The tide lapped gently at the end of the beach, pushing trash around the fallen souls. Soaking their legs before receding, the waves took some empty bottles, plastic bags and cups back into the ocean. The figures barely twitched as the water returned, enveloping them and leaving fluorescent debris nestled around their limbs. Their scantily-clad bodies were mucked in sand and fading UV paint, their flesh pale and eyes closed. A feint movement in the chest was about the only sign of life.
The heavy bass thumped from further down the beach as throngs of people swarmed closer to the stage. Indistinguishable cheers and cries carried through the air as the black sky conceded a bluish hue on the horizon. Night was almost over. The Full Moon Party was about done, for this month at least.
Traipsing past the line of comatose strangers, we cast a final look back at the scene and walked under the banner at the entrance to Haad Rin Beach. The letters emblazoned in luminous paint had lost their appeal somewhat now that I had been inside. I read them once more as I walked out; welcome to the full moon party. I laughed to myself.
It was a certainly a night to remember but I can’t say I felt welcome.
South East Asia is the perfect starting ground for novice backpackers and its well-trodden path is seemingly incomplete without a stop at Haad Rin beach, Koh Phangan. This narrow strip of sand on the southern coast of Thailand’s party island is notorious the world over for its raucous parties. For the 20-something-year-old population with a backpack, basically everyone and their dog wants to go. Why? Because everyone else is going.
Does that mean you have to go? Is it worth it?
The origins of the full moon party are somewhat clouded but it’s generally accepted that it began in earnest in the early 1990s as a small group of spiritually-enlightened friends enjoyed some psy-trance music under the full moon with some marijuana. By the end of the decade, it had blossomed into a chain of parties along the beach, which eventually morphed into the hedonistic behemoth that it is today.
The chilled psychedelic vibe has been usurped by thumping electronic beats and the warm ambiance of the hippies is long gone. Now in its place is a wild and dangerous pit of debauchery and intoxicated violence.
Once a month, thousands of people flock to the island to partake in this rite of passage as the beach transforms into a huge outdoor super club, hosting up to 30,000 revelers. Drinking strong spirits from plastic buckets, consuming dodgy narcotics and writhing in the sand and lasers, the crowds go berserk til the break of dawn or until their body gives up on them.
For some, that’s a sad reality as drink spiking and alcohol poisoning are commonplace. Shady vendors and unscrupulous characters prey on the predominantly young western crowd. Many visitors find their nights cut short when the substance abuse takes its toll, either by their own hand or that of a mysterious stranger.
Others retreat to a quiet end of the beach to relax by the tide, often passing out and falling victim to muggers or rapists. Unsurprisingly, drownings happen more often than the Thai authorities would care to admit and the recent murders of several British tourists were glossed over by the powers-that-be. The show goes on.
Speaking of the authorities, the Thai police are on site but they can’t always be trusted to be fine, upstanding champions of the people. Corruption is rife and victims of crime don’t always get the help they need from the police. A French tourist was found hanged in a police cell in the aftermath of a full moon party in 2009 while other victims of rapes and muggings are often left to fight their own battles on the beach.
In 2012, a 22-year-old British tourist was gunned down in the middle of the party. An argument among locals produced guns. The assailant casually remarked that “the tourist got in the way”. Just a simple case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
So, is there a right time to be there?
My own experience of the full moon party dates back to New Year’s Eve 2011. Technically, the moon wasn’t full but that’s of little matter as the tourist industry there has found excuses to have parties regularly, independently of the moon’s shape or size. Half-moon parties in the jungle and black moon parties were regular dates on the party schedule until the government stamped them out in light of the growing chaos. All except the full moon party. Even the death of their beloved King couldn’t stop the monster on Haad Rin beach.
On New Years Eve 2011, I attended with my brother and some friends made on the banana pancake trail. We made many mistakes in our organisation that night. Perhaps we should have arrived at the beach sooner and sequestered some seats and tables in the corner of a good bar to call our base. Maybe we should have organised a system to employ when someone from our group went missing. Sneaking in some alcohol in plastic bottles would have been smart.
The theme of our night seemed to be trying to find people as we moved into the beach to find a lost soul, then would retreat to a sparse area in a lesser-crowded bar for an overpriced drink and a breather. Every time we found one person, another went missing. As time ticked on, we grew exhausted. It’s easy to see how narcotics are so prevalent here and no wonder it tempts many in their quest to see the sunrise.
Regardless, the truth was inescapable. This was not a chilled party. Nor was it an overly-friendly or welcoming one.
As with every celebration of New Years Eve, there is an added hype, particularly around midnight. As the clock ticked towards 12, the masses pushed and shoved relentlessly, all moving towards the centre of the beach. Everyone wanted prime position near the stage for the firework show. Many had lost a friend who they were trying to reunite with before the countdown.
People pushed and squashed each other, girls fell to the ground and were trampled over as people showed little respect or remorse in their efforts to battle through. A ten metre walk became a struggle. Those two full drinks you just bought at the bar? Forget about them, they’re gone.
You’ll need your hands to balance and push through people, especially when everyone starts bouncing to the music.
As the clock struck midnight, our dwindling numbers had fallen to just five as we lost the others in the mayhem. We escaped the sardine-can chaos and stood in the safety of a nearby shop to catch a breather.
Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise actually. At the 2016 New Years party, the firework show went awry, sending sparks into the crowd and burning many, causing mass panic and a stampede as people tried to escape. Meanwhile, opportunist locals attempted to pickpocket terrified tourists in the struggle to get free.
We had been on Koh Phangan for a few days prior to the party and visited Haad Rin the night before. The scene was a shadow of the full moon party, a fraction of the crowd had been there and our group of 14 had no issue sticking together. It had been a great night, though not without incident or drama.
Some local woman took exception to our joy and a disagreement quickly escalated to several slapped faces.
The shocked Brazilian guys we had just befriended were relaying their version of events when the woman reappeared. She had a bottle in her hand and fury in her eyes. Our group scattered and as she made for her previous victims, I circled behind her and snatched the bottle from her grasp. Immediately, she ran to the bar and grabbed a bigger bottle. Our group didn’t hang around for long after that.
Less than a half hour later, we were further down the beach getting some food. The crazy woman strolled up to me for a photo, blissfully unaware of the fact that she tried to savagely assault us just before.
The full moon party is home to many unprovoked attacks such as stabbings. I did see a significant number of people who clearly carried an aggressive attitude around with them. With every step and move they made, they looked ready to start. There was no loved-up vibe as they deliberately shoved others as they danced and stared evils in the face of anybody who dared to look their way.
Spirtually-enlightened people may have started this scene, but now it is dominated by danger and delinquents.
So why would anyone want to go there?
For most people there, it’s their first time. Considering the chaos, for many it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Indeed, another article I read dubbed the full moon party a disgrace and claimed it’s full of YOLO idiots. They’re not far wrong.
There is nothing special about the full moon party.
Any allure or aura it once had has long since perished. It has been destroyed with the constant barrage of trash and mayhem that descends upon the sand each month.
It is too profitable to be shut down. Although some local people detest it, there is little chance it will stop in the near future. What I wonder is, why would people choose to go to such a place when there are much better beach parties, bars and clubs?
Imagine this scene: You’re with some friends talking about where to go on a night out. One friend suggests a great club, renowned for good music, reasonable prices, good people and great times. The next friend then suggests a different club…
“It’s good but it gets very busy, like it’s hard to move and can take a while to get served at the bar. Sometimes people get their drinks spiked and there was a few rapes and stabbings recently. In fact, almost every night, you’re almost guaranteed to see fights and if you get into one the security won’t help. The police won’t do much either. You might get stabbed or shot. But the music is still kinda good. Also, you’re going to get covered in sand and you’ll probably lose your shoes.”
Would you really want to go to that club?
Essentially, that’s what the full moon party is now. It’s nothing special, just a over-hyped, over-crowded, under-policed cesspool of drugs and danger. Perhaps you will go and have a decent time. It’s not impossible. You might not get murdered, raped, mugged or stabbed. But if you do, you shouldn’t be that surprised.
The concept of a serene, secluded celebration on a private beach somewhere with just a few hundred people is great. The movie, The Beach, (based on the book by Alex Garland), captured such an idea perfectly. Sadly, there are few such places as untouched and undiscovered as the beach portrayed in these works of fiction.
The full moon party on Haad Rin beach is most definitely not one of them. If you want a rowdy, crowded super-club experience with no-holds barred, then go check it out. Just go with a plan of how to stick together and make sure everyone is looked after. If it’s a cool, unique type of beach party on some secret, lesser-known gem you are seeking, then stay well away. You might find that gem somewhere else. If you go to the full moon party with that expectation, you’ll be disappointed. It may be best just not to go and leave the experience to your imagination.