Stephen Ashton went to Thailand’s Koh Pha Ngan to party — but his trip ended in tragedy. Has this ‘paradise’ island become too dangerous?
Stephen Ashton, 22, was shot dead at a new year party in a bar in Thailand (Neil McAllister/Alamy)
Stephen Ashton spent the last night of his life in paradise. At least, it must have seemed that way. On the island of Pha Ngan in southern Thailand, he rented a beachside shack with two friends in a spot blooming with red hibiscus plants. Outside, a threadbare hammock swung under a canopy of coconut trees.
Pink’s Bungalows, hidden down a dusty track, are little more than a collection of knocked-together wooden sheds on stilts: basic one-room huts with no plumbing where geckos scamper up the walls and guests share lavatories and thin mattresses.
But at just £12 a night — and with a bar filled with ice-cold Singha beer — the simple shacks are heaven for the young backpackers who arrive on the island every year in their thousands from Britain and elsewhere.
The region is the setting for Alex Garland’s novel The Beach, which was made into a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Koh Pha Ngan is famous for its full-moon parties, which have transformed it over the past two decades from a hippy hotspot into a mecca for gap-year students desperate to experience the all-night gatherings where thousands dance on the sand until sunrise.
Pink’s near Ban Tai village on the southwest of the island, is just a short ride from Haad Rin beach — the main site of the parties. Here Ashton, 22, from Purley, south London, waited with his friends for the biggest event of the year: New Year’s Eve.
It ended in tragedy. Shortly after 4am on New Year’s Day, while Ashton danced at the Zoom bar surrounded by 300 others, an argument broke out between two groups of Thais and fighting began near the crowded bar.
One man began to walk away. He turned, pulling out a home-made gun and fired into the crowd. The bullet hit Ashton in the chest.
Chomchanook Kitirat, who works for a taxi firm, recalls seeing a group of four or five boys lifting their friend between them.
“They were carrying him. They were crying,” she said, stretching out her hands to show how Ashton’s body lay in their arms. She could not tell whether he was already dead. When he arrived at Bandon International hospital on the neighbouring island of Samui he could not be revived.
Full-moon parties began on Koh Pha Ngan in 1988 when a handful of travellers awed by the luminous yellow glow of the moon first gathered on the beach at Haad Rin.
Now full-moon parties, half-moon parties, black-moon parties, jungle parties and waterfall parties are held on the island almost every night, attracting as many as 30,000 people a time.
Websites such as fullmoonparty-thailand.com promote an “unbelievably exhilarating experience you will never forget . . . no barriers, no inhibitions”. Ferries from mainland Thailand and Koh Samui carry a stream of twentysomethings with bare brown biceps and Celtic tattoos searching for hedonistic thrills.
As the full-moon scene has morphed from a hippy mecca to attract a Magaluf-style crowd of backpackers in neon shorts dancing to trance music in T-shirts that joke “Drugs saved my life”, so warnings to tourists have increased, too.