Thailand Part II: Koh Phangan’s Balancing Act

Jay’s suggestion to visit Koh Phangan was a curious one given the island’s reputation. Rough Guides describes Koh Phangan’s famed Full Moon Party as “Apocalypse Now but without the war.” The party traces its origins to a small group of hippies that descended on Haad Rin Beach in the early 60s to escape a ravenous world of consumption and explore the mind-bending realm of psychedelics. According to some of the island’s veteran residents, the pristine beach was barely accessible by road and could only be reached by boat. Much has changed since those romantic days. Today’s Full Moon Party has transformed into a full-blown rave with international appeal.

Each month the lunar cycle can bring up to 25,000 partiers to Haad Rin to dance, celebrate, and imbibe combinations of red bull, hard liquor, and designer drugs. If you’re puzzled by the scope of the debauchery, you should check out Vice’s piece featuring the photos from Photographer Ender Suenni. His work captures the chaotic blur of neon tank tops, face paint, and lost souls set against a tropical paradise. But the Full Moon Party also provides an apt metaphor for Koh Phangan. The monthly shindig highlights two elements of the Thailand tourism experience often overlooked by the everyday traveler: the tenuous balance between sustainability and profit, and the illicit networks that churn beneath the country’s surface. But why did I choose to stay in Haad Rin in the first place? The short answer: a combination of poor planning and even poorer knowledge of the island.

Arriving in Paradise

After I took a short flight from Bangkok to Surat Thani, I was conveniently shepherded out of the airport and onto a bus towards the ferry terminal. The views of the bay, as you depart the terminal, are impressive. The horizon is dotted with verdant, tropical mountains, colorful fishing boats, and steep cliffs jutting out of the Bay of Thailand. Thankfully Koh Phangan is only accessible by ferry because the island has no airport. LRG_DSC07064Just over a year ago, authorities halted a private airport project after they discovered that the runway’s construction had encroached on a national forest preserve. A local investigation suggested that the contractors obtained unlawful permits through a web of corrupt officials that greenlighted the project. This is not unusual for Thailand. According to the GAN Business Anti-Corruption Portal, land administration is a magnet for graft within the Thai bureaucracy. Nearly one-third of Thai businesses reported that they offered facilitation payments and lavish gifts to secure land titles. This revelation made me grateful, especially after hearing stories of neighboring Koh Samui. As a sprawling tropical island with a fully functioning international airport, Koh Samui has become a bastion for pensioners, partiers, and business opportunists. This saturation of tourists has caused even Lonely Planet to suggest looking for other beach options.

So there I sat, inhaling the diesel fumes and natural bliss as the ferry chugged towards Koh Phangan. In that particular moment, I was struck with an overwhelming sense of both excitement and panic. Due to my intentional lack of planning, I had thrown caution to the wind and not booked accommodations on the island. This unusual absence of structure led me to strike up conversations with my fellow passengers who suggested that I should attend the trance-fueled Black Moon Party that Sunday. Why of course, I responded. That sounds absolutely swell. Naturally, I assumed this lunar binge would go down on Haad Rin, the same beach where the Full Moon Party was located. But every so often, we all are confronted with the fallacies of our assumptions.

After a harrowing taxi ride over switchback roads and hairpin turns, I arrived in the famed beach town only to discover that the Black Moon Party was in fact on a different part of the island. Well, I thought, I’m already here. So I lugged my oversized pack through the desolate streets of Haad Rin and settled on a small hostel called Road Trip. Although I initially thought it was under construction, a friendly German named Daniel beckoned me inside as I stepped over power tools and wood frames scattered across the floor. He introduced me to my two new Israeli roommates and I soon realized that I was one of three guests in the hostel. Slow season indeed.

After a brief chat with my fellow travelers, I ventured into the streets of Haad Rin to find dinner. It didn’t take long for me to come to an important realization: Koh Phangan, and Haad Rin, in particular, is a breathing organism fueled by a steady diet of tourism dollars. Despite being the low season on an off-weekend, the town still hums with activity from fluorescent 7-Elevens, beach stores, massage parlors, western-themed restaurants, and scooter rental shops. Haad Rin’s strip of beach is lined with gaudy neon bars and shoddy stands that hawk plastic buckets filled with red bull, vodka, and coca cola. Shady characters casually saunter up to Western visitors offering a range of products from the harmless joint to mysterious white powders. And fire spinners acrobatically twirl their burning ropes to the delight of tourists and then coax onlookers into participating in limbo and line dancing. The spectacle can be hard to digest.

Of Gringo Trails, Tourism, and Corruption

During my time in Haad Rin, my thoughts kept returning to the documentary Gringo Trails. For those unfamiliar with the film’s premise, it sets out to explore the impact of backpacking tourism on environments and local cultures. And it does so in a less than flattering way. From the slow erosion of the Salt Flats of Bolivia to the once virginal beaches of Thailand, Gringo Trails chronicles the power of tourism to completely transform a location, for better or worse. Koh Phangan could easily serve as a case study for such unintended consequences. How does the Thailand Tourism Authority balance the need for economic investment with the challenges of preserving a pristine paradise? How do you offer a sustainable and authentic experience in a place that has developed a party culture with its own set of norms and expectations?

Thailand directly employs nearly 2 million people in its tourism industry and the World Travel and Tourism Council estimates that tourism contributes 9.7 percent to Thailand’s GDP. The Full Moon Party is a microcosm of tourism’s primacy. There are now between 15,000 to 25,000 people that descend on Koh Phangan every month to let loose, providing an enormous cash infusion to the island but also jeopardizing the environmental sanctity of Haad Rin’s beach. Anecdotally, I found Thailand’s most infamous waters as a shade far from tropical aquamarine and I regularly noticed plastic bottles and other rubbish littered across the sand. The Department of Marine and Coastal Resources alleges that up to 80 percent of Thailand’s coral reefs have been deteriorated thereby spurring bans and restrictions. Moreover, the 2017 World Economic Forum (WEF) Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report notes that Thailand ranks 122nd out of 136 countries for its Environmental Sustainability score. This poor showing undoubtedly ties into the country’s ongoing struggle with corruption, as it ranks 100th for the stringency of its environmental regulations and 93rd for their enforcement.

Yet not all is lost. Thailand has aimed to combat this environmental degradation with drastic measures. In 2016, the Director General of Thailand’s National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation chose to officially close Koh Tachai in Ranong Province after tourists overran its beaches and damaged ecosystems. And only earlier this summer the Thai government issued a series of decrees that prohibit fishing, fish feeding, anchoring on coral reefs, and construction activities on Koh Phangan, Koh Samui, and Koh Tao. So as I meandered through Haad Rin’s sandy banks that Friday evening, I tried to temper a sense of disappointment. And how best to remedy a case of the environmental IMG_0272decline blues? You guessed it: with a hefty bucket of red bull and vodka accompanied by a generous dollop of Top 40 hits. As my frustration melted into boozy bliss, I stumbled into my Israeli friends who lounged at a beachside table. And before I knew it, with sand between my toes, I was dancing to Nelly and Lil Wayne before ravenously consuming a plate of Pad Thai at 2 in the morning.    

I awoke from my hungover slumber to an uneventful second day. I attempted and failed two times to find the trail to trek to the remote Haad Yuan beach. Shortly after, I nearly crashed Daniel’s scooter into a wall during my first trial run. And then I soon realized my Israeli pals had left the hostel in search of more exciting pastures. So, thanks to the generosity of Road Trip hostel, Daniel offered to escort me to a well-known Koh Phangan sunset bar and the island’s famed Saturday night market. To my surprise, the evening proved to be a lesson in understanding Koh Phangan’s complexities and the informal underbelly behind the island’s tourism machine. In conversations with Daniel, I heard tales of brazen corruption and a ruthless Thai mafia that operates in the shadows. This was most on display during our visit to Amsterdam Bar. Marketing itself as a laid-back, hillside watering hole ideally situated for an idyllic island sunset, it’s also known as the location to purchase marijuana joints on Koh Phangan. And this transaction doesn’t take place at a seedy, unmarked table set deep in the bowels of the bar, but rather as a formal point of sale at the counter. When I asked Daniel about this nuance, he chuckleLRG_DSC07201d. “After spending more than a year on this island, you begin to understand how things work and also how they don’t work.” Daniel divulged tales of an elusive Thai mafia, corrupt inspection officials, and shady police checkpoints. Amsterdam Bar, like the Full Moon Party, illustrates the murky nexus between Thailand’s sterling reputation as a premier tourism destination and its seedier underworld of payoffs, bribes, and organized crime.  

These mysterious tales prodded me to do some research of my own. A quick Google search on the Thai mafia led me to a story about the suspicious deaths of two British travelers on the neighboring island of Koh Tao. While on holiday in 2014, Hannah Witheridge and David Miller were both bludgeoned to death and subsequently discovered semi-naked in their hotel rooms. The Thai government swiftly accused two Burmese workers of committing the heinous acts although controversy abounds. In the wake of the murders, a host of international news outlets probed deeper into the island’s inner workings. What they found was unsettling. Local accounts exposed taxi fleets controlled by the mafia, a police force colluding with organized crime, and a pervasive atmosphere of fear among expats. The details of the story have led some to label Koh Tao as “Murder Island”, and another online story, which documents even more grisly crimes committed against tourists, suggested that many expats chose to remain silent rather than speak out. I suppose there are trade-offs when you reside in paradise. Apart from news articles, I found a brief document on Drug Policy in Thailand from Brookings, which claimed the influence of Thai organized crime is limited and its actions nonviolent. But from conversations with the island’s expats to limited online research, I’ve begun to think otherwise.  

The contradictions embedded in Thailand’s increased tourism are also on display in the aforementioned 2017 World Economic Forum report. On one hand, Thailand is lauded as a tourism success story. “Amazing Thailand” is a tropical getaway that expertly tailors outdoor adventure and beach relaxation to travelers of all stripes. But the WEF Report also reveals inconsistencies in that narrative. For one, it ranks Thailand 118 out of 136 countries on the Safety and Security Perceptions index, just behind the DRC and narrowly edging out Jamaica. While the Land of Smiles has ascended to a Top 10 tourist destination in the world, in terms of both visitor entries and dollars spent, it also has achieved some less flattering titles. In 2013, the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism published a report that placed Thailand among the top ten countries for terrorist attacks. Due to chronic instability in several southern provinces, the State Department continues to urge Americans to reconsider travel to these regions. NPR Journalist Patrick Winn has documented these lesser-known dangers with stellar investigative journalism in the southern town of Golok. The town has grappled with a violent Muslim insurgency that continues to roil Malay tourists in search of escapist pleasures, denting the peaceful image Thailand strives to project. In fact, Winn believes that as Thailand’s tourism booms and the region prospers, organized crime in Southeast Asia may be on the cusp of a new golden era.   

But let me clarify: none of this information was at my disposal on that serene Saturday evening at Amsterdam Bar. What was available was an excitable Paul ready to eat all of the deep-fried street food at the night market and then imbibe every liquid offered to me at the hostel. I was ready for the island breeze to blow me in whatever direction it chose. And that Saturday evening it plunged me into the true lifeblood of Koh Phangan’s beating heart: an all-night psychedelic rager on a remote beach. Within seconds of arriving back at Road Trip, Daniel ensured that the Thai red bull and cheap vodka flowed with abandon. Other travelers slowly trickled into the hostel’s cluttered interior. As the crew expanded, a consensus formed: we would migrate to Haad Yuan beach at 1 in the morning to attend Eden. Widely regarded as the best party on Koh Phangan, the Broke Backpacker described Eden as “a party unlike any other…what I imagine the full IMG_0297moon parties were like when they first started.” After taking a short ride via fishing vessel to Haad Yuan, we traversed the jagged cliffs to enter a bar pulsating with shirtless ravers, dreadlocked hippies, and amped partiers. A smoky DJ booth loomed over a dancefloor soaked in neon light. We wasted no time. I drank, I danced, I napped, I drank some more. And yes, I actually stayed up to see the sunrise the following morning. When I boarded the boat back to Haad Rin, a sizable contingent remained at the bar, immersed in their drug-laced binge. The promise of Koh Phangan persevered.  

To recover from the marathon of dancing, my body needed some deep tissue R&R. I opted for a massage at the parlor adjoined to the hostel and was blissfully plunged into an hour of limb pressing, pulling, and stretching. My well-spent 250 Baht made the bumpy pickup truck ride over Haad Rin’s winding hills bearable before I arrived at my new accommodations: Cats in Space. After meeting the hostel’s gregarious Danish IMG_0303employee Alan, to my surprise, I again found myself as the only guest in the hostel. I settled on a relaxing stroll on the island’s southern coast and found myself plunged into tourism mode when I saw the hues of bright orange and purple rip through the sky. In my exhaustion, I rounded out the evening with a large meal of yellow curry and pad thai before posting up in my exclusive four-bed dorm.

Easy Riding my Last Day

My final full day in Koh Phangan warrants a brief deviation from my critical analysis of the island. I’d instead like to focus on a major milestone for me as a traveler: riding an automatic scooter through a tropical island in a foreign country. While this revelation might seem anticlimactic for the more seasoned backpacker, it was my first time roaming around an idyllic paradise at thrilling speeds. Alan and I cruised through the island’s hilly interior, rounding sharp bends to discover even more stunning vistas as we headed towards the more remote northern coast of Koh Phangan. The shady dealings, backroom payoffs, and strung out backpackers of Koh Phangan soon faded from my imagination. LRG_DSC07123The island breeze instead plastered a stupid grin across my face.  I soon learned that there is nothing more freeing than a scooter ride through a tropical island. As we hobnobbed through pristine beaches, snorkeled along seaside cliffs, and shared a cold beer at the 360 bar, I could feel the thrill of Amazing Thailand returning. Alan, the son of a Danish father and a Thai mother, was the epitome of “chill”. Like so many other Europeans, he planned to work on the island for at least a year to evade the banal drudgery of northern European life. There are no official figures on expats on the islands, but many reports suggest thousands. While Alan embraced the thrills of Koh Phangan’s party scene, he also seemed content to sink into the couch, listen to obscure electronic music, and smoke cigarettes in the glow of the hostel lobby.  

On my final evening in Koh Phangan, the power on the island went out for two hours. Alan and I had just polished off a sumptuous meal of fried rice and fish curry at the night IMG_0330market when all was plunged into darkness. Alan informed me that the last time this happened, it took nearly seven hours for the power to return. My Google searches turned up little. Apart from a news story pleading that tourists consume less power, there wasn’t much about Koh Phangan’s faulty electrical grid. Regardless, Alan and I returned to the hostel to prepare for a final evening of nightlife led by the hostel manager, a 26-year-old German girl. After a short motorbike ride down a muddy road, we arrived at a tiny barge nestled against the shore. House music reverberated from the interior. We clinked our beers together to celebrate the moment and swayed to the music with the other merrymakers.

It was a fitting conclusion to my island getaway. The day had filled me with freedom, providing a much-needed cathartic release. While I had only spent 4 days exploring Koh Phangan’s famed beaches and notorious party scene, I felt closer to understanding its complexities. It was a place that offered visitors unfettered access to extreme pleasure and incomprehensible beauty. But it also came at a cost that wasn’t immediately apparent to the untrained eye. While many tourists are quickly enchanted by Thailand’s stunning paradise, these same experiences are rarely available to locals. As I’ll explore in greater depth in the final Thailand installment, my time in Chiang Mai crystallized this reality for me.


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