Heaven or hell? Ashton's death casts new light on Koh Phangan
Full-moon party craze on Thai island have brought drownings, date-rapes, assaults – and now murder
BANGKOK - It's described in Thailand's tourist guides as paradise, but the 'full-moon party' island of Koh Phangan is for many unsuspecting visitors a vision of hell. Once a month, as the full moon rises over the island's seemingly idyllic Haad Rin beach, tens of thousands of revelers swarm into its waterfront bars and discotheques and dance and drink the night away.
At New Year, the numbers swell to 50,000, who literally fight for space at the beach bars, where pretty Thai girls serve up drug-spiked cocktails in small buckets. Every year, at least one young reveler dies, dozens are assaulted, date-raped or ferried to mainland hospitals with serious alcohol poisoning.
This year it was the turn of a 22-year-old British holidaymaker, Stephen Ashton, who was shot dead at the Zoom beach bar during a brawl among a group of Thai men.
Twenty-six-year-old Ekkapan Kaewkla admits he was armed but says he never intended to shoot Ashton. The Bangkok Post quotes him as saying: "My group was outnumbered so we ran outside the bar. I drew out a gun and fired a shot into the bar aimed at my rivals. But it turned out that the tourist was hit. I'm sorry for the incident that occurred and I am ready to be punished for what I have done." He was due to appear in court today, charged with murder.
Ashton's death prompted Britain's ambassador in Thailand, Mark Kent, to issue a rare personal appeal to British tourists to exercise extreme care when visiting Koh Phangan at the time of the full moon.
Ashton's death comes just one year after a 19-year-old British tourist drowned off Haad Rin beach after a heavy drinking session. Local police statistics show that several deaths since the full moon party craze began in the 1980s have occurred when revelers stagger into the surf to sober up. Others have fallen drunk from speed boats ferrying them back to neighbouring Koh Samui, another celebrated holiday island.
Drownings, murders, rapes, armed robberies, fatal road accidents and other party-related statistics fill the local police files. A party-bound bus crashed on the way to Koh Pangan last July, killing 10 people, including a British tourist.
"The local people are concerned, of course," said Khun Wattana, owner of the Crazy Monkey bar. "But the parties make a lot of money for us. They're good for the island economy."
Thailand's Tourist Authority (TAT) is worried, however, that Koh Pangan's increasing infamy could hurt the country's reputation as an otherwise safe tourist destination, and approaches are being made to provincial police authorities responsible for the security of the holiday islands to crack down harder on drug and alcohol abuse.
Police checks on roads leading to southern beaches and islands were stepped up over the Christmas and New Year period but supplies of methamphetamines and so-called "magic mushrooms" were reportedly readily available at the Koh Pangan New Year full-moon party.
"You could pop a pill for the price of a bucket of beer," said one backpacker, on his way north to the Golden Triangle, after "surviving" Koh Pangan.
Like so many Phangan party-goers, he was enticed by the glowing promise of a night to remember carried by such websites as  Fullmoonparty-Thailand.com, which promises its readers an "unbelievably exhilarating experience you will never forget… There are no barriers here, no inhibitions, just people enjoying themselves with unified interests, to enjoy the magic that is the paradise of [a] full moon party."
One Tripadvisor contributor was lost for words to describe the scene - "You have to see it to believe it." But she added a caution: "It's SO dangerous."