Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Three-Quarter Moon in Ko Pha-Ngan

This is Haad Rin Nok (Sunset Beach) on Ko Pha-Ngan, ground zero for the Full Moon Party, and the next one is happening on Saturday. My local guide,Thim, and I headed for the Big Buddha pier this morning on the back of Weela's motorbike taxi to catch the 10:30 ferry, the Sea Flower. When you're on vacation you can't be choosy about the weather and it was stormy and overcast when I opened the curtain. At the pier there were hundreds of backpackers waiting to board under dark skies. There were white caps on the ocean. The boat looked old and creaky but mai pen rai. In this good Buddhist country you take what you can get. Our plan was to go over for a couple of hours, check out the scene, and then return on the afternoon boat.

While waiting to board, I struck up a conversation with a pretty scarey looking guy in full biker threads. Turns out that Jonas was from Sweden and has been in Thailand for seven years, and he is now teaching English in Surat Thani. He's lived in San Diego and we talked about the glory days of San Francisco rock in the 1970s. Jonas doesn't drive a Harley (he says there are some knockoff Harley Davidonsons on the roads here) but rather a Honda and he's the member of a biker club called the Asian Nomads. Besides riding all over Thailand they do charity work and helped out with the recovery from the tsunami. His look doesn't bother the Thais, he said. But back in Sweden it would be a problem. Jonas has a five-year-old son with his Thai wife but they're separated and the boy is now living back in his home country.

Jonas comes regularly to the full moon party and he met a group of tattooed and pierced friends at the dock in Haad Rin. But before we parted he recommended a restaurant for lunch (the boat was almost an hour late probably due to the overcrowding), andThim and I walked to the Cafe Hiatus where patrons were seated on comfortable cushions on the floor. I had a chicken sandwich, surrounded by young farangs (the Thais were mostly behind the counter).

Haad Rin is a backpacker's paradise, with the all the accoutrements of such hangouts elsewhere in the world (like Pai, which I visited last year). Bars and restaurants were showing soccer from Europe and the latest movies on big screen TV sets. You can get a tattoo or your hair beaded, take a long boat to a remote bay on the other side of the island, or drink a Guiness in an Irish pub. The main beach is beautiful, and it was crowded with beautiful bodies. The surf looked rough but people were in it and looking happy. Others were playing volleyball, or paddle tennis. Some women were lying topless in the sun. In just a few days there will be many thousands on the same beach, partying to dozens of DJs with loud soundsystems as the moon makes its trek across the sky.

The idea of a party at the full moon took hold in the late 1980s. There is now even a "black moon" party as well as a half moon party at different beaches. But there are also Buddhist holidays that occur at the full moon four times a year and there have been rumblings of protest from the religious communities. I was amazed at the stream of young people with backpacks pouring off the ferry, and the handful of passengers on the return journey. Where do they put them all? But of course there is construction everywher, and the island, which still has dirt roads most places, shows signs everywhere of prosperity.

I noticed a number of restaurants advertising Middle Eastern food. I met an Israeli in a wat the other day, and driving through Chewang this morning I spied a restaurant advertising kosher food. There was a man on the boat trying to keep his yarmulka from blowing off. And on the dock in Haad Rin I saw a man wearing a Muslim cap. On the way back to Lamai Beach in Ko Samui we passed a Catholic church next to the Tesco Lotus Mall and I'd like to be able to attend mass next Sunday.

The weather had improved for the ferry ride home and we could see considerably farther in the distance, although it was still hazy. I looked for porpoises but saw instead schools of sardines or anchovies, flashes of silver, jumping out of the water as the boat sliced through their territory. On the boat there was a pregnant woman who looked on the verge of giving birth. I wondered how the baby liked the jumping, lurching and heaving of the boat.

At the Big Buddha pier we called Weela, but he said he would be a half hour. So I went in search of coffee and found Vinny's Coffee and Tea. Curious about what this guy was doing in a little hut on the beach, I learned that he had built it himself in the last few weeks. A Londoner, Vinny said he'd been coming to Thailand for 15 years and had finally decided he wanted to live there permanently. He said he was 42 and that he was living in a small room for 4000 baht a month (no hot water or A/C), about $125. He made me a decent cappuccino with caramel topping, using coffee from Harrod's in London (he also offered Twinning's tea). There were no other customers and he said he was doing everything himself, working 8-10 hours a day, 7 days a week, harder than he'd worked back in England. But he said he loved every minute of it. Weela showed up and we were off home, but I told Vinny I'd come back some day soon and see how he was doing.

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