A full moon used to mean a full beach of party-goers along the Haad Rin strip on Thailand’s Koh Pha Ngan. But it hasn’t been like that for a year now as the Gulf of Thailand island waits out the restrictions and border closures caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The crowds of backpackers and revellers aren’t flocking to the monthly event and the shops, bars and cheap accommodation along the tourist strip are shuttered and locked – some of the shop owners and staff will never return.
What started as a back-packer and hippy off-the-beaten-track adventure in the 1980s, in recent years attracted a broader clientele. It’s still a difficult place to get to – either flying in to Koh Samui on the monopolised flights of Bangkok Airways and catching a ferry, or catching a ferry from the mainland of Surat Thani. Koh Pha Ngan now has a lot more to offer than just it’s monthly party of bass-thumping beats and buckets full of…. well we don’t really know what’s in them (neither did the people who drank them).
The sound system was loud, but not very good, security is almost non-existent, good DJs are patchy and there’s a general “it will be OK” attitude that pervades the organisation of the Full Moon Party. There have been different proposals put to the organisers over the years to bring the event up to international standard beach parties, but they’ve fallen by the wayside as the organisers argue “it it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Koh Pha Ngan’s monthly beach rave had its own special attraction despite any perceived or real quality lapses.
The south-east corner of the island actually has 2 Haad Rin beaches, one facing east for sunrises and the more famous, and longer, beach that hosts the monthly beach party.
There’s still a hippy vibe on the island with its numerous yoga and spa retreats but the businesses that remain are barely hanging on without the feature act that would book out most of the accommodation for the BIG night. The Full Moon Party attracted more than 50% of the one million visitors that headed to Koh Pha Ngan every year.
The party has also attracted plenty of bad publicity, as any huge beach party would – illicit drugs, alcohol abuse, sex crimes, the garbage left after each event. And even some cases of violence. But the vast majority of visitors to Thailand’s Full Moon Party just had a damn good time!
A year-long break has allowed some reflection after nearly 4 decades of growth and popularity of the party. Locals and local businesspeople are wondering if there could be a Koh Pha Ngan without the Full Moon Party. Has the island outgrown the one-trick-pony that WAS the monthly beach rave? Could a more sustainable economy be built around wellness, spas and diving?
The island is part of a trio off the coast of Surat Thani. Koh Samui is the largest and most popular. But Koh Tao and Kho Pha Ngan have had their own share of publicity. Koh Tao with its diving and, latterly, some bad world publicity surrounding a high profile murder case and other mysterious misadventures to tourists. Koh Pha Ngan had its big party, and in the last decade or so, some excellent retreats concentrating on wellness, yoga and relaxation.
But the three islands all suffer the same core problem – an airline monopoly that makes trips to the archipelago expensive. Sure, there are ferry services but they are not 100% reliable and can take day out of your itinerary with delays, blah blah. The 3 islands have thrived despite the tyranny of distance and inconvenience. But they could have become much more mainstream if there was an open skies policy for flights to the island or the ferry infrastructure was improved. Perhaps one of the allures of the 3 islands is that they ARE hard to get to?
MAP: Google Maps
But despite the retrospection from townsfolk and businesspeople on Koh Pha Ngan, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few – the island simply cannot survive without the monthly tourist invasion, despite the challenges. Cutting off 20-30,000 monthly visitors, who usually stay for a few more days either side of the party, would be a fatal blow to the island’s economy in the long term.
But the 12 month’s rest for Haad Rin and the organisers will certainly bring some changes to the event. In the short term there will be mask-wearing and social distancing guidelines, a challenge for any alcohol-fuelled social gathering. And the problems of getting there will remain. But Koh Pha Nganians are sure that the event will not only survive but thrive once the tourists start coming again.
The locals are also sure there will be a greater appreciation for the island’s natural beauty and the other tourist assets that need the same amount of investment and attention as the monthly beach party. Cutting off the island’s main economic lifeline proved that Koh Pha Ngan needed to diversify its economy.
For now they’re not sure when the tourists will start flowing back and the party resume, maybe later this year or 2022, but the beach will still be there.
And the full moon will again set in the Gulf of Thailand as the partygoers glance westwards.
PHOTO: Koh Samui Travel
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