The Full Moon Party to Northern Thailand: Buckets, Elephants, and a Road Trip
After the boat we were greeted by our good friend Jordan Chapin who, like us, quit his job in search of travel. He will be traveling with us through the rest of Thailand, over to Myanmar, and part of India. After that he’s heading over to Vietnam to meet up with his girlfriend. Once we met up with Jordan we hung out in Khao Lak for another day exploring the national park there and learning about the tsunami that crashed on to the shores in 2004. The official death toll from the tsunami in Khao Lak was over four thousand people. Unofficially some people estimate that ten thousand people perished in the disaster. This small beach town was the hardest hit place by the 2004 tsunami. The main reason for the extensive devastation was that the tsunami hit without warning. People were out playing on the beach when the entire ocean receded and rushed into shore. The memorial for the tsunami was a police boat that was washed two kilometers into shore. The sixty foot battleship-looking vessel was one kilometer off shore when the tsunami hit. The physical landscape of the town has changed drastically since the wave. What was once a flat white sand beach has turned into a steep yellow course sand beach.
After Khao Lak we traveled north to Khao Sok, a stopping point, with the final destination being Koh Phangan for the Full Moon Party. We met back up with Taylor here and learned about his time at the Muay Thai gym and his adventures through Phuket. Most of our time in Khao Sok was spent hanging out trying to catch lizards. Many of the activities in the area were out of our price range. This led us to lay low in preparation for the Full Moon. We spent one day wandering around Khao Sok National Park but the trek was cut short. Four kilometers into the park we learned that you needed a guide to venture any further. After ringing our sweat soaked clothes in the high humidity, the decision to turn around was not a difficult one. The scenery around Khao Sok was very similar to Vietnam with limestone karsts everywhere that were coated in jungle foliage. The only difference here was the humidity. The humidity thought our two days in Khao Sok made our first visit to Bangkok seem like a desert.
After 2 relaxing days in Khao Sok we departed to Koh Phangan to celebrate Jordan’s birthday, which happened to fall directly on the Full Moon Party. We arrived to Koh Phangan to a hoard of young backpackers ready to experience the world renowned Full Moon Party. The origins of the party are not as exciting as one might think. It comes from a group of backpackers that had a party on the full moon in the mid-1980’s. They had fun, so they decided to do it again and boom, the Full Moon Party was born. The day of the full moon we hung out and laid low as we were told to not even show up to the party until midnight. We rested and planned to stay up until the sun rose. Our one big accomplishment for the day came when we discovered a store that sold twenty four packs of beers, which is unheard of in Asia. You can find cases of twelve bottles but twenty four cans… no way. With great excitement we rushed the beers to our air conditioned room to prevent the heat from polluting our golden nectar. Unfortunately, Alex became violently ill with some unknown bug that kept him in bed for the entire day of the full moon and most of the next day. Being sick in Asia sucks, being sick in a party hostel with seven other guys pre gaming for the full moon party until midnight may be the single worse environment to be sick. He was a trooper, didn’t complain once, and to our surprise made a full recovery in just 2 days.
As we arrived to the Full Moon Party the chaos had already begun. Imagine a beach that’s half a mile long, at most, covered with ten-thousand other backpackers. Literally ten thousand tourists flooded Haad Rin beach on the southern most tip of Koh Phangan. The scene was marked by thousands of young adults, ranging from eighteen to thirty, dressed in neon tank tops and covered in glowing body paint. Haad Rin beach itself, is lined with youth hostels that transform into massive binge drinking establishments. All of these establishments are equipped with enough speaker power to guarantee that any electronic remix can be heard throughout the Gulf of Thailand. Huge stages covered with more speakers were set in front of the hostels, creating a grove zone that can hold the entire native population of Koh Phangan. Fire dancers twirled and spun poi and fire batons on the beach. Additionally, there was a platform for those daring and drunk enough to test their jump roping abilities with a flaming rope. The spinning flame immediately caught our attention, as just about every drunk partier fell on it after one or two sad attempts to jump over the rope. This left the individual with a free souvenir on their skin to always remind them of the Full Moon Party. The drink of choice at the party were mixed drinks served in buckets. The buckets of alcohol consisted of liter sized pails filled with one twelve ounce soda, one Thai Red Bull (has about 2x the caffeine as a standard Red Bull in the States), and a pint of hard alcohol. Add that over ice and you got yourself a blackout in a bucket. These things are incredibly dangerous and were the leading culprit of the constant string of ambulances making their way to the beach. As the night went on more and more people felt the grasp of the buckets pull them into the sand for a nights rest. The shore line was constantly full of people pissing and puking into the water. Apparently, some party goers must have missed the fifty plus people constantly releasing bodily fluids into the ocean and decided to go for a midnight swim. As the sun rose above the horizon, I noticed an floating island of thousands of buckets drifting out to the sea to provide shelter for the surviving fish below.
All in all though, we did enjoy ourselves at the full moon party. The buckets helped with this and I was glad to have experienced it. Taylor, Jordan, and I not only made it up till sunrise, but all remembered it. The highlight of the whole experience was running into our friend Rob. If you can recall from a previous post about Vietnam, we rode motorcycles through Northern Vietnam with him and his wife Amanda. Crazy small world right!? I caught up and him for a large portion of the night. Towards the end of the party Jordan, Taylor, Rob, and I watched the sun peak over the horizon. This clearly exposed the chaos and brutal beating Haad Rin beach took that night. The entire next day was spent in bed as heat and humidity isn’t the best cure for a hang over. The most exciting part of that day was when the four other people in our hostel bought a 3.5 kilo tub in ice cream to pound down in the room. Our 4 other roommates were from the UK and Germany where Oreos are outrageously expensive. The fact that they could purchase 3.5kg of Oreo Ice cream was too tempting for them to turn down. Armed with spoons and an aggressive appetite, they made it through less than half the ice cream vat and retreated to their bunks to nap off their dairy and sugar overload. The Full Moon Party was a great way to celebrate Jordan’s 25th birthday, check another event off the bucket list, but probably nothing I need to experience again.
After our day of recovery, Alex began to feel better and we departed to Koh Tao where Jordan planned to scuba dive. Koh Tao is one of the cheapest places to get certified to scuba dive in the world which, is its main draw to tourists. Our plan was to hangout and enjoy our last tropical Thai island before heading up to Chiang Mai and Pai in the North. One day was spend relaxing in our bungalows, as the rain put a halt to any outdoor activity. The next day Taylor decided to kick it on the beach, while Alex and I took a scooter to various parts of the island to snorkel. We had heard of a bay called Sharks Bay and decided to snorkel there in search of sharks. Not really expecting much I put my goggles on entered the water and began the hunt. In the bay, most of the coral was dead and the visibility was no more than ten feet. Having been spoiled from our scuba diving adventure, I was just about over snorkeling in the dead reef, when out of the murky water appeared a five foot black tipped reef shark. In disbelief I shouted to Alex and we swam along the shark for what seemed like an eternity. Eventually the shark out swam us back into the cloudy waters. The elation on Alex an my face didn’t wear off for the rest of the day. I couldn’t believe that we actually saw a shark and were able to swim with it. I guess we can now confirm how the bay got it name. After our shark adventure, Alex and I went to another beach and snorkeled on a reef that was fully alive and full of color. It was the most diverse and colorful reef I have ever seen. After exploring the reef, we jumped off a cliff that appeared to be an extension of the rock structure the reef was connected to. Finally, the two of us retreated back to the pier. From there we caught a seven hour night ferry to the mainland, took a seven hour bus ride to Bangkok and meet up with our college friend Johnny Sutter who was traveling though Thailand in-between his first and second year of medical school. We met Johnny at the train station as we both booked an eleven, turned thirteen, hour night train to Chiang Mai. He was accompanied by two other soon to be doctors, Ryan and Tyler. This brought our total, straight, travel time to around 30 hours. But on the bright side we didn’t have to buy a hotel room for 2 nights and never had to wake up for work the next morning.
Upon our arrival we checked into our hostel and Johnny to his. Johnny’s hostel was a bit out of our price range so we decided to stay in the cheapest hostel we could find in Chiang Mai. We only attempted to sleep here for one night as the lack of mosquito nets turned our bodies into open buffets for the mosquitos and various other bugs. Our first full day in Chiang Mai was occupied with a trip to an elephant sanctuary, trekking, and river rafting. We were all very hesitant about booking any elephant programs, as we didn’t want to support any company that was mistreating elephants in any way, shape, or form. This included riding them. The sanctuary we went to had five elephants, all of which were owned by one man who has personally started buying elephants from other elephant riding operations. Most of the animals were above the age of forty except one who was in her teens. The young elephant was purchased by the owner with her mother. He did this because he didn’t not want to split up mother and daughter. We fed the elephants bananas and sugar cane and I spent every second taking in the magnificent beauty of the creatures. After feeding the elephants we helped bathe them in the river by the camp. Using a type of bark, containing a natural soap, we scrubbed the elephants down wading in water with them to do so. This is when we really noticed the owner of the camp’s connection and love for the elephants. You could tell by the elephants mannerism and their interactions with the owner that there was a mutual respect between the two. After spending a few hours with the animals it was obvious they had sustained severe mistreatment from their previous owners. With misshapen legs, distended stomachs, and various other physical scars you couldn’t help but feel horrible for the past lives these animals had. Watching the way their new owner cared for them was enough to confirm that our fee to enter the camp was going to a good cause.
After our time with the elephants we trekked through the jungle to a small waterfall. The waterfall was pretty but was shadowed by the lychee we snacked on during the trek. Lychee trees surrounded the trail giving us the opportunity to snack throughout the one mile hike. The tropical fruit quickly made its way up my favorite fruits list. The citrus flavor, mixed with the grape sweetness and constancy made them unforgettable. Only halfway through our day, we embarked one of the most entertaining river rafting trips I have ever experienced. After a quick head count of our tour group, the guide asked for two volunteers that wanted to canoe. With a white water kayak on mind, my hand shot up immediately. Our guide then asked for another volunteer for the kayak and Jordan raised his hand with equal excitement. We were then led down to a small inflatable canoe. At twelve feet long, the canoe was perfect for the two of us to charge the river on. As Jordan and I were getting ready to get in the water with our kayak our group guide announced he had miscounted the number of people in our group. He announced that a third person would be joining us in the kayak. We convinced Alex to hop aboard our vessel. As the three of us readied ourselves to send our floaty down the river we noticed a local Thai man hovering around our kayak. Soon all three of us came to the realization that this Thai man was no just hovering, he was preparing to guide us down the river. We then had four people slammed into a kayak made for maybe two at max. The four of us squeezed into the inflatable with Jordan on the bow, Alex in the middle, me in the back on an inflated seat, and our guide barely sitting on the back structure of the boat. Since only Jordan and I were going to paddle, Alex was relegated to sit on the floor of the kayak. Unfortunately for Alex, upon entering the water the floor of the boat immediately filled up with water. Alex would spend the next hour and a half sitting in a foot of water. The river was extremely shallow and every rapid we went over was met by a multitude of rock hits. We were getting stuck throughout the river due to the low water level. Looking back at the proper river rafts, Johnny and the rest of the guests got, I couldn’t help but wonder how they were going to make it through the river. Our kayak barely fit through the three foot gaps in the rocks. How is a white water raft going to make it through? Somehow they all made it through, only having to exit the boat once. We exited our boat at least three times during the adventure. One of these exits was not meant to happen. Our boat got pinned against a rock and before I knew it, I was staring underwater upstream in the brown river. As I surfaced I could not help but laugh at the hilarity of the situation. Alex and Jordan joined in the laughter as well both in awe at the disorganization of the guided trip. Our situation was by no means life threatening and the way things had been playing out on the river it was clear our guide had no idea what he was doing. We fully embraced the fact that we were probably going to get wet again and loved every second of it. With our guide barely able the control the boat, Jordan, Alex, and I laughed our way down the whole river. As if the river rafting was not enough we finished the day off with a short bamboo rafting trip. Our guide kept calling it “bamboo sinking” which, in my opinion, was the more correct term for the activity. The bamboo raft was made to fit three passengers at most. As we doubled that number, our weight on the raft forced it three inches below the level of the river. After ten meters of rafting I decided to walk the extra forty meters to our exit point because I had had just about enough of “bamboo sinking.”
The next day I went to a cooking class with Johnny, Ryan and Tyler. Jordan, Alex, and Taylor decided to save their money and wander the city for the day. The cooking class taught us about all the herbs and methods Thai people use to cook basic Thai food. Through all the noodle and stir fry dishes we made, I learned that the cooking oil and sauce is what sets Thai food apart from western stir fry. A oily fish sauce is used to add flavor and moisture to the dishes, while an oyster sauce is added to sweeten up the dish. We also learned that every recipe calls for either palm sugar or just plain white sugar. The amount of sugar in the dishes came to no surprise to us. There is no hiding the love for sugar many of the Asian cultures have. Many of the local restaurants even have a bottle of sugar next to the salt and pepper just incase your food isn’t sweet enough. My two favorite dishes I made were the fried bananas and the northern Thailand red curry called Khao Soi. The bananas were made by mixing rice four, wheat flour, sugar, palm sugar, coconut, sesame seeds and coconut milk into a batter. Then we dipped the bananas into the batter and fried them to a golden brown. Khao Soi was essentially red curry with noodles. The noodles added a new element I have never tried before in any curry. The flavor of our handmade curry paste highlighted the dish and was too fresh to be compared to anything I have had before. After our cooking class we wandered around Chiang Mai’s Sunday Market and ate our way through the largest market I have ever been to. Feeling over stuffed, we unfortunately had to bid farewell to Johnny, Ryan, and Tyler as they had a flight to the beaches of southern Thailand early the next morning. As sad as we were to see them go, we were grateful we had the opportunity to see Johnny and catch up with him before medical school ramps up again.
With three days left until we flew to Myanmar, Alex, Taylor, Jordan, and I made the decision that we were going to drive to Pai, Chiang Rai, and back to Chiang Mai. Our original plan was to take motorcycles, proper 500cc bikes not broken Chinese Honda Wins, on this four hundred mile journey. The motorcycles quickly became a thing of the past, when we realized we could rent a car for cheaper than one motorcycle. This would also make the journey less tiring. And I mean, who wouldn’t want to road trip through northern Thailand? The four of us piled in the car and I attempted to drive us all to Pai. The road to Pai has over seven hundred curves in it and to say we were glad when it was over was an understatement. The road was beautiful however most of the views were blocked by heady cloud cover, rain, and my passengers focus not to vomit. We spent our day in Pai relaxing and taking in the scenery of the valley and the surrounding hills. Because Pai is made up mostly of Western tourists, it was able to cater to our American craving for a delicious hamburger and fries. Might I add it was a damn good burger, probably the best one we have experienced abroad. The next day we woke up, piled into the car once again, and Alex drove us all the way to Chiang Rai. Here our plan was to visit the White Temple, Wat Rong Khun. Wat Rong Khun was the coolest temple I have seen to date. With construction beginning in 1996 the temple will not be completed until 2070. This was obvious as many of the surrounding buildings have yet to be decorated. The white and mirrored silver temple was full of plaster and gothic art. Carvings of modern characters such as the Terminator and Freddie Kruger could be found throughout the temple in addition to the traditional buddhist symbols. We made it to the temple an hour before closing and were ushered out as the clock struck 5:00 PM. We completed our road trip to Chiang Rai at a restaurant that serves “Islamic Food”. The food here was a blend of Middle Eastern and Indian cuisine. The highlight were the rotis we enjoyed. The buttery fried dough pancakes were a little thinner than a standard dollar pancake but thicker than a crape. As if a fried dough ball couldn’t get any better, the roti were somehow as flakey and moist as a fresh golden croissant. Barely able to move after the food coma I put myself in, I manned the wheel and drove the four of us back to Chiang Mai. Our final day here was spent at the gym and pool preparing ourselves for our next adventure, Myanmar.