I wasn’t pleased when I discovered that the only actual rest stop in our frantic Asia trip, was going to coincide with the massive Full Moon party, but Ko Pha Ngan was absolutely stunning.
We checked in at a bungalow complex called JB huts, nestled up the side of a steep hill, a couple hundred yards away from the beach. The outside of the bungalows looked like a postcard, the inside was sparse; a bed frame with a single mattress, a single framed photo of a palm tree, a cold salt-water shower. It was perfect.
The restaurant was also perfect. It was an open air, floor-pillow clubhouse with honor system billing. I ate every meal there like a shipwreck pirate, stuffing down multiple orders of Pad Thai and Tom Yum Goong all at once while swigging from big bottles of Chang beer.
The boss of the joint was Bella. She was a big lady in a muumuu dress whose perpetual Buddha grin reached from ear to ear. She’s one of those people who define the term “jolly” and she seemed to belly-laugh bellow her broken English anytime she spoke.
The next day, the influx of 50,000 Eurotrash ravers would begin, but on that first day, the beach was sparse and practically ours. I’m not going to use clichéd phrases, like turquoise water or silky sand or a million other descriptors, but I could.
I spent morning to dusk with Antonio and the girls, drinking ridiculously strong, plastic sand bucket rum drinks from long straws while sitting in bath warm, still, crystal clear water that stayed waist deep half a mile out. We got drunk, like piss stinking, half blacked-out drunk, while basking in that water for nine hours. After 12 days of hard travel, we needed it.
As the sun went down, things got spotty, but at some point our group broke up and started heading back to our individual bungalows. I looked in the mirror and was stunned to discover my whole body was florescent red. My bald head looked like a maraschino cherry. As I whimpered to the mirror, there was a knock on the door.
Antonio bound into our room with Nancy behind him. He was still wearing nothing but his tiny beach speedo and he was also bright sunburn red, but now he had a bicycle helmet on his head.
He slurred “We rented a motor scooter to see the island! Wanna come?”
“God no” Beth replied. The whole island was a maze of unpaved hills and curves, it was already dark and we were all still wasted drunk.
“Do you really think he can drive?” Beth asked Nancy.
“He’ll be fine” she laughed with an exaggerated wave of her hand.
They left, and Beth and I immediately passed out cold…
…Suddenly I was pulled away from total unconsciousness by what sounded like police raid pounding. Beth opened the door and Antonio barreled into our dark room covered in blood and sobbing hysterically “Mami, Mami it hurts it hurts it hurts.”
Nancy shouted from the porch “I told him it was a bad idea!”
They didn’t even get past the first curve out the driveway when they hit a bump and he lost control. Nancy bounced off the back of the bike and landed with a motherfucker of a skinned knee. Antonio got it worse, he skidded and rolled all the way down the gravel road to the bottom of the hill, while still all but naked.
Beth led him out of the room to go find Bella. I sat on the edge of the bed for a few minutes, throbbing from my sunburn and dazed by the whirlwind of madness that had just swept me awake.
Finally, I mustered enough energy to go investigate. Outside the clubhouse I found Beth, and Antonio who was slurping on a rum bucket he held with both hands as he continued to sob. They had been joined by Lauren, who was holding a big bottle of iodine, and Bella, who was holding a hose.
“Why ladyboy cry? No sad ladyboy” Bella belly laughed as she turned the hose on Antonio. “When ladyboy sad, everyone sad.”
“Ladyboy sad because he’s so stupid” Beth giggled as she and Lauren began the chore of picking stubborn gravel from his wounds.
I went back to bed.
The next day we sat in the clubhouse eating breakfast congee. I was hung over and in a huge amount of pain from what was clearly sun poisoning. Antonio was the last to come down and he was a shocking sight. Along with his own blistering burn, his whole lanky body was covered in road rash; he looked like one big red scab.
He marched up to where we were all eating with the deliberateness of a thespian, closed his eyes, put his hands together in prayer, took two deep breaths, then pronounced with affirmation in his voice, “I will NOT let this get me down. I am strong, I am brave, and things can only get better now.”
That night, things got worse.