One thing that all travelers share is the quest for a better life. I have been fortunate enough to see a few of the world’s treasures. I’ve tasted cultures from all over the globe and have been blessed to have had them leave their marks on my heart. Personal enrichment can mean a lot of things, but it always amounts to learning something. Few things can be as rewarding in this manner as travel. I am always looking for a better sunset, more savory food or an improved perspective. One of the many things I am always on the look out for is a good party! To this end, I found myself one night in the bottom of a bus bound from Bangkok to the province of Surat Thani, a gateway port to the islands of the Gulf of Thailand.
Thai buses are generally quite nice. In fact, only in Turkey have I encountered finer bus service outside of an actual tour company. However, heading off at the last minute to the island of Ko Phangan the night before the famous Full Moon Party means you have to make allowances if you are going to go at all. This particular bus heavily restricted baggage and converted part of the baggage hold to extra seating for about six people. I was one of eight down there that evening. Windowless, no AC and cramped, the experience was less than desirable, but not without its silver lining. In this metal box upholstered in purple, faux-velvet, complete with dingle-balls, were six Israeli students having great fun. They eventually somehow managed to all pass out despite the sauna-like heat. Sitting upright, fast asleep with his arms wrapped around a massive trash bag, was the only other occupant. Somewhere around three in the morning, he woke up and we started to talk.
A fellow traveler, Marek was a Slovakian educated in Britain. Having spent almost a year on Ko Phangan selling t-shirts by the Sunrise Beach in Haadrin, he had grown hungry for conversation about politics and history in a language he spoke well (while he spoke several, English was his second-most fluent). We hit it off immediately and over the next five days we hung out a lot and he helped me more than once, starting with the nearly impossible task of finding me a place to stay in the town of Haadrin on the night of the Full Moon Party. Where I stayed was way up on the hill just south of Haadrin with an amazing view, but away from the action. The town is located on a narrow peninsula with a beach situated to watch sunrises on one side and, a short walk away, a beach to watch sunsets. The Full Moon Party is mostly on the Sunrise beach; I suspect because the hours of the party make dawn a bigger deal than dusk. I think it’s the prettier side also. Marek went right to work. The huge, black garbage bag he’d been clutching all the way across bus, ferry and taxi from Bangkok turned out to be stock. His t-shirt shop was close enough to the action that I could retire up there from time to time. He stayed open pretty late selling shirts to tourists. I hit the party; it is a party and I should capitalize that as there are lots of young people having a good time. At one point there was even a bunch of nudity which was surprising because, as a general rule, Southeast Asians are modest and feel it’s better to cover up. However, at the Full Moon Party that night, there were no boundaries. It was almost like a full rave, except no drugs. I guess there are drugs around, but the most important piece of advice about the Full Moon Party is to stay as far away from the drugs as you can. I don’t say this because drugs are bad for you, nor because it would be easy for somebody to slip you a mickey. I say it because the Thai Police force is incredibly strict on drug enforcement. For a country that is incredibly lax in the enforcement of some laws, Thai police will throw you into a jail that would make the worst jail in the United States or Britain look like a nice, relaxing resort. I heard you can bribe your way out, but the price could be thousands of dollars.
It can seem a little incongruous, but interestingly enough, a number of the natives of Ko Phangan have adopted reggae and Rastafarian-ism. Thais in Bangkok can be very fair skinned because many of them are ethnically Chinese. However, out in the islands and other more rural parts of Thailand, they are actually fairly dark. Somehow, these Thai Rastas manage to get their hair to dread, to the point that if you are waking up on a beach, looking through bleary, partially hungover eyes, you might for a second think you are in Jamaica… or at least, I did, for just a second. So, a westerner seeing the Rastas might think that Thai police are as lax as Jamaican Police when it comes to drug enforcement, even if only for the ganja. Nothing could be further from the truth. At one point, I stumbled down to the opposite end of the beach and saw at least eight backpackers getting packed into a van by the local cops. It’s very possible that even though it was a couple of years ago now when I was there, that they are still in jail in Thailand somewhere. So, yeah, great party, FANTASTIC time, but I stuck to the Singha beer and maybe just a couple of shots of Thai Rum. Remember, even if you are in a country where the water isn’t safe, the beer always is. Bacteria cannot survive the beer-making process as far as I know. It’s also hard for anybody to slip anything that might make you wake up sans wallet somewhere into a can or bottle of beer that you open yourself. You’ve got to be smart. That’s not a statement on Ko Phangan of course. The entire population of the island isn’t that big, but anywhere there are tourists there will be criminals that prey on them. Overall, I felt remarkably safe on Ko Phangan. As Marek and I scootered around the Island in the days to come, I never felt remotely in danger, save for perhaps being creamed by a truck coming around a bend on that hilly, little island.
I’ll get to that in a minute, but I have to reinforce what an awesome party the Full Moon party is when it waxes bright. The music bumps all night long and continues for a couple of days. In fact, if you are a light sleeper you might want to think about staying out of town. The music booms for long hours, so if you sleep like the dead or don’t plan on sleeping much, by all means stay right in Haadrin.
After that first night, I kind of took it easy and Ko Phangan is a great place for that too. It’s a beautiful island and not built up like nearby Ko Samui. Marek got us deals on the scooters from a friend of his, a guy that wouldn’t charge us for the full cost of the bike if we got a scratch on it. One night, we went up to his girlfriend’s grandparent’s house up on the north side of the island. We could see fishing boats, bristling with lights to attract fish, looking like stars that had fallen into the sea. Her family treated me with great hospitality and, before dinner, I was invited to partake in the family delicacy of papaya salad. A lot of Thais love papaya salad and they spice it so heavily that even they can barely stand it. They put it into their mouths with ecstatic delight defying the imagination, so I eagerly tried some. Now, I love hot food, I can eat things that will make most American’s eyes water, but man, I could not handle that papaya salad. It was the spiciest thing I ever put into my mouth. There are probably Thai children that can eat hotter stuff than I can.
Another night, we went to a small time Muay Thai match; a smaller, low rent version of the fanfare that goes on in Bangkok. Still though, the fighters were skilled and the matches were good. For a small island, Ko Phangan has a lot going on. The only sad point is I lost my friend’s e-mail address and have lost touch with him too. Wherever you are, my friend, I liked Henri Charrière’s books just as much as you said I would. Thanks for everything.