Too big to fail: Full Moon Party revives Koh Pha Ngan

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In the US, the phrase “too big to fail” is applied to financial institutions whose defaulting would cause the national or even global economy to collapse. So these institutions receive bailouts to keep them afloat in times of economic crisis. In Thailand, our too-big-to-fail institution might be the Full Moon Party. The legendary party, running for nearly 40 years on Haad Rin Beach on the island of Koh Pha Ngan, has been allowed to continue even in times when other parties and gatherings were restricted.

Next week, crowds will flock north and south to celebrate uniquely different holidays falling on the same night. Loy Krathong, the festival of floating boats made of leaves, falls on the full moon of the 12th month on the Thai calendar, usually in November on the Gregorian calendar. And Full Moon Party falls each month on… well, you can probably figure that out.

This month marks the first anniversary of the relaunch of the Full Moon Party. Though rarely cancelled or banned – save for the party scheduled for October 17, 2017, just days after the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej – the party was shut down at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

CLOSED FOR COVID

With a party that draws 20,000 tourists, backpackers, and holidaying Thais, the momentum is strong and hard to stop. February 2020 saw one of the biggest Full Moon Parties in history, with surging tourism overwhelming accommodation availability and last-minute partiers wandering the streets in search of a bed. One hotel owner reported receiving phone calls from AirBnB, Expedia, and Agoda, each offering US$1000 to cancel a booking and give them an available room for the night.

When Covid-19 lockdown restrictions began in March 2020, officials announced the party was cancelled, but that didn’t deter thousands of tourists who already had plans and showed up anyway. Full Moon Party in March was still huge and wild, but a bit muted, with apprehension about the pandemic and entertainment shutdown that would follow and last for nearly two years.

Covid proved that Full Moon Party was too big to fail, with the economy of most of Koh Pha Ngan collapsing almost immediately after it was clear there would be no party for at least a few months. Nearly every business except for a 7-Eleven and a few street food stalls shuttered, at least half of which never reopened. Even 7-Eleven began closing at 9pm and eventually closed completely for several months as the travel restrictions and closures dragged on. The electric and water companies drove around after the last Full Moon Party in March 2020 collecting outstanding bills, knowing that without the party, no businesses would be able to pay within a few weeks.

RELAUNCHING

Throughout the pandemic, there were rumours of restrictions lifting, alcohol bans and nightlife closures being repealed. But most were nixed as Covid infections climbed in Thailand. In November 2021, officials tentatively announced a small party would be allowed to go ahead. A handful of local businesses on the beach promoted around Thailand to the few travellers that had returned after the July 2021 Sandbox reopening, urging young tourists to come help restart the once massive party.

The first Full Moon Party after Covid was small. Very small. After officials flip-flopped on allowing the party, a few hundred people showed up on the beach, with one or two DJs and a handful of bucket sellers. It was a far cry from the hundreds of bars and bucket stalls selling massively oversized cocktails to young backpackers dancing to dozens of DJs and sound systems along the beach and throughout town.

But it gave hope to the people of Haad Rin that business could be revived and Thailand might recover from the pandemic. Numbers picked up in the coming months, with a New Year’s Eve Party attended by a few thousand people. Covid infections were definitely spread during the parties, but not in numbers as significant as officials feared.

By the Songkran holiday in April, the Full Moon Party immediately following it crossed the 10,000 attendee mark and Koh Pha Ngan was coming back to life. Curfew restrictions continued though causing the party to be raided by police between 11pm and 1 am each month and shut down to the dismay and disappointment of partygoers. Some were especially angry after admission was doubled from pre-Covid prices to 200 baht and the party was still shut down early.

By July, restrictions had been lifted and attendance surged to 20,000 beach partiers. Full Moon Party had seemingly made a full recovery, until misguided efforts in August led to a last-minute date change, causing thousands of people already booked for an August 13 party to cancel when the date was officially moved to August 12. Attendance dropped in half that month.

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