Finding the quiet side of Thailand’s party island
The monthly full-moon party on Ko Phangan draws tens of thousands of tourists, but there’s much more to the Thai island than hard partying — and a new airport may bring far-reaching change.
The Washington Post
If you go
Where to stay
The most luxurious hotel on the island; doubles from about $300.
Basic beachside bungalows in a location convenient for both Thong Sala and Hat Rin, as long as you have a motorbike. Doubles from about $28.
Thailand tourist office: tourismthailand.org/us
Also see: phangan.info
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.
I 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.
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.
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 Thai 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, so I headed 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 jad 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. It wasn’t long before pavement turned to a curry-colored paste of dirt and rain. A couple of elephants eyed us cautiously as we sped past them, my eyes blinking furiously to keep out the flies that whooshed over the windshield.
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 simple wooden bungalows sat serenely behind a row of rustling palm trees. That night I was the only guest, apart from a footlong tokay gecko in the bathroom, which watched me while I showered, emitting toadlike mating calls.
Most budget accommodation in Ko Phangan is still like this: threadbare sheets, walls that let the wildlife in, and a simple bathroom plumbed in hastily using bendy blue pipes. 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.
Local legend says that the Full Moon Party started on the island 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.