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Exploring (and surviving) full moon party

We travelled to the ends of the earth to see how the other side throws a beach party.

Once a lunar month the picturesque beach of Haad Rin, on the island of Koh Phangan across from Thailand's east coast, is set upon by hordes (and by that I mean in the tens of thousands) of young people dressed in fluoro outfits, splashed in body paint, carrying miniature buckets of highly potent booze (for this is how alcohol must be served on beaches) and all looking for good time in this little part of paradise.

The now legendary full moon parties have been carrying on for well over twenty years and, despite the occasional coup d'état and subsequent military junta in Bangkok, continue to attract partygoers to their slice of oriental hedonism. Except there's no Mystic East here anymore. The Shiva worshippers cleared out long ago complaining of it not being for them anymore, and they were right - the current crowd's demands aren't for lunar mysticism, they're for cheap booze, pumping house and, if the buckets don't get to them first, plenty of sex. Though its origins are innocent enough, for a long time Full Moon Party has been a massive piss-up for backpackers and gap-yearers, but with a bit of common sense, planning and an open mind — it's bloody good fun!

At one of the world's biggest regular parties, a little logistics goes an awfully long way. The party is notorious for mishaps and bad experiences but if you get a few key things squared away beforehand you'll be able to concentrate on having a good time — remember we're still in the developing world here (for the time being at least) so don't take things for granted. Firstly, get on the island a day or two before and stay a little after; don't take one of the barely seaworthy, overcrowded boats from Koh Samui at night, that's asking for trouble! Get some half-decent footwear too, flip-flops are fine, but there are too many people dancing barefoot when broken glass abounds. And watch what you're consuming — the cheaper buckets are cheaper for a reason. There's nothing wrong with properly checking seals of the bottles and if you've forked out hundreds for a flight to Thailand you can fork out a couple of extra quid for a spirit and mixer that won't blind you.

Right, on to the party itself then. Our group headed down relatively early (2100hrs) from our accommodation and negotiated the winding streets of Haad Rin village that were already full of excited revellers and vendors selling all sorts of decorations, alcohol and food. The place has a buzz right from the off and it builds as you approach the beach where the main action is. When we arrived it was getting busy and the sound systems - dotted across a half a mile stretch of beach - were in full flow. They each play a different genre and start as they mean to go on, which means if you're at the EDM sound system it'll be pumping out the Martin Garrix tunes at full whack from start to finish, a daunting prospect. Running along the edge of the beach are stalls selling the ubiquitous buckets of spirit and mixer, along with others selling various types of fast food.

The beach itself is one long dancefloor interspersed with fire skipping ropes, fire dancers, locals selling tat, platforms for dancing on and, surprisingly early, passed out/worse for wear revellers. Then there's the sea, which quickly becomes a toilet for the boys. This al fresco lavatory also serves as a place for lovemaking later for couples too stupid or unbothered by all the human waste they're sloshing around in. Being open air there are some truly awful points along the beach too (worse than the sex toilet?!) where the music from two sound systems can be heard at the same time, at the same volume. If you were stood with me at one point that meant Carly Rae Jepsen's Call Me Maybe clashing painfully with some sort of banger from the Spinnin' production line. We quickly moved on.

With every genre catered for and so close to each other, it was hard to stay in one place and commit to a sound system so we found ourselves bouncing around between all sorts. We quickly found our home for the still early part of the party well beyond the psy trance stage (140bpm before midnight, you must be joking!) and into the reggae area where we could warm into things and laugh as our Jamaican mate tried to dance and ignore the Aussie lads asking him if he had any drugs on him. (black + likes reggae = holding, surely?). This led us onto 'Mellow Mountain' at the north end of the beach where things seemed to be a little closer to the feel of the old days - lots of people sitting around at the bars up here, dishevelled types wandering around and a smoky, trippier atmosphere which might have had something to do with the "happy shakes" on sale (careful now!) and the DJ laying down some suitable tracks.

Back on to the beach then and those of our group who hadn't been lost (tip: set up a rendezvous point while you're still sober and enjoy your friends for the whole party!) headed to the livelier areas for a dance. Here's where that genre-choice created a dilemma, as it must have done for everyone at the party, since the different sized crowds at each sound system served as a neat microcosm of the state of popular music today: absolutely packed out with shirtless young men at the EDM sound system, a smatter of Indians and a few lost souls who took a wrong turn at Goa at the psy-trance sound system and plenty of room at the dub step soundsystem.

Whilst the full moon party's appeal isn't top DJs on top sound systems, the sound coming out of the speakers was surprisingly good. Don't get me wrong, we're not talking Space's Discoteca here, but for an open-air beach party the sound was crisp and clean (when not muddied by another sound system) and the DJs could bring it. What they couldn't do (or rather, chose not to do) was warm-up and build a set; it was absolutely full-on right from the start, but this wasn't the sort of crowd who cared about that sort of thing very much.

The crowd itself is another thing worth noting. There is certainly a solid contingent of drunken idiots and steroid-pumped swaggerers taking a week or two off in winter before hitting the Greek Islands, but these are offset nicely by a very healthy mix of ages and nations. There are South Americans here now, Asians of all sorts, and lots and lots of Scandinavians who make it crystal clear where they're from by painting their flags all over themselves, probably to avoid the stigma of being associated with the Brits.

This mix of peoples is emblematic of the changes underfoot at the full moon party; I walked the whole way along the beach and wasn't once offered drugs, I saw no fights between disgruntled Thais and foreigners and there was relatively little rubbish underfoot. A few years ago drug-pushing, brawls and trash everywhere were all very common occurrences. The party is becoming better regulated and less intimidating - an undeniably a good thing as in previous years the sense of lawlessness was approaching overwhelming and threatened to engulf the party in a miasma of violence and lurid headlines.

Many would say there's still a long way to go - our bungalows were broken into that night when we were partying, passed-out partygoers still litter the beach and there's too many "tactical chunders" right there on the bloody sand where people are trying to have a dance. But it's getting better and above all, it's still a brilliant night dancing to music, under the stars, waving a cheap bucket in one hand and putting the other round your friend's shoulders as they do the same. This is what I did until well into the small hours along with thousands and thousands of others all claiming their little part of paradise, even if it was day-glo coloured and smelled a little of vodka and vomit.

View this feature in the Ibiza Spotlight Magazine, Issue 007.

WORDS | Andrew Fulker

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