“As we stepped onto the beach, it was hard not to feel blown away,” recalls Lisa Bagnicki, 25, from Glasgow. “I was in a group of five about to join 30,000 other travellers at the Full Moon Party in Thailand – the biggest beach party in the world. People were jumping through hoops of fire, dancing on the sand, and the palm-fringed beach was an idyllic backdrop.

“Everyone was buzzing as we hit the bar to buy a few ‘buckets’ each – actual sandcastle buckets filled with vodka or whisky and energy drinks, with loads of straws to share them. You don’t see the people pouring them, but I didn’t care – everyone was drinking them. Just half an hour later though, I felt like my body was shutting down. My limbs went limp and I was being sick repeatedly. That’s when my memory and my night ended.”

Lisa woke up the next morning in her hotel room with no memory of what had happened, but feeling like she had the worst hangover of her life. “When I came round, I was in a complete panic. Luckily, my friend Steph was anxiously watching over me. She told me how I’d gone from lucid to a rag doll within minutes. When she’d tried to talk to me I was completely unresponsive and had then begun vomiting, still unable to speak. Luckily my friends carried me back to the hotel and watched to make sure I didn’t choke on my own

“We realised I must have been drugged, as I know my limits with alcohol. I lay there feeling terrified, violated and angry. Later, I thought about reporting the incident, but other travellers we talked to said that it was so common, and because nothing had happened to me, there’d be no point. I was shocked by how blasé everyone was about it.”

While Lisa had a seemingly lucky escape, she’d glimpsed a much darker underbelly of the ever-growing Full Moon Parties. Held once a month at Haad Rin beach on the Thai island of Koh Phangan, they attract up to 30,000 young travellers. But back in January 2013, the parties hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Stephen Ashton, a 22-year-old British tourist, was dancing on the beach with friends at the New Year Full Moon Party when he was killed by a stray bullet fired during a battle between two local gangs.

Although police and tourism officials were quick to emphasise that Stephen had just beeen in the wrong place at the wrong time, what emerged concerning the parties was a much darker picture. And it didn’t take long for others to start coming forward with their own stories. Nathan Sharpe, 23, from Leeds told how he almost died in the same spot as Stephen after an unprovoked stabbing tore through his stomach, liver and kidneys before grazing his spine.

And now, Hannah Witheridge and David Miller are the latest tragic victims of this darker side of Thailand beach parties.

Nowhere to turn

Over four months in 2012 alone, there were, according to official figures, one stabbing, three rapes and a shooting involving British tourists at Full Moon Parties. When Cosmo investigated, it became clear that these figures weren’t conveying the true picture. Websites, travelling forums and newspaper reports are awash with disturbing stories from young travellers of theft, violence and sexual assault.

Film-maker Gavin Hill produced a documentary series in 2009, Big Trouble In Tourist Thailand. He attended numerous Full Moon Parties for research and was given permission to trail the British Honorary Consul.

“The morning after one of the parties, the phone rang off the hook at the British Consulate,” he recalls. “So I filmed the Consul as he visited one of the hospitals the following afternoon, and the first question he asked was, ‘How many rapes have we had today?’ Even as a film-maker I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. People see these hedonistic party images on websites and brochures, and often have no idea of the dangers that lurk behind them.”

Two main factors are blurring the truth: many crimes are not reported by victims – who often leave the island immediately – and alleged police corruption means crimes that are reported may be dismissed or half-heartedly investigated.

How many rapes have we had today?

 

Journalist and broadcaster Andrew Drummond, who lives in Thailand, has investigated numerous Full Moon Parties. “Some things aren’t reported at all,” he says, “but when you live here you hear about incidents all the time – road accidents, drownings, rapes, thefts… The Thai people know what’s going on but won’t say anything bad about their own country.”

Highs and lows

During our investigation, it became apparent the incidences of drink spiking are far higher than official figures suggest, and could amount to hundreds of cases every month.

The spiking most commonly involves tranquillisers or Rohypnol, which are added to the buckets of alcohol sold on the beach. The ‘spikers’ – whether working for the bar or connected to gangs – watch and wait for victims to fall asleep or pass out. Then they’ll pretend they’re helping them out when really they’re picking their pockets.

Andrew recalls watching from the sidelines of one party: “I saw what looked like organised Thai gangs who openly stood around surveying the revellers, working out who looked most vulnerable.”

Within 20 minutes of swallowing a spiked bucket, victims may experience a ‘high’, then weaken or become unconscious. In the midst of the dark, heaving beach it’s easy for groups to become fragmented, and the drugs often result in complete memory loss. An Australian TV news station recently trailed patients at a Bangkok Hospital and discovered that nearly all the female admissions after the Full Moon Party were the result of rape.

Alongside debilitating drugs, spiking is becoming increasingly common with methamphetamine drugs such as ‘yaba’, which make people want to dance, and thus drink more, meaning bar owners increase their profits.

“Although there’s a heavy police presence on the beach, some officers are there primarily to arrest tourists buying drugs so they can demand high payoffs instead of prosecuting,” explains Gavin. “On top of that, those who choose to take drugs are at risk too. Magic mushrooms have become synonymous with the island; there’s now a clinic on the mainland where people can check in when they’re unable to come down from their trip because the drugs are so strong.”

One of the main reasons Gavin chose to make his documentary was the death of one of his friend’s daughters, who was killed on a railway track the morning after a Full Moon Party. “No one’s totally sure, but she was hit by a train and afterwards there were notes found along the track that implied she was on some sort of drug at the time. We never got to the bottom of it and don’t know why she was there, but somehow we think her death was connected to the party she’d been at.”

It’s impossible to know how widespread a problem drink-spiking is, let alone how many cases end in sexual assault, due to the large number of incidents that go unreported. Consular spokesperson for India and South East Asia, Jonathan Farr, says that while the Foreign Office provides consular assistance to hundreds of Brits who are in trouble, there’s little they can do to actually influence Thai authorities.

Essentially, travellers there are in a foreign country with its own jurisdiction, rules and regulations. “What we would urge everyone travelling to Thailand to do is read our safety guidelines,” says Jonathan. “There’s advice on what to do before you travel, how you should behave while you’re there and what to do if you do get into trouble.”

Read the entire story here.