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

Koh_PhanganPhoto by Peter Delevett.

Summer 1994

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.

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Peter Delevett is an editor and occasional travel writer at the San Jose Mercury News. His writing has appeared in the Miami Herald, New Orleans Times Picayune and the Honolulu Advertiser, and he has won awards from the North American Society of Travel Journalists and the Society of Professional Journalists.

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31 Comments for The (Full Moon) Party’s Over

Terry Ward 01.16.08 | 12:48 PM ET

I really enjoyed this story, Peter.

Mike 01.16.08 | 3:41 PM ET

A fantastic tale, Peter.  Thanks for sharing!

Tim Patterson 01.16.08 | 4:15 PM ET

Excellent - really heart-felt and well-written.  You made me see and feel Koh Phangnan. 

If you want an undeveloped island in the Gulf of Thailand, go to Cambodia.  Koh Rong island has a 5 mile white sand beach with nothing on it, not even a bungalow.  I crashed in a fisherman’s house.

Peter Daams 01.16.08 | 6:45 PM ET

Returning to the same location seldom lives up to the memories. The trick is to constantly uncover new gems that awaken that same sense of excitement.

Enjoyed reading about your experience!

adam 01.16.08 | 8:18 PM ET

What a beautiful story Peter, thanks for that.

Don’t know if I could ever go back to Ko Phan Gan. It was like Neverland, and I would never want to spoil that image. Every time I’ve gone back to a place that I enjoyed during my youthful backpacker days, its sullied the memory.

I think the key is that wherever place you end up stationing yourself- taking that 9 to 5, buying that house, being with that same girl- make sure it’s not going to bore you. That’s the way that I’ve been able to settle down. Because even though I may be growing old, at least I’m doing it in San Francisco.

cuinn sealy 01.17.08 | 11:58 AM ET

awesome and moving story i truly enjoyed it, made me feel that i was on the trip with you.i have had my share of adventures and you have hit so many heart felt high lights and disappointments but at time it is really about the journey and not the destination keep finding the places that make you feel alive and push your heart and mind always keeping in mind you only have one life…...

thank you for the adventure

P.S with knowlegde and insight like yours you will make a great dad

Jan 01.17.08 | 6:13 PM ET

My Google alertfor “Full Moon” led me to your article and I found that you had put into words what I have discovered in so many of the wild places my husband and I have enjoyed in our travels. Thomas Wolfe was right “You Can’t Go Home Again”. A lesson we only really learn as we get older. Home is an idealized place in the heart, while the real thing goes on without you and morphs into something completely different. Thanks for a great article, Peter. It really struck a chord with me.

Peter Delevett M.D. 01.18.08 | 2:02 AM ET

Thank you Pete for such a wondrful glimpse into your wonderful heart.  I am surely greatful that you took my advice to see the world when you fist finished college and you bought your “cheapie” RTW air ticket.  It was tough not seeing you for over a year and not knowing where you were or whether you were safe. And I remember Mom thinking that she would never see you alive gain.  But we sure are glad that we gave you the wings to fly nd that you had the good sense to marry or precious Kim. We wish that CA wasn’t so far away.
Your loving father.

Ben 01.18.08 | 3:53 PM ET

Peter, some of what you observed upon returning to Koh Phangan in 2006 sounded distressingly similar to what I saw at Kho Phi Phi in January 2007. Only besides “bars blaring MTV-ready rap or heavy metal” and “clots of clods” leering at passing women on the beaches, I also found myself fishing cellophane wrappers and other garbage from Ao Maya’s crystal clear water as I snorkeled above schools of parrotfish snacking on coral reef. Not the hidden paradise I was hoping for either…

John M. Edwards 01.18.08 | 8:17 PM ET

Hey, Pete, I’m with you. I think the Gulf of Thailand islands are way too tripped out and commercialized now. Unfortunately, while I was there I was too naive to realize that “special” jungle curries might contain mind-altering ingredients, and to this day I still don’t know what “Speed Punch” is. I’m afraid that dancing around with lunatic freaks and dirty hippies at Full Moon Parties gets old quickly. I’d rather enjoy the beach and witness real phenomena like glow-in-the-dark plankton drifting ashore, than go beserk from some dolebludger, bopping his head to “House” music (whatever that is), dosing my overpriced Singha. Anyway, thanks for the “trip” down memory lane. In semi-communal Ko Phangnan, I fear that religion isn’t the opium of the people, real opium is. . . .

Jessica 01.19.08 | 10:01 AM ET

What an eye opener! We were going to Koh Phangan this year, but I just changed my mind. Anyone have any recommendations of beautiful, unspoiled beaches in this ever-changing world we live in?

Michael J. Maloney 01.19.08 | 3:24 PM ET

Pete—Excellent writing! I could picture all of the locations clearly. It’s a shame how they destroyed the natural purity. You’d think they were Americans thee way they destroy nature.

Max 01.19.08 | 11:01 PM ET

I still can’t believe there’s a 7-11 at Haad Rin Beach!  For years I have been holding on to Ko Phangan as my favourite place on earth, I even dream of going back.  But times have changed and I have too…  Maybe I’ll let it go.

richard Hanna 01.21.08 | 10:22 AM ET

Pete- A very accurate portrayal of what has happenened in Koh Pha Ngan. There are a number of redeming features in the islands still however
1. Koh Pha Ngan is infinitely better during the 3 weeks the full moon is not happening.
2. Small bungalows with no hot water only basics right on the beach are still available just not on sunrise, look around.
3. Don’t stay in Had Rin, to many people, its a huge island, there are still many beautiful beaches with very few people staying on them.

The list can go on. Thailand is magical and can still be enjoyed away from all the beer swilling hordes even in Koh Pha Ngan.

richard Hanna 01.21.08 | 10:22 AM ET

Pete- A very accurate portrayal of what has happenened in Koh Pha Ngan. There are a number of redeming features in the islands still however
1. Koh Pha Ngan is infinitely better during the 3 weeks the full moon is not happening.
2. Small bungalows with no hot water only basics right on the beach are still available just not on sunrise, look around.
3. Don’t stay in Had Rin, to many people, its a huge island, there are still many beautiful beaches with very few people staying on them.

The list can go on. Thailand is magical and can still be enjoyed away from all the beer swilling hordes even in Koh Pha Ngan.

Vindhya 01.23.08 | 4:05 AM ET

This is a beautiful, heart warming and aspirational story Peter. I can understand your feelings on going back to Koh Phangan and being disappointed that “the little girl” has grown up. I am from Sri Lanka, also known for its beautiful beach towns and i realize the same thing when I go back from time to time. Everything is that much more commercialised the next time you go back. A big sacrifice to make for a few hundred dollars more. The sad reality is that these places need the money to keep going and that means constructing newer, uglier bungalows/guest houses in most cases, with the hope of attracting more and more tourists. I can totally understand how you must have felt going back after 12 years.
I too am very fond of Thailand and was there 2 years ago on a little island called Koh Samet. I have lots of happy memories from there :)
Thank you for this article and I wish you and your family many more beautiful full moons to come..

Tim 01.26.08 | 3:35 PM ET

Great story,I was at the full moon parties in 1992&‘93.Over the years,I have read stories about how Had Rin beach had changed.I was in Koh Samui in 1986,and went back in ‘89.I could not believe how much it had changed in 3 years.So I could only imagine Had Rin.I spent alot of the 80’s & early 90’s trippin’around SE Asia with a back pack.Greatest times of my life! I guess change is inevitable,but no matter how prepared you are for it in your head,it is still hard to actually see it live.

Rod Diridon, Jr. 01.29.08 | 3:55 AM ET

Peter, great piece.  Makes me want to master time, space and reality and join you in 1994!  You should writea book.  If you do, put me on your mailing list.  Thanks!

J 01.29.08 | 8:33 PM ET


Having visited KP in 2002 and again last year, I agree with you that the change has been marked, even though my initial visit was after the 7-11 was installed. I’m sorry I never saw the island before that as your description sounds divine.


Mark Ossendryver 01.31.08 | 3:13 AM ET

Really great story. My wife Amanda and I went for a holiday to Kho Phi Phi and fell in love with the country, it’s people and cultures, not to mention the food and relatively cheap lifestyle.
One night during our third and final week on the island we were lying on the beach under the stars, listening to reggae music and sipping on some alcoholic cocktail when I asked my wife one question. “How much do you think it would cost to live on the island for a month” The conversation continued for quite a while, we discussed the positives (sun, no work, warm clear sea etc) and negatives (no money, no work, giving up good jobs in the uk, renting out our house to strangers) then decided there and then that we would return to live on the island for six months.

As they say, the rest is history. We did return to live on the island, then after six months had made very good friends and extended our stay another 6 months. By the end of the first year, we were living with the locals and part of the island. We decided to have a baby, which we did, and eventually moved to the main land to Ao Nang in Krabi provence and designed and built our own restaurant. With a 6 week old baby, a new restaurant only open for 7 weeks, a house with a two year paid up lease, a 4x4 and all our other personal belongings around us, we sat down as a family to celebrate our first Christmas as a family. The next morning the Tsunami came ripping into our lives and change out plans. All three of us survived and now live in Cape Town in South Africa.
There is not a day that goes by that I do not think of friends we made and lost over there and every night I dream of the land that I had began to call home.

Acid Bob 02.06.08 | 9:23 AM ET

Yo Pete, you wanna stop moaning about the good ole days and sort your bleeding life out. Honestly, blokes like you make me want to puke my guts all over the bloody shop. The kids wanna have a little fun, right? Wet T-shirts are fine on a riper chick. Could it be that you are bored with that aging bird of yours? Them thai chicks are cheap as hell and they never say no. You wanna check out the mushies too!
bahhh, you need a bloody good shag, bro.

John 02.20.08 | 9:29 PM ET

California celebrates the Chinese Moon Festival, which is a major event in San Francisco Bay Area. I found an interesting article on this at

Gaza west 03.15.08 | 7:08 PM ET

Nice story and writing Peter…going there in july with friends..wish i had been aware in 1994..

Nick P 04.02.08 | 4:17 AM ET

wake up mate…..things change and move on. I’ve been going to Koh Phangan for over 20 years now, each time is better than the last. Granted I don’t stay in Haad Rin but I occasionally nip down to get some cash, chocolate and smile at the muppets. My little slice of paradise is still there, and no I’m not gonna share where it is. YOU need to get your 1994 head back on and go find it for yourself and stop bleedin moaning!

Jim Bisnett 05.19.08 | 2:07 PM ET

Wonderful story Peter.  You really should writea book :-)

raul pereira 05.27.08 | 6:25 PM ET

need input about the fullmoonparty would b of great help if any 1 could sort me out with this. ?like when were what kind of sound (music) r D avilable hopeing 4 a great trip all it takes thanks a lot chow

lori gilliar 06.19.08 | 3:46 PM ET

when i moved west from nyc after 911, i didn’t make my first real trip back until ‘06. it was to introduce my new husband to my home. just before i was to depart i called my sister who had moved away many years earlier. she said to travel safe and then, with the wisdom imparted in few words, said “don’t go back somewhere looking for what used to be because you won’t find it. just appreciate what is”. for the record, my sister is not known for her sage wisdom. it made her words all the more resonant.

showers 07.22.08 | 7:37 AM ET

It’s a bit sad to watch all the construction going on on koh phangan now. It will look like koh samui within a few years :(

Michael Harper 09.23.08 | 12:21 PM ET

That was terrible

I don’t believe this guy is a professional writer. Man up.

michael harper 09.25.08 | 7:30 AM ET

The song lyrics as well, I can’t believe I let that slip last time.


Rebecca 10.30.08 | 11:37 PM ET

Though it was my first visit to Thailand(and Koh Phangan)I wasnt really impressed with that island. Reading this article made me wish I had seen Haad Rin in its earlier days
Yes the beaches are beautiful, the parties are fun. But its so westernized there that it didnt seem as special as I had hoped. Especially the days after the full moon party where trash was EVERYWHERE. I didn’t even want to go in the water after that. The other side of Koh Phangan is another story-amazingly gorgeous.I’m happy for my experience there, but on my next trip to Thailand I think I’ll be checking some of the other islands out!!!

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