It’s around 02:00 at Greenpeace Restaurant in the heart of Ko Pha Ngan’s Full Moon Party and Nat is up at the counter trying to pay the bill for our table. “What did you have? We have no idea what you had,” says one of the Burmese staff “Just pay me whatever you think is right.” He’s distracted, busy trying to deal with a Western guy who is covered in his own faeces, so Nat passes him a few hundred and we move on.
Much has been written – both good and bad – about Thailand’s Full Moon Party and, after experiencing the August 2014 party, we’d say it is just about all true. The party is a breathtaking amalgam of excess, swinging from hedonistic to horrible between steps, yet with a dreamlike and other-worldly misting thrown over it. It’s a remarkable testament to both human physical endurance – particularly of the eardrums – and abject greed and stupidity.
The Full Moon Party on Ko Pha Ngan happens ostensibly on the night of each full moon (though it is sometimes shifted a day to accommodate other Thai cultural sensibilities) and takes place on Haad Rin beach – a stunning dust-like white-sand beach towards the southern tip of the island. The party originated back in the 1980s but by the time I first tried one in 1993 it had already strayed far from its purported origins – my most memorable event was seeing a fellow traveller shot in the back with a firework.
Fast forward 21 years and while the party hasn’t aged well it still draws tens of thousands of people and plays a pivotal role in the economy of the island. So what’s a party like? With a handful of travelling companions we tried the Super Moon FMP.
A dusk Haad Rin arrival saw roads already full of mostly young backpackers – foreign and Thais – cruising the streets in their dayglo FMP T-shirts. Groups of friends, often decked out in matching dayglo, wandered the streets snacking and drinking. The preferred poison was buckets: a small plastic bucket filled with a half bottle of liquor (vodka, gin and Thai whisky are popular) then topped with a bottle or two of RedBull, ice and a mixer of your choice. The logic is the liquor gets you smashed while the RedBull keeps you going.
Down on the beach the Super Moon was rising as the sun fell away behind. Drifting onto a soft blue canvas scattered with clouds and with a warm sea breeze in the air it was easy to imagine the way back when appeal of the early parties.
We had friends to pick up so jumped in a longtail and headed over to Haad Yuan, a beautiful beach some 15 minutes north of Haad Rin. The beach lacks the hordes and boasts a comforting relaxed vibe. Friends collected, we climbed over the headland and set up camp at Sanctuary – a hip yet laidback resort with excellent food and drinks where we sat around for a while.
By the time we grabbed a longtail to get back to Haad Rin it was 23:00; as the roar of Mos’ longtail drowned out the chilled tunes of Sanctuary, we rounded the Haad Yuan headland and had the Haad Rin lightshow laid out before us.
Oh my god.
The entire beach from Paradise in the south to Mushroom Mountain in the north was illuminated. Explosions of fire bellowed out above the crowds and strobes and spotlights rippled out from the stages slicing the night sky, bass reverberating across the ocean to greet us. Our transition from chilled bamboo lounge under a tree to an electronic End Of Days was as jarring as it was exhilarating.
It wasn’t till our anchor was thrown and we leapt out into the shallows that the scene was really laid out, with thousands of people walking back and forth along a deafening and confusing stage. The water’s edge and the back of the beach were the two main throughfares and along these many already debilitatingly drunk partygoers wandered back and fourth.
We joined the throng and worked towards the Paradise end of the beach. A blended mix of dancers and drunks cavorted about us while the water, already littered with beer bottles, washed around our feet. Elevated platforms showcased fluorescent dancers while red, green, blue and searingly white staccato strobes both illuminated and confused us. The noise was indescribable.
Still before midnight, the crowd was jovial and the overall vibe was friendly and fun. One of our party went to try the nitrous oxide (laughing gas) thinking it was helium and when she went to speak expecting a high pitched helium voice, it felt like half the beach cracked up laughing when she realised she’d tried the wrong gas.
While plenty were dancing the night away, in between the two thoroughfares small clusters were sitting down, smoking weed, chatting and relaxing as the circus went on around them. We sat down and what a circus it was. In a spectacle the surreal Lewis Carroll would appreciate, gorgeously fluorescent frangipani Alice bands were everywhere. Elaborate body paintings – from psychedelic with Akha hats to skeletons with loincloths wandered by. I saw elephants, zebras, gorillas and tigers with in-character facial paint – the gorilla even had some kind of long-haired body suit to match. Guy Fawkes masks, a decidedly odd purple-nailed man with a banjo, two women dipped in fairy dust and glitter with hair dyed white with flecks of bright red and purple. A woman in a soaking wet velvet suit jumped a guy sitting behind us. Another sat by herself wailing. Buckets and the bizarre were everywhere.
At around 01:00 there was a shift in the crowd and the vibe. The party suddenly became much more male and considerably more ugly and aggressive. Incapacitated people were dragged out of the shallows by panicked passersby and an increasing number of people seemed to just not be in a comfortable place anymore. Around an hour later the rest of our party decided they’d had enough. Some caught a speedboat back to Ko Samui and others a songthaew (share taxi) to elsewhere on the island.
I pressed on and wandered all the way down to Paradise. It was here between 02:00 and 03:00 that I found the party at its most surreal: muscle-men and muscle-women doing chin-ups on a flame topped beach jungle bar; the infamous fire rope – a long skipping rope set alight for people to jump, often getting badly burnt in the process. Hours later, in my ride back home, another passenger showed me his bandaged face, arms and legs after he got "roped".
Beyond the fire show, the dancing and the crowds were at the most intense. In trying to get some closer photos of a stage I got corralled into a heaving mass of a couple of dozen bare-chested guys who were stamping their way into a new dawn. The raw energy was palpable but the guys were clearly in another place and it quickly became uncomfortable. I escaped and chatted to a couple of Belgian women standing on the periphery of the same copse of dancing. They were both very high and one sported a swollen black eye she scored earlier in the melee I just escaped. She laughed it off and said she was having the time of her life.
I wandered back past the sleep zone and medical tent towards Mushroom Mountain. The walk played out the shift in the party. The water’s edge was lined with men and women peeing into it and I saw people obviously freaking out with friends trying to calm them down. A man lay in the sand trying to make himself vomit. Another very distressed guy ranted in the medical centre while a Thai woman tried to give him a bottle of water. People passed out while others just slept. A man wearing nothing but white underwear stood at the water’s edge screaming incoherently while his friends stood at a comfortable distance taking his photo. A lot of drunk, really drunk people staggered past looking for trouble. It felt ugly but that said, from dusk to dawn, I didn’t see a single fight.
I made a beeline for the Mountain. Known for its magic mushroom shakes – with the artwork to match – Mushroom Mountain has a bar and dance floor elevated over the rocks at the northern end of Haad Rin. It offers a great vantage point to take in the scene from a more comfortable distance. I took up with a trio of British travellers and we compared notes.
As we chatted we watched a couple dancing about 30 metres apart on the beach below us. He was wearing fisherman’s pants and she not much more than a sarong, but they could both really dance, were in their own world and were flirtatious as hell. Our conversation faded away and the moon sunk towards the trees. Then, as subtly as a sledgehammer, a bunch of guys marched up and in unison dropped their pants in front of the woman. The dancers drifted up the beach a bit and the flashers moved on, but the moment has been shattered.
It’s here for me that the Full Moon Party is best summed up: beautiful one moment, ugly the next – and way too many stupid people.
By 04:00 I was really starting to wane so I walked up to Chicken Corner – the heart of Haad Rin town – and sat at a table overlooking the main walkway to the beach. It was ugly hour now and the monsters were out. Drunk people stumbled their way up from the beach, some so smashed they couldn’t walk and were dragged up by their companions. There were some sketchy scenes of seemingly sober guys helping hammered solo women – knights or not, it was difficult to know.
It was nearing 05:00 by the time I got back to the beach and the crowd had thinned. I’d have guessed at the peak the crowd was perhaps 15,000 strong, but now it was maybe a third of that. The organisers had set up a "safe sleeping area" where people could grab a snooze without fear of being pickpocketed and the medical tent provided care to distressed people; both were at capacity.
Squads started picking up the trash left behind, working their way around collapsed partiers. It was impressive how quickly the beach improved (save the bodies, of course). Off the beach though it remained a pigsty. As light broke I took one last stroll up to the crazy end of the beach. Paradise was still going strong, but the fire swing was gone and more people were sitting than dancing. The beach was still lined with people peeing in it.
As the sun rose, the edge was gone, the fluoro deadened and the lightshow faded. Longtails beckoned for cargo, calling partygoers heading back to the northern beaches. I spied Mos, the boatman who brought us over from Haad Thian. We swapped pleasantries then he was off with another load. It seemed like the right moment for me to leave too.
Buckets for beginners
Buckets are very easy to drink and sneak up on you. Like martinis, anything more than two is pushing the friendship.
Full Moon Parties are best with friends
Go with a group of people you know if you can. Organise a place to meet up if you get lost.
Drugs are not legal
There are plenty of drugs on hand. They are not legal. Laws of entrapment you may be familiar with in your home country may not hold in Thailand. Do not arrive by boat carrying drugs of any kind.
Stay in control
How does one stay in control at an out of control party? It’s a personal call. Solo travellers should be wary of "new friends". Likewise if you pass out on the beach don’t be surprised if your wallet is gone in the morning. Drink lots of water. Listen to your Mum.
Use public transport
There are songthaews and boats to and from the party at all hours. Use them. Do not ride or drive yourself.
If you or someone you are with is in need of assistance, get to the medical tent and or the safe sleep area near Tommy Resort (about half way down the beach). People will be able to help you there.
Only take what you need
Don’t take anything you can’t afford to lose.
The Full Moon Party can be a fun event but if it isn’t what you imagined, or if it suddenly feels uncomfortable, leave. The northern end of the beach (between Tommy’s and Mushroom Mountain) is the quieter area.
Sorry about the pic quality - I only had by iPhone!
By Stuart McDonald
Last updated on 27th October, 2016.