If you’ve ever backpacked in Southeast Asia or have undertaken casual research into the global party scene, you’re familiar with Thailand’s Full Moon Party. Whenever that lunar ball is all lit up in the heavens, alcohol and travelers wash ashore on Ko Phangan, an island in the Gulf of Thailand.
My first experience at the party — which is held on Haad Rin, a beach in the southeast corner of the island — was in the year 2000. I recall making friends, having conversations, and most of us drinking in relative moderation as we conversed. I remember the humid air, the laughter, the sitting in sand with people from the Netherlands, New Zealand, Thailand, and other countries that make the world so amazing. I might have even danced a time or two.
I’ve been back to the party since then, once in 2004 and twice in 2007 (the pictures in this post are from 2007). I enjoyed it those times too. But not as much, or at least not in the same way. The crowds and noise were greater, and as the night wore on so did the trash and vomit in the sand. I suppose I was older too, and this may have made a difference. But still I enjoyed it. The Full Moon Party on Ko Phangan could on some moons reel in up to 30,000 revelers, and I suspect I will always be drawn to venues where thousands of people from every continent congregate.
But a crowded hedonistic bash like this has its downsides. I wrote about my 2007 visit in a mostly lighthearted Perceptive Travel article titled “The Backpackers’ Pilgrimage: Ko Phangan.” The article ends with a view of the trashed beach at sunrise, and the feeling that people aren’t the only things hungover the morning after. So is the environment.
Other articles have roundly condemned the monthly event, like you would a building full of asbestos that needs to be torn down. In 2013, Time published “Thailand’s Full-Moon Parties Have Become a Trashy Disgrace” where the author writes that “this onetime Eden has degenerated into a modern-day Gomorrah awash in tawdry techno, cheap fast food and wasted millennials” and that “[backpackers] risk at the very least their dignity, and at most their lives, to fulfill what is now a backpacker rite of passage.” In 2014, Slate.com published “The Worst Party in Asia“. The piece concludes, “With the deaths, environmental damage, fighting, and general debauchery, you would think that a party that draws tens of thousands of people, month after month, would at least be … fun. It’s not.” Vice.com published a piece with the catchy title “Thailand’s Full Moon Parties Have Been Taken Over by YOLO Idiots“.
Other authors have written things that have nothing to do with the Full Moon Party but still manage to bring it to mind. For example, in this passage from Heart of Darkness, published in 1899, Joseph Conrad is speaking about the upper reaches of the Congo. But close your eyes and open your imagination, recalling the sights and sounds of Haad Rin at 4:00 a.m. on a Full Moon, and you might see a connection:
The earth seemed unearthly. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there—there you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly, and the men were—No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it—this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled, and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity—like yours—the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly, yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of their being a meaning in it which you—you so remote from the night of first ages—could comprehend.”
Would I return for another Full Moon Party? My last trip to Ko Phangan was in 2011, and I was content to stay on the other side of the island that year. My time was short, and I had other priorities. But I wouldn’t mind catching another one someday for the same reason I’d like to return to Shanghai and see how the skyline continues to change, or visit some international conference to see how different cultures relate, or go to a power plant to see how energy is created, or go back to some place from my past and reflect on the passage of time.
But there are thousands of other things I’d rather do first.