Beats, booze and bodypaint: full moon party defies Thai troubles
KOH PHANGAN, Thailand - For many ravers on the tropical oasis of Koh Phangan, the origins of the Thai island's debauched full moon parties are as hazy as their memories of the beach bash the next morning.
Yet Sutti Kursakul, a middle-aged island native with a distinctive black moustache, claims he not only remembers the first moonlit party but organised it.
"I held the first full moon party in around 1988. It was a farewell to my Australian friend," Sutti told AFP as neon-clad tourists flowed in and out of his bar, vibing to house music.
What started as a monthly gathering for spiritually inclined trance fans in the 1990s has since exploded into a world-famous monument to hedonism.
Up to 30,000 people, mostly young western backpackers, descend on Haad Rin beach each month to guzzle buckets of booze, knock back drugs and jump through hoops of fire -- an increasingly perilous beachside activity as the evening's intoxication takes hold.
Now thumping electronic dance music has replaced the psy-trance beats of the 90s, while a cottage industry of neon clothing and body paint vendors has turned the beach into a one-stop shop for the party faithful.
And they keep on coming.
That is despite junta-run Thailand's political woes and the October death of beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej, which was followed by a month-long "toning down" of the kingdom's normally wild nightlife.
Through a decade of military coups and curfews, Thailand's buoyant tourist industry has kept the economy afloat.
Thailand has already welcomed more than a record 30 million tourists in 2016.
They are expected to rake in more than $68.5 billion, a figure that will represent 17 percent of the economy.
Can't stop the rave
Over the years the full moon party has often been cast as a depraved, crime-ridden drug fest where foreigners trash their idyllic surroundings and take excessive risks.
"The western media is so negative," said Sharon Kahatai, an Israeli hostel owner who made the island his home nearly a decade ago.
"I think the full moon (party) is an amazing project. I don't know if there are other projects like that which bring young people, 18 to 22, from all around the world to be together."
Some old-school ravers say the notoriety and commercialism are changing the event for the worse.
But Sutti insists the spirit is the same.
"Nothing has changed about the full moon party -- just more people," he told AFP, stressing how the revellers bring crucial cash into the pockets of locals.
Thai tourism authorities want to lure wealthier visitors to the kingdom.
But hedonistic fixtures of Thailand's nightlife such as the full moon party appear safe.
Cyclical crackdowns on Thailand's freewheeling party scene never seem to stick and the beach rave shows no signs of slowing down.
"It's obviously popular with many people," said Chattan Kunjara Na Ayudhya, the public relations director of Tourism Authority of Thailand.
He said budget travellers still have an important role to play, despite efforts to develop Thailand as a luxury travel destination.
While backpackers may be short on cash, they have pull especially online.
"In this world of social media, they see a lot, they share what they see, and we're happy," he told AFP.