Perceptive Travel - The Backpackers' Pilgrimage: Ko Phangan

Print

The Backpackers' Pilgrimage: Ko Phangan
By Joel Carillet



When the moon is full, a single beach on a single island in Thailand becomes the riotous journey's end for thousands of backpackers making their way through Southeast Asia. Joel Carillet stays alert enough to document the carnage.


For two days a tide of backpackers has been washing ashore. Hauling their packs and tattoos under a blazing island sun, they search for a home. The rooms, however, quickly begin to fill, and then it begins: cursing in Hebrew, Swedish, English, Croatian, Norwegian, French, Danish, Polish, Dutch, German, Japanese, Mandarin, Portuguese, and Italian. The haggard pilgrims are sent toward the horizon, told they will find rooms somewhere far, far down the beach. Soon entrepreneurial locals are offering to shuttle the masses by long tail boat to guesthouses three miles away.

I watch all this from the swinging comfort of a hammock tied to my porch, for I had arrived eight days earlier, so that I would not need to curse.

Haad Rin Ko Phangan

The atmosphere is reminiscent of Christmas Eve. But there are some differences too, seen, for example, in the passing man whose shirt edifies all who can read: "Penis—you got the right one baby." This maxim is set against a Pepsi background. Earlier I had seen a shirt that borrowed from the Dunkin Donuts trademark and simply said "Fuckin' Go Nuts." The words were crude yet carried the weight of prophecy. And those who wear the shirts are indeed prophets. They are voices crying, if not in the wilderness, at least on the beach and on bar stools: "Get ready to party, for the Full Moon is near!"

Still, I can't help but think of Christmas. The bars are strung with Christmas lights and the inns are full. Anticipation hangs heavy in the air. Of course I know that the crowd anticipates the advent of mass drunkenness instead of the birth of the Christ-child. Instead of opening boxes many men dream of lifting skirts. And in addition to good cheer there will be the ardent search for cold beer.

Storming the Beach
When the actual day of the Full Moon Party dawns, men and women are still pouring into Haad Rin. Even well into the evening, vehicle headlights bear witness to the masses streaming down the steep mountain road. Out to sea boat lights stretch like planes lining up at O'Hare, ferrying anxious pilgrims from Ko Samui and the mainland. From the east and west they come: prostitutes, undercover cops, sexual predators, Russians, Thais, Europeans, and on and on and on. By midnight a stretch of sand a few hundred meters wide will fill with an estimated, let's say, 8,000 people.

The history of how this party began is clouded in myth—is it possible for something so young to be clouded in myth?—but it seems to have originated in the late 80s or early 90s. A young yet powerful tradition, it probably is not too much to say that Haad Rin on a full moon is to many backpackers what Mecca is to Muslims during the Hajj. The same overcrowding and commercial opportunism, but with a fervor that stems from a different kind of devotion.

Showered and psyched, I lock up my hut and work my way into a swell of people who themselves are working their way to the beach. It is 11 pm. Painted bodies, flesh, muscles, and midriffs. I blink and then see legs, cleavage, and glow-in-the-dark headbands. I blink again: another McShit shirt, then one that queries, "I've lost my virginity, may I have yours?"

Thai party buckets

The crowd thickens as we near the beach, and all grows louder: the Aussies shouting their cheers around a televised rugby match; Thai woman explaining the price of various plastic punch buckets and their assorted liquors; the odd comment about "I hated Vietnam—too touristy" or "This is my eighth full moon party" or "Have you tried the magic mushroom omelet?" I bounce against blonde-haired, bronzed-skin Swedes. Moments later I am caught up in a rivulet of Israelis, whose numbers here are well into the hundreds, hollering in Hebrew things I don't understand. Yet I recognize the sound and am taken back to West Bank checkpoints and jeeps and M-16s. Just months or even weeks ago many of these backpackers were indeed manning checkpoints, sitting in jeeps, and holding M-16s. But their army service is done now: let the party begin.

full moon partyI stop for a fruit shake (50 cents), and then for a banana and Nutella crepe (75 cents), and then to conclude I use my molars to demolish a schnitzel sandwich ($1). I pass the group doing henna tattoos, pass the man that looks like Jesus (a Spaniard, I presume) and walk beside a fellow whose t-shirt, while appearing to be a 7-Eleven logo, in fact says 7-Inches. Shortly after passing the pharmacy door that advertised "after pill here", my Tevas hit sand. I have arrived.

The Party Congregation
It is a mighty congregation, with beer and buckets. It is also a charismatic congregation: hands raised, even dancing. "Shake that thing," throbs Sean Paul, his voice pouring out of the sound system at the Cactus Bar. And two Swedes, blonde and bronzed, shake their things.  Phenomenal, this power of music.

I walk deeper into the crowd. "Hey, ecstasy?" a local asks. I say no and stumble upon a man slain by the spirits—by a whole bucket full of spirits, I deduce, vomit gurgling out of his mouth and onto the sand upon which he lays. By dawn young souls like this will be scattered about like driftwood, motionless and in all sorts of contorted positions.

I pass two fire dancers swinging flaming balls in circles. Techno music thumps the ground. Techno music also thumps the sky—though perhaps the sky cannot be thumped?—and thumps the eardrums. I hear a man say to the girl he is with, "Dump your bucket…I think I saw that guy over there slip something in it when he passed." Indeed, a passing man may very well have done just that. Rape sometimes happens here at the backpacker's pilgrimage site. (On this very night I would watch a man attempt to take away a British woman, who was unconscious and alone.)

full moon partyThe tonnage of alcohol being consumed around me is ferocious. The Chang and Singha and Heineken and Jack Daniels and Seagram and so on and so on. It pours into the bodies…and then it pours from the bodies into the sea. Scores of men and women wade to their ankles or knees and then relieve themselves into the unsuspecting Gulf of Thailand. Never has a bay seen so much urine and vomit. Some stand like sentinels, looking out to sea in silence.  Others are so smashed they struggle with balance. A man teeters and pees on a friend. A woman requires help pulling her shorts down, apparently unaware that she has waded out with drinks still in her hand.

There is energy when people come together, an addictive energy, even if it isn't always healthy. Some say, with derision, that this gathering is all about gluttony, lust, and hedonism. I say, "Duh."

Half way into my third loop through the crowd, a Thai man attempts to set a six-foot python upon my back, a move which I repel not out of snake-phobia, but out of budgetary constraints: impoverished even by backpacker standards, I will not pay to press the flesh with reptiles. This is also why, five minutes later, I rebuff the advances of iguana-man. The great-grandfather-like appearance of the reptile smacks of cruelty, for no animal that looks 102 should be at a party this loud, this late.

I pass a man whose t-shirt tells me, "The deeper you go, the better it feels." And so I am inspired, turning around for yet another loop, this time entering the crowd via the shoreline.  

The Tide Turns

The evening is wearing on, which means some people are wearing out. The landscape is such that I wonder if an angel of death has swept low over the sands, spraying the throng with pesticide so that a few have dropped like flies. full moon partyBut most, their immune system in tip-top shape, continue to buzz and get buzzed. As for me, I pause to pee. Striding out to sea, I unzip my shorts and watch my urine slap the water. A strobe light tilts my way and almost prompts me to dance. But I do not dance. Instead, I look 20 feet to my right, where a chubby drunk man, also calf-deep in water, is attempting to embrace the two girls he has come across.

The scene seems uncouth, not merely because the man is a complete stranger to the girls but because the girls are at this very moment trying to pee, their bare bottoms hovering inches over the Pacific Ocean. The drunk man leans forward to slap their bottoms twice, presumably because he is smitten. In response, the bottoms take evasive action, swinging left, right, and then left again, one even taking a dive into the sea. But in the end they fail to avoid his touch. His chivalrous actions complete, he stands upright and teeters back to dry land. Suddenly I realize: just because life emerges from the sea doesn't mean it is evidence of evolutionary progress.

A Thai man asks if I wish to hold his falcon, a beautiful bird I fear a young German woman standing nearby will barbeque. She is learning—for the very first time, I should add—to swing flaming balls. I decline the invitation to hold the falcon and continue on, passing a surprisingly unattractive prostitute who, after catching my eye and smiling, lifts up her shirt to reveal that which lies under the shirt. For numerous reasons, I decline her invitation, too.

The mood of the revelers is changing now. The sweat and smell and tightness of the crowd, once exhilarating, now begins to irritate the hell out of people, at least the three Brits in front of me. "Fuck!" says one. About one dozen inebriated individuals, all of them laughing, have just brushed by him in slow succession. This affronts him and an elbow swings. I imagine the Brits would not do well in Calcutta. I also imagine I should now be on alert for violence. Finally I imagine that, creeping out of the back alleys of my own soul, is my own propensity for violence. I notice this most vividly when a drunk American, tired of the crowd's stagnant pace, shoves into me—hard.

Multi-lingual conversations grow less coherent, more twisted. Vomiting picks up pace. Bodies collapse. I see one large fellow who, on account of being unconscious, is undisturbed by the incoming tide lapping at his legs. I ponder hauling him up the sand, which might have the effect of saving his life. But in the name of journalistic neutrality I leave him be, though I will return later to ensure someone has saved him. (Someone does.)

By 4:00 a.m. the tone of the party shifts again. That is to say, the party has become a petting zoo and many people are making out, furiously. Tongues twist and glisten, and hands grope with less inhibition. I see them rubbing crotches, breasts, and necks.

The Aftermath
By the time the first hues of dawn start to color the sky, the party, which has been flying high for hours now, begins its descent. A few stubborn souls—probably a thousand of them—are still at it, but they are tired. Soon even these diehards will disband, and the beach will be left alone.

Haad Rin Beach

But before they do, and as the sky grows brighter, I notice the party doesn't seem as fun anymore. Energy and music are giving way to a trashed beach and unclean sand. Cigarette butts and beer bottles, empty buckets and forgotten sandals—this is the island at dawn. Suddenly I feel as if humankind came here this week, en masse, not simply to party, but also to give nature a hangover.

Or maybe I just need to go to bed.



Joel Carillet is the author of 30 Reasons to Travel: Photographs and Reflections from Southeast Asia. His writing and photography have appeared in venues such as the Christian Science Monitor, Best Travel Writing 2008, Everywhere, World Hum, and Encounters with the Middle East. He writes a biweekly travel column for Gather.com called "Reflections on the Road" and is currently shopping around a manuscript entitled Sixty-One Weeks: A Journey Across Asia. You can find him at JoelCarillet.com




Related stories:

Pub Crawl in Nowhere by Graham Reid
Backpacker Caberet at the Juggler's Youth Hostel by Leif Pettersen
Tantric Sex for Dilettantes by Rolf Potts

Other Asia travel stories from the archives




Bookmark and Share
Read this article online at: http://perceptivetravel.com/issues/1108/fullmoon.html

Copyright (C) Perceptive Travel 2008. All rights reserved.


Also in this Issue



Books from the Author:

30 reasons to travel

Buy 30 Reasons to Travel: Photographs and Reflections from Southeast Asia at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
The Publisher












REI.com