We are werewolves in Thailand, waiting anxiously for the full moon to issue in the wild. During high season, it's said that the Full Moon Party in Haadrin, on the southern tip of Ko Phangan, draws ten thousand revelers. This is the low season, and still a few thousand are expected. Already scary bass notes are rolling in off the sand and making my bungalow feel structurally unsound. When do my palms grow hair?
It is 1999. The tiny island of Ko Phangan, off the east coast of the skinny mainland, is enjoying its brief tenure as the rave capital of the world. It has gradually stolen this title from Goa, the Indian beach party which started it all, and in Phangan the music is still predominantly Goa Trance.
I like to think I'm jaded, but I'm thrilled that I'll be experiencing this. I've never been to a rave. When I was fifteen, we would hang out in the park with a stolen case of wine; that's not quite the same thing as hitting a tropical beach with top DJs from London and a polyglot herd of painted wild children.
Ecstasy was never the drug of choice when I was an idiot teen, and now that I am older and a bit of a snooze, I Just Say No. Except for tonight, when I'm intending to say Yes, for journalistic reasons. I've never done Ecstasy, and what better place to be initiated?
First, however, I intend to have a modest and healthful religious experience. It seems one of the most celebrated massage therapists in the whole of Thailand just happens to be staying at my bungalow resort. She's here to treat the boss: the English proprietor was scheduled to go back to the UK for a back operation, but his Thai wife suggested he try local health practices before submitting to the knife, so this mysterious healer was summoned from the mainland. She has been here for weeks, working on the manager's spine. Between sessions, she happily treats all who inquire, for the ludicrous sum -- standard in Thailand -- of five bucks and fifty cents an hour. Even pierced ravers can afford this.
A small appreciative cult has formed spontaneously around this miracle worker: I meet a British woman who has suffered from chronic fatigue for ten years, and who insists that ten sessions of massage have cured her. Skeptical, I sign up. And my skepticism quickly melts.
I never find out her name; she doesn't speak a word of English. She is a joyful, roly-poly saint -- I am reminded of those laughing statues of Buddha, the ones said to depict the future Buddha's reincarnation. Before digging her hands into me (I am warned by the British woman that "she spends rather a lot of time in your crotch, and it's not mild"), she shows me illustrated diagrams of the human body. She flips through a book on massage, pointing out cryptic pictures and Thai words, giggling. I giggle back, nervously. I do like her, though: she has an infectious child-like energy. After spending considerable time tittering over pictures, I lie down.
It's not the Thai massage I'm used to -- a series of bendy moves codified at Wat Po, the famous massage school in Bangkok. It's more like accupressure or shiatsu. Laughing, this woman presses fingers deep into my musculature. I'm happy she's happy; otherwise I'd be terrified. And yes, she spends considerable time around the organs of generation. In explanation, she makes the universal gesture for "Viagra." The massage is not, however, a sensual experience: it alternates between mild discomfort and outright pain. Bracing. That's the word.
And she's giggling like Han Shan, the great Chinese poet who was mistaken for a homeless lunatic until he was revealed as a saint. At the end of the massage, she says a prayer, and has me pour water on her hands, which she rubs together and shakes off, I suppose to rid herself of the impurities leached from my body. Can't blame her, really.
In retrospect, it's one of the most remarkable experiences I've had. Who can say why these encounters affect you the way they do; it has as much to do with her hilarity as it does the powerful fingers; I come away with the sense that I have met someone truly important. And I spend the hours leading up to the Full Moon in a state of acute disorientation. I purchase a toe ring, and imagine that it looks fetching.
The party goes all night. I, generally, don't. The preferred way to stay awake throughout the night, in Thailand, is to drink a small bottle of Red Bull. This liquid, available at pharmacies and bars (nice pairing, that), is what the taxi drivers and bar girls drink. It's why cab drivers in Bangkok tend to have nervous tics -- if you see them swatting non-existent flies, it's probably the Red Bull. The active component, I'm told, is ephedrine, but I suspect there's something much more sinister in that brown bottle. The logo shows two bulls going head to head. In the years since, Red Bull has been commercialized around the globe; but this ur-Red-Bull in Haadrin is, I'm fairly sure, much more dangerous stuff.
Of course, the Nez Perce intend to stay awake on Ecstasy. I do some investigation: the Ecstasy floating around this past few days is known as "Mitsubishi," and is imprinted with that multinational's logo. Gotta love this generation: they sure know how to subvert the trappings of capitalism. By all accounts Mitsubishi is very clean, which means that it's not cut with weird extraneous matter -- speed, LSD, eye of newt. Ecstasy is deeply illegal in Thailand, as elsewhere, and plainclothes policemen are everywhere. And not all of the Ecstasy is as clean as Mitsubishi: ravers occasionally wake up in Surat Thani, in the psych ward (whose name in Thai means "Garden of Joys," but I wouldn't count on the accuracy of this description).
A story is circulating about the guy who did Ecstasy, then followed it up with eight bottles of Red Bull. To quote an old camp song: "He's dead, of course."
I swallow my essence of Mitsubishi, and head on down to the beach to observe the rising bacchanal. Fluorescent banners have been erected on tall poles; signs are woven in the air from bright threads. Psychedelic flags depicting Hindu goddesses flap in front of tall stacks of serious-looking loudspeakers. (Thailand is an overwhelmingly Buddhist nation, and the minority -- mostly Sea Gypsies -- are Muslim. But what the hell.) The crowds have yet to arrive. Lone figures dance on raised platforms erected here and there. Numerous bars open onto the beach, and each has its own sound system; walk twenty feet and the music changes. The sky is darkening, and the moon slides out from behind a cloud: a perfectly circular moon, shark-belly white. I resist the temptation to offer a hymn to Diana.
By nine o'clock, the beach is teaming. Most surprising to me is the variety of Thai revelers: whole families, teenagers, old women. I see my massage therapist, walking arm in arm with a friend. This is a complex cultural event.
Hawkers set up stands, offering water, fried foods, fluorescent body paint. By midnight almost everyone is slathered in colors; even I have orange fingernails. A fabulous coven of celebrity drag queens emerges to general excitement; a young British woman performs atop a cliff with flaming batons. Every hour brings a new wave of spectacle and audience, and, most dramatically, at three o'clock an entirely fresh contingent issues forth miraculously from the waves. They have arrived via midnight boat from Ko Samui.
I spend much of the time with a woman who has just dropped out of veterinary school in Australia; she has a Star of Bethlehem painted on her forehead, and wants to be a travel writer. I promise to teach her how, if she'll teach me to do open-heart surgery on hummingbirds.
Clearly, the ecstasy is beginning to have an effect. I dance with drag queens, am briefly flattered that Thai women are hitting on me -- until I realize that they're all professionals from Bangkok -- and find myself enjoying Madonna, a sign that I am not my true self.
Finally, I can no longer stand up, and I crawl back to my throbbing room, where I somehow manage to fall asleep. In the morning a surprisingly hearty vestige of the rave is still going through its paces, while a bent Thai woman clears beer bottles from the sand.
Never have I witnessed a collective hangover as poignant as the one hovering over the ferry dock that afternoon. We all look ridiculous. Somehow I have managed to buy a pair of cotton pajama bottoms -- not tie-dye, but silly nevertheless -- and my toe-ring looks particularly absurd. Around me, the Young and the Not-Very-Well-Rested, still splashed with fluorescent graffiti, yawn like dazed lion cubs. They compare notes: yes, good party. Better than Goa, which peaked at the beginning of the nineties. Most agree that Phangan too, though wonderful, is on the decline. So where is it really happening? Nobody knows for sure, but the islands are fully tricked out with modems, and one internet magazine recently gave the nod to Central America.