Welcoming the Full Moon in Ko Pha Ngan

This middle sibling of the islands in the Gulf of Thailand is famous for one thing, and one thing only: It experiences more full moons than any other place on earth. If you didn’t know that statement is scientifically impossible, you would be in good company at 3am at the island’s true claim to fame, the Full Moon Party. 

The origin of these famous parties at Haad Rin beach is murky, but the common theme was it was started in the 1980’s by a group of backpackers looking to have one last epic night and, even without the existence of social media, the concept somehow went “viral”.  Today sees up to 30,000 tourists descend on this otherwise sleepy island on one day each month to party their pants off from dusk until the sun comes up the next day.  Our extended stay on the idyllic island of Ko Tao meant we shortened our time in Ko Pha Ngan, but Sandra was very excited to find that our week would still include the next Full Moon Party, meaning she could tick this item off her bucket list.

We had a few days until the party to explore the island from our latest home base located in Thong Sala, the largest town on the island and location of the main pier where the ferries arrive.  The island is physically bigger than Ko Tao but feels as small because there are few roads due to high mountains in the center, meaning that only the western coast of the island and its beaches are easily accessible without a longtail boat.  Driving to the western beaches requires you to turn off the main road and descend steep, unsealed, potholed roads, and off-roading was a "no-no" in the Ts and Cs of our rental car agreement. Yes, scooters can make it down more easily, but be prepared for a fun time getting back up again if the rain comes unexpectedly and turns the clay road into a slip and slide.   

We were able to find a car-friendly and very pretty spot named Salad Beach.  Because it lies on the northwest coast, it’s a quiet spot compared to the beaches closer to the party zone at the island’s southern tip.  It’s a beautiful place to spend a hot afternoon sipping from a cold, fresh coconut. So, what else is there to do besides visit beaches?  

How about sundowners at a Beach Club instead?  Welcome to Harmony Beach Club.  They have all the same views and swimming as the beach, but with a pool, plus cocktails and a DJ. We had a waterfront couch right next to the infinity pool, which had views across the Gulf to Ko Samui.  It has its own skate park, dance hut with DJ booth, restaurant, and very attentive staff to keep your drinks flowing as the sun goes down.

They even have their own full moon onsite just in case your visit does not co-inside perfectly with the monthly lunar event. Weekends are busy, busy, but we visited on a Monday (yep, when slow travelling you have cocktails in pools on Mondays) and watched the sunset before enjoying a woodfired pizza for dinner.

The next day we did a recon mission to Haad Rin beach before the big event, as we’d read that the only access road to the party had some steep sections which may make getting home afterwards a bit tricky. Well, that was certainly true.  The poor rental car had to endure me dropping the auto transmission into first gear to avoid slowing to a standstill several times. Finally, we had arrived at THE Haad Rin Beach, home to the full moon party.  Given this was one of the world’s tourist hotspots both Sandra and I were expecting to find ourselves in a mini version of Waikiki Beach, where the monthly profits from forty years of hosting 30,000 plus tourists and partygoers had been invested in infrastructure like wide, clean, streets leading to fancy hotels and shopping avenues with quaint coffee shops.  Instead, it felt like walking into a nightclub in the light of day and seeing it sad and dirty, with too many exposed beams, patchy walls, the small of stale beer, and a floor that seems way too sticky for a place where people are supposed to dance later.  Are we in the right place?

Haad Rin beach itself is beautiful, which was a huge relief. A wide expanse of clean white sand with palm trees for shade, a scenic bay, and the front row of guest houses, restaurants, and bars were of a good standard.  It seems that because the party money is earned along the front row of businesses it stays in the pockets of those in the front row, which is a real shame for the small businesses that make up the rest of the town.  Still, we are here to party, so party we shall.  Our reconnaissance gave us two great tips: 1. Book a room for the night in Haad Rin to avoid having to find our way back across the island at whatever hour of the morning, and 2. Bayshore Resort & Spa sits right on the beach and allows a day visitor pass for 200 baht that let us use their pool, and they provide a towel and even a free drink.  The rooms were fully booked, but Sandra did a very timely search on Booking.com and nabbed the last basic bungalow at Thai Dee Garden Resort, which provided a bed and a shower within a 10-minute walk, or stumble, from the main beach.  Time to head home and get ready for tomorrow night. 

We arrived back in Haad Rin in the early hours of a hot afternoon, checked our bags into Thai Dee, and headed to Bayshore Resort to have a late lunch (eating is not cheating at our age) and enjoy watching the setup of the beach party area from the pool.  Amusingly, they set up fenced off “Sleep Zones” along the beach for those who have not found a bed for the night.  As the sun went down, we headed back to our room to get into the traditional full moon party uniform, which consists of anything you can find that is tie-dyed, Fluro, or glows in the dark.  If in doubt, simply dress like a wrestler from the 80’s. 

Our transformation was complete, and we were ready to blend into the growing crowd of twenty-something’s, thousands of whom had arrived on ferries from Ko Samui just for the event.  As the sun went down, the music came up, and there were plenty of offers to fill up our cups.  Buckets are the main order of the day, and tens of thousands of them are lined up on trestle tables along the beach, with all the colours of the rainbow.  For a reasonably small fee, you can purchase a small beach bucket that contains a hipflask sized bottle of your favourite spirit, a can of mixer (yep, the alcohol to mixer ratio is way off here), and a small bottle of the original Red Bull elixir.  Fun fact: Red Bull was created in Thailand in the 70’s to give truck drivers wings, before an Austrian partnered with the creator in the 80’s and together they made a carbonated energy drink and took it global.   

Along with a bucket stall, each bar sets up the beach area in front of their establishment with a fire show and a DJ of choice, and there are a variety of music genres catered for, so you can find a spot playing your jam and then, if that gets old, keep walking to find a new flavour of music.  It was not exactly Sandra’s idea of fun as you could spend more time walking along the beach than dancing, and often the bass lines from five different places were competing for your eardrums.  But as the numbers of people swelled into the tens of thousands, it became easier to find a good crowd to dance amongst. 

In the early hours of the morning, we decided that six hours dancing was plenty, seen enough fire shows to last a lifetime, and so decided to tap out and let the next generation (maybe the next two generations) have their time to shine.  As we were walking back to our beds, the line of taxi trucks full of partygoers arriving had not died down, so perhaps the best of the night was yet to come for those with more stamina than us.  By lunchtime the following day Haad Rin was a ghost town, which was quite surreal.  They’ve clearly had years of practice at getting everyone in and out again as quickly as possible.

For us, Ko Pha Ngan is a great place to visit for a weekend and a party, but its neighboring islands have far more of what midlife travel junkies enjoy when looking for a place to relax for longer.  It's very rustic by comparison.  As they say, we’ve been there and done that and literally got the tee shirts.  Our next stop is a two-week long stretch on the largest island in the group, Ko Samui.  See you again soon.

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7 months ago

Welcome home you intrepid travelers. Time to settle back home in the spa and take a breath before rekindling new adventures for tomorrow.