Koh Phangan’s Full Moon parties get a lot of bad publicity, and with the tragic shooting of British tourist Stephen Ashton in the popular party area of Haad Rin earlier this year, legitimate concerns have been raised about how safe a destination it is.
Every year there are reports of deaths, sexual assaults and thefts, and the island is largely in the hands of criminal gangs intent on making money from the hordes of tourists who flock to the Full Moon Party every month, and who aren’t afraid to use underhand and illegal methods in order to turn a pretty profit.
Koh Phangan was the first island I visited in Thailand, but besides tripping over and severely spraining my ankle within a minute of getting off of the ferry (resulting in me having to wear a very inconvenient and unattractive bandage for a week) I had a fantastic time. Travellers, including those travelling alone, shouldn’t be scared out of going to Koh Phangan, or avoiding a Full Moon Party, simply because of negative media reports of the island. Here are my top 5 tips for staying safe.
1) Leave your valuables at your hostel/hotel.
Mix together buckets of alcohol, sand, sea and the addition of some unscrupulous characters, and you might find yourself permanently deprived of your belongings. One boy from my guesthouse fell asleep on the beach and woke up bereft of 5000 baht, his sunglasses, camera, iPhone and watch. Don’t take out anything that you aren’t prepared to lose – especially your passport! (Though it might be a good idea to take a paper photocopy of it.) Thefts can and do happen. Warning: there have been some break-ins at hostels and hotels, with criminals stealing valuables while everyone is out at the party. Try to put anything expensive in a safe, preferably locked with your own padlock.
2) Be careful in the sea
During the party many people seem to lose their inhibitions and think it’s perfectly alright to make the sea their personal toilet. A quick scan of the beachfront will show guys and girls galore squatting in the ocean. Disgusting as this is in itself, it’s obviously a health hazard for anyone swimming in the ocean during the night. Note: It’s probably best to avoid the sea the day following the Full Moon Party too, as it’s full of rubbish. I spotted a used tampon, a condom and plenty of clothes, glass and flip flops.
On a more obvious note, don’t swim while drunk. There are hundreds of sharp rocks and lots of dangerous litter, including broken bottles, you don’t want a trip to A&E.
Also, sea urchins can prove problematic if you step on them. People are frequently admitted to clinics after being poisoned by treading on them.
3) Try to stick to bottles with lids, and watch how much you’re drinking
Stands on the beachfront and scattered across the streets sell buckets, which are a super sugary combination of (strong) alcohol, a soft drink (normally Sprite or Coca Cola) and Red Bull served in brightly coloured children’s sand buckets. Warning: Thai Red Bull is much stronger than Westernised versions. The first time I drank it I ended up with heart palpitations. They contain a speed-like substance (ephedrine) which can stop you from feeling the full effect of the alcohol you’re drinking – so be careful about how much you’re consuming. They normally cost anything between 100 to 250 baht.
Buckets are lethal! Don’t start drinking them too early of you will end up as one of the comatose individuals still lying on the beach the following day. Keep hydrated. You can nip to 7/11 for a bottle of water. Your head will thank you in the morning.
One boy staying in my guesthouse drank so many buckets he ended up vomiting so profusely that he had to be admitted to a clinic to be treated for severe dehydration. He had to stay there under observation for 5 days, missing a precious chunk of his trip and racking up a fortune in medical bills as he had no travel insurance. Is it really worth it?
You can also buy bottled alcohol from 7/11s and in bars, which I would recommend. That way you no no one has tampered with your drink.
4) Stay away from drugs
Drugs are pretty easy to come by in Koh Phangan, but that doesn’t make them legal or a good idea. The Thai legal system is notoriously hard on drug users. Don’t do it unless you want a lifetime spent in a Thai jail, or even the death penalty. The party has many undercover police officers who will happily sell you drugs only to bust you. Locals can get rewards for notifying the police about drug taking, and often will.
5) Try not to go alone
I’m not normally one to say that company is essential, but I do think going to the Full Moon Party with company is safer. It’s always a good idea to have a friend or two there look after you if you have to much to drink. Arranging a meeting point is also helpful – it’s a long beach and you can easily get lost. Carrying a card with the name and address of your accommodation can also be helpful if you lose your bearings. Try not to wander off alone, as you might be followed by shady characters.
Medical help: There is a great clinic on the island called run by a Scottish doctor. Some insurance companies won’t pay up for injuries sustained at the beach if you were intoxicated. He will write you a report saying you hurt yourself in a non-alcohol fuelled way.
Wear closed shoes (or at least sandals). This was recommended to me by several locals and people who’d been to the party before. It’ll stop you losing your flip flops, and will hopefully prevent you getting your feet cut.
You can’t skip fire: Along the beach will be Thais with a skipping rope which is on fire. They will encourage drunken ravers to attempt to skip over the flaming rope, getting faster with each successful jump. This is clearly an activity which no sane person would partake in – but Koh Phangan seems to bring out the latent idiot in many people, and there were plenty of ravers with nasty burns and scorched hair walking around.
Accommodation: Accommodation tends to sell out well in advance for the dates around the Full Moon Party. Many hoteliers cash in on the high demand and relative scarcity of places to stay by enforcing minimum stay durations. (Normally 3-5 nights) Be sure to book up in advance. You will also pay more for most rooms in this period, so make sure your budget can cover this. Arrive at least three days beforehand, it’ll take a miracle to find a room if you arrive on the day of the party itself.
Getting Away: Once the party is over there’s a mass exodus of travellers leaving for the mainland, Koh Tao and Koh Samui. If you want to catch the cheaper backpacker ferries, make sure you book up as soon as possible, or you might be left stranded in Koh Phangan for longer than you expected.
Rapes, death and violence: Around one person dies at each Full Moon Party, mainly self-inflicted deaths through intoxication, motorcycle accidents, drug overdoses and accidental drowning. However, occasionally there are cases of violence and rape. Drinks can be spiked, so keep hold of your alcohol all night, and don’t accept drinks from strangers.
Sexual Encounters: There’s a good deal of rumpy-pumpy happening during the Full Moon. If you do decide to indulge, please use a condom. You don’t want your memory of the party to be an unwanted pregnancy from some guy in Ohio whose name you never learnt, or a nasty STI. Also, out of respect for the locals and your fellow tourists, please go back to your room rather than forcing everyone to watch you on the beach.