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.

had rin beach thailandPhotos by Peter Delevett.

Spring 2006

The ferry is plowing through foam-green waters, and the sun is setting behind the island off the starboard bow. And that island is Koh Phangan.

Kim snuggles against me like before, only now she wears my wedding band. Hard-core expats all around us, just back from Nepal or Goa, just off a ferry three days down the Yangtze, just off a bus overland from Afghanistan, trooping in from all corners for the full moon madness, on the move so long they can’t remember where they came from.

Not us, though. Far from the penniless kids we were a dozen years ago, we’re now Middle Management, Dutiful Taxpayers, and we’ve stolen not months this time but 10 short days to flashpack (or is it flashback?) across the Pacific. And now we’re back in this Neverland I’ve carried in my heart for years but had almost forgotten was real.

In the decade-plus since we left this place, I’ve stopped to look up at each month’s full moon and realized it’s the same one I saw over there, that life was still going on there on that holy island. I watched as Leo DiCaprio starred in a movie about it, listened to my bootleg tapes again and again until they snapped and melted. And here we are at last, stiff-legging across a wooden gangplank and blessedly back home.

Or…wait a minute. Is that an ATM? Christ, are those roads paved? I look up to see a giant billboard reading, “WELCOME TO FULL MOON PARTY,” with an image of bored-looking farangs beneath a badly superimposed moon.

“Um, this is different,” Kim deadpans, wrestling out of her pack. And this had been the quiet side of the beach, nothing but bungalows hidden among palms.

We haggle up a roosterboat, sharing it with half a dozen or so young Aussies, and as the boat pushes away from the ferry dock and rounds the point, I hold my breath. If the sunset-side beach is so built up, what’s happened to the rowdier sunrise side?

I give a hard look at the shore and breathe a sigh; a row of soft-lit bungalows just as I’d remembered, not a high-rise to mar the view. “Well, at least this hasn’t changed,” I murmur. And add silently to myself: Good for them.

Then we round another point and off to our left is freaking Disneyland, the beach radioactive with bulbs. “Uh, what’s that?” I stammer to the roosterboat driver, and he shrugs. “Had Rin. Sunrise Beach.” And, I ask stupidly, that beach we just passed? “Sunset Beach.” It sinks in slowly: That ferry dock was actually part of a whole new beach, a place that was nothing but jungle the last time we were here. Had Rin has crept up either side of the peninsula like urban sprawl. And things look as ugly as I’d feared.

It almost had to happen, of course. I’d been thrilled and horrified to open a newspaper a few years back to see a black-and-white beachful of freaks above the headline, “Full Moon Parties Draw Crowds to Thai Island.” Just like on DiCaprio’s fictional beach, the hidden paradise loses is luster with each new visitor, each person let in on the secret.

Still, I hadn’t quite expected this. The island had barely changed in the two years before my first solo trip and when I’d brought Kim in ‘94. But now, after the roosterboat rides up onto the sand, we lug our packs along asphalt streets that had been weedy trails the last time. Thais zip by on mopeds, honking and hooting, an unwelcome slice of Bangkok. I feel a growing sense of dread as we head toward the main beach and our bungalow; and when we reach the beach, I actually moan aloud, a wounded animal sound.

There’s a 7-Eleven on the beach.

On my beach!

The rows of canvas-roofed little bungalows I remembered have been replaced by ugly stucco monoliths. Bongo Bar is right where we left it, but it’s now “Bongo Resort,” a concrete-patioed scandal. “BIKINI CONTEST!” a Budweiser banner screams.

As I scan the beach, disbelieving, I can barely still make out the graceful curves of the cliffs beneath their cheesy prefab burdens, barely still see the faint outline of the lovely crescent cove that had charmed our hearts. It’s like seeing a friend’s daughter after many years, the beautiful innocence of her 12-year-old smile disappeared beneath lipstick and too much eyeshadow. What has happened to our girl?

Along the strand, buffed-up buzzcuts with puffed-up pecs toss Frisbees. Sorority-sister types drink light beer or Jack Daniel’s from festive multicolored cups, looking like woefully misplaced debutantes. “It’s gone Cancun,” says Kim.

A well-fed Thai kid lumbers by, his T-shirt bearing the message: “FULL MOON PARTY, PARADISE RESORT—WORLD CUP 2006.” And to our left, the final insult: a large signboard reminding us that today is Feb. 14. “Happy Full Moon Party and Valentine’s Day,” it proclaims bizarrely.

I need a drink. I need to run away. I need to get back on that ferry and forget we ever came here. Instead we check into our guesthouse—brand new, of course, the little place where we’d stayed last time now brushed away and sealed beneath a slab that bears a three-story tequila bar. Kim buys me a Singha and lends her sympathy.

“Hey, we’re here, aren’t we?” the practical one offers. “We’ve talked about it all these years, and now we’ve made it back. That’s a good thing.”

I’m inconsolable. “I know, but it’s…it’s not the same,” I finally say, with prize-winning understatement. “Nothing’s the same. The whole place has been…”

“Corporatized,” Kim quietly suggests, and I nod unhappily.

“It’s just this, right?” I say as I stare at the murky beer bubbles rising through the amber bottle. “When we were here before, this place was special. And so we were special. This was the Exotic Place. The mystery outpost. Now just anyone can come here. And they come because it’s just like any other place.”

We pay our tab and go to shower (“Hot showers,” I grumble disapprovingly), washing off the road grime. I mope away the hours, reading a little, napping a little. There’s an evening yoga class a few bungalows down and we check that out; and if Kim remembers that 12 years ago I would have sneered at the idea of doing anything as yuppified as yoga, she’s good enough to keep it to herself.

We hit the beach at moonrise, feeling we might as well do it, since we’ve come all this way. It’s an ugly scene. The Full Moon Party has become just another wet T-shirt contest, thick-bodied Europeans stumbling about with absent faces and little plastic buckets filled with vodka and Red Bull. The sands are wet with urine, and the whole place smells like puke.

The bars are all blaring MTV-ready rap or heavy metal. Clots of clods gather to leer at any girl unlucky enough to pass their way. This is no rucksack revolution, no communal vibe; it’s a bad Super Bowl tailgate party.

Then Kim spies a black light in a tucked-away corner, slips off for a moment and comes back with little fluorescent glow-bracelets she slips around my wrists. The kids selling the bracelets are the first people I’ve seen who look remotely like the tripster Thais we’d remembered, ineffably cool in hemp hats and braided necklaces. I smile gently at her, this woman who understands me so well, who knows how much this beach hurts me.

We move down the strand away from the ugly core and manage to find a quieter bungalow where a few dozen people dance and trip to old-school acid house. The guest house is terraced against the cliffs, and we climb the wedding-cake layers to find a tiny bar awash in DayGlo, something very close to the way things had been, and we feel the sea breezes and stare out along the beach. “Doesn’t look so bad from up here,” I murmur. 

Back where the hipsters dance and trip, we spread a sarong on the sand and lie together. The moon is at full-mast, bright as phosphorus, and I look at it and realize: That’s the full moon over Koh Phangan. She’s right: We’ve made it back. It doesn’t make things any less vulgar, but this blessed pocket of authenticity feeds my aching nostalgia fix. I’m here again. We’re here.

I scan the cliffs once more, and I can still make out those graceful crescent curves. Still there, that perfect arcing cove. The little girl has grown, and maybe something is lost there in the transition. But at her core, she is still beautiful, if you can look past the makeup; there may even still be something pure.

My thoughts drift as the hours pass, and I ponder just why I had needed to see this beach again. I put out of this place a dozen years ago with most everything I owned slung on my back. Putting out to sea like in a Jack London story, and now here I am again, come full-circle. It’s from some movie scene: Young Man exits stage right, the seasons blink by like shuffling cards. Cue camera: Young Man enters stage right, only this time older, balder, heavier, wrinklier. This beach has changed, but haven’t I?

If you had asked me on that day we first left Koh Phangan where I hoped to be 12 years in the future, I would have said working at a big newspaper, married to Kim and, probably, living in California. All those things have come to pass, and in the daily crush and drone of working life I try to stop and think on that blessing.

I also look back at my gut-felt fears of becoming a corporate stooge in a cube-shaped pen. I think about the many hours I spend working for other people, sweating bills and mortgages, and I wonder if the worst has come to pass. Yet I like to believe some spark still bursts through the conventional white-bread blandness. Kim and I live on the San Francisco Bay, and I steal time whenever I can to wander North Beach or the Haight, La Honda or Big Sur, sniffing for the road ghosts of Kerouac and Kesey. We can worship at Buddhist temples or Sikh gurdwaras, and on my desk at work sits a tiny crystal Ganesha, a present from my wife.

And because she did, in fact, fulfill her dream of working for an airline, we’ve gone to many more places in a few short years of marriage than I did on that first year-long, go-for-broke globetrot.

Those months sit beneath the surface of my skin like fine-etched wires. There is not a day that I don’t think back on living in a pack as a young man, that I don’t miss that wider, deeper connection to the world that I discovered in the backpacker towns of Asia. In many ways, it was the time I felt the most alive.

My wife and I talk of starting a family, and I ask myself about fatherhood and whether I am up to that game of roulette. Yet I have learned that, ultimately, love is stronger than fear.

And lying on that beach, amid the cursed, blessed Full Moon Party, I find myself picturing the face of my unconceived daughter, and I know that someday I will sing to her the words my father sang to me:

Oh Mr. Moon, Moon,
Bright and shiny moon,
Won’t you please shine down on me?



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.
      Tim

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

Peter,

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.

-J

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 http://www.zirana.com/saratoga/content/view/11071/188/

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.

Awful

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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