From a motorcycle accident to Red Bull and candy-striped bikinis, here’s to checking out Koh Phangan like an insider.
The last thing I remember is the sound of skidding tyres. A staple of movies helmed by men with chunky jawlines, sure, but not exactly what I expected on our all-girl holiday to Koh Phangan, Asia’s hedonistic party island. So much for our vision 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 steep hill is wrapped by sparkling reams of sea. Below us, tantalisingly 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 one another’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 past a while ago singing loudly about the hills being “alive with the sound of music” in annoyingly colour-coordinated helmets. We figure they’ll soon realise we’re missing. 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 and was on his way to visit a friend when he came upon us tumbled in an undignified heap.
As Scott helps us wrestle our motorcycle upright and calls for back-up, we realise we’ve picked a convenient place to crash. There’s a defiantly hippy ‘Bob Marley’ shack just down the road. We limp across, and by the time our friends arrive we’re lying flat on a massive cushion-spangled coir bed 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’.
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’. 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 with a bottle of 100 per cent alcohol and a roll of toilet paper.
After a 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 shot and bandage her up for one eighth the amount. As it turns out, bike accidents are an industry here. In the evening the lady we rented the bike 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 5,000 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.
Over the week that we’re in Phangan, we start noticing bandages on everyone. And 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.
We’ve missed the Full Moon Party and 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 party night, urging visitors to find accommodation in neighboring Ko Tao and Koh Samui. What started as a small, alternative, eclectic affair for ‘real’ travellers is now a massive commercial event.
Over the years a host of supplementary parties has 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 is perfect excuse to extend our stay, so we can attend the Half Moon. On party 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 minutes. 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-stylised 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-violet 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.