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.