The big night has finally arrived – a fact made tangible by the surreal moon strung up in the sky by wispy clouds.
Legend has it that the first party was held in 1985 for a crowd of 25-30 backpackers. Word of mouth spread and caused the gathering to escalate with every new month and every new full moon.
Tonight, anywhere from 20,000 to 30,000 people of the world will converge on sands of Haad Rin in a few hours. For the second night in a row, the streets are teeming with young backpackers.
The buzz in the air that I felt yesterday is even more feverish. Vendors are setting up their stalls on the beach, neatly laying out rows of colorful plastic buckets that contain playful displays of drink combinations. They have crude signs that cash in on phrases that have become popular with tourists, such as “I love you long time”. There are sodas, liquor, and the infamous energy drinks that are probably illegal in most western countries; Shark, M150, and the infamous Krating Daeng.
The latter, which is marked with two red bulls charging each other, inspired the development of worldwide energy drink Red Bull when Austrian entrepreneur (and now billionaire) Dietrich Mateschitz found that it cured his jet lag on a trip to Thailand in 1982. Mateschitz partnered with Krating Daeng’s owner and in 1987 launched a reformulated, carbonated, and more sexy version of the Thai drink…but don’t be fooled – the original is still the most potent, and the better option if you plan on seeing the sun rise over Haad Rin.
Nearer to the water, more vendors assemble canvases lit by black-lights that promote colorful body art. The available paintings range from the magnificent and inspirational logo of 7-11 to more logical images like dragons, stars, and butterflies. I pass on the paintings – I’ve only brought out a few hundred baht that’s wadded in a secure pocket, because pickpockets are notorious for getting close to dancers and running off with whatever camera / passport / wallet is in reach.
Further down the beach is a section of sand that is fenced off. Signs hung on the plastic fence indicate it to be a designated “sleep area” and medical tent. A few eager partygoers have already managed to fall asleep fully clothed, with plastic buckets just out of reach and heads resting on plush pillows of sand. A necessary power-nap before the main festivities begin.
I drift closer to the music that’s slowly and steadily increasing in volume. It’s a thumping, bass-rich beat that causes my head to involuntary start bobbing. Maybe it’s the M150, maybe it’s the friendly vibe, or maybe it’s the colorful light and decorations of the various “dance stages” on the beach – either way, I have an increasing desire to dance – and in my 23 years on Earth I’ve rarely ever been known for wanting to dance. I’m momentarily distracted a bright flash of light, and I keep drifting.
I find my way to a circle of people that are gathered around a giant jump-rope. When I arrive, a few Thai men are dousing the rope with some liquid, and it’s not until I see a spark that I realize what’s about to happen. The rope ignites, and immediately the men start rotating the rope.
As it gains momentum, there are dozens of young men just steps away, eager to show their courage by jumping into the center and hopping over the now blazing obstacle. Some make it unscathed until the rope fizzles out. Others trip up, a result of one too many buckets – and are grazed by the rope, but remarkably make it out without combusting.
But these scars will only later become supporting evidence to familiar backpacker war-stories that will be told again and again to new friends in hostels around the world.
The most shocking occurrence is a naked man that dashes into the center and enjoys a few successful revolutions of the rope that are echoed by gasps and laughter from the crowd. The laughter quickly stops when the rope is accidentally caught between his legs, and he is brought to the ground, yet again (mostly) unharmed.
There are several more fire dancers close by that twirl lit poi, staff, or nunchakus. Their talent is amazing, and it occurs to me that this skill is the result of a daily dedication – it is their sole existence – spinning fire for the entertainment of wandering nomads.
A few European amateurs get into the fire spinner’s circles and perform slow, clumsy moves that make me fully appreciate the Thai performer’s talent. The Europeans assume that the clapping is for them, and so they continue to gracelessly defame the delicate practice.
Finally, the crowds have all found their way to the beach. I weave between a mass of bodies that throb in unison, connected by music and perhaps also by the journey that it took to make it to this exact moment. I dig my toes into the sand and let my limbs move freely. I’m suddenly not a bad dancer – but possibly now even a mediocre dancer. Everyone is moving together. Everyone is having a good time. The energy flows to the steady, thick beat for hours.
Finally, a husky glow begins to appear over the water. The sun rises, and the crowd dissipates. Newly united couples run down the beach hand in hand. People sleep peacefully on the sand.
The rest retreat to their bungalows, and another Full Moon Party comes to an end.
If you’ve missed the previous articles in this series, be sure to check out the entire Dim Sum Dialogues column for more on the road from Bangkok to Ko Pha Ngan.