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Tom Vater

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Tom Vater on Thailand’s Full Moon Parties

Tom Vater’s take on the legendary Full Moon Party, a monthly open-air dance event on the tourist island of Ko Phangan in Thailand has been published by the South Eastern Globe. Unfortunately, the magazine’s website crashed….so here’s the full text…

The Bucket People – Full Moon Party Ko Phang Ngan, Thailand

“I am a cat,” the girl slurs. She doesn’t look like a cat. She’s wearing a skin tight see-through bodice over a bikini that went reasonably well with her high heels when she started the night. Her two best friends are providing physical support and guidance as she twirls aimlessly from reveler to reveler on Hat Rin Beach, Ko Phangan, Thailand.

She is not alone. The beach is littered with thousands of young people consuming each other and the world to the sound of techno music.

Welcome to the Full Moon Party, one of the most celebrated and long-running dance culture events on the planet. Since the early 1990s, Ko Phangan, a small island in the Gulf of Thailand, has been part of the Axis of Techno that stretches from Ibiza to Goa and the Far East. Over the years, hundreds of thousands of young people from the West have flocked to Hat Rin Beach to party.

The girl, who’s Swedish, 19 and not quite ready for anything, has collapsed and her friends are chattering excitedly about the excessive amount of alcohol she has consumed. When she comes round, she’ll be able to take comfort in the fact that thousands will feel just like her when they wake up – they will remember nothing about the music, the lights, or the 8000 or so other party people gathered for this beautiful night in the tropics.

Tom Green, the British publisher of Phangan-Info, the island’s longest-running listings magazine recounts the beginnings of the infamous event.

“I think it was a guy called John who started it all. No one is sure exactly when, but one night, about sixteen years ago, John celebrated his birthday on Had Rin Beach and it happened to be a full moon. So delighted was John that he would be able to stay on the brightly lit beach all night celebrating, that he decided to have another party the following month. That’s how it all started.”

The thirty-five-year old Green is the only foreign member of the Assasamat Tong Tiaw, the Tourist Volunteers, one of two organizations which assist the police in organizing the festival.

After more than a decade of parties, attendance figures continue to climb. Green notes, “In season more than 20.000 people turn up. On Millenium Eve, 35.000 kids danced on the beach. But the event hasn’t moved on since. Basically, nothing is really organized and that’s a shame. The only thing that’s efficient these days is the cleaning of the beach after the party.”

Along the bay, ten bars set up sound systems that play House, Trance, Eminem remixes and a lot of Euro Techno. And that’s it. That’s all you get. This is the global event. In contrast to festivals in Europe and the US, the Full Moon Party is devoid of visual or intellectual thrills, but for some fire-juggling – there are no stilt walkers or eccentric inflatables, no esoteric movies flashing across giant screens, no book stalls offering fringe lit or Greenpeace propaganda. Most incredibly, there is no program of any kind. No DJs are announced and no one knows what kind of music is being played at which sound system.

Green and his colleagues at Assasamat Tong Tiaw bemoan the lack of organization, “The bars aren’t talking to each other. The event could be so much safer and more enjoyable, but fierce competition makes a festival plan a total impossibility. For the Thai organisers it works well enough as it is.”

But events like the Full Moon Party have a momentum of their own and clearly, South East Asia’s largest dance event has seen better days. In recent years, a spate of violence has afflicted the festival. Tom Green’s main job as a volunteer has been to stop fights. Anytime a brawl is about to occur, the Assasamat Tong Tiaw call the police who come and break up conflict situations. Green is not surprised by the increasing disharmony on the beach, “There’s an incredible clash of sub-cultures coming to this event, from all over the world. And everyone is completely out of it, so of course there are problems. Nowadays, there are regular shootings and stabbings.”

But it’s not just the sheer diversity of visitors that’s changed the event, “Young people are less discerning about the music, and about the drugs they take. They just come here to get out of it. There are more beer boys these days. And then there are the police checks of course.”

Thailand has a strong anti-drugs message for tourists. Prior to the event, road blocks set up. Plain clothes officers patrol the site on the look-out for marihuana smokers. Nevertheless, perhaps a third of the visitors are tripping on Ecstasy, MDMA or LSD. The retail is in the hands of locals. At the far corners of the beach, young toughs offer a whole arsenal of illegal substances and potent magic mushroom shakes are freely available at several bars. For those too intimidated by the risks or too bewildered by the contradictions of local law enforcement, the legal poison – because poison the revelers will have, no matter what – is the Bucket. For just over 3 $, party-goers can purchase a small plastic bucket with a quart of Thai whiskey, Red Bull and Coke. Even the pharmacies on Hat Rin Beach Road sell Buckets. Thousands of them.

Two or three hours into this drunk-fest and Hat Rin Beach is littered with casualties. The Swedish girl and her friends are back, still twirling, but her eyes have receded deeply into her strained face. In the crowd she recognizes me a second time and tries to smile. But it’s too late for subtleties; she merely leans forward and pukes her drunken brain into the sand. And she’s not alone, as rows of girls and boys line the shoreline. They are not looking for lovers or at the full moon over the placid bay, nor at the glittering phosphorescence in the water, which adds silent magic to the world. They are staring straight down at the waterline, retching into the surf. Some urinate, swaying in the shallow water, while others swim around in spastic circles, like maimed fish. On full moon night on Ko Phangan, the urge to have fun, to trip out, or even to fall in love, has been replaced by the Bucket.

Postscript September 2009:

I have just been to Ko Phangan. The island was deserted, in part because it was still low season, in part because the Thai government has very recently announced that it intends to make the island drug-free in order to attract family holiday makers, rather than young drug-addled backpackers. The only incentive so far has been the establishment of a red light area between Thong Sala and Had Rin to welcome (the dads of) the holidaying families from around the world.

Despite police road blocks being set up around the island in which foreigners are intimidated and rudely searched, drugs continue to be widely available and many resorts allegedly continue to sell drugs, which they allegedly purchase from the police.

My advice to tourists wanting to have a good and safe time in Thailand – consider a different island until the contradictory policies are clearer.

2 Responses to “Tom Vater on Thailand’s Full Moon Parties”

  1. 1
    Allin Lede:

    Tom, i party as hard as i can. i like being loose. alot. but the full moon party is the icing on the cake of what “travelling” has now become. you described the full moon party perfectly. Your most accurate description though, was of the people they still classify as “backpackers” that attend this event. it seems like “travelling” is in, and thinking is out.

  2. 2
    tom:

    Hi Allin,
    Thanks for your positive comments. That is, about my story.
    I was back at the Full Moon Party in April this year and the scene had not changed.
    What has changed is that TAT (Thailand’s Tourist Authority) has finally embraced the event and is actively promoting it in some of their regional offices.
    Full Moon is now part of the established tourist attractions of Thailand. Anyone thinking this event is somehow youth culture, dance culture or counter culture should go and have a look…one is likely to bump into a few thousand tanned holiday makers flown in from Europe’s suburbs, dancing in the sand. Shoes will help a lot to avoid the broken glass that litters the beach.

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