Cengiz, Tony, and Dirty Oars.
Though January is nearly over, an account of New Years and our stay in paradise is in order. During the month of November, we did little more than sit and stew about what the plans for New Years should be. We weren’t sure how long the break would be, but we knew we were getting one, and that meant at least 4 or 5 days. As we read the Rough Guide and asked Thais and other teachers what they recommended, it became very evident that the Full Moon Party on Koh Phangon beach was the most anticipated event in South East Asia. Left looking for accommodation only a month before the event, we were stone walled from any residence on Koh Phangon, and turned further east to look in Koh Tao.
Full moon parties are a pretty common occurence on Koh Phangon. They happen with each full moon, obviously, and can even be celebrates every half full moon. However, with New Years Eve falling on a full moon this year, two crazy parties became one, and the island chain off the coast of Surrathani in the Gulf of Thailand was invaded by party goers. Koh Samui, the first and biggest island, is also the most developed. Many visitors stayed there for the holiday and took a quick ferry to Koh Phangon for the party. It is essentially the Panama City Beach of Thailand. Koh Phangon, the second island, is also fairly large and has become developed with the increasing interest in full moon parties. There are plenty of beach side hotels and the island offers trekking opportunities, elephant camps, and any other tropical diversion you can think of. Koh Tao, the last and smallest of the islands, is a dive haven. The tiny island is completely decked out for divers and has some of the best diving spots in all of South East Asia, certainly the most accessible. The diminished size, the long way from shore (3 hours), and the lesser density of beaches and partying keep Koh Tao pretty sedated and available. We found a beach side hotel, booked it, and at 9pm on Tuesday, set off on the 9 hr journey that would get us there.
We arrived at our hotel, only 10 minutes from the Koh Tao pier at Mae Had Saan, bright and early at 6 am. The staff had not yet started the day, so we took a 2 hour nap on the sea side stairs of the hotel restaurant. At 8 o’clock, we were itching to get started on the vacationing, so we stowed out bags (the room was still not ready), grabbed a kayak from next door, and set off in search of a secluded cove- the likes of which are plastered all over google images. We were told left was the way to go, so with no map or any other agenda, we took the advice.
I can’t decide if that was a good move, or bad. On the one hand, it forced us to kayak around the entire island, draining our strength, burning out skin, and passing the entire day. On the other hand, it forced us to kayak around the entire island! From 8am-6pm, we circumvented Koh Tao. Most of the island is beautiful rocky shoreline, perfect for pictures, but not great for beaching a kayak or relaxing in comfortable sand. It was 4 hours until we came to our stop. We happened upon a snorkeling site with about 10 meters of sand, just enough to beach the ship and grab the goggles and snorkels. The fish were fantastic and used to humans- bold enough to swim withing arms reach. The coral wasn’t Technicolor like many of the island’s reefs, but there was a whole lot of it, including some enormous, intricate mushrooms of brain coral.
Our next stop was Mango Bay, a larger beach that houses a couple resorts on the north side of the island. The beach was dirty and full of Brits, but we needed lunch, so we beached it anyway. The only thing worse than a dirty beach is a beach covered in people who spend the rest of the year safely tucked under wool and scarves and London’s cold, gray sky. None the less, to satiate our screaming stomachs, we had a delightful lunch in the sun, toes in the sand. We also got to catch a cavalier boat taxi-man nearly decapitate a drifting snorkeler.
From Mango Bay, we pushed it. Worried about being out on the water after dark, we made no more stops and besides filling our mouths with sunflower seeds or taking a picture or two, eschewed breaks. The water inside the bays is often very nice and great for kayaking as the encasing sand spits are substantially sized and thus worthy barriers against the sea. The shore line lacks hidden coves and limestone caves that often make sea kayaking so much fun, but the jungle covered, massive rocks that jut from the side of the mountainous island are mesmerizing and well worth the trip. Outside the coves, however, is a serious work out. The choppy sea constantly crashes over the front of the boat and the inconvenient swells are constantly nullifying the progress of oar strokes. We got to sweat passed Shark Island, a popular island dive site aptly named, and eventually past some of the most gorgeous beaches I have had the pleasure of seeing. Had we taken a left that morning, instead of right, we would have soon ridden upon an array of places to spend the day sleeping as was the original intention; oh well, the well laid plans of mice and men…
Our hotel was in a pretty good location. It was not a romantic bungalow get away or nestled nicely into nature, but it was green, it was quite, and it had access to lots of nice conveniences. We were able to get a satisfying American breakfast, for a reasonable price each day. I got to eat fresh caught sea food as was planned, but even enjoyed a delicious burritos, and it was next to a string of bars. Most of the bars featured techno and cheap drinks inside and quite, candle lit pillows on the beach to retreat into darkness on. Pillow patrons also got the pleasure of watching fire dancing. Cengiz and I pulled up on the beach, under the hood of a closed bar, and got to watch the fire dances from beyond the assault of techno. The dancers were fantastic, twirling everything from ploy balls to nunchucks, to larger baton-like rods. It was evident they had been doing it for a while, not only by their skill, but by the apprenticing 10 year old that would provide entertainment during water breaks. Against the jade horizon, the twirling flames became whooshing walls of flame that from afar looked like an erupting fireball. The dancer was hidden behind the wall of flame, only appearing, glistening in the light, when the implement was tossed high into the air; only to descend again into the hands of the dancer.
Besides the night on Koh Phangon, the rest of the trip was pretty laid back and relaxing. Not that we have the most stressful or difficult job in the world, but the chance to get away from the constant screaming and touching of Triumbundhit students was needed and amazing. We rented motorbikes and toured the island, our new means for uncovering lofty viewpoints for another perspective on the shore line and to finally enjoy those idyllic coves we had been thinking about. We would find a spot, crack some beers, and sit around sleeping and reading for the better part of the day. The water, translucent, with a tint of blue was a perfect means to cool down after long absences from its soothing grasp. The sandy bottom even made for great walks, 10 meters straight out, until the coral began, where you could look down and watch the protective fish nip at your toes. Dogs wandered down to inspect for any scraps and other vacationers would wander by on a ritual walk along the water. The sunsets were beautiful and unobscured, hanging over the water for what seemed like hours. The rounded boulders on the shore provided great seats, as did a random picnic bench found along the shore.
This was, in direct contrast with the Full Moon Party. When we arrived at the pier, we already got a taste of the party frenzy people had been worked into. The pier was over packed and when we were told there was no more room on the boats, a riot ensued, forcing them to allow the rest of us to crown on the observation deck. The two hour ferry got us to the pier safe and sound and everyone piled out and into song tauw’s to get to Sunrise beach. Cengiz and I arrived at the party site around 6 o’clock. Far too early to ‘get at it.’ So, we explored the city, took a walk along the already crowded and jovial beach, and looked for dinner. We ran into some friends on the walk, already well into their beachside pregame, and got to observe others modeling in the surf, do a pre-party work, play soccer, or napping in preparation for the night long party. We grabbed some food and were invited to share it with some women living out of a tent on the sand. Two were locals, from Koh Samui, and the third was actually from Patumthani, just outside the Lamlukka area. They were fortune tellers (Cengiz will die old and wealthy after having the company of many women) and extremely hospitable hosts- offering mango, corn, and other goodies. After dinner, we got to the drinking, and got ready for the party.
The full moon party, at least as experienced by us, is one of the most surreal experiences on the planet. An entire beach, say a mile long, erupts into a frenzy as soon as the sun begins to set. Not once it has set, people don’t even wait for the dark, just promise of the dark. The beach side bars start blasting techno musing in a dual of bass and hundreds of tiny stands offering ‘black out buckets’ (whiskey, coke, and red bull) open for business with screaming bar tenders offering free shots for your business. The party has lots of glow in the dark paint and neon to excite the heavily drugged crowd and is full of fire spectacle. Not only are their fire dancers, but there was a 60 ft. flaming jump rope, plenty of torches, flaming ‘Suratthani Province’ signs, Loy Krathong candles, and of course, fireworks. The fireworks were perhaps my favorite part, as not only was the beach front a great setting for a show, but there were plenty of amateur pyrotechnicians joining the fun. Many buried the charge a bit too deep, leaving the bomb to explode on the ground, covering nearby viewers in sparks. We left at 3 am, in hopes of catching a ferry home, as the beach did not seem like an enticing place to spend the night, but the party was still raging. It was the biggest and most unique celebration I have ever been to.
All in all, the 5 days spent on the islands of Surrathani were even better than I imagined. There was a nice mix of relaxation and physical challenge, of laid back nights and mind blowing partying, and of affordability and splurging. It certainly refreshed us for everything to come in 2010.