Exactly when and how the Full Moon Party phenomenon on Koh Phangan started is still a bit of a mystery. The gorgeous island, located in the Gulf of Thailand, is home to dense jungles, picturesque beaches, and a myriad of hippie-inspired backpacker hotels. About once a month, around 30,000 partiers converge on the crescent-shaped Haad Rin beach for a single night of debauchery under the bright moonlit sky.
Supposedly, the gathering started in the late '80s, and was a small celebration of free love and dancing. Today, the Full Moon Party has transformed into something more akin to a rave. It serves as a major economic boost for residents, who set up a mini-community of booze, drugs, transportation, and medical services for the (mostly) young international backpackers, English teachers, and trustafarians who are on the island for a night of unbridled hedonism.
However, selling and consuming drugs is illegal and billboards throughout the island warn visitors of the dire consequences (prison time or the death penalty) of being caught with substances. Past horrors have included murder, theft, accidental drownings, and rape.
But the dangers haven't deterred many partiers, who gather with buckets of booze and drug-infused milkshakes to dance and flirt on the glass-lined sand while listening to the non-stop soundtrack of electronica. Acrobats and fire dancers put on free shows, and most participants wear the unofficial uniform of neon body paint and tank tops. We spoke with three past Full Moon Party participants to get their advice on what to expect at the beach party that lasts until the sun comes up.
Where did you stay?
Madeline Grimes, a world traveler, has been to four Full Moon parties when she was between the ages of 25 and 26. "At the time, I lived by the mantra of 'one does not go to Koh Phangan and skip a Full Moon Party.' The first time I went, my friends and I stayed at Cookies's Salad Resort, which has a sort of cultish following among lazy backpackers," Grimes says. (The dirt cheap resort is just a 45-minute drive from Haad Rin beach.) Grimes has also stayed on the island of Koh Tao and taken a ferry to the festivities at night, and then back in the morning. She says of the ferry experience, "I can emphatically declare that I would never do that again."
Michelle Gadot, a communications director in New York City, remembers splitting a bungalow near the beach with two fellow English teachers who were celebrating the end of the term. She'd been to other beach parties and knew that the Full Moon Party would be the most memorable. "By that point, we had gotten quite frugal with our travels, and shared a bed between the three of us when we traveled, rotating who slept in the middle every night," Gadot says.
After a three-day yoga retreat on neighboring Koh Samui, Amanda Arebalo, a bartender in Los Angeles, realized her trip coincided with the Full Moon Party and figured she should experience it at least once. Arebalo stayed at a hostel called @ Beach Bed & Bar. "We befriended the manager, a charismatic ladyboy named Stella, who showed us the ropes and took our group to the party with her after we painted each other with glow paint at the bar," Arebalo recalls.
What did you expect?
Grimes: "There had been rumors on the backpack trail that the Red Hot Chili Peppers had previously performed here, having descended from a helicopter and landing on the beach with their instruments. This was categorically untrue, but these were the types of rumors that buttressed the Full Moon parties. I knew there would be drinking, though I didn't expect such rampant drug use."
Gadot: "I remember just expecting the ultimate party."
Arebalo: "I was expecting mostly pure debauchery. I was hoping for some good music, dancing, and maybe some fireworks. I knew I would be one of the older attendees there (29), but I wanted to make the most of it."
What was the most shocking thing you saw?
Grimes: "At one point, I had lost all of my friends save for a single backpacker from Canada, Derek, who was inexplicably painted green a la the Incredible Hulk. Everyone wore flip-flops to these parties. In fact, every backpacker in Thailand seemingly owned the same pair of black Havaianas, and I was forever leaving the bar or restaurant wearing someone else's shoes. And so of course, just as I was huffing and puffing about the indignity of losing my friends, I stubbed my toe on a broken beer bottle. It didn't hurt, and in fact, I wasn't even sure something was wrong until blood started pooling in my flip-flop. Derek and I both agreed that this could not be ignored, so I limped my way to a small medical clinic, which was actually someone's living room. I know it was a living room because a family of five was sitting on the couch watching TV and eating dinner. There I was, haggling over the price of a bandage next to a man painted entirely greenon purpose, while a nice Thai family ate their dinner."
Arebalo: "I was surprised at the chaos of the setup. It was basically a bunch of beach bars nestled right next to one another, with each blasting their own dance music."
What about the drugs and drinking scene?
Grimes: "It was incredibly obvious that most people were taking drugs. In fact, there was even a bar on a hilltop nicknamed Magic Mushroom Mountain, where you could allegedly procure mushroom shakes. No one hid that they were doing drugs; everyone was quite vocal about it. Weed, of course, was a no-no, and there were always arrests of people smoking on the beach. Everyone was insanely drunk in the sort of way that made walking on the beach after a certain hour treacherous -- if not for the broken glass bottles, then for the vomit."
Gadot: "There were people walking up and down the beaches selling ecstasy. People were clearly inebriated, whether it was from drugs or alcohol. Thailand is famous for its buckets, which literally means a bucket full of booze. I remember seeing hundreds of buckets lined up when we first got to the beach that night."
Arebalo: "I don't think it was super obvious who was on drugs. I encountered people smoking spliffs and vendors were outwardly selling laughing gas balloons. However, there were signs everywhere warning tourists that should they use or carry illegal drugs, they would be prosecuted. No one wants to go to Thai jail. Any other illicit drug use was kept very hush-hush."
Did you feel safe?
Grimes: "Yes and no. At the time, yes, though I saw dozens of people bloodied and arrested. Our cab drivers to the party were required to pay off the taxicab mafia, which, at the time, seemed oddly cosmopolitan, rather than a macabre state of economic affairs and oppression. Now, with the benefit of age and wisdom, plus a much greater sense of mortality, I imagine I'd be much more careful about what I drank and how much."
Gadot: "I remember I lost my friends, but wasn't really nervous about it. I ended up meeting new people, and eventually found my friends again. While dancing, there were definitely guys who were fresh and tried to be a handsy. I would just push them off or tell them I wasn't interested, and nobody pushed back."
Arebalo: "I personally felt very safe. The beach was well lit with security. Overall, the vibe felt fun and positive."
Would you go again?
Grimes: "I'm not sure that it's my scene anymore. At 25 or 26 [years old], it was exactly where I wanted to be -- enthralled by the spectacle of it all. But now, I'm fairly certain if someone offered me the choice of a Full Moon Party or a wine and cheese platter, I'd choose the latter."
Gadot: "I'm not sure I'd go again, but I'm glad I did it and checked it off my bucket list. I think there are other beaches I'd rather go back to first. Plus, I imagine I'd have a much different experience now as a woman in my 30s than I did as a 23-year-old who was teaching and traveling around Southeast Asia."
Arebalo: "I wouldn't go again solely because I've aged out of the scene. I'm glad I experienced it, but even at the time, I felt too old to really enjoy it to its full extent."
Is there something you wish you knew before you went?
Grimes: "Skip the Red Bull in your bucket."
Gadot: "Saltwater is not a disinfectant when you are at the beach! If you get hurt, take care of it, because chances are it will only get worse."
Arebalo: "I wish I'd known where to get ahold of those illicit drugs."
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