Full Moon over Koh Phangan - Oral History Series: Nathan Parker, Why Nam

1 Oct 2022
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Phangan resident Brian Gruber published an oral history of the island earlier this year titled Full Moon over Koh Phangan: What Adventurers, Dancers, and Freaks Seek and Find on Thailand's Magic Island. Phanganist is publishing an exclusive series of interview excerpts. This week, we feature Brian’s conversation with longtime Why Nam and “TriBay” resident Nathan Parker.

The ebook is available for 270 baht ($7.50) at https://amzn.to/3B75ssb or directly from the author for PDF or ePUB versions. An expanded version with chapters on each island village and favorite local spots will be released later this year.

 

From Full Moon over Koh Phangan:

Nathan Parker:  The Full Spectrum

Nathan is a chronicler and participant of the early Haad Rin and TriBay communities, managing the Why Nam beach bungalows and restaurant – the beach, in effect – for many years. He introduces the notion of Koh Phangan as a “full spectrum” experience, where adventurers could dabble in eastern spiritual practices, wellness regimes, all-day and all-night dance parties, libertine social mores, and natural and manufactured medicines. He has been one of the more visible provocateurs in the three-cove community residing in Haad Yuan, Haad Tien, and Why Nam, and an organizer of countless art projects, events, and island experiences.

 

Brian Gruber
Why did you come to Phangan and what was your initial impression?

 

Nathan Parker
I came to Thailand from Venice, California in 1989. I was in my early twenties and needed a change in my life. So, I did what many young people do; I reduced my life to whatever would fit into a backpack and started traveling. I was looking for adventure. Hoping to “find myself.”

I actually came to Thailand to do Vipassana retreats. I was more interested in meditation than parties back then. When I arrived on Koh Samui, I was blown away by how beautiful it was, the nature, beaches, climate, people, everything. I remember riding around on a motorcycle my first day thinking, “I’m staying here forever.” Then, moments later, crashing my bike, nearly killing myself.

Samui was very different back in 1989. The ring road hadn’t been completed. Chaweng Beach had only simple wooden bungalows. There were no hotels, no airport, no tourists, just backpackers and hippies “getting lost.” The Reggae Pub still had a dirt floor, as I recall.

The word on Samui was, “Nobody’s in Koh Phangan. It's just local fishermen.”

We made a distinction between ‘backpacker’ and ‘traveler’ back then. God forbid anyone called you a “tourist.” Being a traveler meant you were cool, traveling “for real,” not just on holiday or a brief break from school or work. Travelers tend to live for long periods of time in remote or difficult places like India and the Himalayas. Travelers were more “hard core” adventurers. With more tattoos and piercings.

Traveling, and being a traveler, was its own subculture. Dropping out of society, hitting the road, and escaping from the “matrix.” Leaving your former life, for a simpler, more nomadic one. Traveling was a lifestyle. A way of being in the world. Almost a religion.

Simple living is higher civilization, as (American writer, Henry David) Thoreau said.

My life changed after I did my first Vipassana retreat at Wat Suan Mokkh, over on the mainland. After a 12-day sitting meditation in silence, I felt reborn, like I could do almost anything, inspired to take on the world. And it was there I met ‘Oli,’ a young Scottish guy, who first told me about Koh Phangan. We became fast friends, and he was heading back, strongly encouraging me to come with him.

“There’s nobody on Koh Phangan but fishermen,” I told him.

“No, listen. There’s a beach in the middle of nowhere. Amazing people, they’re putting on these parties. It’s incredible. You’re coming with me.”

Getting to Haad Rin from Samui, you take the ferry, but the ‘ferry’ then was a tiny wooden fishing boat that rose just out of the water and looked like it was about to capsize. The boat was crowded with 20 or so hippies. As we were leaving shore, I was getting nervous because people were sitting on the roof, making the boat top-heavy, swaying dangerously in the waves.

There was loud music being played out of a ghetto blaster. A weird kind of electronic music I’d never heard before. Deep rhythmic beats. Weird sound effects. Trippy samples. I thought it was awful. Through cheap speakers, it sounded more like an electric razor dying a slow death than anything I would want to listen or dance to. But those freaks absolutely loved it. And they were all really excited about something.

Haad Rin at the time didn’t have a pier, so we had to wade ashore with our backpacks about 100 meters over the coral. Some Thais were there to greet us, along with the “Water Buffalo Taxi,” an enormous black water buffalo pulling a cart with baggage to the other side of Haad Rin.

Oli and I stayed on the “sunset” side, because the bungalows were cheaper. We wandered a few hundred meters up the shoreline to Bo Bo’s Bungalows where Oli had stayed. Simple thatched bungalows for 15 baht a night. A very helpful Thai man arrived soon after, offering us big smiles, ganja, and a bamboo bong.

After a few bong hits with Bo, Oli and I started the trek along a dirt path to the main beach on the other side of Haad Rin. Besides Mama’s restaurant, about midway across, there was almost nothing in the center of town but palm trees and the occasional water buffalo. Haad Rin in those days was a tropical island paradise, with nothing much standing between its sunrise and sunset beaches but lush coconut jungle and soft ocean breezes. There were no buildings. No cement. No roads or cars. No plastic water bottles.

We were just passing Mama’s when we came upon a group of 10 or so people laughing and giggling hysterically, having the time of their lives.

I discovered later magic mushrooms were on all the menus. Mushroom omelets. Mushroom shakes. Nutella and mushroom banana pancakes. Magic mushrooms are indigenous to Koh Phangan, growing all around the island out of buffalo dung.

There was a party happening that night. Around 70 people at the Bong Bar. Three topless women were painting a water buffalo in floral paints. A tall, lanky DJ wore a skin-tight, black-and-white skeleton outfit.

It was like nothing I’d seen before. These crazy-looking people, decked out in day-glow and psychedelic jungle attire, dancing wildly under the stars to that booming ‘electric razor’ music I’d heard on the boat. You realize, “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Oli joined the throng and started dancing as I stood there in awe, taking it all in, this whole crazy, psychedelic, freaky jungle scene, with pumping music and a painted water buffalo. It wasn’t long before I realized everyone was tripping.

Someone wearing colorful lycra bellbottoms offered me some punch from a large green chalice, glowing brilliant under black lights. And so began my journey.

I was still high from the effects of the 12-day silent meditation retreat, which had finished less than 24 hours before. Somehow it all went together. That who we truly are is an eternal, full-spectrum fractal universe, at play with itself. Just relax and enjoy the ride.

That night, I danced like I’d never danced before. Losing myself in the music, in the dance, and in the mystery of this place. I found what I was looking for that night on the dance floor. I experienced vipassana, ecstasy, clarity, profound insight, and revelation. The party itself felt like an initiation, a cosmic reunion of advanced souls, a mystery school. My mind was blown. I had arrived.

That was my first day in Haad Rin, on Koh Phangan. My first acid party. The first time I ever tripped and danced all night with people from all around the world. The next morning, everyone went to the beach for sunrise, one of those breathtaking, gorgeous Koh Phangan sunrises. We were so blissed out after the party smoking chillums, when the sun did rise, nobody spoke a word. Nobody had to. This was it.

“Shit, I’m in Heaven!”

 

Brian Gruber
You stayed and settled in. 

 

Nathan Parker
Lots of things were happening in Haad Rin besides the parties. There was The Heart of the Dragon Tai Chi School run by Jay Ananda. Jay had been teaching Tai Chi in Haad Rin for ten years before I arrived. I studied with him for three years, before the mafia ran him off the island.

Jay had been part of Osho’s ashram, back in Oregon. He was Osho’s right hand man, head of the “Peace Force” and the “School of Mystery.” Jay and his wife Sheela kind of ran the place and drove the Rolls Royces. They’re both in that Netflix documentary Wild, Wild Country. Jay’s the bearded guy talking.

Jay was cool. Once a year, he let us do a party at Heart of the Dragon. In fact, if you ask Jay, he’ll tell you the Full Moon Party started at Heart of the Dragon. He claims the local resort owners came over to see what they were doing and then tried to duplicate it.

There are many different stories about when and how the Full Moon Party started. Some say it started in 1974, when some friends on Samui hired a boat to Haad Rin on full moon. Others say it started in 1984 with an impromptu gathering at Paradise Bungalows. The official version is Mr. Cow, the village head man, had a fish fry on the (August) full moon in ’88.

Paradise Bungalows claims to be “Home to the Original Full Moon Party,” but I remember my friend Jimmy practically begging Paradise to let us do a full moon party there.

For me, the full moon party started when all the Goa freaks and travelers started arriving with sound systems and Acid House music. That’s when the parties really took off. Word got out, a clarion call heard round the world, and everyone started coming. “Koh Phangan’s kicking off!”

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Full Moon over Koh Phangan: What Adventurers, Dancers, and Freaks Seek and Find on Thailand's Magic Island is available at https://amzn.to/3B75ssb or directly from the author Brian Gruber (briankgruber@gmail.com) for PDF or ePUB versions. Watch the Phanganist for the final interview excerpts in the coming weeks.