Vagabond Tales: Full Moon Parties And Surfing A Monsoon

Heather Ellison

There are few larger rights of passage on the Southeast Asian backpacker circuit than the full moon party on the island of Koh Phangnan.

A tropical version of Ibiza on psychedelics, the pull of this legendary debauch is so strong that nary a backpacker within a 1000-mile radius has the chance of escaping its hedonistic spell.

From the highlands of Chiang Mai to the the back alleys of Bangkok, the week leading up to the night of the full moon becomes a spiral of buses, ferries, trains and tuk-tuks all headed for the sands of Haad Rin.

During the party, in the same way that the full moon acts upon the tides, so too will it elevate the young, the promiscuous, the inebriated and the curious to levels exceeding their monthly average.

Imagine 30,000 revelers with their toes in the sand, gyrating en masse to visiting DJ’s, executing brain cells with whiskey and Red Bull, and losing themselves in the glow of the moon. While liquor is guzzled and consumed by the bucket, most in attendance are drunk on freedom, and the intoxicating possibilities that accompany the unknown.

It’s a big, hot, beautiful mess, and it’s one which every traveler needs to experience at least once.

%Slideshow-777%Started in the 1980s by a handful of Western backpackers, the Koh Phangan Full Moon Party has gradually morphed into one of Asia’s largest parties. Drug use is common, despite the harsh penalties, and the party continues to well beyond sunrise.

For a better idea of the level of debauchery, take a look at some of the “party tips” on a website devoted to the party.

-Don’t bring your passport
-Don’t bring any valuables
-Don’t bring a bag, because you’ll get drunk and lose it
-Wear shoes to protect your feet against broken bottles
-Don’t eat anything offered by strangers
-If you actually plan to sleep, get accommodations far, far away from the party.

Or, for a more visual approach, step inside of the party with this video from lbwtravel.

Having just endured an all-night party on the neighboring island of Koh Tao, I was actually among the select few who decided to get some sleep. Not without staying out until 3 a.m., however, which was more than enough time to revel in the scene.

Body paint replaced clothing the further the night wore on, and fire-twirling locals illuminated the dark sky. Dreadlocks twirled in rhythm with the House tunes, and the sand became littered with eventual one-night stands.

Since I enjoy people watching as much as the actual party, I opted to squeeze in a few hours of sleep and return for the scene during sunrise. On the walk back to my bungalow far, far away, a light breeze began to rustle the trees and was punctuated by stronger gusts. A storm, it seemed, was brewing on the horizon.

Three hours of sleep, two ibuprofen and one bottle of water later, the orange light of the rising sun revealed a scene of social warfare. For every two bodies, which continued to gyrate, a fallen soldier lay collapsed on the sand. For every bucket, which continued to hold liquid, four others were discarded on the beach. The clouds thickened, the beat continued and a scrap of white linen, which was once someone’s pants flapped in the breeze as it dangled from a tree.

By 9 a.m. a few hundred remained; by 11 a.m., perhaps 30. Finally, by 3 p.m., as dozens of Thai workers cleaned up the detritus, the number of party-goers had dropped to one.

Heather Ellison

With trance music on the iPod and booze in the veins, the party continued on his own personal planet.

My attention meanwhile, had shifted from the party to what was suddenly brewing offshore. Mutterings of a monsoon had been percolating through the community, and the wind-driven waves had been increasing by the hour. By no means were they good waves, but they were big enough to ride.

As we mentioned in our article “6 Surf Destinations You’d Never Think Of,” Thailand can actually get decent surf during times of a passing monsoon. The problem, however, is finding a board, as none are offered on the small Thai island.

Gulping down a banana pancake and slurping on a fruit smoothie, that’s when I spotted it leaning against a house:

A haggard, blue, obviously used longboard, which had been hand-carried in by a backpacking Argentinian. With the sea salt on the breeze and a pounding in my head, I approached the fellow traveler about renting out his board.

As it turns out, he and his friends were on a 12-month tour of Thailand and had rented the beach house for an entire three months. Nursing a hangover from the previous night’s party – his third in a row – he loaned me the board completely free of charge.

With board in hand I jogged to the beach, my bare feet dodging the curbside debris. The wind intensified to the point of destruction, and plastic chairs were sent scurrying down the beach.

At the scene of the party, the lone dancer remained.

Heather Ellison

Paddling out into the wind-driven slop, the hopes for waves were novelty at best. With gusts approaching 40 mph and onshore winds crumbling the surf, I largely questioned the point of the endeavor.

That was, until, I caught the first wave. And the next, then the next, and the next after that. Ugly, short, onshore, and mushy, it revitalized a feeling, which had been shelved for too long.

Yes, I was surfing in the middle of a Thai monsoon, on a stretch of beach covered in beer bottles and backpackers, but even in this outpost on the other side of the world, there was a sense of familiarity, which made it feel just like home.

Want more travel stories? Read the rest of the “Vagabond Tales” over here.

Vagabond Tales: Kayaking With Thieving, Soda Drinking, Bloodthirsty Monkeys

monkey beach, koh phi phi, monkey beach thailand
Heather Ellison

Most people who think monkeys are cute have more than likely never met a real monkey.

Although they might be cute on television, as anyone who has actually met a monkey will tell you, their cuteness is simply a disguise for their evil.

Yes, I’ll say it again: monkeys are evil.

They have stolen my lunch while hiking in Costa Rica, and broken into my backpack in the streets of Kathmandu. They have danced on my roof all night in Bolivia, and an orangutan managed to steal this man’s shirt off his back. In Peru, one even crawled into my sleeping bag, even though I was already sleeping in it.

Nevertheless, even once you realize they’re mischievous little thieves, it’s hard to not be drawn to them. There’s just something about their pudgy face and long, dexterous tail that makes them too hard to pass by.

Which is why I found myself – despite all past encounters with the cheeky little devils – kayaking the waters of a Thai island with the specific intent of sharing a beach with monkeys.

%Slideshow-702%On the island of Koh Phi Phi, “Monkey Beach” is only a 30-minute kayak paddle from the developed shoreline of Ao Lo Dalam, a crescent of white sand where budget backpackers binge on buckets and snowbirding Swedes slather on sunscreen.

For a fistful of baht that amounts to about $5, you can rent a kayak from a makeshift activities stand and paddle your way towards the primate-filled cove.

It was at one such stand where we received the first warning.

“You bring kayak back in two hours,” advised our smiling, black-haired rental agent, his skin tanned to the point that it meshed with his black shorts.

“And watch out for monkey. They steal your food.”

Thirty minutes, one bottle of water and two dozen photos later, the white sand of Monkey Beach crunched beneath the kayak as I slid the vessel onto shore. We hadn’t even opted to bring food, since past encounters taught me it was nothing but trouble, and instead nursed our waters in the mid-winter heat.

On shore, spindly green vines dripped down from the jungle and turquoise water lapped at the coast. No monkeys could be seen scuttling about the shoreline, but the telltale hum of a long-tail boat told me things would soon change.

As if on cue, the moment the long-tail boat rounded the corner and pulled its bow up onto the sand, the trees came alive with the rustle of mischief. Despite their inhabiting an undeveloped beach, these monkeys encounter over a hundred visitors a day, and they’ve come to learn these visitors mean food.

With my kayak tucked into a protected corner of beach, and not a loose item or scrap of food laying anywhere about it, I was more than happy to sit back and watch the thieving carnage unfold.

Humans, they say, have the most developed brain of any animal and it’s one thing which separates us from monkeys. That argument could be a tough sell, however, to anyone watching the scene on “Monkey Beach.” Spilling off of tour boats, visitors will try to photograph the monkeys, they will chase the monkeys and perhaps even try to pet them.

A lobster-skinned British man thought it might be fun to feed one a banana. Not only was the plantain aggressively swiped from his hand, but as he sat stunned at the speed with which the food had been swiped, another monkey had made off with his camera.

One monkey stole an orange soda and drank it in front of the crying child who was suddenly without an orange soda.
monkey drinking soda, monkey thailand

Nevertheless, most people were still wrapped beneath the spell that everything monkeys do is cute.

As in, “Look Honey, the monkey decided to play with our camera and is now chewing on the memory card that has every photo from our trip on it. Isn’t that adorable!

Things turned a bit more dire, however, when one of the four-legged hoodlums stealthily snuck up on a woman still seated in her kayak. With the bow of her boat facing out towards the water, she casually appeared to be enraptured by the tropical panorama.

Even though common wisdom says you should “never turn your back on the ocean,” there should be an addendum to include “unless the beach behind you is covered in monkeys.”

As this poor woman kept to herself and enjoyed her moment of peace, this stealth monkey gradually snuck up behind her and playfully pounced on her back. The ensuing scream, which shot across the jungle, was so piercing and high-pitched it was probably heard by dogs in Malaysia. Unfazed, the monkey then climbed atop the woman’s head, opting to play with her curly black hair.

The screams continued, and while the monkey eventually bounded back into the jungle, by the time it was finished colonizing her cranium he had left bloody red scratches on the woman’s back and neck. Rabies can be a serious business when it comes to monkeys in Asia, and luckily, it appeared, the woman would be going home with scratches instead of bites.

A horseshoe of onlookers gathered around the woman, and a dry-witted Aussie was the first to chime in.

“Bloodthirsty little buggers aren’t they?”

A trickle of nervous laughter went about the crowd, and while the woman would be fine after her oceanfront mauling, it was a reminder that wildlife needs to be respected, even if it’s in a cheeky place with a name like “Monkey Beach.”

Want more travel stories? Read the rest of the “Vagabond Tales” over here.

What’s the Best Country In Asia For Eating?

From the 17th to 19th century, Grand Tourists (usually from England) would set out on a journey of discovery. This excursion had a near-cemented itinerary, a list of places a young man (it was almost always a man) would have to visit to have a well-rounded education. Paris, Geneva, Venice, Bologna Rome, Vienna were all must-sees. The travelers weren’t really traveling to eat or try new foods but we could guess they probably ate well.

If there was a grand tour of eating in the 21st century and we had to corner it to one continent only, it probably wouldn’t be Europe. It would most likely be Asia, which has a tremendous diversity of flavors and ingredients and seems more and more clear that 21st-century eating habits are adopting Asian cuisine as its own.

There was no better place to explore this idea than at the annual Lucky Rice Festival. At the Grand Feast, housed in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in New York City, I asked a slew of well-known chefs what the best country in Asia is for eating.

Here’s what they had to say:DANIELLE CHANG
Founder and organizer of the Lucky Rice Festival
Taipei. There are so many great places to go. I’ve actually had better Japanese food in Taipei than in Japan. Just as I’ve had better Szechuan food there than in China.

CHRIS CHEUNG
Chef at Cherrywood Kitchen, New York City
Taishan, China. It’s where the first wave of immigrants in New York came from. There’s a fish and pork sausage there that is really great. My grandma made it especially well.

BRAD FARMERIE
Chef at Public, New York City
Singapore or Vietnam. I’ve been to both places and they’re both the highlights of any trip to Asia, in terms of eating. Singapore does all Asian cuisine very well. Vietnam is especially great for freshness and seaside deliciousness.

HUNG HUYNH
Chef at Catch and The General, New York City
Vietnam. Specifically, Saigon. We have the finest and freshest flavors there. It’s not too sour, not too sweet. Just right.

SUSUR LEE
Chef at Lee, Toronto
Chengdu. I ate so well there. The food is robust. The people are robust. The best thing I ate there was this hot and sour glass noodle dish. The balance of sweet and sour was so good. I just couldn’t stop eating it. I also ate an entire rack of lamb. It was six years ago and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.

JEHANGIR MEHTA
Chef at Mehtaphor, New York City
Bombay. I know it well because I grew up there. But also have to say Tokyo is great, too. My sister worked there for a long time and I would often visit and eat everything I saw.

MASAHARU MORIMOTO
Chef at Morimoto, New York City and Philadelphia
I don’t know.

HONG THAIMEE
Chef at Ngam, New York City
Chiang Mai. It’s my heart and soul. I often crave kanom jeen from the Warorot Market at night. It’s a fermented rice noodle with gravy on top. The sauces are variations on curry.

DORON WONG
Chef at Toy, New York City
Singapore. It’s so diverse. You’ve got Chinese, Thai, Malaysian, Indian. Plus, the local cuisine. And the weather is so great there, too.

CEDRIC VONGERICHTEN
Chef at Perry St., New York City
Tokyo. I was there four years ago and was blown away by the high quality of everything I ate. The flavor combinations of the food are amazing there. If I get the chance, I really want to go to Singapore, as well.

ANDY YANG
Chef at Rhong-Tiam, New York City
Hong Kong. I really love the Asian flavors blended with a French and English influence. There are such exotic ingredients there. I’d specifically eat a lot of street food there.

Better Know A Holiday: Buddha’s Birthday

Laughing Buddha, Singapore
xcode, Flickr

AKA: Vesakha, Vesak, Wesak, Visak, Vixakha and many more derivatives.

When? The second Sunday in May OR the day of the full moon in May OR the Sunday nearest to the day of the full moon in May OR the eighth day of the fourth lunar month OR if you’ve decided all that calendric work is too much hassle, like the Japanese, April 8.

Public holiday in: Hong Kong, Macau, Thailand, China, South Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, India, Nepal, Cambodia, Vietnam, Bhutan, Laos.

Who died? Nobody.

Reason for celebration, then? The birth of the Buddha, of course. Though for many, the Buddha’s birth, death and enlightenment are lumped together in one big holiday. So …

Who died? The Buddha.

Origins: Some 2,500 years ago, Queen Mahamaya of the Shakya Kingdom in modern-day Nepal gave birth in a grove of blossoming trees. As the blossoms fell around mother and child, they were cleansed by two streams of water from the sky. Then the baby stood up and walked seven steps, pointed up with one hand and down with the other – not unlike a Disco Fever John Travolta – and declared that he alone was “the World-Honored One.”

The rest is Buddhist history. The toddler, named Siddhartha Gautama, grew up to become the Buddha and the founder of one of the world’s major religions. He attained Enlightenment under the Bodhi tree in what is now Bodhgaya, India. Later, after amassing many followers, he died, either of food poisoning or mesenteric infarction, depending who you ask, and reached Parinirvana, the final deathless state of Buddhism.

How is it celebrated now? Bathing little statues of the baby Buddha with tea or water, hanging lanterns, extended temple services.

Bathing Baby Buddha
Joint Base Lewis McChord, Flickr

Other ways to celebrate: Freeing caged birds, parades with dancers and illuminated lantern floats, temple offerings.

Concurrent festivals: The Flower Festival in Japan, the Bun Festival in Hong Kong.

Associated food: In many places, varieties of porridge, which commemorate the dish that Buddha received that ended his asceticism phase.

Associated commercialism: Certain companies like McDonald’s will even offer solely vegetarian options on Buddha’s birthday to stick with the spirit of the festival. Precious little, in fact. Though sales of lotus lanterns and baby Buddha statues rocket during this time, the celebrations are remarkably uncommercial.

Associated confusion: There is no reliable record for when the Buddha was actually born, thus the wide range of celebratory dates. This in no way puts a damper on festivities, but does result in a bit of awkwardness when there are two full moons in May, which happens regularly enough. Most recently it occurred in 2007, and Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Malaysia decided to celebrate during the first full moon of the month, while Singapore and Thailand celebrated at the end of May.

Best place to enjoy the festivities: Seoul really takes it up a notch, planning a week of events and celebrations in the lead-up. It kicks off with the Lotus Lantern Festival the weekend prior to Buddha’s birthday, when tens of thousands of Korean Buddhists parade through Seoul’s main roads under colorful lanterns, bringing the city to a standstill. The municipal government really pulls out all the stops, offering music, dance and theater performances in public places that are jammed with revelers. Take a look at the celebrations in Seoul and elsewhere around the world in this gallery:

%Gallery-188546%

The Gatekeepers Of Asia: Face To Face With The Border Guards Of The Far East

India border guards
estetika, Flickr

In the West, randomness is a crucial, torturous pillar of border security. Those who have been to Asia know that active sadism is supplanted by bureaucracy, vanity and venality. In my opinion these are highly preferable alternatives. Once you know how land borders adopt these principals, they can be easily navigated with a bit of tact, patience and occasionally a small financial stimulus. I find these vagaries far easier to deal with than the gleaming desks and suspicious minds that protect Western countries against threats ex umbra. At least the caprices of Asia’s gatekeepers are motivated by personal incompetence, not institutional torment.

To make things easier, I’ve noticed after a long period of driving my own car around Asia, with all of the bureaucracy that entails, that there are some core motivations that drive Asia’s customs officials. These motivations result in eerily similar individuals from border to border. And so it is one of the peculiarities of driving overland for long distances that you can have a near-identical experience crossing the borders of countries so disparate as Iran and Cambodia.

I haven’t been to everywhere in Asia, so I can’t say these truths are universal. But the following four types of border official have shown up at almost every land crossing I’ve been to so far so it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if these were pan-Asian characters.The Break-Taker
These guys just left and won’t be back for a couple of hours, sorry.

Entering Pakistan from Iran was a long process. We signed gigantic registers with entries dating back to ’80s and traipsed from building to building over barbed-wire fences. When were finally ready to go, having been in the borderlands for hours already, we had to wait for our security detail. We stood impatiently in the rapidly warming desert waiting to get under way. And waiting. And waiting some more. Where was this guy?

“He is having tea, of course,” someone informed us. “Would you like some?”

Time has no meaning when you’re dealing with authority, so we sat down for chai and were off promptly when we finished.

Pakistan Security
Adam Hodge, Gadling

Later, in India…
“And so I can go now?” I asked, having laboriously acquired half a dozen stamps and bits of paper with Hindi scrawled all over them.

“You will have to get your car inspected by the safety officer.”

“And where is he then?”

“Oh, I am sorry sir, but he is unavailable right now. He is having his lunch and should return in a couple hours. Perhaps you would like some tea?”

Even later, in Cambodia…
“You cannot go,” the customs agent told me. “You need to have your car’s documents stamped by the head of customs.”

“Is he having tea?”

“No, lunch actually.”

“And when did he leave for lunch?”

“Two hours ago, maybe. He should return soon.”

Cambodia Border
rdockum, Flickr

The Wal-Mart Greeter
Oblivious to his country’s immigration and customs protocols, he welcomes you like an old friend, often to your detriment.

Deep in leafy green forest in northern Malaysia there is a small border post with Thailand. I stopped at the Malaysian checkpoint and they stamped my car’s papers and practically pushed me out of the country. I inched my car down the lane into Thailand, expecting someone to stop me and ask for papers, passport, where I was headed… anything. Ah! A Thai guard at the end of the lane was watching me from the security lane and he beckoned me toward him. I drove up and rolled down my window. He smiled broadly at me and indicated I should just keep on driving.

I pulled away from the border and drove slowly down the road. I noted Thai people buying fruit from stalls and walking around with the evening groceries. I was in a bustling Thai market. No passport check, no vehicle registration, no searches. I parked and walked back to the customs building and proceeded to confuse everybody.

“Hey there, can you stamp my passport?” I asked the immigration desk.

“Where is your Thai entry stamp?”

“That’s what I’m after.”

“When did you enter?”

“Three minutes ago.”

“You are leaving?”

“No, I’m coming.”

“Why do you come from Thailand?” he asked, seeing how I had walked over from the Thai side.

“I’m not sure.”

“Where is your Malaysia stamp?”

“Hold on.”

Of course, I hadn’t been stamped out of Malaysia either. I trotted back across no-man’s-land to the Malaysian office where I had more or less the same conversation with the border guard, who couldn’t understand why I needed an exit stamp when I was clearly coming from Thailand.

Later, in Laos…
A few months after, I entered Laos by way of vehicle barge, sharing the boat with two gigantic cargo trucks for the 4-minute ride across the Mekong. As I drove up the ramp to the main road at Huay Xai, I stopped and asked a uniformed man where to get a visa, showing him my empty passport. He only grinned and nodded. So I drove on, and I was suddenly in a town. I sat down at a riverside bar and drank a Beerlao, enjoying my minor transgression. Eventually I found the immigration checkpoint 3 miles downstream from where the barge had dropped me off. The customs officials seemed slightly perturbed because no passenger boat had come across for an hour, so where had I come from? This required a fairly taxing explanation, which they eventually and begrudgingly accepted.

Barge Crossing the Mekong from Thailand to Laos
Annika Lidne, Flickr

The Smuggler’s Dream
His only job is to check you’re not carrying anything illicit, but he’s either too trusting, confused, or it’s too hot outside today.

I don’t officially advocate smuggling or anything. But boy, if it isn’t tempting when it’s so easy.

Entering notoriously strict Iran from Turkey, I had done the paperwork dance, and it was time for customs to inspect my car. I nervously led a gruff-looking man dressed in fatigues to where I had parked. He barked at me to open the trunk, which I did in haste. He glanced over the heap of gear from afar, his eyes lingering on the possibly suspicious-looking photography and electronic equipment, camping gear, backpacks, and food.

“What is that?” he asked, nodding at the pile. “Clothes?”

“Well, yes, among other…”

“OK!” he interrupted, signing the form. “You’re good.”

Later, in India…
As I entered India, a small moustachioed official eyed my car suspiciously.

“You are from England?” he asked.

“No, the car is. I’m from Canada.”

“So you have some objectionable things then? Things from Pakistan?”

“Like what?”

“Drugs, other things…” he trailed off, his hand moving in circles to fill in the blanks.

“Uh, no, but…” I began, because I certainly did have things from Pakistan. But I was interrupted, as in Iran.

“OK!” he exclaimed, “You’re good!”

India-Pakistan Border
Adam Hodge, Gadling

Even later, in Thailand
In Cambodia I had picked up some fellow travelers and the trunk was packed with bags. The Thai customs officer looked through the window when we rolled up.

“What’s in there?” he asked pointing at the back.

I figured I’d keep it simple this time: “Just stuff.”

“OK!”

The Jailer
Lonely, bored, vain or incompetent, he finds a way for you to hang around much longer than you want.

After my inadvertent entry to Thailand and the subsequent confusion about visas, I still needed to register my vehicle to drive in Thailand. In a fan-cooled room in the Thai customs house I found a fat uniformed man melting into his chair, as if squashed by gravity and the weight of his immense responsibilities. He barked orders at two demure women as he fanned himself with my car’s customs documents. He seemed in no hurry to let me go, raising objections to every one of my attempts to move things along. After stonewalling my paperwork for a while, I realized the problem: he actually had no idea what he was doing, as he never did any of the work himself. With this established, it was a simple task to organize things with the two friendly ladies, who filled everything out and then deferred dutifully to the great squinting Hutt for his precious signature.

Later, again in Thailand…
When I left Thailand from the north, I realized the ghosts of customs past had followed me up the entire length of the country. The big man in the south had neglected to give me some obscure piece of paper that would allow my car to leave Thailand.

Thailand Border with Mekong
Adam Hodge, Gadling

I insisted to the guard on duty that I had no idea what he was talking about.

“You need to get the papers where you entered the country,” he told me.

My words came to me slowly. “But… that’s 1,300 miles away…”

“Not my problem,” was his response

“So wait, wait. You will let me drive back to where I came from without any permits, but you won’t let me leave?”

About halfway through my sentence he had turned and slithered back into his freezing lair. I leaned my head into the small window and another official batted me away like a stray dog.

“What the hell am I supposed to do, then?” I called after him, a question he dutifully ignored.

So I did what a dog would do. I stood there staring forlornly into the distance for 10 minutes, whimpering softly, until he came back. He had a document in hand, and he was smiling at me.

“Just fill these out and you’re good to go,” he grinned magnanimously.

He was now my best friend. I was on my way.

Laos Border Guards
Jeremiah Roth, Flickr

Bonus Guard: The Sleeper
The sleepers will do whatever it takes to get you gone so they can get back to their dreams.

I still had to get my car’s customs documents stamped first before I could leave Thailand. I didn’t expect this to go any better. I climbed the steps to the customs office and poked my head through the slightly open door. A young guy in uniform was out cold at his desk, his belly rising and falling in a peaceful rhythm. I cleared my throat and he awoke with a full body spasm. He looked mildly ashamed when he saw me, his wide eyes betraying the guilt of a lurid dream. I whipped out my form.

“You need to sign here, here, and stamp here and here.”

He shrugged and started stamping, offering me a self-satisfied grin when finished, as if there were no easier task in the world.