Within minutes, my hopes of having a wild evening had been dashed. It was 11PM on a humid Friday night and I was weaving my way through the crowds on a packed-out Haad Rin Nok beach on Thailand’s Koh Phangan, home to the now infamous full moon party, which was well underway around me.
Competing beats clashed together from the bars lining the beach-front, and the fresh sea air was filled with a sickly smell from the cheap booze buckets on sale. Passing a pissed-up, neon-painted group of guys Insta-posing in front of a flaming hoop, I started to doubt why I came. This was not my kind of wild.
A few yards away was a circle of girls, iPhones at the ready as they waited to see what would happen to the next person to skip over a gasoline-dowsed-and-blazing rope (spoiler alert: they got burned).
Clearly, this was no longer the free-love hippy gathering that began on this very spot 30 years before.
Back then, in 1988, the beaches were so unspoiled that phosphorescence illuminated the water at a swish of a hand; a water which, in daylight, sparkled with a great shade of turquoise blue – or so I was told by the now 54-year-old Colin, who was living on the nearby island of Koh Samui at the time. “If you kicked the water it was as if sapphires or diamonds were getting sprayed all over the place,” he told me over Skype in a thick Glaswegian accent.
Colin went on to explain that it was mainly solo travellers on the islands back then: “It took two days to get to Samui because you’d have to do an overnight train from Bangkok to Surat Thani and then catch a slow boat over, so you didn’t really get people coming in groups at all.”
There was also no electricity in the evenings, so the seafront would fill up with packs of wild dogs and a “kind of eerie darkness” which kept people away from the beach. That’s why people started partying on the full moon, he explained: “When the moon came out it really lit up the beach, and the dogs retreated. Suddenly there were hundreds of people walking up and down at night.”
In October of 1988, two Dutch stoner guys who had been staying at Colin’s bungalow on Samui came up with the idea of rounding-up a few friends and sailing the short distance over to the sparsely uninhabited Phangan for the full moon. In the end, about ten of them clambered into a boat with a crate of beer, a crate of cokes and a load of weed and magic mushrooms.
Colin followed a couple of days later, on the day of the full moon, and described the beach as looking like a caveman convention when he arrived. “Everyone was sitting around in sarongs with beards, grinding the ganja with a coconut,” he laughed. Tents were pegged up in the grass under the palm trees, bongo drums and an acoustic guitar were playing in the background, and a bonfire was permanently on the go.
As the night closed in around them and the moon shone brightly, the mushrooms kicked in. The group sat around for hours, talking about the kind existential stuff you tend to talk about on shrooms, before stripping off to go skinny dipping in the ocean – a pretty chilled out affair by anyone’s standards.
But it didn’t take long for the vibe to change. A day or so after the party, Colin returned to Samui and that month was witness to a growing territory war that was spreading across the islands, prompted by the imminent arrival of a new airport on Samui and the anticipation of rising land values.
“Violence just came out of nowhere,” he explained. “People were getting shot. It shocked me to find out that every single person I knew there had a gun and was not afraid to use it. Some of my friends who had stayed on Phangan had started selling drugs like acid, and got into real trouble with some local boys, who chased them off the beach with machetes – because if there were drugs to be sold, they were the ones who were going to be selling them.”
By April of 1989, electricity and ecstasy had also arrived on the islands, turning the original Koh Phangan hippy full moon gatherings into much heavier, much louder parties. Over time, these evolved into today’s monthly money-makers, which typically attract up to 30,000 people – and double that on New Year’s Eve. Now essentially a giant open-air night club, they are exactly the kind of tacky, booze-fuelled nights you’d find in Zante or Magaluf – devoid of any real attachment to the immediate surroundings, or even the country they’re set in.
Unfortunately, violence has been a natural consequence of the booze, drugs and money swilling around, and is how the nights have built a deserved reputation of crime over the last 30 years.
It was in a Koh Phangan bar that a 22-year-old British man was shot and killed in 2013 after getting caught in crossfire between rival gangs, while another British tourist was last seen at a full moon party before going missing ten years ago – a disappearance that Norfolk and Suffolk’s Major Investigation Team is still trying to solve. It was where a 31-year-old Israeli man was stabbed and bludgeoned to death in 2007, and has been the scene of multiple drownings.
If you didn’t know about the accidents and deaths which have plagued this place over the years, you’d probably start to suspect something after seeing the number of emergency clinics peppered around the surrounding town. I counted four on just a few roads near the beach. I walked into a couple and asked the medical staffers how busy it got on a full moon night. One of them let out an uncontrolled laugh, her eyes widening above her surgical mask. “Very,” she said.
Her laughter summed up a palpable shadiness, even lawlessness, that lingers in the air here. It was something I was warned of repeatedly when I got chatting to locals (“be careful who you talk to”,
“watch what you say”) – that sinister underbelly Colin had witnessed the birth of so many years before.
Even if you can get past the violence – it happens everywhere, right? – the environmental damage that is being caused by the thousands of people who cram into this comparatively small strip of beach every month is less forgivable. A place where the sea is seen not only as a rubbish bin for plastic cups and broken glass, but as a toilet too.
One party-goer laughed as he described to me a drunk girl fumbling with her bikini bottoms before crouching down to wee in the sea. A local bar worker, meanwhile, said, “If the water comes in high on the beach then the trash goes out. There’s so much rubbish and also sick everywhere.”
Still, if it was up to him, he’d choose to keep the parties running, he said. It means too much to the local economy. A taxi tout put this in numbers for me: on a typical full moon night she makes up to 6000 baht (£140), compared with an average night in the month, when she earns around 150 baht (£3). A shop owner on the beach told me that she earns enough on one full moon night to feed her family for the rest of the month. This argument is difficult to ignore.
Elsewhere, I was told by a local travel agent that the police were trying to “clear up Phangan’s reputation”. A number of drug raids have taken place in recent months, like the one on Reggae House in December and Bello Bar the month after, as well as the closure of a number of illegal hostels.
The local bar worker had described similar scenes to me, of the police standing by, ready to throw any troublemakers in a cell for the night. He also told me that the 100 baht entry fee people pay for the full moon night goes towards the clean-up the following day, which is organised by a local business group made up of several of the beach bar owners.
Others I spoke to were less convinced that Phangan was clearing up its act, and told stories of police being in cahoots with local gangs.
A couple of days after the party, I returned to the beach and watched as the clean-up continued. A team of local guys were raking through the sand and emptying bins, while an electric drill from a construction site on the beachfront provided a backdrop for the handful of party-goers who were still there, roasting under the Thai sun. Everywhere looked a little worn out, no more so the guy who’d been up on speed partying for a few days too long. Even in its downtime, this was clearly a beach that attracted the vodka-bucket crowd.
Thirty years down the line, what we’re left with looks nothing like the original Koh Phangan full moon gathering. But as I discovered, for better or worse, the local economy has come to rely on the tourist trade these parties attract, while members of the local community have developed effective ways of responding to and clearing up the carnage they bring.
And hey, if they’re going to happen somewhere, why not at least contain all the madness to this one beach, rather than unleashing chaos on the rest of the country?
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.