Thunder. Fire. Primal drums. Sweat and body paint.
Half-naked people probably did the same thousands of years ago on some pagan beach under a full moon. Only unlike us, they weren’t drinking from plastic buckets. At least I hope not.
Somehow, I still haven’t put a finger on it yet, but I found myself standing in Koh Phangan, Thailand, for my third Full Moon Party in six years.
I hate it as much as I love it. But where else can you watch the moon bring out the best and the worst in 10,000+ strangers. It’s a perpetual train wreck that lasts until well after sunrise. And not only can you not take your eyes off of it, you just can’t help but climb aboard and ride it to the ground.
Even still, wow, Thailand – and particularly Koh Phangan – have changed since I was first here. Technically these people are backpackers by the definition that most bring along backpacks, but long gone are the fisherman pants, guitar circles on the beach, and talk-to-everyone attitudes.
Instead, these new travelers come for one or two months, and never seem to adopt that long-term traveler attitude. Fashion, Facebook friends, and mindsets have all been brought along from England.
The sweet smell of weed no longer hangs in the air. In eight days, I saw only one set of dirty, unwashed dreadlocks. In eight days on the island I only met one traveler who was away from home for a year.
I had no idea I would miss those dirty dreadlocks so much.
Instead of hiding it behind a bandanna as people once did, the girls here spend an hour on their hair and paint sorority symbols on their bodies. The guys strut with bare bulging chests; all look like they walked out of the gym and onto the beach; protein drinks in hand.
I’ve never seen so many bad tribal tattoos in my life.
It seems I have accidentally bought a ticket to Koh PhanDouchebag instead of the backpacker island I once knew.
Undaunted, I was determined to have some fun with these different folks anyway, so I cowboyed up for my third party night in a row of watching the sunrise from a beach strewn with buckets and unconscious bodies.
Awash in a sea of bumping hedonism, I nearly instantly lost my newly met friends. So I fought my way alone to the psy-trance part of the party, hoping to find a few more freaks and a few less douchebags.
I did. The bass literally rattled my vision. Psychedelic lights disoriented me, and I ground the soft sand beneath my feet like there was no tomorrow. All was good for about 45 minutes.
Then she came.
I should have known straightaway that the Irish accent was trouble, but instead I took her up on the suggestion that we should go jump through the hoop of burning fire on the beach. I’ve done it before and I’ve got some extra leg hair to spare to the flame.
An absurd concept in the West that would cause a bar’s insurance representative to choke on his Starbucks, tourists — particularly drunk ones — are openly encouraged to play with fire at beach parties in Thailand. Fire jump ropes, fire hoops, a two-story fire slide even — there are lots of creative ways to burn yourself here.
So we queued up and off she went with full bravado and speed into the fire. Seconds later, I was running her to the sea to splash water on her smoldering legs.
Fire hoop: 1 Ireland: 0. Game over.
Too dark and chaotic to notice at first, I knew that she was in trouble when I knelt down to splash water on her wounds. The skin hung loosely in big, bubbled blisters on her thighs.
All around us people squirmed in ecstasy while she squirmed in pain.
Third degree burns can be a real buzz kill, so even though we had known each other only a short time, I found myself helping a screaming and hobbling Irish girl to the clinic. She had no money, so I paid the equivalent of US $30 for her pitiful treatment, then carried her back to my nearby guesthouse because her’s was a 20-minute taxi away.
She promised to pay me back but maybe I’ll get paid in karma one day.
We passed my neighbors, two English girls smoking outside my door, who looked at us curiously as we hobbled by. They assumed I had netted a drunk girl from the beach. I could hear them talking so I know that they could hear us.
When I spread the burn ointment on my new patient’s wounds, she screamed at the top of her lungs: “Owww Owwww Owww…” but it definitely didn’t sound like passion.
The scenario went like this:
Greg: “Just lay still, this will only take a minute.” (she was kicking her legs)
Irish Girl: “Owwwww…be gentle!”
My Neighbors: [in hushed voices] “Oh my God, what are they doing?”
Greg: “This is as soft as I can do it. Just give me 10 more seconds.”
Irish Girl: “Owwwww! It hurts!
Greg: “There, I’m done.”
Irish Girl: “Ahhhh! Why am I so stupid! Why did I do this!”
My Neighbors: [muffled laughs] “What the hell?”
I can’t describe the look I received from them the next day.
The painkiller they gave my burned friend spread threw her booze-thinned blood quickly; I now had an unconscious stranger in my bed. The smell of burning skin hung in the room makes a lousy aphrodisiac.
And so, Full Moon Party 2012 ended for me almost as soon as it began. I don’t even have an email address for the stranger who left skin behind in my bed.
The road can be a strange place sometimes, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.