The (Full Moon) Party’s Over
Travel Stories: Peter Delevett visited Thailand's Koh Phangan with his girlfriend in 1994, discovering a boho backpacker Eden. He recently returned -- older, married and with a mortgage -- just in time for the island's signature bash.
01.16.08 | 11:12 AM ET
It’s six in the morning when our boat rolls into Koh Phangan, nestled off the eastern Thai coast. Bleary and semi-stoned from the second-hand dope smoke of the Greeks who shared our roosterboat, Kim and I take the first bungalow we stumble across, run by a pretty, tiger-eyed woman and her young son.
Had Rin, the island’s southern lip, bristles with these little palm-topped bungalows, with penny-cheap bamboo cafes, and there’s not a farang in sight over 30. Its bathtub-warm seas and beaches are so absurdly beautiful I keep looking for Mr. Roarke and Tattoo. It’s closer to Eden than anyplace I’ve ever been. I’d first come here two years ago, on a year-long backpacking trek, and now I’m back with my girlfriend at my side. I spread my arms wide in euphoria, high on being back and on sharing it with her.
Kim and I soak up breezes on the porch of our tiny thatch hut, take cold showers in the open air, and mosey around the collection of bars and eateries, “Bongo Bar” and “Paradise” and “The Pearl.” We try them all as the weeks go by. The Thais are gracious and beautiful, island people living island life, watching the farangs run in and out like the tide.
Mixed into the scene are a few farangs who’ve been here so long that they’ve gone native. We buy our daily banana milkshakes from a Brit with long wild dreadlocks, his hips wrapped in a sarong. In the evenings we watch the bootleg videos showing at practically every bar and bungalow, or sit on the beach at tables lit by tiny blue oil lamps. We lie back and look at the stars and forget where we came from. Then the next lazy day begins.
Days slip into weeks here on Koh Phangan, ground zero for grooviness. And for freedom. That’s what this place is all about, this lovely jungly playgarden. Uncut freedom, as intoxicating as any drug they can serve up in the cafes that advertise magic omelets, magic tea, space cookies. A colony of Gauguins, and I’m thinking hard of joining up, slinging banana milkshakes with a sarong around my hips.
Late one night we descend on Bongo Bar, the little open-air jukejoint washed with fluorescent paint that hums beneath the black light; and someone has painted an image of the Hindu god Ganesha, the elephant-headed deity of wisdom and prosperity. Dancing around him are the words, “WORLD TRIBE VIBE.” Illuminated by the buzz of whiskey and Singha, the words seem profound to me, an epitaph for this borderless backpack life.
Sitting there amid the homeless farangs and reefer junkies, Kim and I watch a guy in deadlocks and shades, a Buffalo Soldier, his jeans rolled up over muscled calves, his head propped on his fist as he soaks up reggae. Koh Phangan is a place to invent oneself, to create whatever world-traveler identity you please. Just yesterday we were chatting up a crazy dirty Dutchman who told us he’d been on the road nearly two years, and the road has only left him greedier for more travel. I’ve felt the same greed growing inside me; my journal is stuffed with names of places I’d never dreamed existed when we left the States just three months ago, and I’d have to spend years on the road to see them all. And at each stop, other backpackers would be there raving about the place they’d just come from.
“Think of all those poor bastards back working in the States,” I say. “I could do this forever.” Kim laughs, but I tell her I mean it.
She gives me a funny look. “We’ve gotta work, sweets,” she tells me solemnly. “Can’t chase the good times forever.” She’s fresh out of college, newly minted and shiny, and I’ve quit my job and we’ve stolen a precious summer to see what’s out there before heading home to the cold reality of student loans and rent and groceries.
I know she’s right, of course—my practical girlfriend, the brains of the operation. She’s already set her sights on getting an airline job when we get back, and she’s smart enough and disciplined enough to land it. If it weren’t for Kim I’d still be ass-deep in credit card bills.
But still, I shudder at the image of myself locked in an office, cooped up like a veal calf.
The next morning the air is chopped by the drone of roosterboat motors, waves of farangs arriving like an invasion force, hurrying for the monthly rave to end all raves that made this island famous: the Full Moon Party. Every boho across the backpack circuit has heard of it, a drug-dosed blowout to shame Caligula. The Thais seem to tolerate it in their lazy friendly way, and God knows they must profit by it; by noon there’s not a bungalow left anywhere, though many of the pagans just flop on the beach.
Things get going late, as the moon rises. It’s not so much a party as mass hysteria, lurching bungalow by bungalow into action and incredible noise. The beach is a mile-long scrum, a thousand of the most unbelievable freaks jamming shoulder to shoulder. The music sounds like an industrial accident set to a superfast beat, and the freaks all flail and howl like loons. There’s one long-haired kid in a wheelchair, his arms reaching for the moon and torso spasming like all the others’ above his useless legs. We prowl the beach for hours, taking it all in: watching a girl spastic and jerking like an electrified rag doll, watching a junky do the funky monkey.
Sunlight eventually creeps up, glimmering on the rocks way out to sea, and the colors are like nothing ever seen on this world. The sea runs with color like dye leaching from laundry, a thousand thousand thousand points of light. Overwhelming light silhouettes a girl knee-deep in the waves, flapping her arms like a swan or mermaid, and everyone is cheering the sun, and the music is still raging strong. “Unbelievable,” I mutter to myself over and over. “Unbelievable.”
I don’t know how long the insanity continues; exhaustion eventually wins out and we slosh back to the bungalow, where we can still hear the music’s synthesized trampoline bouncing half a mile away. All next day the roosterboats shuttle away hordes of raggedy lost boys. By evening, it’s quiet again.
A few days later, it’s our time to go; there’s a plane to catch in Bangkok, and the long trip home. If this is to be our last morning here, I want it to be perfect. We head over to the beach, float in the ocean, taking pleasure in the earliest tactile memory: warm water against naked skin. I think about water, about femininity, the yielding and nurturing nature of both, the terrible might of their storms.
Then too soon we’re standing with our packs and gear, stepping into the roosterboat that will take us back to the mainland ferry and reality. My heart sags, until I hear, ghosting at us somewhere from unseen speakers, the strains of Seal, whose music I’d first discovered here. “I will drown all your sorrows/In a future love paradise,” he promises. I breathe deeply, inhaling the salty smell of sea; I know someday we’ll be back again.