Ok, so it is not a city, it is an island – and a big one at that. But we’re going to focus on one part of this island: Haat Rin Beach.
Haat Rin is the backpacker party mecca of Southeast Asia. All roads may lead to Khao San in Bangkok, but, for those looking for parties and beaches, there is no better place to turn other than this island and, more specifically, this beach. Travelers come for one thing: The Full Moon Party, an event that turns out 10,000-40,000 people each month, depending on the time of year.
Ko Phangan is located in the Gulf of Thailand, just north of Ko Samui and just south of Ko Tao. The island began to draw tourists during the 1980s, when it was a sleepy little off-the-beaten-path part of the Southeast Asia tourist trail. Over the years, due to the party’s fame, more and more people came to the island looking for a good time and to rave at the Full Moon Party.
What started as a quiet beach party morphed into a beach rave and is now a giant beach drinking festival. Though there are dozens of beaches on Ko Phangan, the majority of tourists stick to Haat Rin, which is now filled with banana pancake shops, massage parlors, falafel stands (a lot of Israelis come here), bars, overpriced restaurants, travel agents, and crappy bungalows. The main beach is Sunrise Beach, which features all the bars where the nightlife happens.
During the day, the beach is cleaned up from the night before while Westerners sun themselves, play beach games, and swim in the ocean. You get the best light here and, if you come out early enough, you still see people partying from the night before. At night, the beach is filled with bucket-drinking tourists watching fire dancers and dancing the night away. Around the beach, you can get yourself painted up with glow-in-the-dark paint.
The crowds peak around the full moon, when the infamous party occurs. Legend has it that it started as a birthday party in the mid-80s and just grew from there. The travelers came back again and again, each time attracting more people. Old timers lament the loss of the innocence and spirit of the old parties and the party’s subsequent morph into a drinking free-for-all.
During the Full Moon Party, accommodation on the beach is fully booked, the beach is packed, the music is loud, the buckets flow freely, and everyone is painted up. The party peaks during the Christmas season when the December Full Moon and the New Year’s “Full Moon” parties see anywhere between 25,000 and 40,000 people. (During New Year’s, people from neighboring islands and beaches trek to Haat Rin.)
For those who are not interested in such debauchery, the island has many other things to offer, too. For starters, there is a yoga and health center on the east side of the island that’s one of the most famous in Thailand. The beaches to the north, such as Bottle Beach, see fewer tourists, are quieter, cheaper, and cleaner. A lot of people stay on Baan Thai Beach, next to Haat Rin, where you can get a cheap taxi ride to the action but avoid the noise and crowds during the day.
But the truth is that the allure of Ko Phangan rests mostly with Haat Rin. Even those who do not stay on the beach go there at night. While the inner island has some great hiking and waterfalls, Ko Phangan is synonymous with parties. Travelers will ironically lament that this is not the “real” Thailand while drinking a bucket on the beach. But you don’t come here to see the real Thailand. You come here to meet other travelers and have a good time. I recently spent my New Year’s on the island where I met amazing people, had a great time, and saw dawn too often. It was not local Thailand. Not even close.
But, accept the island for what it is – a tourist party island – and you will open yourself up to just enjoying yourself, free of expectations about authentic travel.
So if you find yourself on the Southeast Asian backpacking trail and are looking to have a great, wild time, there is no better place to do that than Haat Rin Beach on Ko Phangan.