One Way Ticket: The Full Moon Experience
I woke up in Koh Phangan, Thailand on the floor of a hostel, my backpack doubled as a pillow and random shirts scattered over my body for a blanket. It was mid-afternoon but half of the people strewn across rows of bunk-beds were still sound asleep. The empty mattresses belonged to Australians who never arrived back from the night before. Someone was yelling from across the room.
"Hey Santa Barbara – how’d your story go?"
I rolled over and didn’t respond, assuming it was meant for me. People laughed under their breath for a few seconds before the room silenced again, as if were the only bit of energy they could muster. My heart was beating faster than a New York minute, my brain pounding to the extreme that I worried it might explode if I tried to articulate a sentence. I survived the Full Moon Party, but it didn’t feel that way. I wanted to respond, but all I could think was how I would get off of the island as quickly as possible.
While some festivals last three nights and others one week, the Full Moon experience takes place throughout the entire month – every month of every year. Since its birth in the 80s, as rumors have it, when a group of tourists gathered around for a farewell party the event has grown to become the quintessential backpacker’s beach party. It began as a one day celebration at the end of the lunar month but as word spread across continents it evolved into an endless cycle of waterfall parties and secret jungle raves to mark black moons, half moons, and whatever illuminates the sky in between. As the Full Moon culture now stands any type of moon is reason enough to party. March 2013 was no exception.
Party revelers jet-set from countries North, South, East, and West for an occasion far less forgiving and culturally rich than the average Banana Pancake Trail checklist. My internationally filled, overpacked catamaran docked on a shore where seemingly delirious travelers with bodies canvassed in neon paint slept while waiting for any form of transport out. I didn’t question their decision to leave, even with the notorious Full Moon underway because of myths and non-myths that would scare any seasonally veteraned backpacker. From tales I pictured a manic cluster of drug-induced Westerners, roofied and alone, lost and susceptible to even the most unconvincing of ladyboys. Such precautions are the epitome of why I arrived with curiosity and eagerness to explore Haad Rin Beach, world (in)famous for debauchery.
It was mid-afternoon but the scene was already predictable. Tens of thousands grazed tourist-centered streets of blindingly bright clothing attire. Groups of Australians wandered into pharmacies empty-handed and exited twenty Ritalin deep. Half of the Thai locals were hard at work constructing a venue made up of a slew of unnaturally dangerous structures that could easily entertain the average Westerner; the remaining half were busy fueling the fire with alcohol sales. The whole of them looking unfazed by the presence of partygoers who lined the sand with wide-eyes as though they’d lived in a psychedelic den for the past five days. (For the record most of them had).
Pop-up bucket stands selling alcohol stood next to more bucket stands that read "Same same but different" and all claimed to be “fucking cheaper” than the next; but it doesn’t really matter how fucking cheap or expensive the bucket ends up totaling because the people will pay what it costs to party. I paid three dollars, to start. Buckets contain ice, a 350 ml bottle of hard alcohol, and a mixer. Thailand’s mixers are a bit more intense because they contain Krating Daeng, an energy drink that makes Redbull’s effect feel like a mild coffee buzz. (I later learned its main substance ephandra is similar to speed). Buckets are a mixture of unknown contents I actively avoid at all costs – and they are a defining part of the Full Moon culture. When push comes to shove you can’t report about a culture you’ve never tasted.
The beach started as a picture of Mardi Gras meets rave scene. Similar to something you might see at Burning Man. There was nothing decently calm about its progression. People shuffled throughout ten stages of heavy bass and trance without a single inhibition to stand in the way of good-decision making while others made the mandatory pilgrimage up eighty steps on the Northeast side of the beach to Mushroom Mountain, its name obvious to its appeal. I was surrounded by people jumping rope with a rope on fire, shirtless Western girls with their eyes rolling in the backs of their heads and young back packers ingesting anything that came anywhere near their mouths. It’s the kind of behavior I never intended to be guilty of – until there I was at 8:00am with a group of casual strangers on the sand as the last few thousand danced the sun up. The seemingly deserted beach now just a wasteland of empty bottles and rugged backpackers desperate for a home to sleep.
When I woke up post-party it was mid-afternoon and someone was yelling from across the room. It had only been twenty-four hours since I first arrived to the most notorious festival of Southeast Asia; I got straight up off of the floor without saying my goodbyes and left the island on the first boat I could find. In the words of Mary Anne Radmacher Hershey, "I am not the same having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world.” I blame the ephandra.