Archive for June, 2009
Two weeks ago, I attended the world famous Full Moon Party on Haad Rin beach on the island of Koh Phangan in Thailand. I didn’t know what to expect. I’d been to a pre-party several nights previously and been disappointed. Lousy music, boring people, seemed like everyone was just there to get drunk. A frat party, essentially. I hoped the main event would be better.
Imagine a mile-long crescent-shaped stretch of beach, ending in a cliff face on either side, with a palm-laced town behind. Every 50 yards, a huge building or tent complex houses a booming sound system, each DJ playing a different flavor of music. Full of people. Tens of thousands of partygoers, clothed in shorts and ripped t-shirts, skirts, bikinis, painted haphazardly with fluorescent paint. Many locals, some of them just there for the party, many others there to make money, whores and drug dealers, sellers of glowsticks and plastic things with flashing LEDs. Lots of stands selling buckets and other booze. Fire spinners and dancers. A giant 40-foot flaming jump rope. Back behind the beach, the town of Haad Rin seems focused exclusively on this event. It’s made entirely of hotels, bars, convenience stores, and souvenir shops.
On the night of the party, the entire street facing the beach is sealed off except for a couple of entrances, through which it costs 100 baht ($3 US) to pass, and for which you get a colorful wristband. The money goes to beach cleanup, which I assure you is worth every penny after seeing the beach at the end of the night.
I navigated down the winding streets, turning down offers for “fucking cheap bucket”. The main drink in Koh Phangan, and other party places in Thailand, is a bucket: literally a plastic beach bucket filled with two cans of soda and a flask of liquor. the people at the stands mix them on the spot and they end up being very tasty and impossible to finish without getting completely trashed. Even Aussies, with their superhuman alcohol tolerance levels, get messed up on these things. I’d purchased a bucket a few days before at the pre-party, in the hopes that it would make the party more interesting. It didn’t. I’d ended up discarding the thing when it was half empty. Nonetheless, and despite drinking lots of water afterwards, I’d paid for it the following morning. So the night of the FMP I decided to stay well away from the evil things.
I stepped out onto Sunrise Beach.
The beach itself, made of fine white sand, is lined with large dance clubs. On either end, the clubs continue up onto the cliff faces. The night of the party, countless Thai-style longboats were anchored along one section of beach, hoping to find passengers to taxi around the island.
The beach was packed with people. More interesting people than the other night, it appeared. I walked the length of the beach, sampling the music from each club. Some of it was crap, the kind of techno that’s just the same beat looped over and over for hours. Some was pop music, club music. There were two stages playing really good music. One was drum’n’bass, which I absolutely love to dance to. The beat’s so fast you just let the energy enter your body and your feet start flying. The other was Psy-Trance, my favorite style of techno because of its use of experimental, surreal sounds and high-energy beats.
During my wanderings I encountered several people I knew from the hotel and from my trek. The great thing about FMP is everybody is there, it’s like the whole island focuses into that one spot.
How can I put that night’s wanderings into chronological order? I had a Chang beer at a bar called the FuBar. Then it was back down to the beach for more dancing. I was feeling in a great, balanced place. I decided it was time to enhance the night a bit. The cliff face on the left side of the beach is known as Mellow Mountain, and is full of bars with blacklight velvet paintings of mushrooms. I climbed up to the topmost bar, and walked to the back, and ordered a “special shake”. It tasted of strawberries, with only the faintest hint of the secret ingredient. (The secret ingredient is LOVE of course! 🙂 That and mushrooms…)
So back down the beach. I spend some time at the psy-trance place. Soon I can feel primal energy rising through my feet, a line of it flowing like condensed joy up my chakras. I see the sand shift slightly. The music takes on an added significance. And I dance.
I walk off on a quest for some water. There is a chain of stores in Haad Rin, designed to look almost exactly like 7-11s (in the same way that a harmless creature will evolve the same skin pattern as a predator) called 0-7. 0-7 sell very cheap things, mostly booze. But they have bottled water. I get one and drink it.
As I pass through the gyrating crowds, I consider this night as a celebration of the Moon. I am surrounded by Dionysian chaos. People puking, passed out, dancing wildly, groping each other and making out. I look up. The moon has hid herself behind a shroud of clouds. Is she ashamed of us? Is she embarrassed at our behavior? No. She is being coy! Soon, she tosses off her veil, and lets it drift off over the ocean like a discarded nightgown. She’s beaming at us, laughing, joining us, encouraging our wild celebration. Entranced, I walk to the edge of the beach and sit, and watch the clouds float away towards the horizon for a long while. It’s absolutely beautiful and incredible. I sit for who knows how long. I become aware that other people are sitting near me, taking in the same scene. Eventually the clouds disappear completely, leaving just the reflections of the neon lights on the water, the sand, the cliffs, and the naked cloudless sky.
Now the water has run its course through my body and is pressing on my kidneys. There are several bathrooms up in town, all of which cost 10 baht to use. But many guys (and the occasional girl) are simply using the ocean. I decide to go that route, and find a relatively empty stretch of beach, near the Mellow Mountain end. I wade out into the water up to my knees and unzip. Before I start I briefly wonder if I’m somehow profaning the ocean. Just then I’m startled by loud yelling right behind me. Some sort of gibberish. I hastily zip back up and whirl around. There stands a wild-haired wild-eyed young lady, wearing bangles and brown rags. She continues to gabble and dance and laugh at me in no language I’ve ever heard. Then she dashes back up the beach to join three other similarly clad ladies, cavorting and leering at me. Another approaches and babbles in a similar dialect. I reply laughingly “.. what? I can’t understand…” she gabbles something more, then shouts “WHY SO NICE!??” and goes “BLEAAH” and sticks her tongue out at me. So I go “BLEAAAH” and stick my tongue back out at her. Then they all dash back up the beach and I turn and walk off in the other direction.
Did I really experience that? That was odd, even for this party. I turn around and walk back to investigate, but the ladies have all vanished completely.
I walk into town and use a pay toilet.
And so it continues through the night. Piles of sand resolve themselves into worn-out partiers, passed out or sleeping on the beach. One couple lie together in the most beautiful pose, hands clasped, heads together almost kissing, arms and legs splayed out in different directions.
Some locals carefully hang a sign made of rope onto a scaffold out in the ocean, and light it with a torch until the burning words spell out “FULL MOON PARTY HAAD RIN BEACH THAILAND” forty feet high.
I watch the pile of passed-out bodies accumulate under the tarp next to the medical tent, a sort of human lost-and-found.
I watch a 10-year-old Thai boy spin a flaming staff like a pro, to the shouts of encouragement from the older fire spinners, and the cheers of the watching crowd.
The ocean gradually recedes and makes room for the ever increasing press of people. How lucky, I think, until I realize that the tides must always be timed like this, being determined by the moon’s phase.
I’m hungry, and slightly queasy. Nothing fried or meaty will do now. I wander through town until I find the perfect thing- roasted corn on the cob. I munch on this. Delightful. I reflect that it’s the first time I’ve eaten corn since I left the US. Since nearly everything in the US is made of corn, I’ve been staying away from it to try and clear the stuff out of my system. Now it tastes sooo good.
There are so many pictures I would have taken of this night if I’d had my camera with me. People splayed on the sand in odd poses, the reflections of the flames and neon on the waves, the moon over the palms. The amazing tesselated pattern of light and shadow formed by half a million overlapping footprints across a moonlit beach.
I didn’t bring my camera because I was advised not to bring anything valuable, breakable or likely to be stolen. My wallet and passport were also safely locked in my room. It’s good I didn’t bring my camera. It would’ve been ruined by the salt water from wading into the ocean, or the many water fights. If nothing else, it would’ve gotten smashed when some random guy runs up out of the waves and tackles me from the side, knocking both of us down onto the beach, snapping my mind back to the present. He stands up and wanders off, laughing. After a moment so do I.
As the effects of the shake begin to fade, leaving me feeling clear and beautiful, I return to the drum’n’bass place and just let loose for a while. I consider getting another beer, or even a bucket, but I’m totally content to continue as I am. Some people’s good time is to get completely smashed and crazy and not remember any of it the next day. I find I prefer to just observe and absorb, accepting the beauty of the party as a sort of meditation. Diving into it when it takes me, and standing apart to appreciate when it lets me go again, like waves of the ocean.
Once again I’m hungry. I locate a pad thai stand I noticed earlier, and order some, which is served to me by a friendly transvestite. The pad thai is delicious, although not as good as the stuff in Bangkok. I get lost in the food for a while. Then it’s back to the beach.
Soon the big digital clock at the psy-trance place reads 5:15 AM, and the sun begins to rise. The tide is at its lowest now. The moon and sun are in opposition, both pulling the ocean in opposite directions away from the beach. I join many others in standing way out among the lapping waves to watch the slow brightening of the eastern sky.
Soon the harsh light of day floods over the beach and sops up the last vestiges of moonlight. The once shadowy beach is exposed and the ruins of the night are fully revealed, as happens so often after a night of drunken revelry.
It’s almost 6 AM, when the last van will leave for my hotel. There’s time to dance to just one more song, which ends up being Baby Got Back by Sir Mixalot.
Still grinning, I walk away from Sunrise Beach. I’ll definitely be back.
This past weekend I flew south to the island of Koh Phangan, for the world-famous Full Moon Party. While I was there I figured I’d get a taste of the islands, so I signed up for day-long trek. That morning at 9 AM a truck picked me up from the hotel along with all the other tour-goers. First stop was an elephant ride. We climbed up into this tower while the guides brought over an elephant for each of us. Well, it was two to an elephant actually. Here’s me with Neil, a Scottish guy doing a similar round-the-world trip to mine:
As you can see I’ve buzzed my head in an attempt to keep somewhat cooler in the Thai heat. Matches the elephant’s, don’t you think?
The trek was just up one hill and back, but that was OK. Riding an elephant is fun, but not really an efficient way to get around. For every step she took, the whole seat did this sort of wobbling rotation, tipping a different way as each leg moved. Lots of fun!
The elephants were very friendly, and we got to commune with them a bit after the ride.
After that, we chilled at the tour’s base camp and had tea and watermelon. And got to meet their resident monkey. Her name was one syllabic and monkey-ish. Sook, I think. Neil seems to have a way with animals.
We fed her pieces of watermelon. Isn’t she adorable?
Of course after she’d eaten, she got mischevious and started trying to steal whatever she could get her hands on – reaching into pockets, grabbing at hats. Monkeys are awesome. But naughty. Finally she grabbed somebody’s day bag and made off with it. Being closest, I dashed over and attempted to retrieve the bag. Her prize threatened, she screeched and jumped into my face! It was just a warning, though, she didn’t draw blood. I was able to snatch the bag back after that. But how cool is that? I got attacked by a monkey! Monkeys are awesome.
Next, we boarded a boat and motored around the island to a secluded coral reef. They passed out snorkels and we swam around. This is something I’ve always wanted to do – I’ve seen so many photos and videos of coral reefs but never actually visited one before. I floated above the amazing fractaline patterns and watched brightly-colored fish dash in and out and swim by. It was amazing.
Our next stop was a sand beach for lunch and swimming. The meal was curry, noodles and rice, typical Thai fare. It was scrumptious! The beach was lovely. Being a New Englander, I’m used to ocean water being super cold, even in summer. It was such an experience to swim in an entire bay the temperature of bath water 🙂
Here you can see the boat that took us around the island. Here our guides are pulling it into shore so we can board.
The final leg of our journey took us to another beach, this one for a hike up into the hills to see a waterfall. The hike was fun, not much of a path, we had to climb a lot of rocks and cross the river several times. It wasn’t the usual spot the guides took people to (choppy waves on the other side of the island had changed the itinerary somewhat) so they made some mistakes, and sent people the wrong way a couple times. At one point the group got split up and half the people had to wade waist-deep across the water to get to the path again 🙂
The waterfall was nice, but not a patch on some of the ones in Vermont. When we arrived one of the guides said “Who wants to jump from rock?” And he pointed to a cliff to one side of the waterfall – you can see it to the left in the photo above. Well, jumping off cliffs into swimming holes is practically a regional sport in VT, so of course I volunteered. The guide showed me where to climb around to the top of the cliff, and passed me a knotted rope to climb out and down to the jumping place. Then he dove off, and I followed a moment later. It was fun, but the jump was only about 15 feet up, after all that. Bah. I’m used to 40 foot jumps 🙂
Still, the place was just beautiful. There’s a cave in the cliff wall where the water from the falls emerge. So you can swim up into the cave and be surrounded by falling water on all sides.
We all swam around the pool for a while. I floated onto my back and gazed up. The sky above was filled with dragonflies.
There wasn’t a world championship chess match in town, so I had the following choice:
I went to see the Reclining Buddha. I saw the muddy old river (the Chaophraya river, by the way) later.
Here in Bangkok, just south of the backpacker hub of Khao San Road, and just north of the big tourist attractions like Wat Pho and the Palace, there is a street, several streets actually, full of stores. Stores selling nothing but shrink-wrapped Buddhas.
(To give you a sense of scale, the big Buddha in the above picture is about 6 feet tall!)
This is just a sampling. There have to be at least 50 of these stores all in this one block. It boggles my mind that, even in a country that loves its gold Buddhas, there could be such a demand as this. And I’ve seen at least two pickup trucks driving away from these stores, completely full of Buddhas.
Of course, it all relates back to one of the essential teachings of Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths:
1.Life is suffering.
2.The cause of suffering is being covered in shrink-wrap.
3.This suffering can be alleviated.
4.To remove suffering, remove shrink-wrap.
I found this place when looking for a modern art museum to visit. As it turns out this is technically a “Modern Art Museum” only in the sense that it is a museum of antiquities which is itself modern art. See, a few years ago, an eccentric billionaire Thai businessman named Lek Viriyapant commissioned the construction of a museum in the shape of a giant three-headed elephant on a pink pedestal, containing a rich collection of Thai antiquities and artifacts. Well, I had to check that out. I’m very glad I did. I was one of the only foreign tourists among a sea of local visitors. It felt great to be off the beaten path a bit. Besides, the energy of the place was so good, so joyful and peaceful. It is a shrine as well as a museum (Thais are fond of turning all sorts of places into shrines), and it really felt very holy there.
Erawan, by the way, is the Thai name for Airvata, an elephant in Hindu mythology who carries Lord Indra.
There are three levels to the building – one is the basement, which contains the most ancient artifacts, mostly pots and ceramics, but there’s one exhibit of jade which is breathtaking. Then there’s the interior of the pedestal – the architecture of this space completely overshadows the relics on exhibit here. Here’s a view of the domed ceiling:
There are two staircases leading up towards the legs of the elephant. They wind like elephant trunks.
At the top of the balcony inside the pedestal, a spiral staircase travels upwards through one of the elephant’s legs. It’s covered with paintings of mermaid-like creatures and water lillies. It was too dark in here to get a good photo, though. Entering the stair brings a welcome blast of super-cold AC — the interior of this holy elephant is air-conditioned.
Arriving at the top of the stairs, I stepped out into the inside of the elephant. An oddly shaped room because it is in the shape of an elephant’s belly, this temple is dimly lit by a glowing night sky scene. And it is filled with Buddhas.
Just as breathtaking as the interior of the elephant are the surrounding gardens.
The reason, so I understand, that this museum is also a shrine, or perhaps just the reason it’s such a popular one with locals, is that a thai girl won the lottery shortly after visiting here. Now people believe the elephant is very lucky and come to pray and meditate and ask Erawan for boons. There is a specific process you can follow to do this. First you light a bundle of incense and kneel before the outside shrine, in front of the elephant. Then, you take a lotus blossom and float it on a pond that encircles the elephant. Finally, you can take a piece of gold leaf and press it onto a smaller statue of Erawan that sits in front of the shrine. I felt moved to perform this ritual myself. I lit the incense and knelt and meditated for a while. Then I took a lotus blossom to float onto the pool. The lotus blossoms were being given out at a nearby stand, included with each ticket to the museum. Each was floating in a bowl of water. I took one of the bowls and walked over to the pool.
I experienced a rather wonderful revelation while doing this. Since part of the ritual is to make a wish, I pondered what I should wish for. I realized that I was in a state of tranquility, accepting things that came to me, and quite free of need – at least in that particular moment. I felt so centered that to make a wish at that point would actually have been to re-introduce need and desire, and imbalance myself. So I decided not to wish for anything in particular. I felt perfectly happy just to clear my mind and focus on sending positive energy out into the world, and to those around me. I knelt by the pool and meditated for a couple minutes. Then I dipped my bowl reverently into the pool, watched the water of the pool merge with that of the bowl, and gently carry the lotus off along the current.