It’s three in the morning on a sticky night on the island of Koh Phangan in the Gulf of Thailand. The mums and dads of Australia would be tossing in their beds back home right now if they only knew what their little girls and boys are up to here at this month’s Full moon party.
Fast becoming a rite-of-passage for young Aussies, the Full Moon party is an event held most months on the night of the full moon – and its critics in the embassies and hospitals of Bangkok, who wearily process its growing casualties, think it is time to start reining in its excesses. What we see over several nights of filming is quite simply shocking. Yes, some youngsters come here and have a great, safe, night. For all too many others, they leave scarred by rape, dreadful burns, broken limbs, or worse. Earlier this year, one Sydney youth Joe Welch drowned in the bay – the latest in a sad series of deaths over the last ten to fifteen years, as the party’s notoriety has spread.
Some painfully young Australian kids are in the heaving crowd (and I mean children under the age of 18 here) buying buckets (and I mean ‘buckets’) of alcohol which generally contain at least an entire hip flask of Thai whiskey or Jim Bean, mixed with either a soft drink or a caffeine drink like Red Bull. Within a few slurps, they are hammered and easy prey for predatory locals and expats alike.
As I walk through the crowd, shady local Thai men repeatedly offer our hidden cameras illegal drugs such as ecstasy, cocaine, marijuana or speed for just a few dollars. Warning signs all over town make it clear it would be crazy to accept, but all too many foreign kids do and end up in the local jail. Privately, we are told, many of the crook drug dealers are cooperating with corrupt local Thai police who then insist on a huge cash bribe to make the charges go away. It is a grim choice – either pay up or spend years in a Thai prison.
But the drugs are not the biggest threat at the Full Moon party; they are perhaps all too often the cause of what happens next. As the crushing crowd imbibes, snorts and inhales a medley of substances, some young couples peel off and start having unprotected sex on the sand in full view of the crowd. Others choose the privacy of the ocean, albeit full of sewage – especially the urine from party-goers too drunk to find a toilet. Distressingly, far too many young women are staggering alone along the beach, or collapsed unconscious on the sand in a scantily clad heap, comatose from too much booze and drugs. All too often they become victims of predatory males, who can take advantage of them in a quiet, dark, corner of the beach.
Australian girls treated at a Bangkok Hospital told us how their treating doctors lamented how the injury they treat the most from the Full moon party is the rapes of young foreign women, most of them unreported to unsympathetic local police.
Much of what we see over several nights cannot be shown on national television at 6:30pm on a Sunday Night, or at any time to be frank. It would be x-rated. I feel the need to preface my observations with the comment “I’m no wowser, but…,”For what I and my crew see on the tiny beach over a long night is shocking, and we have all seen a lot in our time. We all believe it is great to have a good time, and young people are entitled to their fun, but this event is clearly getting out of control.
On the night, 20-30,000 youngsters from all over the world descend on a tiny strip of sand. Many are from Australia, their ages varying from mid-teens through to late twenties. Many of them (perhaps even most) come along to the Full moon party and have a great, fun, time. What draws them is a powerful myth. Social media sites like Facebook and films like the Leonardo DiCaprio hit ‘The Beach’ have idealised the dream of Koh Phangan – an idyllic island in the Gulf of Thailand where young people can flee the strictures of structured western life and enjoy a place where there are no rules, where you can do what you want when you want and not be told not to.
But even some of the old-timer expats we spoke to admit they are worried about how the Full moon party has changed for the worse as it has got bigger. One former policeman based in Thailand with a knowledge of Thai organised crime told me how the tragedy of Koh Phangan is that many of the original land-owners who were the local fishermen who lived on the island twenty to thirty years ago have been muscled out of their land by businessmen and, sometimes, by organised crime gangs drawn to the massive FMP tourist dollars like a magnet.
The party has become a huge money-making venture for local tourism and a blind eye is being turned to its dangers and criminal risks.I came to the nearby island of Koh Samui myself back in the mid-eighties as a young 22-year-old and, while I shied away from the magic mushrooms and the ganga, I had a great time myself in a beautiful, friendly, part of the World. The Full moon party is different. It has become a bastard child. As Bangkok-based Catholic priest Father Michael Kelly tells us, Australians going there need to know that “they are going into a circumstance where some very experienced shitheads” will ruthlessly exploit them.