Koh Phangan is (in)famous for its Full Moon Party – an event where thousands of beautifully tanned young English-speaking Europeans, Australians and Americans proudly display their six-packs and cleavages, drinking mixed alcohol from buckets, their feet cut with broken glass scattered in the beach sand, getting wasted (and hopefully laid) to an echoing cacophony of US Billboard top 10.
Many people say Koh Phangan is heart-shaped, but for the sake of this explanation, let’s simplify it into a square. In the lower-left corner is Thon Sala – the island’s town. The lower edge is an extension of the town with supermarkets, atmosphereless night clubs, steak bars and, most important – hostels. Important because this is the way to the lower-right corner, Haad Rin, the Full Moon Beach. A concrete skeleton of a peeling, abandoned unfinished hotel casting shade on faceless souvenir shops immediately makes you understand where you are. While most people come here with a simple and positive reason to have a good time, what they don’t realise is that the Thai people spend their childhood looking at falangs (whites) who are either drunk or hungover, and in the natural disrespect learning to extract cash from the ones who have less brains but more in their wallets.
Without this introduction I wouldn’t be able to say that the reason I’m writing this is as simple as that: the rest of Koh Phangan is completely different.
A typical landscape of Koh Phangan: a narrow but very decent country road winds gently between palm groves where water buffaloes calmly search for mud that would cool them down. At some point the road climbs higher up between the jungle-clad mountains and reveals an amazing view of the island, the sea and rock-islands rising straight up from the sea on the horizon.
The wind blows in your eyes and you might choke a bit when you pass a road-side bamboo restaurant where they had just thrown some chillies on the wok. Slow down, it’s dangerous to ride a motorbike with tears in your eyes. You pass a beautiful temple, one of the numerous yoga schools, maybe the one where they run month-long courses teaching all aspects of yoga, from breathing to what we in the West call psychology and philosophy. You stop for a delicious vegetarian dinner, looking at the sun setting over the vertical rock islands and casting pink light on the golden sand, the latter reflecting the mixture of colours to let them lit coconut palms from below. The food you’re eating was still growing in the ground and on fruit trees half an hour ago. As your eyes get tearful again, you regret adding so much chilli.
Full and happy, you wonder whether you should stay at home tonight and have some good rest so you can finally go trekking to the waterfall tomorrow, or join the drum-and-bass party your neighbours told you about. Most of friends of yours are off to a trance doof at one of the beaches to the east, accessible only by a boat rented from Haad Rin. You have a beer or do some yoga and finally make up your mind – you’ll go to the jam session in one of the many beach bars.
After a refreshing ride through the palm groves, you arrive at the spot, a little worried how you’ll find yourself in a crowd where you don’t know anyone. You get off the bike and enter the bar – it’s constructed from bamboo, simply but well decorated – the Thai speciality. Beach is the dancefloor and when your bare feet touch the sand you notice how it’s clad with shades of yellow and orange as warm and sticky as the tropical air around you. And the music is simply delicious! After a minute you realise how silly that was – everyone here welcomes you with a smile and is as friendly as if they knew you forever. Actually, you recognise one guy from [America/New Zealand/Russia/Nepal/France/Sri Lanka/Canada] whom you met on the island three years ago. After a moment it appears he does actually remember you from that time; he explains himself, swearing he was indeed planning to stay a month or two but life on Phangan is just too good so he found more online translations and hasn’t left the island since, except for visa runs. He does seem a little lost, explaining you can’t just live in paradise, it’s too much for a human being.
The music is amazing, a Spanish guy beautifully plays guitar with fragrance of flamenco, an Israeli girl sings an old Algerian song in a way so wonderful you get goosebumps, a Thai guy that sold you a coffee earlier today appears to be great at African drums, especially with this Ukrainian percussion master with the smile of someone who doesn’t remember what a cloudy day is. 60% of people at the party speak Russian – their countries of origin are often so difficult and grim that it doesn’t make a man have the need to think twice before catching an opportunity to leave stress, career and greyness behind and move to a tropical island where they can do a little freelancing to live a life like this.
You start from a fresh pineapple and passion fruit smoothie, but then someone buys you a beer, and you emerge in depths of endless conversations, joints are being passed around, music is unforgettable, lamps cast dim warm light on the golden sand covered with colourful cushions, the waves make soothing sound in the background and you stay till 4am, skipping the waterfall trekking yet again.
You often hear that Thailand is dangerous, that someone got terribly sick, robbed, fell on a motorbike and ended up in a hospital, etc. etc. Well, it’s a country almost the size of France, moreover, because of its peculiar shape it’s over 2,000 kms long. It’s full of natural and cultural wonders – beautiful hospitality, wonderful food, amazing views: seas, mountains, valleys, rivers, lakes, jungles, temples, ruins, rocks, islands… It’s visited by millions and millions of tourists per year already for 50 years. Sadly (and maybe luckily), most of these tourists come to the same few places like Phuket, Pattaya or Koh Samui. There luxury hotels cast shade on beaches filled with umbrellas, while sex tourism and mafias that naturally came to control the enormous (as for local conditions) influx of money cast shade on the whole tourist industry as well as local culture. Many people coming to Thailand for the first time make the mistake of going to the spots filled with sex tourists and people who just want to get wasted cheaply and maybe with a nice view.
Now, as you’ve read this article, you don’t need to make the same mistake. Be careful though and don’t stay too long – living in paradise is just too much for a human being.