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.