Full Moon Fever

Hilary Cadigan gets her party mojo going with a visit to the iconic Koh Phangan Full Moon Party.

By | Mon 28 Jan 2013

“Everyone claims they did the first Full Moon Party,” Colin, a Scottish expat who has lived in Thailand for 25 years, told me. “But the real one happened in October of 1988, and I was there.”

Is this a fact? Hard to say. Other individuals I spoke with begged to differ. The Paradise Bungalows of Haad Rin Beach in Koh Phangan claim on their website to have thrown the first ever Full Moon Party in 1983, but some insisted that Paradise didn’t even open until the early 1990s. Regardless of where or when it happened, however, the story describing the inaugural event remains tellingly similar: a few farang dancing on a beach illuminated by nothing but a bonfire and a full moon.

“To be honest, we were all too high off our heads to remember exactly when or where or what we were doing,” said our own magazine’s editor, who went to her first FMP in 1991, “but that doesn’t stop anyone from swearing by their own blurred recollections.”

The Good Old Days

By all accounts, the mid-to-late 1980s were heady times in Thailand, which had recently become the newest hotspot for aging hippies and young voyagers travelling from Europe and North America, often by way of India. Hopping from Goa to the Thai islands was becoming an increasingly popular extension to the well-worn Hippie Trail of the 1960s and 70s.

At the time, there was no cabled electricity on the islands, but there was a native population with a strong and decidedly different culture. According to another expat who lived on the island for over 20 years, the Koh Phangan Thais were “hard-working, family and community oriented” people. They had little idea of the international party hub their tropical homeland would soon become, filled with foreign travellers drawn by what some say is the world’s most beautiful view of the moon.

“Before electricity came to the islands in about March of 1989, there were these packs of dogs that would roam the beaches and attack farang at night,” Colin recalled. “So a full moon made a big difference.  Under a full moon, the whole place went from pitch black to neon blue and shimmering.”

When electricity did arrive, ecstasy and techno music came with it.

“Things changed very quickly,” Colin said, “but I thought it was great. I’d had it with sitting stoned around a bonfire talking about Shiva. Those old heads, they couldn’t be pure enough, vegan enough, cheap enough. They were just farang hippies and backpackers, some guy who spent three years in India and came back thinking he was a guru.”

For these types, clinging to the dregs of hippie culture and fleeing the harsh realities of a Western world that had officially moved on, the islands of Phangan and Samui were an untouched paradise where they could continue to live out their hippie fantasies. As such, the eventual arrival of electricity brought with it a kind of funereal sense of doom for the aging heads, symbolising the end of an era they thought they could cling to by relocating to remote corners of the world.

Times, They Are A-Changin’

“It’s ironic,” said Colin. “The full moon parties started because of the lack of electricity. Now it’s all about electronic everything.”

Indeed, were alien life forms to beam down onto the sands of Haad Rin today, bearing witness to the primacy of flashing lights and bass-blasting music our generation rather unimaginatively calls EDM (Electronic Dance Music), they may mistake the Full Moon Party for a festival celebrating the invention of electricity itself.

In many ways, the party’s transformation from early days to present can be viewed as a microcosm for the way culture changes and metastasises over time. It’s also an example of how beautiful places get used and abused once too many people find out about them, as well as a pretty good reflection of how youthful party culture has developed of late.

There has been, as there always is, cultural change afoot. It is Western-derived, as cultural trends tend to be in this plugged-in world, shrunken by social media and globalisation, but virtually inescapable. There is a resurgence of rave culture, but this time, unlike the early 1990s when ecstasy was born, it is different. The drugs are basically the same, but the culture has become monetised and commercialised and totally mainstream. It didn’t start out that way, but that’s how it is now.  As an American DJ I met on Koh Phangan named Randy Seidman put it, “Rave culture is back and now it’s sponsored by Coca-Cola.”

Seidman, also the tour manager of electronic music veterans Infected Mushroom, was invited to DJ at a Full Moon warm-up called Jungle Experience, one of the many separately-run offshoots of the Full Moon fever that has taken over Koh Phangan.

“The Jungle Experience was one the best shows I’ve ever been a part of, and I’ve done Burning Man, Ibiza, South America, Europe, Korea, all over Mexico, the USA and Canada,” he said. “There were 4,000 people going mental in the Ban Tai jungle. The vibe was like nothing I’ve experienced – killer lights, amazing sound, and people having the time of their lives.”

The Jungle Experience, while not free from drunkenness or public fornication (as I unfortunately witnessed firsthand), is much smaller and more intimate than the full-blown FMP. While it doesn’t resemble the earliest parties of Koh Phangan, it does harken back to the early days of rave’s post-millennial resurgence, the short time period a few years ago before every major department store had a section stocked with glowsticks and day-glo t-shirts.

“Musically, the Jungle Experience has a more ‘underground’ flavour than the commercial sounds of the Full Moon beach party,” added Seidman. “And culturally, the people who organise and DJ for the Jungle Experience are like a big family. One thing the two parties do have in common – buckets!”

Buckets, Indeed

My first Full Moon Party was technically the last official one of 2012. I figured, since I’m living in Thailand and all, I might as well go and see what all the fuss is about. So I tried to do it up exactly as it’s apparently supposed to be done these days: douse self in body paint, drink rum buckets heavily, and dance until dawn with about 50,000 other neon-clad souls whacked out of their minds on any number of substances on an electrified beach strewn with coloured LED lights, pulsing house music and brazenly-sold balloons of laughing gas.

In many ways, it wasn’t anything special. I’ve had nights like this before, in America and in Thailand. And frankly, while I did have a good time, it was definitely one of those situations where one must force oneself into a state of inebriation in order to silence one’s critical inner voice. I’m talking about the voice that would’ve said things like, “Wow, this beautiful beach is really polluted” and “This song again?” and “Oh, that guy is pooping into the ocean right in front of me.”

As Seidman put it, “If you aren’t out of your mind from a trip to Mellow Mountain, or if you haven’t already had one too many buckets, the party requires a bit of ‘letting go’, so to speak.”

I’m all for letting go, but to me the Full Moon Party feels like something that has gotten entirely out of hand, and not in a good way. Too destructive, too commercialised, too far from its roots (whatever they were), emptied of meaning and destined for implosion. And also, kind of dangerous.

Dark Side of the Moon

At the latest Full Moon New Year’s Party, 22-year-old British backpacker Stephen Ashton was shot and killed by 26-year-old Ekkapan Kaewkla, a local Thai. The shooting caused a global stir that reignited debates over Thailand’s safety and is proving to be yet another tough challenge for the country’s tourism sector. According to official reports, Ashton was merely dancing on the sands of Haad Rin, just a few hours after the new year began. He was killed accidentally by a stray bullet from a homemade gun, allegedly shot at a rival gang member due to a dispute over a girl.

The creepy smile on the face of the accused, splashed across news sites and fuelling the fears of nervous parents of backpackers around the world, is certainly not helping Koh Phangan’s reputation. But neither is the culture of the Full Moon Party itself. The fact is that despite the obvious mutations the party has undergone over time, a bit of danger is nothing new on Koh Phangan. As Colin noted, “things got nastier during the first six months of Full Moon Parties. People started getting shot. All the bungalow owners had guns. I remember some guys started selling acid from Amsterdam and got chased down the beach by locals with machetes.”

Indeed, there have been a number of murders, rapes and accidental deaths throughout the party’s existence, but much of this can be attributed to the sheer number of visitors coming to the island to partake in the uninhibited party culture. Not surprisingly, petty crimes of opportunity have become especially common, and residents describe the local police force as nothing more than a glorified mafia that can be bought off at the drop of a hat. Some friends of mine who attended the aforementioned New Year’s party returned to their bungalow after the celebration to find they’d been robbed of every last electronic item they had. When they considered calling the police, a local told them not to bother. “Even if they find your things, they’ll probably keep them,” he said.

Back to the Future

“I believe that the friction between the locals and the tourists has something to do with the general ignorance and drunken sloppiness of the masses of people who go just to get obliterated at the parties,” said 23-year-old American Ruby Brayman, who spent a month on the island this past year and acknowledges that the parties are fun but tend to lose their shine after awhile. “I would be upset too if people came in and trashed my town every month.”

A Thai business owner working on Koh Phangan explained that while the parties do bring significant income to the island, that is pretty much their only upside. The list of downsides is long, and includes the proliferation of party drugs that get into the hands of young locals and bring violence and addiction, which often go hand in hand. In fact, she told me, her friend was an acquaintance of the 26-year-old Thai who shot Ashton, and said he was known for being high off his mind on yaba, a mixture of methamphetamine and caffeine whose Thai name translates literally to ‘madness drug’.

“I think this is the beginning of the end,” she said. “The party got too big. As bad things happen, the parties are getting a reputation for being dangerous and out of control. I think people will eventually stop coming for Full Moon. But there is plenty to do here other than party.”

Indeed, the island itself remains a tropical paradise, filled with gorgeous beaches, jungle temples, hidden waterfalls, meditation centres, a national park, a growing number of high-end restaurants and hotels and even, rather inexplicably, an airport with round-trip flights to Bangkok slated for completion by the end of this year. In fact, the New York Times named Koh Phangan #30 on its list of ‘The 46 Places to Go in 2013’, proclaiming: “A party island goes upscale and family-friendly”.

Does this mean the party itself is doomed? Maybe, maybe not. While the FMP does tend to resemble an ever-growing powder keg about to explode, that has kind of been its M.O. since inception.

“After I had been to my 10th party sometime in the late 90s and my 15th by the mid 2000s, I heard the exact same sentiment said a million times,” said our editor. “The Full Moon Party has been threatening suicide as far back as my foggy memory goes!”

But for now, the fever rages on.