Dancing Under The Moon: Mindful or Mindless? A Look at Mindful Travelling and Full Moon Parties.

“I began to realise just how bacchanalian backpacking could actually be…”

After finishing college, I joined hundreds of other recent graduates on what can only be described as a stereotypical gap year – our destination of choice being South East Asia. Having gone to college in Finland I had no idea of just how big an event this kind of gap year backpacking was, and just how many other gap year travellers I would meet once coming to university – the “Gap Yah” video never quite made it across the continent. By this I mean that I had no idea just how heavily the hedonistic, cavalier attitude to drinking and drugs was connected to travelling. I have to admit, that was more of a culture shock than the actual sense of location, which was something I had mentally prepared for before leaving. To fully elaborate just how naïve Laura and I were, we were completely under the impression that we would not be drinking at all during our two months away. Little did we know that less than a month in we would be working at a bar in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, planning our flights to Thailand so as to make it to Koh Phangan for the December Full Moon Party.

It wasn’t until we had reached Sihanoukville in Cambodia that I began to realise just how bacchanalian backpacking could actually be. Laura and I had just arrived at our hostel when an Irishman sat down next to us and regaled us with his experiences of Siem Reap. As he told it, him and his friend had gotten caught by the police while doing coke in the toilets, and ended up physically fight their way out of getting arrested. Siem Reap is, of course, home to both the World Heritage temples of Angkor Wat as well as the party haven that is the Pub Street. Before leaving us, the Irishman in question remarked that there was nothing to do in Sihanoukville but to drink and party – evident from the tens of bar-club combinations on the Serendipity Beach boulevard. It is not just Cambodia that experiences this kind of rowdy behaviour from tourists. Perhaps the most notorious examples of this backpacker hedonism are the infamous Full Moon Parties. Tourists, kitted out in UV paint and neon vest tops, swarm the Haad Rin beach strip of Koh Phangan, and DJ booths litter the oceanfront. By the end of the next day, the water (which is used as a public toilet) will be filled with mounds of rubbish. Like everyone else, I had little concern for how yet another instalment of the party would affect the area. We were all there to enjoy the party after all. In the midst of it all it’s easy to forget that littering is a finable offence, and some drug offences are punishable by death, in spite of the fact that many head to the Full Moon Parties for the sole purpose of using them. In addition to this, the legal drinking age in Thailand is 20 – a fact that I was utterly unaware of until doing research for this article. I should note then that the multitude of gap year students who flock here on their year between college and university, including both Laura and I, are ‘underage’ in the eyes of the Thai law.

“Going out partying whilst travelling does not make you ignorant, just as not going out does not automatically make you more respectful towards the country you’re in.”

Blatant disregard for the Thai laws and community is perhaps better described as blind ignorance. Travellers who partake in such partying are not so much acting maliciously, but carelessly, unaware of the effect or consequences of their partying. It is not only the excessive partying of tourists that the locals find problematic, but also the way many Western tourists dress. In temperatures of up to 40°C, it is very tempting to leave that maxi skirt your mother insisted you take lying in your backpack whilst you pull on the shortest pairs of shorts you can find. Especially in the case of South East Asia, it is often easy to forget that the majority of these countries are Muslim, or at least very conservative, and a woman walking around in shorts and a tiny crop top can easily be deemed as somewhat vulgar and unseemly. Whilst larger, more cosmopolitan cities like Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, as well as beach towns, might turn a blind eye towards inappropriately dressed Westerners, many smaller provinces may find this problematic, especially if a visit to a local place of worship is on the itinerary. Women, in particular, are required to have their shoulders and knees covered. Though I do find this patriarchal attitude towards women’s clothing somewhat sexist and archaic, there is a time and a place for everything and a leisurely visit to a Muslim country is hardly the appropriate location for a display of feminism. When in Rome, as they say.

I feel as though I must state that this is obviously all very much of a generalisation – going out partying whilst travelling does not make you ignorant, just as not going out does not automatically make you more respectful towards the country you’re in. Even with the ‘lad’ culture we experienced in Thailand and Cambodia, I feel as though those who do want to go backpacking already have a desire to become acquainted with a culture on a level that is not really accessible otherwise. The party culture could very much just be a by-product of being on holiday for an extended period of time, as well as the easier access to booze and drugs. It’s not the going out while on holiday that is problematic, but the excess of it, all the while completely ignoring local laws and customs.

This kind of disregard for the local people and their environment is by no means a new phenomenon. I recall my dad bragging about how he and his friends had managed to get all Finnish tourists banned from a Swiss ski resort when they were in their early 20s. Much of this ‘anti-mindful’ travelling can be avoided by familiarising yourself with local customs and laws prior to your trip, as well as keeping in mind that even though you are visiting the country for a brief period of time, it is the home of hundreds of thousands of others, and deserves to be treated with respect. Always.