This was my third trip to the beautiful Thai island of Koh Phangan for the famed Full Moon Party (FMP), all within two years (this one wasn’t initially planned, but stemmed from a last-minute desire to leave Cambodia and fortuitous timing).
It was also the first time I think I can say I really nailed it: I had finally worked out how to do everything right to have a great time – not just on the FMP night itself, but during the nights before and after, too. Moreover, this trip solidified Koh Phangan as my favourite place in Thailand (but only during the three-four days before and day after FMP week, of course; don’t bother going any other time of the month, unless you just want to relax).
As this unplanned trip had to be scheduled around my already-booked flight home, I had to arrive two nights before the main party and stay two nights afterwards to make up the obligatory five night minimum stay at most accommodation. This was not as ideal as arriving three nights before and staying until one night after (the best timing for optimum people numbers and partying), but it wasn’t bad for an unplanned trip.
I had managed to snag a room in a guesthouse only a couple of days beforehand for an average of AUD$70 a night (it’s always more during the actual FMP and less before and after, but that was the average), which is the same price I previously paid for my roomy and very comfortable bungalow at Haad Rin Hill Bungalows (which was unsurprisingly booked out at this late date).
The room was much smaller than that bungalow and a bit further from the beach, the pillow case ended up eventually tearing, and there was no bin so I had to use a plastic bag; but despite all this it was actually pretty comfortable, and I was very happy to find anything decent so last minute and relatively close to the FMP beach for an affordable price (for FMP week!), as there wasn’t much else available. Possibly I was so happy with it due to the psychological effect of my limited choice. As an incidental bonus, I noticed on the map it happened to be very close to Dancing Elephant hostel, which I knew from my research was one of the craziest party hostels.
This brings me to my first tip of many to get the most out of Koh Phangan during the FMP week, through which I will tell you about my experience in 2016:
1. Go on the booze cruise, but on the day the people staying at Dancing Elephant hostel are going.
I had been on the Sababa day time boat party several times before and knew it was likely to be being held the day after I arrived. So, before hitting up the Coral Bungalows Pool Party and even before checking into my guesthouse, I went straight to the Papaya guesthouse travel agent where I had discovered through Facebook it can be booked, and which happened to be right near my guesthouse.
The next day a handful of us sat around in the sunshine on the boat, clearly all unsure how good as it was going to be as there were barely any of us. However, after a while a boatload of people from the Dancing Elephant hostel arrived – and I recalled that I had had the same luck the year prior, when I had timed my attendance on the same day as everyone from that hostel.
It isn't a totally nuts booze cruise like the one on Gili Trawangan, Indonesia or in Ibiza; in my experience you have a relaxed, good time but are still quite functional for the night. I met some great people and we planned to meet up later at their hostel, which was fortuitously right around the corner from my guesthouse. This time, unlike the last time, the people meant it; and I met my new friends at their hostel that evening. Which brings me to…
2. Stay near Dancing Elephant hostel, and go there every night.
I am confident that my previous two experiences at Koh Phangan would have been greatly improved if I had known about this tip. Previously, I spent some evenings trying to meet people at the pool party or just on the beach, as I wasn’t staying in a hostel where I could easily meet people. I always managed – in fact, on my first night on this trip I didn’t yet know about this tip, so went straight to the Coral Bungalows Pool Party, where I met three nice dudes and partied with them. But the Dancing Elephant is a hostel that holds a party every night in the alleyway outside, and many people in the know from other hostels and accommodations just turn up to meet and mingle in the alley around tables before heading down to the beach or the night’s party together.
The hostel party alleyway is also a bar – but I didn’t buy drinks there, due to my now-realised understanding of the need to…
3. Only drink from convenience stores – never from any bar or bucket stand.
Obviously part of the novelty of Koh Phangan around the time of the FMP is the bucket stands, each one with a different name. However, I have known of several people, including myself, who have gotten various degrees of sick from the island's buckets. People often think they’ve been spiked; in reality, I believe it’s just poor quality, probably-not-brewed-correctly local alcohol. The first FMP I went to saw several people in my hostel room back early due to being ‘spiked’ – I’m sure it was just the dodgy alcohol.
And this tip goes not just for the bucket stands. On my first Coral Bungalows Pool Party it happened to me: I suddenly felt quite nauseated and had to wait a couple of hours for it to pass – and I had bought my drink from an established guesthouse, not a random street vendor. I also remember my previous Sababa boat party where we tasted and smelt the vodka we were served and were sure it wasn’t quite right (and they weren’t trying to spike us!). I also met a guy on my previous trip who had been given antibiotics due to a strong bug he had apparently contracted from dodgy alcohol. I think he may have even had to go to hospital nearby Koh Samui. Not what you want – especially as most travel insurance won’t cover any medical expenses if alcohol was involved.
I no longer trust any bar on the island. And I eventually realised that on Koh Phangan not only does every convenience store serve alcohol, buckets and straws; but you can take any bucket with you anywhere, including to Coral Bungalows, or into bars, and no one bats an eyelid (even if the bucket is a colour they don’t sell!).
The only possible exception is the Jungle Party, which is held on the eve of the FMP (and which I understand is akin to the Half Moon Party). I would still try it though, or at least drink up beforehand and on the entertaining shared van ride there, as queues for drinks once you arrive (along with the rest of the island, some time after midnight) can be very long.
So this time I simply mixed my own bucket cocktails in my room and went back to fill up when I ran out. The number of times I needed to do this was helpfully minimised by my ability to be satisfied slowly sipping a very strong mix (three parts gin to one part mixer anyone?). But it was also made possible by my awareness of the need to…
4. Stay as close as possible to the FMP beach (Haad Rin Nok).
This makes tip number three possible. It also means not having to deal with the increasingly gross toilets that can attract queues and require payment. I always stay so close to the beach that I just go to my own guesthouse when I need to during pre-drinks at the Dancing Elephant or the FMP, and take the opportunity to refill my drink bucket.
An American friend I met on the first night at the pool party didn’t realise this location tip, and was finding it difficult to just pop over to join us at Dancing Elephant for pre-drinks, as it required a taxi. Rookie error: during FMP week on Koh Phangan, you need to fork out the extra and stay as close as possible to the beach and the action to maximise your enjoyment. Everything – not just the actual FMP on the beach, but all the bars, restaurants and action – is in the one place: Haad Rin Nok.
5. Avoid the local Red Bull – but not because you’re afraid of its energising power.
Some people seem to have no problem with this thick, non-carbonated susbstance that is served as a standard drink mixer in Thailand; but it took me unfortunately long to realise that it nauseates me. During my first FMP, I thought I had eaten something dodgy – but I am now confident that it was just the local Red Bull, based on the same thing happening a couple of days later on one of the boat parties and someone telling me that the Red Bull was the likely culprit. I've also experienced it enough now to be able to identify the feeling (it isn't the same as the dodgy-alcohol sickness).
Avoiding the local stuff is not a problem though, as all the convenience stores sell Western, carbonated Red Bull – which I’m totally fine with. And as I’m implementing tip number three about in-room self-bartending, I can go to town on the Western stuff to help me party all night.
6. Definitely buy the FMP themed clothes and get into the spirit…
For some dumb reason I didn't during my first FMP, and only partially did the second time; but by this time I had realised that it's all part of the fun. There are stores and vendors everywhere selling all kinds of subtly different versions of the same different kinds of tops in different colour combinations, so pop in on the day of the FMP, enjoy the buzz and growing crowds as more and more people arrive and take your pick. I was ultimately quite satisfied with my flattering, fluoro halter top, lurid shorts and bright, flowery headdress.
7. …but don’t necessarily bother with paying for ‘professional’ body paint.
I decided I wanted cool body paint, so paid for someone in the street to paint my arm and leg. Back at the Dancing Elephant, I wasn’t sure it was that great, so ended up touching it up further using the hostel’s free paint. I then somehow ended up painting a whole bunch of guys’ arms using the hostel’s free paint, realising it wasn’t that difficult if you put in enough swirls and dots.
Later, I learned that some of these guys may have been using ‘being painted’ as a subtle method of flirtation. Regardless, it was certainly a great way of breaking the ice!
8. Go with the right attitude.
I had had some unnecessary dramas on previous Thailand trips by letting it get to me when people I had met weren’t genuine, or were flakey – or worse. Reflection meant I was determined to make the most of my precious Thailand time and not let that happen this time. More recent travel experiences had also shown me that for every person I met who wasn’t a kindred spirit, I could the next day – or the next hour – meet someone awesome.
So, this time I generally had a more relaxed attitude to my interactions and the people I met. Maybe I exuded a better vibe as a result, or maybe it was a coincidence, but I ended up meeting a ton of cool people who actually wanted to hang out repeatedly.
On the night of the FMP especially, having the right attitude means expecting to lose people and being fine with it. It’s very, very hard to not lose people on this night: there’s just too many people. This time, I lost some people at the Dancing Elephant pre-drinks when I let them go ahead of me. I went to my guesthouse and immediately met a bunch of people staying in the hostel dorm there who invited me to join them, which I gladly did. But by the time we got to the beach, I promptly lost all but one guy – then lost him too.
No matter, I immediately met two friendly Italians.
When they called it a night at 3am, instead of worrying I went back to my room, touched up my makeup, refilled my drink, and went out again – to immediately meet some more friendly Italians, with whom I managed to keep partying until the sunrise, for the first time in three attempts. And man, the sunrise itself may not have been that impressive, but something about that vibe was just great. Contrary to what you may have read about drunken idiots and debauchery, it was just a great time of people dancing and enjoying life.
At this point in the morning, I ran into some of the people I had met earlier that night at Dancing Elephant (although actually none of them were staying there either), and we ended up going swimming in the ocean. A perfect night!
9. Party the night after the FMP, too – you’ll still have a blast.
I kept hanging out with the same crew the next day and night. Initially, the others had the usual thoughts of having a quiet night – perhaps seeing a movie that was showing. I was quick to urge everyone to consider having a few drinks, as I had had such an epic night on the night after the FMP during my previous trip.
Sure enough, we got into the spirit and ended up having a similarly great night. The night after the FMP means many fewer people on the beach, but plenty of space for you and the cool crew you’ve (hopefully) met to spread out on tables, dance on the sand and enjoy the cool fire shows and totally dangerous fire jump ropes. Another really, really great night!
The others all left for Koh Tao the next day, leading me wishing I would have been able to…
10. Go to Koh Tao after Koh Phangan and the FMP, not before.
Everyone goes to Koh Tao, the neighbouring island and also a good time, either before or after the FMP. The last two times I went to Koh Tao beforehand; this time that was necessary due to the timing of my pre-booked flight home and last minute plan changes. But based on my own experience on this and the previous trip, as well as that of people I met on Koh Phangan both times, I’ve now concluded it’s much easier to meet people on Koh Phangan than on Koh Tao. People on Koh Phangan are only there to party and socialise, and there seem to be more solo travellers – so it just seems easier to make friends. Conversely, people seem to come to Koh Tao more in groups. There also isn't really the hostel with a group area for people to mingle on Koh Tao – at least not near the action. And on both of my two recent trips I met people with whom I would have liked to kick on to Koh Tao – but I had already been. So this year, my September FMP schedule ensures I go to Koh Tao after, not before, Koh Phangan.
11. Don’t get sick.
OK, so this one might not be avoidable. I managed to get food poisoning during five out of my first seven South-East Asia trips despite trying to take precautions; including taking ‘Travelan’ before every meal, using lots of hand sanitiser and only brushing my teeth with bottled water. My second FMP was a real struggle for this reason (and it was my birthday!). And the day and night after my first was a write-off, likely due to an unfortunate (but delicious) kebab.
This trip, however, was the first one during which I didn’t get sick at all. I initially thought it might be because I had taken a cholera vaccine beforehand, which apparently protects against some cases of traveller’s sickness. Or, I thought it might also be because I was taking more of a ‘well, I always get sick so what’s the point in being pedantic’ attitude and was less careful – even washing my toothbrush out with tap water after a while. But now, two more sickness-free South-East Asian trips later, I wonder if my body hasn’t finally adjusted to some of the bugs, like a local or an expat. Here’s hoping!
You can, however, definitely maximise your chances of adhering to this tip by also adhering to tips three and five. I would also refrain from partaking in the kebabs and other random food on the beach, as all the proper restaurants and convenience stores have food and are open 24/7; and avoid getting pool water in your drink (another probable culprit of my past malaise).
12. Enjoy the beach, it doesn't take long to be cleaned up.
Seriously, this island's beauty is badass – even the day after the FMP.