Twenty-five years ago on a small island called Koh Pha Ngan, a group of about thirty travelers got together to throw a beach party on the first full moon of the month. It lasted ’til the sun came up.
Full moon parties, which started as a celebration of exploration, travel, and freedom have now turned into weekly 20 to 30,000-person blowouts on the beach, and every backpacker on the Banana Pancake Trail seems to want to check attending one off of his or her bucket list. And, unfortunately, today’s full moon parties are more synonymous with environmental degradation and crime than authentic travel.
But it’s festival season now, and whether you’re headed to a full moon party in Southeast Asia, Burning Man in Nevada, or any other celebration drawing a huge crowd—have fun, but be smart, too. Far too many of my friends come home from full moon parties with easily preventable horror stories—and there’s no reason you should be next. Whether you’re hitting the summer festival circuit or heading abroad for some of the biggest parties in the world, keep these tips in mind.
Respect International Law
Remember that scene in Brokedown Palace in which Claire Danes gets caught smuggling drugs and then says, “But I’m an American Citizen!” Those words won’t help you in a similar situation (and that sense of entitlement would probably get you in more trouble).
Festivals and parties are all about self-expression, freedom, and fun—but be aware of local law to know which gestures and activities to avoid. This may sound obvious, but I can’t tell you how many friends have thought that if other people are doing it, it must be okay—and then gotten busted for doing something completely offensive or illegal in another country.
Just because questionable activities are happening in front of you and out in the open doesn’t mean it’s a good idea for you to participate. This includes doing any sort of drugs. Undercover police officers have been known to pose as sellers, and then arrest tourists who try to buy on the spot. Also be wary of guilt by association: Party goers posing as friends might try to pawn their crimes or pin a bribe onto you.
Nudity, toplessness, and even wearing skimpy clothing can also cause problems, depending on where you are. Even if there are no written laws against such dress, there are often unspoken laws to look out for. Don’t put yourself in a situation that will lead to your calling your parents from a foreign prison. If you’re proven guilty, your embassy will only be able to provide minimal help.
Use Caution Around Friendly Strangers
It’s a blast to meet new people and other travelers, but be careful of people who are overly friendly or seem suspicious. Petty thieves and smugglers, both foreign and local, have been known to attend these parties, befriend tourists, and make them victims of their crime—everything from theft to planting drugs or taking photos for blackmail. Be skeptical of people who come on too strong or are simply too nice. With so many people around, it’s a challenge to determine who’s legit—and who’s trying to take advantage of you.
If It’s Valuable, Leave It Off The Beach
Don’t bring anything you would mind losing to a full moon party. Valuables are too easily stolen, swiped, or just lost in a crowd. Flash anything too pricey—like your iPhone—and you’ll increase your risk of becoming a pickpocket’s target. It’s usually a good idea to leave expensive phones in your hotel room, and consider purchasing a cheap pay-as-you-go cell that won’t cost you a fortune to replace or repair if something happens to it. This goes for jewelry and glasses too.
Beware of Buckets
Yes, alcohol is often cheap and plentiful (and may make its appearance in literal red plastic buckets), but if you’re not careful, you’ll be making snow angels in the sand—or much worse—before you know it.
Use the same caution you would when drinking in a club: Watch your drinks carefully, and make sure they stay only among friends. Several of my friends have been drugged on the beach during festivals by other tourists.
And avoid mixing energy drinks with alcohol, too. I know you want to keep the party going all night long, but binge drinking plus caffeine can be a deadly combination—and that’s even more true abroad than at home. If you’re on an island, in the desert, or in some other sanctioned-off area with thousands of other people, it may be difficult to get a friend (or yourself) to safety.
One more thing: Be weary of home-brews, or any local alcohol mixtures or local moonshine—many tourists have died or become disabled from methanol poisoning after drinking tainted or poorly made alcohol.
So have fun, but be smart about what you consume.
Have a Plan and a Pal
Before you go out to hit the party, make sure you and your friends have a plan. Where will you meet if you get split up? What will you do if something happens? Even if you have cell phones on you (I recommend you add the numbers for local police and emergency personnel to your address book) and you manage to get good reception (often not the case at a crowded festival), it will be tremendously difficult to find each other among the thousands of people milling about, and there may be no identifiable landmarks. Worst-case scenario: How would you all get back to your hotel?
And as lame as it sounds, do what your mom made you do in Disney when you were a kid: Wear something outlandishly bright, so you can spot each other if you happen to get separated.
While you won’t see me at a full moon party (when you’ve been to one, you’ve been to them all), if you indulge in this rite of passage for young travelers, plan ahead to make sure you come away with a good experience. Enjoy, but stay safe!
Natalie Jesionka has researched and reported on human rights issues around the world. She lectures on human trafficking, gender and conflict, and human rights at Rutgers University. When she is not teaching, she is traveling and offering tips on how students and professionals can get the most out of their experiences abroad. She also encourages global exploration through her work as Editor of Shatter the Looking Glass, an ethical travel magazine. Natalie is a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow and served as a 2010 Fulbright Scholar in Thailand.More from this Author