All photos in this post were taken by Will Moyer and reflect the natural beauty of Koh Phangan, as opposed to the side of the island described in this blog post
6 a.m., January 1, 2013
"Bao, there are two people fucking on your front lawn."
The four of us gathered in the doorway of Bao's ramshackle bar and indeed, there beneath a gnarled tree, were two people having sex.
"Time to get a room, guys," Bao yelled. "This is my home. You can't do this thing here."
The man, a blond Brit wearing a bright orange singlet, grinned and waved. The woman, a Brit wearing nothing more than a pink bikini top tied loosely under her fully exposed breasts and a patch of mud smeared across her lower back, didn't even break her rhythm.
Bao laughed. "They're happy. Let them go."
Of course there were two drunks fucking at 6 a.m. in front of the bar.
It was the only appropriate ending to the night. To the whole vacation, really.
Prelude to misadventure
I spent Christmas and New Year's Eve of 2012 on Koh Phangan, an island in the Gulf of Thailand. I was with six friends: Will, Ruby, Hilary, Rob, Suzanne and Katz.
We had chosen Koh Phangan as our holiday destination mostly to go to the Full Moon Party for which the island is famous. The Full Moon Party is a massive festival of debauchery involving tens of thousands of people, lots of cheap booze, drugs, sex and overall mayhem. I had been on the fence about wanting to go to a Full Moon Party ever in my life, but I figured that if I'm going to be in Thailand for half a year, I might as well go see what it's all about.
The plan was to spend the first half of the trip on Srithanu, a quiet beach on the northwestern part of the island. We figured that we would be far enough removed from Haad Rin, where the Full Moon Party is held, to get in some relaxing beach time before the madness. We were looking forward to uninterrupted days of swimming, sipping cold beers in our beachfront hammocks, getting massages and having as drama-free a vacation as possible.
Of course, this is Asia - more specifically Southeast Asia - where the likelihood of bad, ridiculous, random, insane shit happening increases exponentially. And lots and lots of it did.
The not-so-relaxing island Christmas
I had been on Koh Phangan for all of a day when the first signs of a bacterial infection reared their ugly head. At first, I assumed the shooting stomach pains and bouts of nausea were symptoms of a standard upset stomach. Refusing to be deterred from enjoying my vacation, I boarded a boat with Will and Katz to Ang Thong National Park, an archipelago of 42 uninhabited islands.
I assured myself the stomach pains would be gone by late morning. We went snorkeling in the pristine waters that surround the islands and saw enormous black sea urchins, purple anemones and electric blue fish. I even made it through lunch and a short hike to see the emerald lagoon. Then the vomiting started.
Great, I thought. Food poisoning. At least it should be gone by Christmas.
False. For the next two days, my body rejected everything I put into it: water, medicine, plain noodles, peanut butter toast. I threw up partially digested meals I had eaten four days earlier (There is no mistaking the distinct flavor of samosas, on their way in or out.).
The end result of this grossness was that I was admitted to a local hospital for two days and put on an IV. The doctors, who were of questionable competence, diagnosed me with gastroenteritis, an infection of the stomach and small intestine.
Koh Phangan Hospital was a rather primitive medical facility. The nurses were friendly but mostly inept. I had to inform them when it was time to change my IV bags, had to instruct them on what medicines I should be taking and had to call them three times when I got blood in my IV tube before they did something about it.
I will admit that I started crying when the doctor told me I'd be spending Christmas night in the hospital. I was exhausted, frustrated and intensely hungry but also intensely nauseous. I knew I needed to be in the hospital but I was scared and I hated it.
Fortunately, I have good friends. On Christmas night, Will brought me pizza and watched movies with me so I wouldn't be alone for the holiday. The next night, everyone came, bringing pizza once again, as well as smoothies and other Western treats.
Being in the hospital was a frightening and uncomfortable experience, but it was also an exercise in practicing gratitude. I allowed myself bursts of anger and frustration but after each one, I reminded myself of the good people in my life and the fact that my health was on the mend. Life could be a lot worse.
Besides, I thought, once I got out of the hospital, I could enjoy the rest of my island stay worry-free. It turned out my commitment to that Pollyanna attitude would be tested more than a few times even after my release from Koh Phangan Hospital.
"I am boring of this!"
A friend of a friend had been nice enough to book bungalows for us at Seaview Rainbow, a small resort on Srithanu. The price was right (about $7.50 per person each night), the beachfront location sounded great and the restaurant and reportedly fast wifi were bonuses. We planned to stay there at least through the end of Christmas week. We could hardly believe our luck at getting a reservation at this place. It seemed almost too good to be true. Which, of course, it was.
Something seemed off about the owners of Seaview Rainbow from our first interactions with them. They refused to provide basic amenities such as soap or adult-sized blankets, and gave us only small fleece throws that looked like they had been purchased at a Disney store. Then they hemmed and hawed over giving us a blanket or towel to use on the beach because "they would get too sandy"... which seemed odd, given that the resort is located on the beach.
There were other weird nickel and diming issues, but no major problems, and the location was as convenient and beautiful as we had hoped, so we let the small things go.
And then, three days into our stay, the owner lost all sense of professionalism and, it seemed, his mind.
On Christmas Day, when I gave up thinking I could fight whatever ailed me by lying in the bungalow and willing myself not to puke, I asked Will to come with me to the hospital. He of course agreed, and asked the Seaview Rainbow owner, Mr. Ko, if he would give us a ride. Ko said he would, for a fee.
I grabbed my bag with my laptop and wallet, just in case the doctor decided to keep me overnight, and told Ko we were ready to leave. He glanced at me, then turned to Will.
"My friend, can you help me with something? Can you talk to your friends for me? They have been very disrespectful to me."
The night before, Christmas Eve, Suzanne showed up to Seaview Rainbow around 7 p.m. only to be rudely informed that her bungalow reservation had been given away. When Suzanne and Ruby asked why, Ko became emotional and screamed in Ruby's face. An aggressive shouting match, mostly fueled by Ko, erupted and Suzanne ended up spending the night on the hammock outside the bungalow Ruby and I were sharing.
I assumed this heated exchange was what had him smoldering now, but no. He had found something fresh to add to his list of grievances against us.
Apparently Hilary and her boyfriend Rob had made the egregious error of putting leftovers from another restaurant in the Seaview Rainbow refrigerator (she had asked a staff member for permission and been given the OK).
"My friend, I don't understand why they are so disrespectful," Ko told Will, his face reddening. "They cannot do this thing. I am running a business here. Why they disrespect me in this way?"
"I don't think they were trying to disrespect you, but I'll talk to them and see what's up," Will said. I could have slapped Ko at that moment for delaying my trip to the hospital, but I seethed silently and let Will handle it.
He walked over to the bungalow where Hilary and Rob were staying and told them they couldn't leave the food in the fridge. They accepted this with no complaints. Under any normal circumstances, that would have been the end of the whole thing.
Will explained to Ko that Hilary had asked a staff member to use the fridge and hadn't meant any disrespect by what she had done.
"Where do they think they are that they can do this thing? I am running a business! These guys fucking disrespect me. I am boring of this!"
We assume that by, "I am boring of this," he meant "I'm sick of this," though who knows for sure. He assured Will that the two of them were still friends, that "there are no problems between us but I cannot accept this thing from your friends," and loudly declared that Hilary and Rob had to go.
Keep in mind that while this was going on, Rob came out and apologized and tried to smooth things over. Ko would hear none of it. Rob and Hilary were kicked out of the resort, effective immediately.
Finally, after dropping that bomb, he summoned his wife or sister, I'm not sure what the relationship was, to drive Will and me to the hospital.
I missed the ensuing drama, which involved everyone leaving Seaview Rainbow on principle and scrambling to find accommodations for the rest of the week. Because so many people were arriving for the New Year's Eve party on Haad Rin, we were unable to get rooms for more than a night or two at a time and there was absolutely nothing available for Dec. 30th or 31st.
The circumstances were not ideal. It's hard to settle in or relax somewhere when you know you have to pack up and schlep to a new hotel or resort the next day. But it also wasn't the worst situation.
Everyone except for Will, Ruby and me was leaving on the 29th. A Thai friend of Ruby's had generously offered to let us sleep at his recently purchased bar for 100 baht (about $3) a night in exchange for helping him sell beers and keeping an eye on the place.
Again, when something seems too good to be true, it really probably is.
Will, Ruby and I were determined to put the drama and stress of the past few days behind us. My stomach was finally beginning to feel like that of a reasonably healthy human being and once we got to Bao's bar, we wouldn't have to move again.
Thinking we'd get to play the cool bartenders for a couple of days on Haad Rin, the three of us showed up to the bar in a chipper mood on a rainy Sunday night. Bao had warned us that he hadn't set up the guest house area yet, but the prospect of sleeping on the floor didn't faze us at that point.
The "bar" was little more than a sagging bamboo and wood shack covered in three layers of dirt and dust. The only alcoholic offerings were a few cheap Thai beers, unless you count the half-empty bottles of Sangsom strewn about the front patio. Worse than that, however, were the stacked plates of rotting food, trash bags leaking a black, oily substance all over the floor, and a front door hanging off its hinges.
As for the "guest house"... it was a room at the back of the bar, and the only indication that it was meant for sleeping were the stained pillows and single bamboo mat on the floor. This room, too, was covered in three layers of filth and had the added bonus of being filled with mosquitoes.
The bathroom was in an outhouse and in lieu of a shower, we realized we'd have to use the butt hose (a staple in Thailand, where the preferred method of cleaning up after using the toilet is a hose-down, rather than a wipe) for bathing.
To top the whole thing off, power had gone out on the entire island, so after doing a quick clean-up by the light of a few headlamps we found lying around, the three of us lie down in the pitch dark on the dirty bamboo mat and contemplated our situation.
"At least we have a place to stay" and "It will be fine once the lights come back on", became common refrains, heavily interspersed with "Where the fuck are we?" and "Of course this is where we've ended up."
"I'm going to write about this," I announced.
"Good," Will said. "Then everyone will know we laid here like three dicks in the dark, staring up at the ceiling."
Thankfully, the lights came back on 20 minutes later and shortly after that, a group of about eight Thai guys, all friends of Bao, showed up for a barbecue. What had looked like a potentially miserable stay quickly became fun and we enjoyed one of our best nights on the island.
Friends we knew from Chiang Mai came over, the guys cooked the best food we had tasted on Koh Phangan, Sangsom and Changs were flowing and there was a sing-along to acoustic versions of popular American songs.
It was a great night. A perfect night to lead up to New Year's Eve.
Which was also perfect.
Right up until we got robbed.
A very un-merry New Year's Day
During the week between Christmas and New Year's, there were three Full Moon parties: one on Christmas Day, one on Dec. 28, the night of the actual full moon, and one on New Year's Eve.
There were roughly 30,000 people on the beach on New Year's Eve, possibly more, the vast majority of whom were either incredibly drunk, incredibly high or both. Vendors along the beach sold buckets of cheap rum and whiskey mixed with Red Bull, and bars hung enormous banners advertising mushroom shakes, "special cigarettes" and laughing gas. Harder drugs were also available, or so I've heard, though they require a little more effort to obtain.
The Full Moon party is madness. It's a massive rave on the beach where everyone is dancing, guys are openly peeing in the water, and people are having sex about two feet away from where those guys are relieving themselves. An Australian drummer we befriended at the party told me he saw another dude pooping in the waves.
In the midst of all this chaos, the party was fun beyond all my expectations. The friends I was with were relaxed and happy, and the fireworks were incredible. Golden sparkles rained down over us in a spectacular display, and while it was probably a total safety hazard, it was a beautiful and exciting way to ring in 2013.
So it was a wonderful New Year's Eve and on the short walk home around 5 a.m., I found myself feeling utterly satisfied with the night, and optimistic about the new year.
It was about 5:15 a.m. when I walked in the door, contemplating posting a sappy Facebook status about what a great night it had been.
I glanced at my computer bag and noticed that not only was it open, but that my laptop wasn't in it.
"Hey, where is my laptop?" I asked Will, assuming he had used my computer when he got home.
"I have no idea. I haven't touched it," he said. "You probably moved it before you left earlier and just forgot."
There was little doubt in my mind that I had put the laptop and Will's Kindle in the bag and zipped it shut before I left, but I supposed I could have been wrong.
Then Will noticed something else that was out of place.
"Were our cameras on the counter when we left?"
Yes. That was exactly where our Canon and Nikon DSLRs had been. But they weren't there anymore.
Will jumped up to check his computer bag.
"My laptop is gone."
Ruby, Will and I stared at each other.
We had been robbed.
It's a surreal feeling to realize that someone has broken into your home, or what is passing for your home, and stolen something from you. It's hard to wrap your mind around the fact that not only are those items gone, but that someone had been pawing through your belongings, violating what is supposed to be your safe space.
It's even harder when the items that have been stolen are the very tools you use to make a living. I'm a freelance writer and Will is a web designer. Our livelihoods depend on our computers and cameras.
Ruby called Bao and we did a quick survey of our things while we waited for him to arrive.
We discovered that the bastard thief had stolen the following:
- My MacBook Air
- My Nikon D60
- My external hard drive
- Will's Kindle, which I had been borrowing for the trip
- Will's MacBook Air
- Will's Canon Rebel T1i
- Will's external hard drive
- Ruby's Nook
Whoever stole all of this had left behind Ruby's Sony laptop, Will's iPod classic and, inexplicably, my bank cards, which had also been in my laptop bag.
Fury, anger, fear and disgust all made an appearance that night and in the days to come. But we all agreed that what really mattered is that none of us had been home, or hurt. How often do you hear about botched burglaries that end in the victims being beaten or murdered? Who knows what this thief might have done if we had been home and tried to foil his plans?
It's possible that he wouldn't have tried to rob us at all if someone had been there but I'm glad we weren't around to find out. All of our things will be replaced with time. Our lives and our health are far more important than the loss of our electronics.
But it's still infuriating.
Bao arrived and offered to take us to the local police station to file a report but admitted that that would be useless.
"Even if they find your things, they'll probably keep them," he said.
Cool. Good to know there's crack law enforcement there when you need it.
Resigned to the fact that we were probably never going to see our stolen possessions again, we decided to get a couple hours of sleep before starting the three-day journey back to Chiang Mai. But Koh Phangan had one surprise left in store for us before we went on our way.
"Bao, there are two people fucking on your lawn."
Will spotted the fornicating couple after he and Bao did a sweep of the premises and gleefully pointed them out to us.
The two were either oblivious or just didn't care that there were four people watching them have sex in broad daylight.
Bao alternated between furious and amused at what was happening on his lawn. The Brits paid him no attention as they switched from woman-on-top to oral.
"Want me to chase them off with the broom?" Will asked, a gleam in his eye. It would have been hilarious and as much as they deserved, but Bao shook his head.
"No, they're having a good time. Let them be."
At least somebody was.
Anywhere else in the world and at the end of any other night, I would have been shocked at the brazen public humping that was going on a few feet from where I was about to sleep. But this was Koh Phangan and it was the morning after a Full Moon party and we had just been robbed and were sleeping on the floor of the most run-down bar in the hemisphere, so why wouldn't there be two people having sex in the mud in the front yard?
"Koh Phangan is not paradise!"
Two hours later, I woke up and stumbled to the outhouse, feeling like death might actually be imminent. I couldn't remember the last time I was so tired and was dismayed to find that being robbed was not merely a bad dream.
I pulled on the bathroom door. Didn't budge.
"Bao, did you lock us out of the bathroom?"
"No. Why would I do that?"
"Well, the door is locked and I can't get in."
Bao came out and banged on the bathroom door. No response.
He disappeared then came barreling out of the bar carrying an old Coke bottle filled with water. "This fucking girl," he muttered.
He clambered onto a chair and dumped the water through an opening between the door and roof. No sooner had the water splashed on the floor than the girl erupted in anger.
I breathed a sigh of relief. When she didn't wake up to Bao banging on the door, I honestly thought she might be dead.
"What the fuck are you doing?" she yelled. Then came a loud crash as she pulled down a shelf in her rage.
"Get out of my fucking house!" Bao screamed back.
The bathroom door swung open and out she came. I feared that she was going to take me for the person who had doused her in water and punch me in the face.
Instead, she began a monologue that was undoubtedly the ravings of a lunatic, or of someone who had taken a lot of drugs in the not at all distant past.
"Who the fuck would invite 40 people to a bar and then tell them to leave?" she yelled. "You know, it doesn't make me a lesbian if I'm doing things with a girl and then wake up three hours later and decide I'm not into it anymore. That doesn't make me a lesbian."
"Trust me, no one thought you were a lesbian," I said, recalling her persistent banging of the British guy.
"What the fuck is going on out there?" Will yelled.
"This place is not paradise!" she yelled back. "Everyone told me, 'Come here, come to Koh Phangan. It's so amazing.' This is not paradise. You should pay for my plane ticket back to England."
Will started laughing. Ruby, who is an exceedingly nice person, glared at her.
"Yeah...she's gotta go," Ruby said. "I can't deal with this girl right now."
We asked her if she had taken any drugs.
"If you're the type of person who wants to put things up your nose, then fuck you," she replied. She looked accusingly at Will. "Are you on something right now?"
"No," he said.
"Good." It was obvious that this girl was on something, regardless of her evasive response. She was erratic and irrational and had no idea where or when she was. She was also unaware that her right breast was hanging out of her loose-fitting tank top throughout her entire rant.
Eventually we stopped responding to her and turned to the more pressing topic at hand: should we stay on the island and search for our stolen property or should we catch our boat and start making our way back to Chiang Mai and deal with the losses when we got there?
We decided on the latter. The likelihood of finding our things was slim and there was no one on the island who would help us. We suspected that the thief was either one of Bao's friends or at least an acquaintance, but he was adamant that that was not a possibility.
The three of us packed up, exhausted, resigned and desperate to be home in Chiang Mai.
There was a knock at the door.
"Oh god, she's back."
The British girl stood in the doorway, a more subdued version of herself than we had seen before.
"I've...I don't have a bra," she said.
She looked pleadingly at Ruby and me. "Do you have one I could wear?"
Bao handed her a filthy strip of pink material. Her bathing suit top.
"Here, honey. This is yours."
She slinked away, apparently sobering up.
"I've never been so upset to see a boob in my life."
All that was left to do was catch our ferry to Surat Thani and begin the long trek home. The reality of having been robbed didn't hit for another few days, when the financial burden of replacing my laptop and other equipment began to sink in.
I don't know if I will ever return to Koh Phangan but I do know that I will never forget this vacation. For all the bad, there was a lot of good, too, including enduring the travel madness alongside friends, getting to ring in the new year with people I love at one of the biggest parties in the world, enjoying the breathtaking beauty of Thailand's beaches and meeting a lot of interesting people.
As for having my things stolen...it's a setback financially and hugely disappointing but in a few months, it will just be a crazy travel story and a cautionary tale. Life goes on and I remain as excited for 2013 as I was before any of that debacle happened.
So here's to lessons learned, memories made...and hoping with all my heart that the son of a bitch who robbed us got caught in a rainstorm and everything he stole was destroyed.