attention to the sand rather than to the indoors. This creates an environment that, in a weird way, reminds me more of bush parties and drinking in parks back in the day, than hanging out at a bar, complete with cops breaking it up when it gets too late or too rowdy. People bring their own liquor from the 7-11 or bucket stands and hop from bar to bar, mingling with everyone and creating impromptu groups. In fact, I don’t understand how the Haad Rin bars make money, because no one ever actually goes inside. I probably don’t want to know.
2) BUCKET STANDS: Lining the stretches of beach between bars are shoulder-to-shoulder stands selling buckets at bargain prices. I’ve discussed the beautiful and timeless tradition of selling drinks in buckets in South East Asia, but if you’re new, a bucket generally consists of ice, a mickey of your liquor of choice, a Redbull, pop, and fifteen zillion bendy straws, served in a plastic bucket complete with handle.
To differentiate the stands, they are painted with slogans such as “Fuckbucket,” “King Kong Bucket,” and “Jerusalem Bucket: Jesus’s Favourite.” Since they’re all selling the same product, the people working at the stands will reward you for customer loyalty with discounts and buy-two-get-one-free deals. Imagine, just imagine, if this was legal in Canada: no student would ever need a summer job again. It’s like a lemonade stand, but drunker and more fun.
3) YOU CAN ALWAYS FIND MUSIC YOU DON’T HATE: The lack of decent music has been a consistent gripe of mine from day one, and a major cause of homesickness. The entire South East Asian subcontinent has an unfortunate obsession with Sean Kingston and Shakira; “Suicidal” and “My Hips Don’t Lie” are heard about 800 times a day in stores, on the radio, and as cellphone ring tones. South East Asian pop music is a mostly horrible, if occasionally endearing, knock-off of boy bands and Céline Dion-style power ballads. Bars catering to foreigners tend to go for inoffensive mass appeal and play either Bob Marley and Oasis on repeat, or Justin Timberlake and the Black Eyed Peas if they’re trying to get people to dance.
Koh Phagnan, however, gets that not every traveller who’s into going out and dancing is into the same type of music, and a lot of the biggest partiers are into electronic music that you don’t hear on the radio. My stay on the island actually broadened my taste in music; I was convinced I hated house, when apparently I was just listening to the wrong stuff. The genius of the Haad Rin setup is that if you don’t like what one bar is playing, you can just walk a few feet to the next one, bringing your unfinished drink with you.
4) KOH PHAGNAN DOES WHATEVER THE HELL IT WANTS: The Thai police don’t joke around when it comes to drugs and serving drinks after hours (unless they’re making kickbacks and bribes, in which case they laugh all the way to the bank). Partying on Koh Phagnan, however, is the basis of most of the island’s economy. The locals fight for the right to party using a tactic I can only describe as large scale civil disobedience. Every night around two or three a.m., the bars and bucket stands start getting hassled by the cops to shut down, and every night they collectively ignore them. Since the police are outnumbered, there is only so much they can do if everyone just plain refuses to listen to them. By the time they get too persistent to be ignored, the party has winded down anyway.
In Koh Phagnan, alcohol is prohibited from being sold anywhere in the country the night before an election, to keep people from making their choice under the influence. (I love this concept: “Man, last night I got so shitfaced that I totally voted Conservative.”) This happened the night before the full moon party that I went to, so the bars just turned off their music and sold drinks using the “Pssst… hey fella… wanna buy a bucket?” system. Even though there were no lights and no music, hundreds of people were sitting on the beach, playing guitars, hanging out, and drinking. The scene could be interpreted as either a sad testament to alcoholism, or a political statement about resisting state power. If all those people were as committed to, oh say, environmentalism or nuclear disarmament as they are to drinking, we’d be set.
Having said that, here are the Things I Could Do Without on Koh Phagnan:
1) GETTING ROBBED IS 100% INEVITABLE: But actually, everyone gets robbed on Haad Rin. Either their bungalow gets broken into, or their purse, camera or wallet go missing on the beach. The combination of laughably easy to break into bungalows, and crowds of drunk people carrying wads of cash in dim lighting, make theft too easy and lucrative to resist for both locals and fellow travellers.
My friend Sadie had extra bad luck on this count. When our bungalow inevitably got broken into, she lost 5000 baht (about $165) in cash. Then, on the night of the full moon party, somebody poked her through the bars of the window of our friend’s room with a stick while she was napping. She doesn’t know why whoever it was did this, but assumes it was to see if there were valuables on the bed within reach, or to check for people sleeping before breaking in. Whatever the reason, she grabbed the stick, shook it at them, and yelled at the top of her lungs, scaring them away. The point is, there’s not much you can do except keep your valuables locked at reception and not carry a lot of cash around.
2) SLEAZY DUDES: Self explanatory. They’re everywhere in South East Asia, but there seems to be a disproportionate number of them on Koh Phagnan.
3) BLAMING EVERYTHING THAT GOES WRONG ON DRINKING AND DRUGS: In an effort to attract more “upscale” tourists, the police are stepping up their efforts to rein in Haad Rin’s anarchic, free-for-all atmosphere. It’s easy to convince people of the need for the crackdown by claiming that all this crazy partying is Unsafe! and Corrupting Our Youth! and the usual stuff like that. Obviously, drinking and drugs contribute to the high rate of accidents. In my opinion, however, there are three things that the cops and government could do that would be infinitely more effective in improving safety than forcing bars to stop playing music at two and charging kids extortionary fines for small drug offenses. These are:
- Invest in street lights so that it’s harder to pull people into the bushes and rob and/or rape them, and so that motorbikes can see people before they hit them
- Ban renting motorbikes to tourists. It seemed like every other person walking around had road rash scars, so just imagine how many people were in the hospital not walking around
- Put a cap on the amount that clinics can charge for emergency medical services. The clinic on the beach was well known for inflating fees to ridiculous levels if they thought you were desperate enough to pay it.
But the authorities won’t do any of the above, because it’s easier and more lucrative to shut the whole thing down so that older tourists with families and money won’t be scared away from the resorts.
Aside from the the general pros and cons, the only real difference between the full moon party and any other night on Haad Rin is that there are about ten times more people. Travel agencies on neighbouring islands sell boat tickets to Koh Phagnan for the night. The huge crowds are actually incredibly annoying: getting anywhere close to any of the main bars is like shoving your way through a mosh pit. We eventually found a bar on the end of the beach that had booked a DJ playing music sufficiently underground and weird enough to keep the crowds away. We danced until daylight in a bucket-fuelled frenzy until we realized that we were the only ones left standing who weren’t on ecstasy, and that the sleeve tattoos we had painted on each other while pre-drinking looked a lot cooler at night. Standing in water that reflected a purple sunrise, an entire boatload of people bound for neighbouring Koh Samui waved good bye. It was pretty epic.
Overall, I give Koh Phagnan, oh, I don’t know, a four out of five, I guess. I had to take a few points off for getting burgled, sexually harassed, and almost run over. But I definitely get why people keep going back. Once you’ve been, every time you see a full moon, you think: Somewhere on an island in the south of Thailand, about 20,000 people are losing their shit.
And I’m missing it.