“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And yet not one of them shall fall to the ground without your Father’s permission.” – Matthew 10:29
KO PHA NGAN, Thailand – Dec. 31, 2010, was billed as the greatest Full Moon Party ever – with more than 50,000 young people on hand at Haad Rin Beach. They were gathered from the four corners of the Earth. Take a look at the events of that night here. (And here from the year before.) I had lived on and off of this gorgeous island since 1999. It was my base as a journalist and photographer from which I traveled to Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Germany, Australia and other nations.
Due to its unique geographic location, from Ko Pha Ngan, I was able to branch out to visit the Killing Fields in Cambodia, assist Lek Chailert in her crusade to rescue abused elephants and dig in at Aki Ra’s land mine outposts. I also journeyed to a remote Myanmar leper colony nestled at the very edge of the now defunct “British India.” Because of Lek and Aki Ra, I was able to achieve one of my life’s major goals – making National Geographic as a photographer.
The Full Moon Party is a massive cash machine. Some say it inspired the Hollywood film “The Beach,” starring Leonardo Dicaprio. The event began back in 1988. Check out this stellar early account published by Time Magazine here. Full Moon Party attendees were originally “garden variety pagans” getting back to nature, drinking Chang beer, acquiring tattoos and dabbling in marijuana and magic mushrooms. Haad Rin was full of happy hippies creating a de facto “Eden.” They were building a new world without Thomas Edison, 401(k)s, commuting, cell phones or color-coded terrorism alerts. Then the world found out about the island. Young people poured in from the U.K., South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Germany and Holland. In time, narcotics, violent crime and sexual assault began to emerge.
Sadly, Time magazine did an about-face and trashed the Full Moon Party in this article that could have been written by Pat Robertson. For the Goldilocks “not too hot, not too cold” account, you can deconstruct Time’s “The Real Beach” here. My 1999 article on Thailand for WND can be reviewed here. Fourteen years before Time, I used the word “Gomorrah.” In 2013, Time inculcated the exact same lexis.
One is tempted to search for parallels between what’s happened to the Full Moon Party and the rise in violence between Woodstock in 1969 and the Woodstock reboot in 1999 – the “Summer of Corporate Love.” Beyond the environmental damage, the fresh-water crisis, the plastic bottles strewn all over, not to mention the broken glass, there are drownings, heroin (remember “The Golden Triangle” is not far away), ecstasy (which induces hypothermia), as well as the local crystal meth known as “ya baa” or “crazy medicine” as lionized by Fox’s “Breaking Bad.”
There are sting operations going on, both the legitimate and the illegitimate. Thai and other drug enforcement agencies roam the Full Moon Party to ascertain the newest drugs being trafficked into Southeast Asia. Local gangs are on hand, and they are not to be messed with. Sometimes the drug dealers and corrupt police entrap tourists to exact bribes. One young British tourist, Stephen Ashton, was actually shot and killed at the Full Moon Party.
(As an aside, I was told that a man who set up an impromptu Half Moon Party in Tong Sala – complete with loud, all-night music – was ordered to decamp least he be fed to the sharks.)
After the Full Moon Party, countless partiers are ferried to hospitals where they are treated for burns, overdoses, acute alcohol poisoning and many other injuries. The offloading of these young people reminds one of the beach triage scene on Iwo Jima in “Flags of Our Fathers.” Yet the show must go on. Future parties are listed here. As my late father, Anthony Sr., often said, “That’s why they call it ‘show business’ and not ‘show friends.’” It was not always this way.
Thailand – at its core and in its soul – is a family oriented, conservative nation. A key U.S. ally, it is the only Southeast Asian country that wasn’t colonized by the Europeans. The U.S. soldiers on R&R in Bangkok during the Vietnam War opened the door for a new era (and micro-economy) of drugs, bar girls, prostitution and alcohol. The locals will plainly tell you a pharmacy in Tong Sala might sell more first-aid items over the two-day period of the Full Moon Party than it will for the rest of the entire month. The Full Moon Party is Ko Pha Ngan’s ATM. While many locals might wish the Full Moon Party would simply go away, accepting the tourist dollars the event brings to the island involves striking a deal with a legion of demons that rape, murder and destroy.
Dec. 31, 2010 was the first Full Moon Party I’d ever attended. Why? Back in 1999, I’d met a New Zealand family scouring the island for their missing daughter. She had been abducted and murdered at the Full Moon Party. As such, I felt it was best to eschew the setting. Little did I know that night – along with the early hours of Jan. 1, 2011 – would constitute some of the most challenging and ultimately finest hours of my life.
It seemed a strange place to honor my late father Anthony Sr., a former military policeman and professional interrogator (as well as a talented photographer). He was a tough, kind-hearted barbarian who defended the weak, beat up bullies and hated anything evil. A former boxer who played on the varsity football team, (a free safety and punter who unleashed long, booming spirals) as a 14 year-old freshman, his adventures in nations ranging from Morocco to Switzerland provided the genesis for a father-warrior legend taking on a life all its own.
To be frank, the Full Moon Party was the kind of place my father would have avoided and wanted me to avoid. That said, “The Real Beach” also provided, and continues to provide, an operational canvass, educational space and laboratory to test the character of the very best of men. Fortune, my father often said, doesn’t make a man – it merely unmasks him.
I’d always felt Ko Pha Ngan was my second home. I had a personal trainer there, Robin, who was a professional kickboxer. He got me into the best shape of my life. Some days I’d march from Tong Sala to Haad Rin and back before going to lift weights and do my abdominal routine at Robin’s gym. Armies of gorgeous women from Scandinavia and elsewhere in Europe would visit the island. Israeli soldiers who’d just finished their tour of duty were also in abundance.
At night, we’d build large bonfires on Ban Tai Beach. We’d hike to the waterfalls. As eco-warriors, we’d collect garbage from the beaches. I remember helping a nice German couple, Andre and Steffie (a stewardess with Air Berlin), who crashed their motorbike. I took Steffie to my personal doctor in Tong Sala and even paid for her visit, bandages and antibiotics. Then I asked my travel agent to help Air Berlin clear seats for the two of them to fly back to Germany.
On that fateful night of Dec. 31, 2010, I’d been hired to host an event at a posh resort. After that, I was invited to “The Real Beach” at Haad Rin to ring in the New Year. I told the audience at the resort about the first day I had arrived on Ko Pha Ngan. It was Feb. 14, 1999 – Valentine’s Day. I’d flown in from freezing South Korea, taken the all-night train from Bangkok to Surat Thani, followed by an open sea launch to Tong Sala.
Then on the dock, I was greeted by recruiters casting for extras for a film called “The Beach.” They claimed it was based on a best-selling novel, and would be starring the aforementioned Leonardo Dicaprio. They said “The Beach” and its plot focused on a British man who finds a map of a beautiful secret island, and then he commits suicide after decamping from paradise lost.
I literally collided at the end of the long arrival pier with a beautiful blonde woman from the United Kingdom. We were hailing the same taxi. Her name was Stephanie Over, and she was just about the most amazing girl I’d ever seen up until that point. I helped put her backpack on the rack of the taxi. We went to a set of bungalows called Bay Hut. At night (as noted), we made giant campfires. People drank Chang beer. Some took ecstasy as defined by this Mad TV skit. (USA Today published stories explaining that ecstasy will impact one’s health later in life.)
Stephanie traveled with two other British women – Leah and Ellie. They often slept until 2 p.m. When they’d finally wake up, I’d say, “May I present The Lady Ellie – who has emerged.” Some of the tourists at Bay Hut sang an impromptu Spice Girls song about the three of them – whom we’d dubbed, “The Spicy Girls.” The song went like this: “If you want to be my lover, gotta sleep until two o’clock, if you wake me up early I’ll hit you with a rock … now you know how I feel.”
(When I backpacked 176 miles in 12 days from Avonmouth to Gravesend in the U.K. during the summer of 2003, I asked various people along the way if they knew Stephanie. For some reason, I never forgot her or “The Lady” Ellie.)
It was at Bay Hut that I wrote “Holiday in Cambodia” for WND – by hand, right on the terrace of my little bungalow. I remember my father, who was not a beach person, saying via telephone that if he wasn’t on kidney dialysis, he’d fly all the way to Ko Pha Ngan from my parents’ lovely home near the Hamptons on Long Island to enjoy the magical sunsets and the bonfires with me. Oh, how I wish that could have been so!
A canvass to test character
The Full Moon Party, as any attendee can plainly tell you, is just about the craziest party in the whole wide world. I say this as a graduate of Arizona State, who lived on Ambergris Caye, Belize, for three years and has seen just about anything and everything imaginable on God’s green Earth. There were, of course, the 50,000 tan, nice-looking people on hand. They were dancing to the techno music with reckless abandon, seemingly without a care in the world.
People were drinking whiskey mixed with Hawaiian punch and Red Bull – sold in buckets that otherwise would be used by kindergartners making sand castles at the beach. We climbed high ropes (like soldiers might do at boot camp) and slid down slides through rings of fire. I felt it was my last chance to be young again. (I recall the nostalgia for one’s youth as voiced by actor Nigel Havers in “Farewell to the King.”) After almost a dozen years of living on and off Ko Pha Ngan, I finally understood what all the excitement was about. The Full Moon Party is truly fun!
After the stroke of midnight and all that entailed (use your imagination), I became separated from our group while dancing on the beach. (These were the same people who had brought me along after the event at the resort.) And several times a member from the group found a way to retrieve me amid all that madness. One was a young man from Australia, and another was from Greece. But on the third separation from the group, I found myself pushed out to the water’s edge. I could still hear the music blaring from the speakers. “There is one bird in my house,” from Bird 1 by Underworld. And then everything changed. I heard the voice of a woman calling out from the water. “Help! Please, somebody help us!” Again and again, she shouted in the most frantic manner. She was blonde, tan and pretty. Her name was Jenny, and she hailed from the U.K.
Sitting nearby in the water – in agony – was her Irish friend, Denise. Poor Denise had stepped on a broken bottle of Chang beer and simply could not move. I picked her up in my arms and began the long march to one of the first-aid stations set up in advance by the “authorities” at Haad Rin. (The event seemed like a free-for-all without parental supervision.) Denise had tears in her eyes. It’s hard to imagine that 49,997 other people had failed to come to her assistance.
I said, “It’s OK. You’re going to be all right. Don’t worry. I won’t let anything happen to you.”
In that moment, carrying her through the water, I thought of how Denise’s accent reminded me of something from my childhood. There was a girl from Ireland in our neighborhood. She had fallen through the ice covering the canal behind our house during a very cold winter. Everyone ran off of the ice – except my sister, Carol-Donna. Carol reached into the ice hole and pulled out the Irish girl with the aplomb of a king reaching for another drumstick at a Thanksgiving feast.
There were medics inside the first-aid station. Things did not look good. There were a bevvy of injuries, people drunk, sick, experiencing “dose dumping” from mixing prescription medicines with alcohol, overdosing from only God knows what, tripping on bad LSD and so on. One of the medics put a dressing on Denise’s foot. I remember holding her hand. The medic said she needed to go to the hospital. I carried her out of the medical area and found a kind Thai man willing to take her to the hospital. I gave him 1,000 Thai Bhat to take extra good care of her.
Jenny said to me: “Are you real? Are you really real? I mean, I can’t imagine what we would have done had you not come out to us in the water. What would have happened to Denise? It’s like you’re not even human. It’s like you’re an alien … or maybe Denise’s guardian angel.”
And then they were gone in an instant. I never saw or heard from them ever again. Yet others needed attention at “The Real Beach.” Some had panic attacks because of their Rx, ecstasy and alcohol. I held their hands and said it would pass. I told them about my student, Erin, in St. Louis, Missouri. She had joined the U.S. Army, and then while at boot camp one day her heart rate suddenly raced to 300 beats per minute. “Had I not decided to join the Army out of the blue, and been at boot camp, I would have died,” she told us in one of our journalism classes.
Erin was completely adorable and outrageous. Everyone loved her. One of her sayings became a particular touchstone for me. “You know how people always say, ‘Everything happens for a reason?’ Well usually the reason is that you’re f—ing stupid and you make bad decisions.” Sometimes I picture Erin visiting the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland (some claim it will blow up the universe by recreating the “Big Bang”) and pushing a red button encased in glass. Then I picture Erin standing in front of the Supreme Being while saying, “Sorry God, my bad!”
Another young woman, from Australia, lamented how she never should have tried ecstasy. I told her she was suffering from hypothermia. The medics at the First Aid Station treated her accordingly. Others battled their own panic attacks. I helped them seek calm amid the storm.
One young man said he never should have wasted his hard-earned money coming to Thailand to get so drunk and try ecstasy. I told him what my late mother Viola often said: “Money is only pieces of paper – it’s what you have to go through to get those pieces of paper. Money is only as good as what you trade it for.”
I also told this young man that if the events of that night would lead him forever away from drugs and alcohol, it would indeed be money well spent. That helped him turn the page toward the future. I remember saying: “The sun will be up soon. If you can make it to the sunrise, you won’t die. You have your whole life ahead of you. Picture a great future ahead!”
I recalled a scene from the film “The Memphis Belle,” in which one crew member who was sure his airplane would be shot down during a “milk run” over Nazi Germany circa World War II, finds the courage to manually lower the landing gear in order to save the whole crew. “We’re not gonna die!” he says, again and again. Watch it here. I told several people that night: “You’re not gonna die. Not here. Not tonight. Not this way. But the lesson is you can’t do whatever you want in Thailand. ‘Anna and the King‘ was a great novelty in olden times. To be a British visitor in Siam was a big deal back then. But in 2011, nobody will care for you in Thailand except you.”
Other young people at the first-aid station, even while hurt, were having the time of their lives, taking Facebook images and trying to laugh their way through the bad turn of events that night. To calm attendees in full panic mode, borrowing from this clever MLB Oakland A’s TV ad, I’d say, “I’m going to take your picture, turn it into a SnapChat, then tweet it as an Instagram-GIF to your Facebook page.” They would say: “You can’t technically do that! That’s so silly.”
Back to Tong Sala
Eventually, even the greatest “Full Moon Party” ever must embrace the next morning’s sunrise. I left and made my way across the island back to Tong Sala. I lived there precisely because it was so far away from Haad Rin. Along the way, I saw some of the people I knew on the island. Annie was a bar girl reading a picture book about the life of Jesus to various other bar girls. It reminded me from a scene from the film “Amistad.” Watch it here. I broke up a fistfight between two huge New Zealand rugby guys. They were both drunk. I told them we were all travelers on the road. And as such, we needed to help each other and watch out for one another.
Word got back to some of the locals about the events of that night, and my involvement with them. As such, they gave me my Thai name, “Thewthida,” which is their word for a male angel.
(Phonetically, it sounds like “Tay-Wah-Da.” Thai is a difficult tonal language in which there are no articles, no plural nouns, and the word “Mai” could mean “not,” “new” or be a girl’s name.)
As for that night, I suppose it was indeed my last chance to be young again. It was also the night I finally became the man my father always wanted me to be. After that night, I almost never drank alcohol again, not even one drink for almost five years straight. You look in the mirror and realize your youth may be gone forever, but somehow you find yourself 10 times the man you used to be. And for that, you’re very thankful, and perhaps even happy.
It is true that in the ensuing years I was sent to the ER a few times – at Johns Hopkins in Saudi Arabia with kidney stones while working for Saudi Aramco. And in Oakland, California, with just about the worst case of poison oak they’d ever seen. (Some people can go into anaphylactic shock and die from poison oak.) And then yet again, also in Oakland, I found myself back at the ER with even more kidney stones. They told me, after reviewing my 2014 records from Johns Hopkins, had my fever gone from 103.9 degrees Fahrenheit to 105, “I would have died and died quickly.”
Somehow, I remained calm through it all. Even at 3 a.m. when the ER people at Johns Hopkins gave me 13 ccs of morphine. The most they’d ever given someone was 15 ccs, and that was to a burn victim. My heart rate went down to 29 beats per minute. The ER doctors were concerned and gave me several EKGs. I prayed and thought of Denise and Jenny at the Full Moon Party. It was as though I’d somehow taken away the panic attacks from all those people at the Full Moon Party and mastered their fears for them. I said: “Lord, don’t let me die here tonight … not this way … not in Saudi Arabia … If I can just make it to the morning and see the sunrise, I know I’ll be OK …”
Lessons from the Full Moon Party
I remember as a little boy when my father went to a funeral for his uncle. I thought that meant that he (my father) was going to die. I pleaded with him not to go. I must have been 4 years old. I slept by the door between the living room and the den all night, waiting for him to return. My mother could not dissuade me – nor did she really try.
Around the same time, I began to sleepwalk. My father would follow me around the house. I’d turn on all the lights in the house, and then turn them off again one by one. I’d look out over the Great South Bay at the Robert Moses Causeway. I’d see a stream of automobile lights going back and forth across that majestic bridge.
I’d say, “Daddy, who is watching out for all of those people?”
And he’s say, “Anth, (what he always called me) God is watching over them.”
As Dec. 31, 2010, turned into Jan. 1, 2011, I felt my late father was with me as I watched over Denise and the others I’d met at my first and only Full Moon Party. I think my father would have wanted it that way, for that night was a microcosm of his favorite lessons in life. Birds of a feather flock together. Choose your friends wisely, for you will become like them. Always defend the weak. Alcohol, drunkenness and drugs are never a good thing. Seek out God’s anointed guardian angel forever at your side. Never trust a man who’s into pornography. The real measure of a man is what you see when he’s away from his wife, children and family.
He had many other sayings. No one will ever win a deal they make with the devil. People who misuse the talents God gave them will wind up unhappy and in the wrong place. Kindness, courage, honor. You can’t lose in poker or in life what you don’t put in the middle of the table – but you can’t win much, either. Only goodness and purity are the true measure of the human soul. Press some people and they fold, while others focus. The same measure we use on others will be used on us. You can sheer a sheep a hundred times but only skin it once.
Borrowing from Sun Tzu he would say: “Watch a man … observe his pleasures … a man can simply not conceal himself.” Another of his mantras was, “Only liars tolerate other liars.” He would often say, “I may talk stupid, with a stupid accent, but I don’t think stupid.”
He often said the best soldier is someone who once was weak, for after becoming strong, they remember compassion. We must face and master our fears. By doing so, we can help others overcome their own fears. Michael Westen said it best on “Burn Notice” – “As iron sharpens iron, so one many sharpens another.” My father was right; “Wherever you go, there you are.”
Maybe my earliest memory of my father is the two of us in our garage. I was about 4. He asked me to hold a box of nails. He was a master carpenter who was talented in that regard. But only now, all these years later, do I realize what he was doing that night. He was figuring out a bill for one of his customers.
“Is the box half empty … does it feel that way to you, Anth?,” he asked me.
Where ordinary men would have charged for a full box and never thought twice about it, he was charging for only half a box. Yes, he was tough as nails. Moreover, he was the most honest man I’ve ever known. We, too, must be strong like nails to endure the pounding of life’s trials, twists, turns and rapidly changing fortunes. We, too, will be weighed in the balance to give a final accounting of our lives, character, values, thoughts and actions. My father said the most important question in life revolves around designing your afterlife: “Will you go to heaven?”
I’d like to think my father was with me that special night and the following morning at “The Real Beach.” In retrospect, it was the greatest Full Moon Party ever. Just as he promised back in 1999-2000, my father and I finally got the opportunity to watch the sunrise on Ko Pha Ngan together. How lucky I was to have been adopted by the best man, and the best father, in the whole world. If I could be even one-twentieth of the man he was, I would be truly blessed.
As a baby, when I battled asthma, on many nights my father would hold me in the shower all night long, so the steam from the hot water could help me breathe. Then he’d go to work with no sleep. In the ensuing years, I lived in and out of oxygen tents in our home (the same house put under water by Hurricane Sandy) and Good Samaritan Hospital. Perhaps these days, he’s a guardian angel policing the Full Moon Party – once again young, strong and handsome.
I visualize my late father, Anthony Sr., the man who never thought of himself even once, assisting those who find themselves alone, scared, far from home and cut off from their loving parents. I see him as the answer to all of the young people praying: “God please help me. Why did I come here? Why did I do this? Why did I get so drunk? Why did I try these drugs? Please, please help me God. If you can hear me, please help me. Please send one of your angels. I promise I’ll never do it again. I promise if you help me just this one time, I’ll devote my life to helping others in return.” I could never imagine a more befitting assignment for this tough, rugged, yet kind-hearted, Christ-like man.
Happy Father’s Day!
Regarding my late father, a tangential tribute can be found here. My tributes to my late mother Viola – who truly came from my father’s rib – can be found here and here. There’s also “Burn Notice,” which can be reviewed here. My novel about Ko Pha Ngan, “Our Name is Legion,” can be reviewed here.