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.

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?