It’s the night after the big one, and the moonlit lanes are full of zombies. Clutching half-empty water bottles, shuffling through the puddles with muddy flip-flop feet, the rain-soaked backpackers of Hat Rin look pale beneath their suntans. From the gray bags beneath their eyes, it’s clear that they haven’t slept. And neither, it seems, have the locals.
This is the main party town in Ko Phangan, the Thai island that has bewitched millions of travelers with its full-moon mayhem. Every month, tens of thousands of tourists flock here for a rave in paradise, where the booze comes in buckets and the pounding throb of techno blocks out the bandsaw buzzing of the emerald forests.
An hour earlier, as a warm storm rolled in off the Gulf of Thailand, I’d stepped out of a boat and into a pickup truck. Jangling along like a bag of rusty nails, it tracked the coast for seven miles and trembled to a stop at a shacklike souvenir shop in Hat Rin. A flat-screen TV, exposed to the dripping rain, played video footage from the previous night’s party. As I stared back at the images, smiling instinctively at the sweaty faces bounding across the screen — high on drink or drugs or life — I couldn’t know that someone in Bangkok was off on a spending spree with my credit card.
The journey from Phuket had been a cramped, 11-hour slog past limestone karsts and endless plantations of spindly trees, tapped for their valuable rubber. This west-to-east journey from the Andaman Sea to the Gulf of Thailand involved switching among three minibuses and a wheezy coach before boarding a speedboat to the island. At the wheel of the final minibus was a plump, gap-toothed man with a cigarette-stained smile, who drove as if crashes never happen. He squeezed the vehicle in and out of the fast lane, narrowly missing trucks full of chickens, as well as scooters that wobbled beneath the weight of whole families.
“We’re on a kangaroo!” beamed Enrico, a wide-eyed Italian backpacker I’d met on the journey, as bumps in the road sent shock waves up our spines. We figured we were rushing to catch the boat and gave the driver the benefit of the doubt. But when we pulled up at a grimy travel agent’s shop and were told to wait an hour and a half for a “big bus” that would take us to the ferry terminal, all that rushing seemed unnecessary.
This big bus, however, serves a very special purpose. While the weary passengers find their seats, their backpacks are loaded into the hold. Then, once the wheels start turning, a nimble-fingered man in the bowels of the bus begins his search for valuables. It’s an age-old thieving trick on the tourist buses that ply Thailand’s most popular routes, and I’d hoped to avoid it by keeping everything valuable (laptop, camera) and difficult to replace (passport, guidebook stuffed with notes) in a rucksack on my lap. The only exception was a credit card, which I’d hidden in the lining of my main pack as an emergency backup. Undeterred by having to rummage through a week’s worth of dirty laundry, the thief had managed to find it.
The next morning, when my bank’s fraud prevention department called, asking whether I’d performed more than a thousand dollars’ worth of transactions in Bangkok, I was slouched in a bar near the beach, listening to a group of English backpackers enjoying a game of post-party one-upmanship. “I woke up in the passport office!” screeched one girl, earrings jiggling excitedly side to side (there is no passport office on the island). “I rejected Lonely Planet’s advice about drinking and drugs, and I won!” announced her vest-wearing friend, flashing peace signs all around. “Oh, my God! Three rum-and-Cokes for breakfast!” cooed another.
By the time I’d convinced the bank of my innocence, the storytellers had up and left. And as I walked through town, the extent of the post-party exodus became obvious. It seemed as if the only people left in Hat Rin were those beached in streetside cafes, unable to summon the energy to move away from the endless reruns of Friends and Family Guy. Here, as in a lot of places on Southeast Asia’s backpacker trail, it’s American sitcoms and banana pancakes that get visitors through the day.
Signs of abuse
Hat Rin’s main party beach is a beauty queen, but she’s showing the strains of her notoriety. That morning, teams of local men and women in blue shirts were scratching through her sandy wrinkles with brushes, picking out hundreds of cigarette butts and blue drinking straws that had been dropped, swallowed by the sea, and spat back out again at high tide. I’d been to the Full Moon Party before, and a part of me wished that I’d arrived a day or two earlier to give it another shot. But at the same time, I knew that there must be more to this island than drinking from a bucket, scrawling obscenities across my chest in day-glow body paint (something of a fad among backpackers in Southeast Asia) and dancing until dawn.
I took a truck ride back to the boat landing at Thong Sala, where travelers were waiting for a boat back to the mainland, or hoping to seek relief from their hangovers on the nearby island of Ko Tao, where diving is the main attraction. But I wanted to stay on Ko Phangan, heading north along a jungle-wrapped road that cuts through the island. I’d heard rumors of pristine beaches, cheap beachfront bungalows and abundant tropical wildlife. And I’d also heard rumors of an airport under construction.
The drivers by the pier negotiated hard, but one eventually agreed to take me all the way to Thong Noi Pan Yai, part of a swooping double bay on the northeast side of the island, which is split in half by a rocky headland. There was no room inside the stuffy pickup, so I spent the next 40 minutes clinging to metal rails in the back, ducking banana leaves and bare electric cables that drooped between the palm trees.
Smoothly, carefully, we rounded the sandy corners. But it wasn’t long before tarmac turned to a curry-colored paste of dirt and rain, which got trapped in the wheels, shaking the suspension left and right. A couple of elephants eyed me cautiously as we sped past them, my eyes blinking furiously to keep out the flies that whooshed over the windshield.
Soon the potholes disappeared, and the sound of cicadas triumphed, thundering through the forest like rain on an iron roof. Then a dreamy vision appeared on the horizon: a turquoise, horseshoe-shaped bay hemmed in by soaring crags. The road stopped on the village’s only street, and the sound of punchy Thai pop led me down toward the beach. Small clusters of bungalows sat serenely behind a row of rustling palm trees. Most were empty, so I opted for the place closest to where I’d been dropped, and threw my bags down in a wooden bungalow on stilts a few steps from the beach. That night I was the only guest, apart from a foot-long tokay gecko in the bathroom, which watched me while I showered, emitting toadlike mating calls from somewhere deep within its stripey blue neck.
Most budget accommodations in Ko Phangan are still like this: threadbare sheets, walls that let the wildlife in and a simple bathroom plumbed in hastily using bendy blue pipes, which drip onto a slippery tiled floor. Pay extra, and you might get heated water. In this part of the island, there are also a couple of top-end hotels — including the Anantara, where guests get private plunge pools with their villas, and Panviman Resort, built on the headland between two bays. But overall, development still feels unhurried when compared with neighboring island Ko Samui (home to an international airport), where luxury apartments, condos and hotels continue to spring up around every corner.
Next year that could change. Not far from Thong Noi Pan’s double bay, Kan Air, a domestic airline, has started to build a 3,600-foot runway that will allow passengers to fly in from other parts of Thailand, saving them the hassle of a long bus and boat ride. And although the runway will be suitable only for small planes at first, it could pave the way for extensions in the future — opening Ko Phangan up to tourists with more financial clout than the usual crowd of thrifty backpackers.
Posters hinting at the arrival of a new airport have appeared in Thong Sala, but most of the local people I spoke to seemed unconcerned, or unaware, that heavy machines were already rolling in to work on the landing strip and a small terminal building. My chat with Coco, a bar worker in Hat Rin, reflected the general mood. “I’ve heard something,” he said, “but I don’t know much about it. Maybe it’s already finished.” Kan Air said it expects the first flights from Bangkok to begin at the end of this year.
Thong Noi Pan Yai is blissfully quiet. But for me, one night alone with a lovesick gecko was enough. After lazing on the hot sand, diving headlong into the waves, then drying off with a walk down the freshly tarred street, I decided to return to Thong Sala, the port town where my boat had arrived that first stormy night. It’s a place where ordinary life continues despite the constant flow of Europeans, Americans, Australians and Israelis. Mothers sit at tables by the road, chopping lemongrass and galangal, sipping coconut juice or fiddling with their mobile phones. Kids, carrying the same little plastic buckets that tourists come here to drink from, help wash the rows of cheap Honda scooters, which their dads rent out to backpackers for 200 baht (about $6.50) a day.
To find out more about life in the town, I asked Oi, who runs the local cooking school, to take me to the market. We stopped by a stall selling lime leaves, red snapper and waxy green chilies. “Normally we buy fish or meat here,” she said, nodding toward a row of yellowed chicken parts. “But if you want to do vegetarian, we can make like that.” The result, after 10 minutes next to a searing hot wok, was a feast of tangy soup, fiery papaya salad and a nutty massaman curry. As I sweated through each course, watching the traffic roar by, I thought about the island’s changing face.
Local legend says that the Full Moon Party started here in the mid-1980s, with just a small group of travelers. Since then it has grown every year to dominate life on Ko Phangan and become one of the world’s biggest beach parties. To keep up with the demand, the island now hosts waterfall parties, jungle parties, half-moon parties and black-moon parties in various locations. What difference, I wondered, would an airport make? Will a new influx of tourists destroy the party scene for good?
Or will the backpackers — with their neon body paint and tall tales — hold on to what they’ve created? The answer, like the water lapping at Hat Rin’s main party beach, is anything but clear.