It’s an old cliché to bemoan what is compared to what used to be. But as the morning sun rises over the fluoro debris and thousands of empty plastic cups from the night before, it's hard for me to do much else.
I’m standing on a crowded Haad Rin beach on Thailand’s idyllic Koh Phangan, home to the original and now infamous Full Moon Party. Hours before, 20,000 bodies writhed together in motion to pulsating house music, fuelled by cheap alcohol and magic mushroom milkshakes. Now, among the rapidly sobering hardcore who continue to dance, a smattering of those bodies dot the beach, their semi-conscious, half-naked torsos slowly roasting in the Thai sun. They lie surrounded by beer bottles, shattered glass, and plastic buckets.
It's all a bit depressing, but of course there's nothing particularly original about any of this. The descent of the Full Moon Party from fabled hippy love-in to an 18-30-club-rave-on-sea has been in motion for years. Once arcane events attended by 30 or so loved up psytrancers who, for all their faults, at least seemed to be striving for some kind of spiritual experience, now the Full Moon Parties seem to be yet another hedonistic playpen for actuarial science students whose idea of a spiritual experience is getting a henna tattoo.
Annabelle, 21, from Leighton Buzzard, told me, "We are going to get very drunk," and that any concerns for safety that she and her group might have were likely to "go out the window after a few drinks." She wore multiple bandages on her legs and arm—the result of a fall from a stage at a party earlier in the week.
I spent much of the night itself alongside the Royal Thai Police. For the first time in the event's history, uniformed officers were present on the beach itself, surveying the situation from a makeshift security center in an effort to create a more visible police presence. They were there on recommendation of the British embassy, whose representatives told me they had "an active interest" in the party and in keeping the revelers safe.
It was a slow start, but as the evening progressed a steady stream of people meandered into the police tent. Some just wanted their photo taken with the police—who were always happy to oblige—but most had either lost their friends, had possessions stolen, or needed directions to the nearby medical tent.
In one incident, a young man stumbled toward the tent, blood pouring down his front after apparently stabbing himself with a pen. The officers, somewhat bemused, watched, as he stumbled away. The medics in the tent had yet to arrive so he was left to his own devices.
Next up was a couple who had been dancing on a stage when a group of five Westerners snatched the woman's phone and knocked her to the ground. The police nodded and wrote down their details, but nobody appeared under any illusions that anything would or could be done in response.
Later, a team of plainclothes police officers appeared with a young man hauling a heavy diners barrel. The officer in charge told me that the man—who, he was quick to point out, was not Thai, but Burmese—had been arrested after one of the bars was found to be serving drinks containing mushrooms. It was never explained to me why another bar farther down the beach that was openly serving similar drinks was free to stay open.
Elsewhere on the beach, for those brave enough or drunk enough, there were burning ropes to jump over, rings of fire to dive through, and flaming bars to limbo under. The young Thais in charge of turning the ropes and holding up the rings appeared to be as drunk as the tourists and, for the most part, seemed oblivious to what was happening around them. One unfortunate daredevil went up in flames, his body entangled by a burning rope. He managed to run into the sea before he was seriously injured.
The rest of the night was basically just a parade of increasingly drunk people walking up and down the beach, each clinging to their own buckets of whisky and Red Bull. But as drunk as everyone was, it wasn't quite the "carnage" that I'd been told to expect by the owner of a local Irish bar. "Have you seen One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest? That's what it's like," he had told me.
Perhaps the increased police presence had helped tame things a little. Dr. Worawut, a senior doctor at the local hospital, told me that it was much worse ten years ago, when harder drugs were readily available. Nowadays it seems that most of the people selling pills on the beach are undercover police—in fact, I saw one guy fall into their trap before being led away in handcuffs.
But not every Full Moon Party is so tame. A previous visitor to the island, Becki Beckmann—a 44-year-old German traveler who first attended in 1992 and was shot in Koh Phangan—told me simply that while it used to be a genuine experience, it was now just an obnoxiously messy affair, a night you could have at any superclub anywhere in the world, just with sand and buckets of booze instead of dry ice and $9 beers.
"I think it changed slowly over the years," he told me. "In 1992 it was still sort of secret, but by 2000 it was a worldwide known event." And with its fame, Beckman told me, more and more people started to arrive, including those looking to exploit the growing crowds: "Those sorts of criminals looking for the easy money during the party; the robbers, the thieves, the guys trying to sell aspirin as ecstasy, spiking drinks, raping girls—all these sorts."
The list of serious incidents to occur at full moon parties is a grim one. In March of 2008, a British tourist was stabbed to death as he tried to break up a fight. In January 2009, a female German tourist was found dead, floating in shallow water off the beach. In September 2009, a French tourist was found hung in a police cell. And in January this year another British tourist, Stephen Ashton, 22, was killed—an accidental victim of a gun fight between two rival Thai gangs. Of course, there are many more casualties than those.
I asked Beckmann if he thought anything would change. "There are millions of tourists flooding in each year to Thailand," he answered. "Who cares about those few cases of people being raped, shot, killed, murdered, drugged, or dying in an accident?" For the island, he added, "It's just a steady flow of income—it has made them rich."
It seems even the current batch of tourists couldn't care less about the darker side. One police officer told me that he had been there the night that Stephen Ashton was killed; when I asked him whether the party had been canceled, he said, "nobody cared," adding, "they just kept on dancing." Indeed, a few hours prior to the party I went to, Alex—an 18-year-old student from Manchester—had told me bluntly, "People die, but we're just here to have fun."
Some more parties we've been to: