Thailand’s Full-Moon Parties Have Become a Trashy Disgrace

Onetime bastion of peace and alternative living has degenerated into a modern-day Gomorrah of tawdry overindulgence

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Lonely Planet Images / Getty Images

People dance under the full moon during the monthly full-moon party on Haad Rin beach on Thailand's Koh Phangan on March 26, 2013

“The skies were star-spangled and blue phosphorescence would spray like diamonds in the sea … the sand glowed silver and the waves danced alive as they hit the shore.” The year is 1988 and the now legendary full-moon party has hit the tropical Thai island of Koh Phangan for the first time, described to TIME by intrepid Scotsman Colin Hinshelwood, who bobbed over on a fishing boat from neighboring Koh Samui. Hippies from across the globe used to quietly gather at this idyllic enclave, drifting in on clouds of marijuana smoke to sit on a beach, strum a battered guitar and simply be. Today, however, the only blue spray you’ll see might be the lurid curaçao cocktail expelled from the guts of a retching 20-something. This onetime Eden has degenerated into a modern-day Gomorrah awash in tawdry techno, cheap fast food and wasted millennials.

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Every month of the year, thousands of revelers make the pilgrimage to this isle of indulgence. Haad Rin beach, on Koh Phangan’s southern tip, is a one-mile strip onto which 30,000 people, mostly young foreigners, will cram themselves on busy nights. The sand fills with makeshift stalls selling buckets — literally the kind of plastic pails children take to the beach — brimming with whiskey, cola and eye-popping local Red Bull, for just a few dollars. Beach bars boasting floor-to-ceiling speakers blast out ear-shattering electronica until the early hours. Narcotics, violent crime and sexual assault are rife. Nevertheless, with the northern summer in full swing, even more young people from across North America and Europe will descend here, joined by young South Africans, Australians and New Zealanders escaping the southern winter. They risk at the very least their dignity, and at most their lives, to fulfill what is now a backpacker rite of passage.

The name “full-moon party” lends a vaguely pagan air to the proceedings, but in truth the gatherings were first held when the moon was at its biggest and brightest for practical reasons. In the 1980s, Koh Phangan was a rough and ready place after dark. Packs of feral dogs roamed, so did muggers. Shootings were a fact of life. However, the brilliant lunar illumination brought relative safety and a brief respite. It was “an evening of getting naked, splashing in the sea, and dancing around imaginary Stonehenges,” recalls Hinshelwood, whose memory of the event can be read at length here. At the inception of the full-moon parties, there was no electricity on Haad Rin — aging flower children complained of “colonialism” when it eventually arrived. The festivities centered on tents, campfires and music the partygoers made themselves. All this took place in the incomparable natural setting of the Gulf of Thailand, immortalized through Alex Garland’s novel The Beach and its big-screen adaptation starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Joe Cummings, whose Lonely Planet Guide to Thailand has sold countless copies since it first appeared in 1982, visited Haad Rin in 1983 and tells TIME that it was “one of the most beautiful beaches I’d ever seen.” When he next returned in 1989, the full-moon parties were still intimate affairs, attracting no more than 2,000 people.

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These days, however, there can be little doubt of the toll the decades of debauchery have taken on the environment. In addition to the vast quantities of broken glass and plastic strewn across the sand each month, the island is currently in the throes of a freshwater crisis as it seeks to accommodate an unfeasibly large number of visitors. Hard drugs are now part of the scene — as opposed to the relatively benign marijuana and hallucinogenic mushrooms of yore — with ravers these days seeking out ya ba (the local name for crystal meth) as well as ecstasy and heroin. The difference in atmosphere is profound. Drownings have become an unsurprising annual occurrence, given the number of intoxicated revelers on a beach with no lifeguards on duty. Dozens are ferried to mainland hospitals with a litany of indulgence-induced ailments (often severe burns from inebriated bouts of fire dancing). Rapes are frequent and often unreported. Thai police have a well-documented corruption problem and many visitors get caught in stings arranged with local drug dealers, with steep “fines” demanded to secure their release. A nadir was reached last year, when British tourist Stephen Ashton was killed on New Year’s Eve. The 22-year-old was dancing with friends at a waterfront bar when a dispute between two local gangs escalated and someone fired into the crowd. Ashton was hit in the chest and could not be revived. Ekkapan Kaewkla, 26, pleaded guilty to manslaughter.

The Tourist Authority of Thailand has attempted to revamp the Koh Phangan’s image in recent times, and boutique resorts have opened on the more tranquil western and northern shores. A new airport is due to finally open in the fall, meaning the island will be only an hour away from Bangkok, putting it well within reach of the luxury-weekend crowd. It seems that “Koh Phangan’s days as a backpacker place are numbered,” says travel writer Andrew Bond, who has written about Thailand for a decade. In other words, as young people begin to arrive in Haad Rin for the next full-moon party on July 24, they will find an event that is not in any immediate danger of extinction, but one that has certainly passed its hedonistic peak. Considering what the full-moon parties used to be, and what they’ve become, that’s no bad thing.

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20 comments
WritearoundtheW
WritearoundtheW

I live on Koh Samui and see, every month, hundreds of people heading off to Koh Phangan for the Full Moon Party.  I myself, have never been having been caught up too much in negative press.  However, I have friends who have gone. Some say it was a fantastic party and stayed up all night dancing and have stayed in touch with people they've met.  Others found it quiet saying the beach wasn't even full, the music rubbish and the drinks expensive.  Out of all the people I know who've been, only 2 groups have been offered drugs (and refused obviously). I wonder if the negativity is being blown out of proportion?

I have just written a blog article asking people for their opinion here:

http://www.writearoundtheworld.me/full-moon-party/

I'm keen to see what as many people as possible think about it.

AsiaSouthEast-K8
AsiaSouthEast-K8

As many of the previous comments have stated this is an extremely biased view. I understand the best way to get readers is sensationalism but hell, this article would put me off had I not been to two Full Moon Parties this year (Once to film - no buckets consumed and the second time to party with my younger brother who had come out to visit my partner and I.) By the way the figure of 30,000 party goers is exaggerated and those numbers tend only to be around New Years, usually its around 10,000. I saw no drugs other than a few people smoking a joint (NOT recommended given the fines/jail time associated), not one person throwing up, nothing particularly scandalous. I come from near Birmingham in the UK and can say I have seen far worse at the end of a night out in town, with just a few hundred, rather than thousands of people. As JohnLancashire stated, many of the 'backpackers' are taking a well deserved break either before or after university - and why shouldn't they let their hair down?? Yes, Haad Rin is a party town, but Koh Phangan is so much more than that! All I can say is long may the parties continue! 

We have made two short videos of the Full Moon Party in February and September of this year - take a look and see if it looks anything like the article above seems to portray - I don't think so - what do you think???

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ii1FsNy9xxo

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CGc5Ht6aaCU

 Below is my honest review of the February FMP :

http://www.asiasoutheast.com/thailand/the-full-moon-party-koh-phangan


JordiHeguilor
JordiHeguilor

A rename for the article: "I'm too old to score at the full moon parties."

Sandman.
Sandman.

My wife & I backpacked through Thailand and spent a week at Haad Rin beach, on Koh Phangan. This was 2001 and the full moon party we attended had at the most 10,000. We talked & hung out with people from different countries around the world. The alcohol and drug scene was there, but everyone seemed responsible and respectful towards each other. Drinks, rolls, & weed were our choices. People enjoyed the free spirit atomosphere and the party. I am upset to hear they will be building an airport. Getting they by boat and backpacking was part of the real adventure. I was in my twenties during my 9 month stay across Thailiand. I now am 40 & live in St. Charles, IL.  It is upseting to hear what a beautiful island like Koh Phangan is becoming. It is hard to find  out of the way, tropical, untouched, pure locations. I believe life and civilizations do need to advance. But in this world we do need to preserve some special places! Just a thought..........  

JohnLancashire
JohnLancashire

So, I'm guessing as a moderately conservative 50 year old guy that I'm not in the Full Moon Party demographic, but I've got a 17 year old son on holiday playing gooseberry to his parents on this beautiful island paradise, He was desperately wanting to see what it was all about and so I took him along to last night's Full Moon Party. He had the fluorescent body paint bought the t-shirt and we shared a couple of buckets, but for the most part I kept a little distance because I didn't want to cramp his style.

I can honestly say that this is not what I got up to as a teenager/twenty something in the early 80s, but then few of us travelled liked today's youth and my kids find it very quaint that our idea of dance music is The Bee Gees and Donna Summer - things move on.

So what did I witness? Well, the party didn't really get going until 10pm and there was a lot of drinking, not all of it to excess but obviously some of it was, and yes I did see people weeing in the sea. However the lasting impression was a mass letting down of hair by today's overtested, overstressed post high-school youth of the world coming together for a great big beach party on one of the few evenings when they actually manage to generate the emotions associated with not having a care in the world.

All too soon these party people will be graduating, building careers and families, coping with the good stuff and the tough stuff that goes with being grown up, but I for one loved being amongst these young and happy people.

My wife and I dragged our son away at 2am. People were still pouring in, but we were far from being the only ones that decided to call it a day around then. Most of the boys left with the group they came with and as did the girls various land taxis and taxi boats.

I'm really glad I witnessed it. I was just an observer but I know would once have liked to have been one of the 20 somethings and taking part. My son I daresay will be back to be a genuine participant sometime before he joins everybody else in the rat race.

Do I recognise anything from Charlie Campbell's article above? Yes, the fun stuff! The rest is all a bit sensationalist. The sort of claptrap required needed to sell scandal rags to people who like nothing better than to complain about everything.

JeffreyMcCollum
JeffreyMcCollum

What is obvious to me, is with all the drugs, under aged drinking, and crime, with little or nothing done about it, clearly the police are on the take here for profit

Benny_B
Benny_B

Pretty cutting edge stuff, Time. I'd say you're about a decade late though, maybe more.

All the nonsense you imperiously describe was going on in 2003 when I was there and probably before.

No, I'm not trynna go for some sort of 'I got there first'-type claim - just pointing out that this isn't exactly breaking news.

Sensationalist? Definitely.

There are still hundreds of beautiful places to visit in Thailand, and yep, even on Koh Pha Ngan, at least in the north of the island

If you want to go get sh*tfaced with 20,000 other topless backpackers once a month, well, you better expect a bit of unpleasantness as well. 

Much like you'd get at any other gathering of 20,000 drunk gap year kids, anywhere in the world...

Jonoinasia
Jonoinasia

Sorry, but I was recently at Kh Phan Ngan before and after the party on the opposite side of the island to the FM and it's still one of the nicest islands in Thailand that has infrastructure, I didn't experience what this author wrote, it's all relative to your expectations, frankly I find this to be 'trashy' agenda-driven journalism. Sensationalism preying on the emotions of people who hate seeing the paradise beach spoilt by others coming to share it. 

pinkflamingo
pinkflamingo

Thailand in general has become a trashy disgrace

spiceoflife
spiceoflife

Charlie Campbell should get his/her facts right.  In his/her article (3rd paragraph) it states 'packs of feral dogs roamed, so did muggers. Shootings were a fact of life.'

I read Colin Hinshelwoods memoirs, as Charlie suggested. It seemed to me that Colin was remembering his time spent at Chaweng Beach on the island of Koh Samui, six months to a year before his trip to Koh Phangan in October 1988. He did'nt state 'Shootings were a fact of life' either, rather 'the occasional shooting'.

I first came to Koh Phangan in 1991, and returned for many more holidays always staying in Haad Rin, some for months at a time, for several years before permanently moving to the island in 2004, where I still happily live leading a fairly quiet life. The island is a lovely place and best visited out of the full moon times of the month, I choose not to go to Haad Rin any longer. No-one will force you to go there. It's a simple as that. I would add that I feel safer here on Koh Phangan than in my home country, the UK. I wonder how many muggings, shootings, deaths, road accidents, etc., etc., happen in other tourist hot-spots around the world?

wilfredokola
wilfredokola

have to visit in 2014!!!.....am a backpacker and like the article says, its a rite of passage

coffeelover
coffeelover

Went there in 2008 and was having lots of fun until i saw a foreigner being stabbed in the lungs area with an broken beer bottle by a local, all because of a girl. My friend tried to save him but since the boat toke hours to get to the island, unfortunately the guy died. Never going there again.

JamesMall27
JamesMall27

@Benny_B I totally agree with you. As I am the native, I can say that this article has been too exaggerated. There are plenty beautiful beaches in Thailand to visit. PP island is much more lovely than Pangan island. TIME should be more professional in this case.

TyreeDawson
TyreeDawson

@wilfredokola backpackers...ewww.  Full Moon Parties and Vang Vieng Laos nowadays are not examples of local culture.  You guys are the reason low budget travelers and expats are being done away with.  Don't try to stick around and become an English teacher either.

wilfredokola
wilfredokola

@coffeelover sorry....am going in 2014, hope it will be safer!....am a backpacker and like the article says, its a rite of passage

JeffreyMcCollum
JeffreyMcCollum

@Changes_Long Please stay home,  Your not welcome here.  You over exaggerate everything.  Bangkok does not have 18 million people, I think just about every town in the world has some sex trade. And Bangkok is not the biggest in Thailand. Where yes I live 10 minutes away from where you stayed in Chiang Mai.  Chiang Mai does have bad air a few months a year.  but 9 or 10 Crystal clear months.  Yes we have a small tourist district that goes a few blocks, but move away more than the 2 blocks your blog talks about and see the true city.  Seems you post only to plug your blog and I for 1 will  not read it

Falang
Falang

I live here also Pony; my favorite place after 6 years is still Haad Yao. Your family will have relative peace and quiet for about 24 days a month and the beach is gorgeous; still cheap bungalows to be had also, and a west-facing sunset which sees the sun melting into the ocean at 6:30 every night with beach BBQ's and 5 or 6 beachfront restaurants. Haad Salad is nice also, a bit smaller and both are on the west coast.  Thong Nai Pan is in the far north and is a bit more pricy and starting to get crowded. I live in Baan Tai,  we have a 6-mile beach with lots of cheap bungalow operations also but Haad Yao and Salad are much nicer IMO.