Archive for the 'Ko Pha-Ngan' Category

May 14 2008

Tales We Never Told: Full Moon Party

Published by under Ko Pha-Ngan,Thailand

The first in a series of stories we never got around to telling while on the road…

Where: Ko Pha-Ngan. What: the BIG one. Why: Not sure?

ben with ollie and kevin, arriving via longboat at the full moon partyI’m talking, of course, about the Full Moon Party on the Thai island of Ko Pha-Ngan. The party occurs every night of the full moon (that’s once a month, for the astronomically challenged) and has achieved legendary status around the world. What started as a small effort by local bar owners to lure backpackers over to Hat Rin beach has exploded over the years to become one of the biggest parties in the world. During Thailand’s high tourism season (December – February) this all-night rave draws more than 30,000 people to one small island beach. And not ALL of them are rolling on more drugs than I’ve even heard of. OK, they probably are.

We arrived on Ko Pha-Ngan a few days before the Full Moon Party, and settled ourselves far far away from Hat Rin beach. We came to the island looking for peace, quiet, and everything the Full Moon Party had pledged to purge from this world. During our first few days of beach lounging and hammock naps, the possibility of attending the Full Moon Party did come up in a couple of conversations. But it always sounded something like this:

Brittany: Hey, do you want to go to the Full Moon Party?
Ben: (asleep)

I’m not a betting man, but in those lazy days before Full Moon, I would have advised a betting man to bet against the chance that I’d ever see the party.

Scratch that last paragraph. The truth is that I’m very much a betting man, but it’s hard to make many bets when you’re asleep and out of money. And in the interest of holding onto my girlfriend, I wanted to avoid depicting myself as lazy, destitute, AND dangerously drawn to gambling. But there, I’ve said it. And see, Brittany? I may be a bankrupt, slothful gambler but I’m so HONEST. And wouldn’t you agree that HONESTY is a veritable PILLAR of any strong relationship? Wouldn’t you? Brittany?

Anyway, it’s a good thing I was out of money, because what I didn’t count on was meeting a group of four Irish travelers there on our beach one afternoon, who had every intention of attending the Full Moon Party. I don’t know if it was their merry accents or their inspirational ability to down fourteen pints of Guiness in one night (each) but within five minutes of meeting them, Brittany and I had decided to accompany these wee, green people to Hat Rin. Also, it wasn’t lost on me that the Full Moon Party goes on past sunrise, and this might well be my best chance yet of fulfulling my lifelong ambition to receive an authentic “Top o’ the morning to ye!”

Our bargaining powers combined, the six of us hired a boat to motor us to Hat Rin at aroud 6:00pm the night of the party, and then to bring us back to our peaceful/secluded/all-around-better beach the next morning.

After hearing so many stories over the years about the Full Moon Party, I have to say that my first impression of Hat Rin beach is that it was much smaller than I had pictured it. We attended the party in April, when an estimated 8,000 people attend, and that beach was PACKED. Where do the extra 22,000 people even FIT in the high season?

full moon partySo that you can picture it yourself, the beach consists of a short string of virtually identical bars, with stools and/or bamboo mats in the sand in front of every one. At one end of the beach is a giant wooden sign saying “THE ORIGINAL FULL MOON PARTY” or something to that effect. You don’t really notice that sign until after the sun sets, which is when people set it on fire. Then you spend a few minutes strangely mesmerized by the sight of it, until some twirling raver in a trance accidentally knocks you in the face with a glo-stick. Don’t bother confronting him about it. If you succeed in waking him from his trance, he’ll just start begging you to touch his skin because “it feels so WEIRD…”

Yeah, it’s pretty much just like that. If you’re picturing any open space in the beach area, fill it with half-naked people. Oh, and BUCKETS.

bucket vendorsBuckets is one Full Moon phenomenon that I can really get behind. They are the preferred method of imbibery at this party. For three or four bucks, you can buy a plastic bucket (think beach pail) outfitted with a flask of liquor, a can of soda, a can of red bull, and as many straws as you can carry. Once you make your liquid choices, the seller opens all the containers, skillfully pours them all into the bucket at the same time, and hands the concotion over for you to take away.

Depending on what you want to spend, your liquor options are pretty boundless when it comes to buckets. When I said three or four bucks, I was referring to OUR spirit of choice: Thai rice whiskey. Thai rice whiskey isn’t really the smartest choice, but it IS the cheapest. And it’s not SO bad… there’s even a recognized national brand of rice whiskey, whose prosperity leads me to believe that it must have some semblance of quality control. That’s what we were GOING to pick, until we found a shady bucket seller with generic Thai whiskey. We chose… poorly.

But enough about the next morning. The bucket sellers set up small stands all along the streets that run between the bars, away from the beach. Additionally, they have laid claim to one stretch of beach in between two bars. Here, bucket stands are all tightly squashed together end to end. And since they’re all selling the exact same product at the exact same price, they’ve tried to get creative when it comes to distinguishing themselves. Toward this goal of capturing market share, there are two preferred methods…

1. Yelling. Walking by the beach lineup of bucket stands is a gauntlet-like experience. Every bucket seller leans way over their countertop, arm extended, shouting anything and everything they know (or don’t know) in English. “Hey you!”, “Bucket bucket!” and “You buy someting!” are favorites. The most perplexing part of this phenomenon is that despite the fact that the guy in the very last stand just watched you blatantly ignore the cries of the previous 29 bucket sellers, you can count on being greeted by his outstretched arm and cries of “Bucket bucket!” Of course, you’re really only able to make out the individual sales pitches by getting pretty close to the stands. From any reasonable distance, the whole affair sounds exactly like: “AHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!”

2. Signs. Every bucket stand’s got a big one painted on the front. The vast majority, I’m sorry to report, are far too lewd to repeat without heavy censoring. Either way, here is a small sampling…

  • Same Same But BETTER Bucket
  • F%*$ Bucket: Make You F%*$ Long Time!
  • Bethlehem Bucket: Jesus’ Favorite!

You get the idea. I think we did try Same Same But BETTER Bucket, and were disappointed to find its product to be, you guessed it, exactly the same as everyone else’s. But just think: if we hadn’t tried it, would I ever be able to get to sleep again? Or would I lie awake, consumed by the thought that maybe, just maybe, that bucket WAS same same but better? I just couldn’t do that to myself OR to Brittany. Again, Brittany, you’re looking at marriage material here.

surprise!And so our night was spent hanging out with four cool new Irish friends, dodging unsolicited offers of questionable drugs, and trying to keep up with one particular bucket that Brittany really wanted to bring home as a souvenir. All in all, the night goes by quickly during the Full Moon Party (the buckets help with that) and before we knew it, it was time to meet our boat driver for a ride back.

What they DON’T tell you about the Full Moon Party is that around 3am, the beach evolves into an obstacle course fit for one of those gross-out episodes of Fear Factor. We had to step over scores of people passed out on the sand (face up/face down/face buried in sand) and showing debatable signs of life. Several other unconscious bodies were being carried off the beach by friends or Good Samaritans. In hopes of escaping this maze, we made our way down to the waterline, figuring we could wade our way down the beach faster than we could body-hop. Big mistake.

Because while there ARE free public restrooms at Hat Rin Beach, drunk people prefer the ocean. Not a big deal if one or two people choose to relieve themselves that way. BIG DEAL when 8,000 people relieve themselves that way at the same time. Both genders. We quickly hopped back out of the water, and shuddered when we finally had to wade our way back through a crowd to get to our boat. I was so tired when we finally arrived back at our beach an hour later… but not too tired for a shower.

Conclusion: If you’re anywhere in the vicinity of Ko Pha-Ngan during the full moon, the Full Moon Party is worth the excursion. But please: after midnight, stay out of the water.

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Apr 26 2008

Finding our perfect Thai beach

Published by under Ko Pha-Ngan,Thailand

Finding your perfect Thai beach is a balancing act. Tip too far in one direction, end up in a place indistinguishable from Myrtle Beach save for the fact that two-thirds of the bars are named Same Same But Different. Too far in the other direction, and you’re acquiring dengue fever five to seven times per night in a poorly patched tent next to a castaway who insists his name is Marley.

Hat Thong Nai Pan Yai, Ko Pha-Ngan, ThailandOur shared vision of the perfect Thai beach fell, if you can believe it, somewhere in between. We wanted to spend the final days of our trip reflecting (read: napping) on a quiet beach, with plenty of space to ourselves. Unfortunately, we also have a common addiction which must be fed, and we call that the internet. For reasons unknowable to man, geographic isolation and internet connectivity tend toward mutual exclusivity. The sad truth is that if “Marley” could connect us to WI-FI, we’d probably hunker right down between the mosquitoes and his blacklight on whatever deserted island he’s currently annoying.

But he can’t. So on one of our last evenings at Railay Beach, we spread out the maps and guidebooks, and tried to locate our perfect Thai beach over a couple of coconut shakes. I was reading up on all the islands with names that seemed hardest to pronounce, figuring other tourists might be too self-conscious to try to buy boat tickets there, when Brittany suggested Ko Pha-Ngan.

My first reaction was to laugh. Ko Pha-Ngan is home to the monthly Full Moon Party, a world-famous all-night rave that attracts up to 20,000 people at a time. When I envisioned peace and quiet, Ko Pha-Ngan was the last place that came to mind. But Brittany put the map in my face, and I began to see what she was getting at.

The Full Moon Party is limited to the SE beach of Hat Rin. On the northern side of the island, our map showed another beach, and this one accessible only by boat. This “Bottle Beach” looked to be separated from the rest of the island by impassable jungle, making it a promising candidate for virtual isolation. But at the same time, its location on the developed island of Ko Pha-Ngan meant it was likely to have our highly coveted internet access. Could it be that our perfect Thai beach lay right in the belly of the beast? We decided to find out.

Getting from Railay to Ko Pha-Ngan was an all-day pain in the butt. By the time we landed on our new island, it was 10:00pm, and we quickly learned at the port that no boats would run to Bottle Beach this late at night. In the interest of getting to Bottle as soon as possible, we hired a taxi driver to take us to the north side of the island and drop us off where we’d be able to catch the first boat in the morning. We found a $6 bungalow, and went to sleep.

The next morning, we dragged our bags down to the waterfront, and bought passage on the first longboat heading around the island perimeter to Bottle Beach. Twenty minutes later, we approached the shore and immediately saw that Bottle fit our vision of near-isolation. The beach was only half a kilometer long, and I could see just two people on it, reading books together on a bamboo mat in the sand. Luggage held high, we waded ashore, and immediately split up to do our typical accommodation reconnaissance.

When we reconvened thirty minutes later, we had both made the same chilling discovery: while bungalows here were quiet AND affordable, each one of the limited internet access points was charging 5 baht per minute. That adds up to $10 per hour, a rate eclipsing anything we’d seen from even the most opportunistic French cafes. And as if anything in the world could possibly be worse, dining options were limited to about three hotel restaurants, all of which apparently chose to make up for their affordable room rates with astronomically expensive food prices. We’ve never been a slave to restaurant prices thanks to our stubborn insistence on buying as much food as possible in local supermarkets, but we were blindsided by Bottle Beach’s cunning when we made another revelation: there IS no supermarket.

“Well, that’s it then,” I concluded. “We’re not staying here.”

Brittany didn’t need convincing. The only problem was that we’d dug ourselves into something of a hole. Simply getting to and from Bottle Beach is a tricky endeavor, and getting to another island altogether would require the better part of a day. We realized that this was our likely fate, but in an effort to delay the seemingly inevitable, we decided to check out one more beach on Ko Pha-Ngan before giving up on the island altogether. So a mere two hours after arriving on Bottle Beach, we were wading our way into another longboat, and shoving off once more. This time, toward the East, and to some sort of bay that our map labeled: Ao Thong Nai Pan. I didn’t know how to pronounce it either, so I pointed east and grunted. And once again, we were off.

When our longboat turned into the bay, we saw that it contained two distinct beaches, separated by a tall rocky outcropping. I would later learn their names: Hat Thong Nai Pan Noi and Hat Thong Nai Pan Yai, and that the two beaches do function entirely independently of one another. But when the boat driver paused the engine at this moment to ask which one we wanted to go to, the only difference I could see between the two was that one looked bigger. Hoping that bigger meant more likely to have a supermarket, I unknowingly pointed to Hat Thong Nai Pan Yai, and the motor roared once more.

During the shorts-soaking walk to shore, I looked back out over the water, and noticed that the rocky outcropping between the two beaches extended farther into the water than I’d realized from a distance, effectively making this area a bay within a bay. The beach looked to be twice as long as Bottle Beach, but looking up and down the kilometer of shoreline, I could count only five people. Once more, we split up for recon. But this time, we would quickly discover that we’d happened upon exactly what we didn’t know we were looking for.

Sand: white.
Water: clear.
Internet: $4/hour (phew)
Food markets: multiple
Restaurants: competitively priced
Bungalows: beachfront. With hammocks.

Where we live. Hat Thong Nai Pan Yai, Ko Pha-Ngan, ThailandSold. And speaking of bungalows, we chose one that sits all the way at one end of the beach – the opposite end from where the boats land. Down here we found the most isolated part of the beach, and relief from any unwanted boat engine noise that might interrupt our much-anticipated hammock naps. We have an overhead fan rather than A/C, but opening our wide glass doors lets in a sea breeze that renders the idea of both extraneous. And with the end of the trip now in sight, we let ourselves indulge in some uncharacteristic high-rolling: choosing a beachfront bungalow set us back $20 a night!

Breakast at the bungalow: Hat Thong Nai Pan Yai, Ko Pha-Ngan, ThailandAs I’m writing this, we’ve been here at Hat Thong Nai Pan Yai for ten days. Of course, the original plan was to stay for only five days before moving to Ko Tao for snorkeling… but that went out the window on the first afternoon here. So what do we do all day? Absolutely nothing. We eat breakfast in plastic chairs on the sand, we read books that we check out from a hotel down the beach, we swim in the bay when we get hot, and we take walks to open-air restaurants when it gets dark. Oh, and we get visits from Mama in the afternoon.

Mama is a Thai woman who walks the length of our beach every day, with two baskets slung over her shoulder, and a wet black dog by her side. What’s inside the baskets is a daily mystery: she always has fresh mango and watermelon to sell, but she could also be carrying some chocolate cake, banana muffins, sugar donuts… the list goes on. We were reading in our hammocks the first time Mama paid us a visit, and she caught us by surprise. Someone is here to bring us donuts, chocolate, and sticky sticky mango? We were loyal customers from Day 1.

Maybe a little too loyal. At first, we just referred to this woman as “our friend” or “snack lady.” Then, around Day 4, after I had just purchased a large mango from her basket, she began to peel and cut a second one. Confused, I started to explain that I only wanted one, but she put it into my hand and said, “You buy every day. Mama give.” Since that day, whenever we hear the shout of “hello babies!” approaching from the sand, we know it’s Mama.

As luck would have it, April’s Full Moon Party fell on the 20th, right in the middle of our stay on Ko Pha-Ngan. And while we had initially recoiled at the thought of The Biggest Rave in the Universe, we would soon meet four Irish travelers with other ideas. But our Full Moon Party experience is another story.

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