My sunburn is in the final peeling stage but my week in Thailand is as brilliant and jumbled in my mind as a kaleidoscope with ADD. No run-of-the-mill traveler blog here about where to go or what to do because really, unless you find yourself in a Thai prison – and you don’t want to go there - you can't go wrong. Google "Thailand" and you get something like 980,000,000 responses in a second flat. Barnes and Noble sells 304 titles on the place. What I give you is my story.
Being the island girl type – in my dreams, anyway - I skipped mainland-Thailand in lieu of seven days of island hopping east coast side, hitting the big three (they’re really very small): Koh Samui, Koh Tao, and Kho Phangan. I spent a lot of time on Samui and did the basic but fun touristy stuff there. Like indulging in a traditional Thai massage on the beach where they walk on your back and you try to keep from moaning and groaning too loud in public; fantastic snorkeling and kayaking in the cerulean waters of the Gulf of Thailand with brilliant colored fishes and coral; eating amazing street food including deep fried pork skin dripping with tangy chili sauce and fresh mango with sticky rice that deserved Michelin stars though I avoided the fried crickets which are all the rage and drank way too many mojitos instead of mai tais by the pool.
Flashback to my recent trip to Vienna where I met an independent film maker. We kept in touch and as luck would have it, we would both be traveling Thailand the same time. He suggested we meet up at the infamous Halfmoon Festival on the island of Koh Phangan. And what a festival it is, set in the jungle at night, people from all over the world join together for an evening that, and I quote: "symbolizes the power of freedom, free expression, love and unity." Which pretty much sums up the polar opposite of every experience I’ve had – or ever will - in Saudi Arabia.
So, on the afternoon of said festival, I went to the port to catch a ferry from Samui to Phangan. The place was full of backpackers, male and female, young and old - some smelling better than others – when the theme song from “Titanic” began to play over the intercom system. Hmmmm. Regardless, 30 minutes later I'm on Phangan hailing another taxi to the small bungalow beach hotel room I had rented to get some sleep before meeting my friend for a drink.
At around 9 pm I asked where I could find transportation and the toothless hotel owner merely pointed to the main road. I walked a considerable distance and hailed a songthaew. Basically, it’s a glorified flat-bed truck with benches and most are beat up as hell including the one I rode; reminding me of a present day covered wagon blaring dance music (disco ball not included).
When one finally stops to pick me up, I'm greeted by four young Israeli women who had completed two years compulsory military duty and were backpacking Asia for the next 6 months. Covered in glow-in-the-dark body-paint, I already know where they are going and so I’m glowing on the inside. For the next five miles in a mix of euphoria and absolute terror, as the driver tears through a succession of dark and winding island roads, we get along famously especially when they learn that I’m an American living and working in Saudi Arabia. We get so caught up in conversation that I missed the stop to meet my friend and end up at the infamous Halfmoon Festival I’ve heard so much about for the past four months. We waited in line to get our tickets, complimentary drink stubs, and free gift (a rubber smiley face ring with a blinking light in the middle).
With no WiFi, I had no way to tell my friend from Vienna that I had already arrived and hoped the Halfmoon gods would somehow intervene. Meanwhile, my new Jew friends took me under their wings and together we flew into the crowd of tanned, barely-dressed but brightly painted bodies all dancing to club music courtesy of a crazy DJ with a heavy hand on the bass. Oh, and by the way, the DJ just happened to be in a tree house, complete with surrounding laser show, fog machines, pyrotechnics, and trance including videos on large screens installed behind him. Basically, an epileptic's worst nightmare.
I spent the next several hours dancing with a mass of human flesh that seemed to only grow – perhaps mutate – in a good way? – is more accurate. Definitely lots of freedom of expression, that's for sure. There was an abundance of alcohol which was served in colorful plastic buckets. Perfect for taking to the beach tomorrow, right?
Finally, with a single WiFi bar I was able to find my friend among the throngs of people painted with intricate dragons, angel wings, hearts, stars and the occasional superman logo glowing on their chest. We got to catch up on what we had been up to the past few months: work, our time in Thailand, current events.
Hours passed when the Halfmoon gods spoke. (Or, rather, didn’t.) A power outage and the jungle party came to an abrupt halt. Our quick thinking, tree house DJ grabbed his saxophone and started playing a jazzy tune. Next, a bongo drummer joined in. Before you know it, the jungle was brought back to life as the sound of hundreds of us creatures continued to dance in the darkness. In that singular moment it felt like the planets had aligned and the world was going to be okay.
Now, usually the Halfmooners would end the festival by watching the sunrise on the beach, but since the power was not going back on anytime soon, people began to go back home. My friend and I parted ways and I finally found a songthaew to climb into. As if the night hadn’t been novel enough, the next chapter got more outrageous still.
There is nothing worse than hundreds of extremely intoxicated individuals pissed that their Halfmoon Festival got cut short and arguing with non-English speaking songthaew drivers to take them home. My songthaew was half full with some of these particular types including a group from Norway on my left, an Irish fellow on my right, and a very tired and exasperated guy from who knows where across from me just trying to get to his hostel. The real trouble started when the driver wouldn’t budge until us Halfmooners were packed in like sardines. After threats and curses, the driver finally agrees to get going only after three VERY intoxicated Irishman hopped on the running boards and held on for dear life as our driver sped through the dark streets.
And then things became comically surreal. The Irish guy next to me heard the accents of the Irish guys hanging on side and much to the chagrin of everyone else, decided to find out where in Ireland they were from. Mind you, the engine is pretty loud and so these guys are yelling back and forth and are as drunk as two sheets to the wind. It happened that no, they were not from the same place, but they then decided to ask if they each knew their friends that lived in the respective towns as each other. And, as if that wasn't enough, they decided to have each other call each other's friends back home on their mobile phones to find out if they knew each other. Yes, while hanging on for dear life, these drunk bloats are on the bloody phone. The rest of us mere spectators; the belligerent guy from who knows where sticking his head out every 10 seconds to ask if we were at his hostel yet. It was a scene straight out of Monty Python.
When we got to my hotel, I wished everyone good luck and watched with a mixture of relief and disbelief as the songthaew drove away, the three Irishman still swinging from the back, one trying to light a cigarette with a free hand, his phone still couched between his ear and his shoulder. With the sun just beginning to rise – the eternal light bulb of the cosmos - I took a few minutes on the beach to reflect on this wild and whimsical trip to the islands of Thailand. The postcard perfect scenery made so much more memorable by my unconventional storyline; one you won’t read about in any travel guide, that’s for sure.
Exhausted, I collapsed in my bungalow bed fully clothed, my ears still pounding with club music, my smiley face ring still blinking.
If you find yourself in Thailand during a Halfmoon - or even a Fullmoon Festival - make your way to Phangan. Go to the jungle. Dance with strangers. Drink from a bucket. Get home safe. But make sure you take a shower before you go to bed. They’ll charge you extra for cleaning the sheets from that awesome glow-in-the-dark body paint.