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Journey to the Edge


Our hero Lasso Jack discovers fear and losing it in Koh Phangan

This travel story could end up like The Beach, except that in this story, everyone had already found the beach. And instead of our protagonist getting his head blown off by marijuana planters and possibly the leader of his community, the closest thing he could’ve gotten to physical harm was getting busted by the local police for illegal drug consumption.

Following that would’ve been the possibility of being sent to the police on the mainland, getting tried in a national court, having a media frenzy kicked up in his home country and his compatriots facing the decision of whether to return to share his sentence or not. But that would be a different movie for a different time. There were less tangible dangers open to him.

Lasso Jack (named for the cowboy persona he liked to take to clubs) was a stylist, Chinese. From New York. Which was where he said when the inevitable question “Where’re you from?” was dropped among a sea of young people on a beach.

Jack wasn’t much of a traveller. He’d come to Koh Pha Ngan more to check out the famous full moon parties – where thousands of young people from all over the world converged every full moon, making it one of the centres of the global trance movement, next to Goa and Ibiza – than to explore its culture and geography. Of course, travelling mentally via hallucinogenic substances was part of the game. He’d had one or two bad trips but he thought that that was just part of his larger quest to find the meaning of life.

The ferry leaving Surat Thani

DAY TWO. Sitting in a cafe on the beach, Singha beer in hand, Jack rewound the events leading up to his arrival.

He had departed from the mainland town of Thong Sala on the south eastern coast of Thailand, via ferry (taking three hours) two days ago. From Thong Sala, he’d taken a taxi (another 45 minutes, and 50 Baht) to Had Rin – the main drag of the full moon parties – where he’d already made reservations.

Throughout, Jack had learnt two things:

1. When asking locals on the street simple yes-or-no questions like “You go Surat Thani?” he rarely got a straight answer before the local first going off to consult his or her countrymen.

2. There were many classes of passenger travel in southern Thailand — bus, open top shared taxi, closed top shared taxi, air-con shared taxi and private taxi. Except for ‘bus’, all ended with ‘taxi’ but varied greatly in conditions, pick-up point and price.

The resort he’d made reservations with was called Tommy Resort (after its owner Tommy) and looked straight out onto Had Rin’s famed crescent-shaped beach. Like other low-cost beach resorts in the region, Tommy’s misnamed their huts “bungalows” where others might have called them “chalets”. Unlike the others though, Tommy’s.efficiently received bookings by email.

Comfortably settled in, Jack began to work out the society into which he’d joined. Being two days before the full moon, Had Rin was yet chock-a-block. In fact, at this point, it somewhat resembled a small village, with travellers for residents and a cut-off age of 25. After a while, he even began recognising those who’d been there as long as him, just as, in all probability, they recognised him. Jack had been expecting more of a long-term New Age crowd – “spiritual types” – though. Instead, Had Rin was mostly populated by Lonely Planet’s denizens – kitted out in their Red Bull t-shirts and looking like they’d just stepped off the plane. Yet most seemed like, they were like him, scouring for something deeper than experience, wisdom. The locals meanwhile were gainfully employed by tourism. He’d heard, every full moon, five million baht was made on lodging, drinks and food alone. That wasn’t even counting the drugs.

SLOWLY BUT SURELY, JACK BEGAN TO SHED HIS URBAN EDGE. Consuming fruit shakes, fresh food and sea air all day, with his top off and flip-flops on, Jack had nothing to do but pamper his body, rise up the tan hierarchy, suss other people out and hopefully have fun at some later point in the day.

Lying in the middle of the beach, mildly stoned and seeing everything through a lens of acid yellow shades, he felt like he was in a Mario Testino photograph: surrounded by women in bikinis and well-toned men playing frisbee or volleyball. Eye candy. Then of course there were the “training wheel fire throwers” spinning chains with tennis balls at the end of them self-consciously looking unself-conscious, yobs running around with green paint on their bodies (“it was St Patrick’s Day”), dogs lying in self-dug holes and old Thai women masseurs plying their services, while anything from Abba to trance blared out in the background. It was superficial, it was body beautiful but it was nice.

A French circus act on the beach

“Town”

3pm. Jack’d better score. Having already purchased some relaxing herbals from the beach bar of one of the resorts, he headed to town for some nighttime energy-boosters.

“Town” was a rabbits’ warren of little streets behind the beach, flanked by tiny shops of new age gear (tie-dye, hammocks, bikinis, and if you were lucky, the occasional jester’s hats), provision stores (combs, toothpaste, Red Bull and lots of liquor), travel and communication shops (Internet, long-distance calls, flight bookings and currency exchange) and for a small town, probably the highest concentration of pharmacies per capita in the country. One of which he approached cagily.

“Um, ah… diet pills?” attempting to sound upbeat and almost jocular. “Ah, hold on, ” answered the girl at the counter, opening a drawer and casually bringing out some colourful capsules.

“Ah, how much?…” and quickly, “uh, what type are these?” trying to sound less like a novice.

“This one 40 Baht, this one 50 Bhat!”

“Okay, I’ll have two, this one (pointing) and two, this one (pointing at the others).” Triumphantly walking away, Jack imaginined these pills winging their way from Myanmar. He’d only that morning read in The Bangkok Post that an estimated 600 million methampetamine pills would’ve found their way into Thailand in the year 2000 from as many as 55 factories along the Thai-Myanmar border, each of them having the capacity to produce about one million pills a month.

On the way back, Jack stopped at the legendary Paradise Bungalows on the southern end of Had Rin. He’d heard that this was where all the parties had started. If that was true, it now had a certain quality of death about it; nothing much happened there anymore. His first contact came in the form of an old witch in a goth mini-skirt ensemble and shock of white hair, who’d begun exchanging a few gracious smiles and nods with him.

Seventy but living to party

She turned out to be Danish and incapable of much conversation but ascertaining his curiosities,

she introduced him to a tall dark man with feathers in his hair on a hammock behind the resort. Not before informing him that this man was a shape-shifting shaman that was once imprisoned in Bangkok for writing an inflammatory book however. After some conversations on the origins of the scene, the “shaman” told him of several “alternative” communities established on other parts of the island with “less mainstream” parties he could check out.

“Dance, dance, here, dance”

THE NEXT DAY, anticipation lay heavy in the air. It was full moon. His introduction to the morning came in the form of some crazed crusties still up from the night before, inviting him to dance so insistently, it was almost aggressive. Next came a German middle-ager who was chilling out from the night before while holding court to a group of Thai barmen. Blowing on the wind came his voice: “The magic, it happens every day here…”

Jack had several choices for his daytime recreation: renting out a motorbike to circle the island for 600 Baht, working out at the Jungle Gym (did they have long term members?), or diving off Koh Tao (off the north of Koh Pha Ngan, apparently the best diving spot in the Gulf of Thailand and also an ex-gaol for political prisoners during World War Two). He decided on breakfast.

Walking down one end of ‘town’, he discovered Old Lamp Inn. It featured a descending terrace of wooden platforms and was very chilled. The food was out of this world and the menu was honest (even specifying when the juices were freshly squeezed and when they were from canned fruit). He chose from a menu that featured everything from a traditional Thai breakfast to home-made granola to tofu burger. After settling on some fresh-baked bread and a green curry that had a quality of creaminess he never knew green curry to aspire to, he started chatting to a traveller with a bright red beard who suggested that he try out a place called M&M Bar. Ending somewhat quizzically with “see you on the flipside”, Gingerbeard bid adieu.

Before he knew it, it was 4pm. Time for some party preparations. As advised, Jack decided to begin at M&M Bar. It turned out to be the jaunty construction of wooden terraces set high up into a cliff face at the northern end of Had Rin. A hint as to the origins of its name came with the item on its bar menu called “mushroom shake”.

There he met another German, Klaus, who was already tanked up on this signature drink. Klaus quickly warmed up to his hypothesis of the day: “One thing I realised was that all people only want three things from other people. One, knowledge,” he counted on his fingers, “Two, survival. Three, sex.” Grinning to himself and looking down on his drink, he credited his inspirers: “These mushrooms really give you the knowledge. They must have been sent down to earth for a definite purpose.”

Eventually, Jack’s own drink began to kick in. As with previous experiences, things slowly began to move in an arcane, infinitesimal way. It was beautiful, like a glimpse into divinity, into the subtle rhythm animating all matter. Conversation slowed and in a period of solitude, Jack felt like he was descending into his inner world, a realm he’d known a long time ago, before he could speak.

At this point, Jack glanced up at Klaus who looked like he knew what was on his mind.

Grinning confidently, Klaus stated, “Yes, it is possible to discover Paradise on Earth.”

“Is it?” replied Jack rhetorically, already imagining saying a silent goodbye to his parents, friends and colleagues. Who would understand unless they themselves had experienced an otherworldly experience, or at least something they were convinced was, if even for an impermanent time, not of this world? Could he stand straddled as it were, between the worlds of supernatural paradise and populated reality?

M&Ms: melts in your mind, not in your hands

Klaus then suggested adjourning to Had Tien, also one of the places mentioned by “the shaman”. Threading through a blurred landscape of campfires, fireworks and costumed jugglers on the beach, they found a sign advertising boats to that destination. One was just about to leave and they waded then climbed in for a ride lasting about fifteen minutes.

Pulling in to the secluded beach, the vibe hit them like a brick. The gaunt-featured “New Agey types” Jack had before been expecting were now represented in full force, clustered around the whirling nexus of a dance-floor. The eyes that pierced back at him were obviously entranced; it was deceptively easy to slip into the hypnotic music. He began to dance, eventually connecting into the familiar stream of everybody as one.

This time though, there was a notion of an all encompassing inevitability, of being subsumed into a great force, of not being able to say no, of a sapping of his free will. Who or what was playing this energy? Who or what was this potent force? He didn’t know. That scared him.

Panic descended. Jack looked round and lost his bearings. Seeing Klaus’ face morph into that of a horned beast didn’t help. Struggling back to the chalet, he found himself constantly reassuring himself of his identity: “You’re Jack Chang. Your parents are Willard and Henrietta Chang, from Hong Kong. You went to Green Park High School etc.” Yet he couldn’t shake off this intense paranoia, of losing it, his objectivity along with his bearings and identity. Trying to sleep, his mind was frantic and could not rest. His pulse was high. He even had to force his breathing down by counting.

Reasoning had turned into a farce in his mind. Yet Jack seemed to return to this one essential question: “Are you on the side of light and life or are not?”. Notwithstanding the obviousness this answer should have, and an audience of none, he declared his answer out loud and this was reassuring, his distress eventually waning into an unconscious sleep while a new day broke.

Only many months later, after he’d returned to New York, could he look back to his time in Koh Phangan and try to work out how he’d come so close to the edge, nearly falling over to lose what others would term his “sanity”. He is as yet successful in finding the answer and funnily enough, still does not know what lies on the other side. But maybe one day, better equipped, he may return.

The next Full Moon parties are 4 August and 2 September. From Bangkok, you can fly Thai International Airways to Koh Samui return. Accomodation, tommyresort@hotmail.com (450 Baht per bungalow) and Wang Tai Hotel in Surat Thani at 66.077.283 020 (from 800 Baht per room). Further info, www.kohphangan.com. Or http://www.thaisite.com/fullmoonparty. Thanks to www.backpackasia.com for financial assistance and travel advice.

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