The last thing I remember is the sound of skidding tyres. A staple of movies helmed by men with chunky jaw lines, sure. But not exactly what I expected on our all-girl holiday to Koh Phangan – Asia’s hedonistic party island. So much for our images of dancing all night, fuelled by the island’s infamous vodka buckets, psychedelic trance and beach bonfires.
I must admit, we couldn’t have picked a prettier place to crash. Even if we are bleeding all over the flowers. The hill, far steeper then expected, is wrapped by sparkling reams of sea. Below us, tantalisingly just out of reach lies our destination: Koh Ma beach. Yes. It sounds like ‘coma’. Hilarious? Not when you’re chewing pebbles.
We crawl out of the shrubbery, and study at each other’s wounds with horror. Glare at our now-dented rented motorcycle, half buried in sand. Shake clumps of mud off our hair. Our friends, on a second motorcycle, had whizzed passed a while back singing loudly about the hills being “alive with the sound of music” in annoyingly colour-co-ordinated helmets. We figure they’ll realize we’re missing soon enough. They don’t. Fifteen minutes later, we’re wilting mournfully by the side of the road.
That’s when Scott appears on his bike: tattooed, multi-pierced and shirtless. Talk about unexpected guardian angels. He runs ‘Baan Tai Backpackers’ where we’re staying, in a spirited attempt to look ‘legit’ on this island of adventurers. And was on his way to visit a friend across the island when he came upon us tumbled into an undignified heap.
As Scott helps us wrestle our motorcycle upright and calls for back up we realize we’ve picked a convenient place to crash.
The view’s spectacular – but more importantly, there’s a defiantly hippy ‘Bob Marley’ shack, just down the road. We limp across, and by the time the other two girls arrive we’re lying flat on a massive cushion-spangled coir bed staring at a thatched roof strung with bright prayer flags and drinking cold beers. Beside us, sits the proprietor, in dreadlocks, beaded jewellery and a faded tee-shirt, gently strumming his guitar and singing ‘No Woman No Cry.’ “Ev’rything’s gonna be alright, Ev’rything’s gonna be alright… Oh, little sister, don’t she’d no tears, No woman, no cry…” Really. You can’t make stuff like this up!
Once the rescue jeep arrives, and our motorcycle is safely stashed away, we’re driven to the hospital. Or at least that’s the intention. I dive out of the car when I hear the word ‘stitches.’ So while my friend is dragged away, kicking and screaming, (her wounds are deeper) I sit at the Baan Tai backpackers reception channelling ‘macho’, while Scott does some biker-style first aid equipped with a bottle of 100 per cent alcohol and roll of toilet paper.
After being given an ridiculously inflated estimate of 8000 bhat at the first clinic, my friend ends up at a nearby government hospital where they give her a tetanus and efficiently bandage her up for one eight of that amount. As it turns out bike accidents are an industry here. In the evening the lady we rented the bikes from walks around our machine with a calculator and keen expression. “You girls: my friends,” she coos. We smile warmly. “Damage 10,000 bhat. But for you, I make it 5000 bhat.” We’ve made – maybe– two scratches and a minor dent, on an already liberally scratched and dented machine. However we pay up, and silently thank our lucky stars that we got off relatively easy. If either of us had broken any bones, we would have had to wait for the next ferry to Koh Samui, an island half an hour away. For Koh Phangan, with a population of almost 14,000 people, and an additional influx of between 10,000 to 30,000 people every full moon, does not have an X-Ray machine!
Over the week we’re in Phangan, we start noticing bandages on everyone. Also, dramatic accident scars – affectionately known as ‘Phangan Tattoos.’ We begin to wear our bandages with pride – it certainly ups our street cred.
This is Asia’s sassy answer to Ibiza. No hipsters, sports cars and multi-level night clubs here. Instead the party vibe is anti-establishment: young, grungy and bohemian. Sleepy Phangan is hugged by mountains and fringed by soft beaches. Even the waves here are laidback: warm, calm and gentle.
Our holiday is quickly divided into pre and post accident. After the ‘bike crash that changed it all’ we hobble about carefully, taking an army-style taxi jeep across the island to Haad Rin instead of riding those infernal bikes. At Haad Rin, venue of the Full Moon party that made the island famous, we buy more neon clothes than Lady Gaga could wear in a lifetime, and explore dusty shops selling everything a dedicated party goer could ever need: Red Bull in cough-syrup style glass bottles, bikinis striped like candy and sunscreen. (Then there are the medical supplies: ‘Wound management’ is especially popular.)
We’ve missed the Full Moon Party and all its associated madness on purpose. A monthly dance music festival set on Haad Rin Beach it draws anywhere from 10,000 to 25,000 people. We hear stories of how hotels get so full that the island finally posts a ‘No Room’ sign on the beach just before the party night, urging visitors to find accommodation in neighboring Ko Tao and Koh Samui islands.
What started as a small, alternative, eclectic affair for ‘real’ travelers is now a massive commercial event. Over the years a host of supplementary parties have sprung up on the island, the best known of which are the Half Moon Festival, the Jungle experience (which calls itself an ‘underground dance gathering’) and Black Moon Culture (“Peace. Trance. Dance.)
The accident serves as a perfect excuse to extend our stay, so we can attend the Half Moon party. On Half Moon night Baan Tai Backpackers is abuzz with ‘Beer Pong’ plans, apparently a necessary pre party ritual, along with enthusiastic body painting. We make friends easily when word gets around that we’re the “Indian Biker Girls.’ Assuming they’re impressed by our bravado, I make the mistake of asking a friendly Japanese-American boy how he heard of us. “Oh. They’re talking about you everywhere. In the cafes, the markets,” he chuckles. “But, lots of people have accidents,” I sputter. “Ya. But you’ll are the first girls to take a bike, and crash in 45 mins. Sober.”
It’s a refreshingly multi-national gathering. The Israeli boys give us tips on face painting. A Dutch artist offers to paint stars on my arm, while her boyfriend obediently holds up a pot of hot pink paint. The Americans beat us as at beer pong, a curious game that involves throwing table tennis balls into mugs of beer.
At some point in the night I hand my wallet over to a friend, begging her to ensure that I don’t get an impromptu tattoo. Phangan’s tattoos parlours, open all night, have invitingly loud music, bright lights and mesmerising designs. I’m nervous about waking up in the morning with a hangover, an overly-stylized psychedelic butterfly imprinted on my back and a lingering sense of regret.
We finally head to the party at midnight in a convoy of jeep-taxis. We’re handed icy orange vodka slushes as we enter the huge outdoor clearing, lit with psychedelic lights. Rimming the dance floor, there are fire jugglers, laughing gas sellers and a solemn line of Thai artists painting intricate dragons breathing crimson fire on sunburnt backs. Under a line of golden lamps there are food stalls offering hot dogs, satay and sausages on sticks. But the most popular item are the vodka buckets, a murky mix sold in cheap red and blue plastic buckets along with a bunch of pink straws for the island’s signature community drinking experience.
Weaving through dancing bodies, we make our way to the front and then clamber on a wobbly wooden bench for a better view. It’s a dramatic sight: thousands of people dancing with their arms akimbo. Thanks to the ultra violent light all you can see is their paint coming alive. All that neon suddenly makes sense.
Coming to think of it, so does the accident. We’ve played the game, and flaunt the scars. Finally. We’re Phangan insiders.
Fly from Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur to Surat Thani. At the airport, you can buy a ferry ticket that covers a bus ride to the ferry, and then the 3.5 hour ferry ride to Koh Phangan Island. Boat schedules on http://www.kohphangan.com/travel/. For people who choose to stay on Koh Samui, there are boats on party nights that ferry people to Phangan. For Full moon and half moon party dates, check http://www.fullmoonpartykohphangan.com.