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Thai backpacking can be one long party

Email|Print| Text size + By Stefany Moore
Globe Correspondent / November 30, 2003

BANGKOK -- For backpackers, this is where parties in the sand rage until noon, where a two-hour massage of agony and ecstasy will set you back about $9, and where a former Israeli soldier and a young American in-line skater can have drinks and never run out of things to say.

The backpackers come in droves, charmed to the ''Land of Smiles" by its dirt-cheap cost of living, welcoming people, and endless possibilities for exploration. For a young Westerner, perhaps the most enticing thing is the traveling culture that other young Westerners have created: They have dropped out of life back home, strapped on their packs, and set out on a trip, often with no set plans. The journey lasts longer than the standard two weeks, but never long enough. When they meet, they swap stories of their travels, recommending one place and warning of dangers in another.

Before long, a journey here might manifest itself as an all-out hedonistic venture of sun, alcohol, sometimes drugs, sometimes sexual encounters. ''Whatever, man. Just go with it," someone will say. ''You're in Thailand."

In fact, the backpacker culture can be so hypnotic that if you're not careful, you may find it hard to get out and see the ''real" Thailand.

Bangkok's Khao San Road is a case in point. A 200-meter strip on the western side of the city, it's an entire street dedicated to the upkeep of the young traveler. (A word of caution: They like to be called ''travelers," never ''tourists.")

Though Bangkok is crammed with history and culture, the hum of Khao San is addictive. Here, a hippie wanderer can find just about anything: cheap guesthouses ranging from the roach-infested to the semi-luxurious, and dozens of shops selling anything from hammocks to fake IDs to bongo drums to $2.50 CDs. Thai and Western restaurants offering cheap food crowd the strip; even tastier are the pad thai or barbequed chicken that street vendors sell for 25 cents. American movies blare from guesthouse restaurants almost continuously.

At night, the place explodes. They block vehicular traffic at around sunset, and the bars and restaurants spill onto the street. People pull up chairs in the middle of the road and drink from buckets of alcohol that the vendors sell for cheap. Rave, reggae, and rock music blast from music stands. Dreadlocked types twirl these odd rope things to the beat, girls get their hair braided in the street, and the ever-present Thai prostitutes prowl around.

Exploring the cavernous back alleys, or sois, surrounding the main strip is even more entertaining, though a bit seedier. There's the sweaty boxing ring tucked in a corner behind a makeshift tin wall. There is the ''healer" who calls himself Mr. Check It Out sits on a box and dispenses advice to passersby.

The atmosphere on Khao San is all about meeting people. A young woman sitting at a bar by herself is almost guaranteed to be with company in a matter of minutes.

''Well, come on, girl! Join us!" an Irish guy will say. His friends will motion her over to their table. ''There's no use in sitting alone."

The group will exchange names and countries of origin, and the next question almost always is, ''How long have you been in Thailand?" She will say two months. They will say four weeks.

She will tell them about trekking in the jungle up north, about seeing a village child bathing in a bucket. They will tell her of a maniac they met on a southern island who approached them talking about enlightenment and the moon. They will have far too many drinks, talk about their dreams, about where they want to go next.

Perhaps the group will decide to travel together for a week. Perhaps they will just say goodnight. Whatever the case, they will have become friends and soon will have to say goodbye. Most likely, they will never see one another again.

Khao San, though, has its dangers, and drugs are among them. Consider Simon, a tattoo-covered New Zealander who throws his hands and arms into every word he speaks, almost always about places ''we just must go."

''Let's go to Laos," he said one morning to a woman he had met two days earlier. ''Let's go to Cambodia. Anywhere. I don't care. Let's just go."

Plans changed, and the woman left Bangkok for other travels. Simon stayed, and must have discovered the heroin or valium so easily obtained over the counter, because on several other stops in Bangkok the woman saw him wandering Khao San looking glassy-eyed and very lost. It took him two months to realize he had to get out of Bangkok, he said, ''to clear his head," and he eventually did, going to Nepal to climb to the first base camp of Mount Everest. The last time he was spotted on Khao San, he looked healthy and, indeed, clear-headed.

A scene even more mesmerizing than Khao San is the famous -- sometimes notorious -- full moon party on the southern island of Koh Phangan. It is here that every month, when the moon is full, about 10,000 backpackers descend to a beach called Haad Rin to engage in what will surely be the wildest party of their lives.

Haad Rin isn't only the place where the full moon party is. Backpackers come too for the white sand that squeaks beneath your feet, the sea the color of the palm trees, and the chilled-out atmosphere created seemingly for the sole purpose of helping youngsters enjoy themselves.

By the time the moon is full, some people will have been on the island for days or weeks or months. Some will come by boat that night from nearby Koh Samui. Frankly, no one is really sure where all the people come from. The festivities begin at around sunset when the locals line up drink stands, massive speakers, and stalls selling face paint and glow sticks. Bamboo mats are laid next to each other in the sand, and fires are lit to ward off mosquitoes.

Music blasts from the beachfront bars that pad the quarter-mile long stretch of sand. At either end, the clubs play trance music and set up psychedelic tent structures for all the people taking ecstasy, which like the valium and heroin on Khao San is easily obtained on Koh Phangan.

As the night wears on, the music pumps louder and beats faster and keeps building until sunrise. As the fireball peeks its head over the sparkling sea, the partiers face west, flail their arms, and jump in all directions.

The newfound daylight will reveal people making out in the sand and in the sea. Some of those with less stamina -- or perhaps the wrong combination of drugs -- will have missed the best part and passed out on the beach long before sunrise. They will certainly be sunburned by the time they wake up.

A few hours after sunrise, the music will slow, and most people will stumble to their bungalows or claim a swath of sand for sleep. Some will dance until noon.

All will know what they just experienced would never happen back home. Some will move on to their next adventure. And some will be back in another 30 days when the moon is full again.

Stefany Moore is a freelance writer who lives in Chicago. She can be reached at stefany_moore@yahoo.com.

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