Step 1: Choose your beach.
I was roughly 200 meters offshore, stark naked in the moonlight, when I realized we’d made a mistake.
The water had stayed a constant 1.5 feet deep the entire walk out, just enough to put a high-kneed stutter in my step, and in the darkness I was terrified of tripping on the jagged rock and coral. Being naked in the ocean has an irritating side effect of making you very aware of all the sharp edges in your proximity and all the ways they might find their way to your groin. I gritted my teeth and trudged along, stepping with pained confidence on the rocks that ripped apart my feet. Better than the alternative. And I wasn’t going to be the first person to give up.
From behind me: “I don’t think this is the beach I was talking about!” Oh thank God.
There were six of us out there, scattered at various distances from the shore. Our naked bodies were practically translucent under the full moon, and from where I stood furthest out the others looked like little chess pieces, pulling off an entirely unorganized assault against the black silhouettes of boats and islands offshore. It was Jane, the closest to me, who had spoken up. She was the second person I’d convinced to come and easily the most excited. When I told her about my plan to go skinny dipping, she instantly piped in: “I know the best beach for it!”
In a quiet town like El Nido, you have to pick your dip carefully. Too far away from town and you risk winding up in wild territory. Where sea urchins and stonefish go to pick their teeth on nighttime swimmers never seen again. Too close, and the jig is up. You’re caught before your clothes are off. The countries surrounding the South China Sea are full of backpackers trying to make a memory, but the locals are ultimately still the ones that decide what flies. The happy medium, then, is the sandy stretch on the other side of the point, hidden from the lights of town but still radiant with that tourist allure. People are moths: Take away the sun and the gas lamps and they avoid the place like the plague. An unlit beach past sundown, even a world-class one, will be empty.
At 150 meters out, I stepped on a sea urchin, dropping with a yelp.
That night, deep in the throes of rum and nude adrenaline, we overshot it. Urchin territory. But the enthusiasm with which we’d ripped off our clothes was still fresh like a pheromone in the warm night air, and nobody wanted to admit defeat just yet. There was a moment of silent contemplation, watching the moon’s reflections on the shallow surface mask the dark floor below. Daring each other to turn back. After a minute, I started another forward march.
“Wait. This is stupid,” came the call from the back. I win.
I was 250 meters out at this point, and when I turned I saw the others already making the slow maneuver back to shore, taking large exaggerated steps across the coral like cartoon characters sneaking up on each other. At 150 meters out, I stepped on a sea urchin, dropping with a yelp. Desperate to keep my vulnerables from the water and rocks, I landed in an arched yoga pose, watching as blood began to seep from three of my four appendages. By the time I limped up to the deceptively sandy shore, the others were already dressed and picking bits of marine life out of their toes.
“Well that was awesome,” one of them said.
Lesson learned: Pulling rocks out of your feet ain’t fun. The South China Sea’s terrain changes every 20 feet and when you’re drunk in the dark, hitting the right beach can be a bit like playing darts on a roulette board. So make sure you know where you’re going…or at least let somebody else lead the way.
Step 2: Have some situational awareness.
The Full Moon Party on Koh Phangan is decadent and depraved. We know this. It’s one of the defining aspects of many backpacking tours across Southeast Asia, the final stop that brings any cultural karma you’ve accumulated over the past few months back down to zero. Traveling is the real world equivalent of the internet — it offers complete anonymity and zero accountability. At the Full Moon Party, just like on the internet, people turn into jackasses.
Before I left, a friend told me never to go in the water after midnight. I laughed at the concept of Full Moon Mogwai rules, but the look in his eye was serious. And once I got there, I understood why. The beach itself during Full Moon is an obstacle training course for some kind of fucked up Seal Team 6 mission. Spinning balls of fire from all directions, strobing lights that blind and disorient, inebriated monsters teetering at the fork between starting a fight or a breakdance competition. It takes a fair amount of sobriety just to keep a bridle on the sensory overload. Sobriety that, frankly, isn’t really possible. But all of that’s nothing compared to the water.
It caught my attention right around midnight.
The normally calm ocean was roiling with what looked like a feeding frenzy. Dark silhouettes of limbs and torsos falling and splashing over each other. I had bought a green laser earlier, one of those prism toys that casts a dot matrix on whatever it’s pointed towards, so I pointed it towards the action, creating a sort of computer modeling map of green spots along the water. I could see what was happening now. Skinny dippers. Dozens of them.
The South China Sea is an exotic place — human fecal matter could very well be the most benign thing you see.
They obviously hadn’t come together, and they certainly didn’t give a shit what the others were doing. But there were just so many of them. The chaos on the beach was entertaining; the pandemonium in the water was reaching frightening levels. If traveling offers a level of anonymity, then adding darkness and murky water turns everybody into the Joker. Discarded clothes were strewn about the shoreline in bundles.
Right in front, shallow enough to sit with their heads above the water, was a couple having sex. Nobody paid them mind, and they were far from the only ones having sex in that water. What drew my attention was the odd texture in the water near them. Something that didn’t match the smooth glass of the waves – lumpy, bobbing, heading straight towards the couple. A human turd.
Now, nobody can blame them for not being more attentive. The Full Moon Party numbs the senses enough as it is without having to focus on pleasing your partner in choppy surf. But had they paid attention, they might have seen the feces approaching. They might have been able to get out of the way before it bumped ever-so-gently into the woman’s gyrating chest. She might not have screamed and lurched backwards, accidentally doing something unspeakable to her partner’s underwater unmentionables, thus causing him to lurch forward, throwing his face into the pile. All of that could have been avoided.
I wish I knew what happened after that, but by then I was laughing too hard to keep my eyes open.
Lesson learned: Getting caught up in the moment is a major cause of skinny dipping in the first place. But even if you’re somewhere calmer than Koh Phangan, it’s a good idea to watch out for trouble from other people or wildlife. The South China Sea is an exotic place — human fecal matter could very well be the most benign thing you see.
Step 3: Don’t get caught.
I got lucky. I ended the night clothesless, drunk, confused, and embarrassed, but out of trouble. Three months later, there have been no more consequences, so maybe I’m still getting lucky. The picture is yet to surface.
In Manila, somebody sold Boracay to me as “the Philippines’ Thai islands.” An idyllic backpacker retreat lousy with beachside bars and like-minded fools. After three weeks of work and getting cultural by myself — that is, eating nothing more than pancit canton and balut — I was itching for the chance to switch off my higher forms of consciousness for a few days. But as it turns out, that hedonistic image was disingenuous. The bars appeared as promised, but the crowd consisted largely of families — hardly the types that appreciate the antics that await one toke over the line.
The chaos, however, still existed. It was merely hidden below a layer of propriety and social awareness, and by 11pm the façade was showing its cracks. After the hordes of innocents retreated to their rooms, the few backpackers in the area were magnetically drawn to each other to create a mob scene at one of the few bars still open — a degenerate little hole offering a “15 shot challenge,” which, on our honor, we were required to complete.
As we made our way onto the shore, covering our shame with hands and down-turned faces, a group gathered to watch our march.
How we ended up in the water isn’t important (though I couldn’t say even if it was). Regardless, the next thing I knew, I was nude with roughly 15 other people, dancing and splashing about. The diamond-white sand of White Beach had an eerie iridescence to it, casting shimmering blue lines of refracted moonlight into the saran-wrap water. Illumination from below. Our noise was covered by an apocalyptic thunderstorm crashing just offshore, sending blue bolts deep into the sea, and thus it was here we should have ended our night. A logical person would have. But the minuscule shades of our conscience were slumped on our shoulders with a rum bottle in hand. My inebriated angel leaned in to whisper “not quite yet,” before burping and falling down with a splash.
As the storm drifted towards the shore, the thunder awoke some of the sleeping families who subsequently came outside to watch the light show in the distance. Their children were not so easily entertained. As we rollicked in our immaturity offshore, the boys of the beach rollicked in their own — finding assorted clothes on the sand, and stealing them. I turned towards the shore just in time to see the flapping legs of our trousers disappearing around a corner.
By this time the beach was hardly deserted, and as we made our way onto the shore, covering our shame with hands and down-turned faces, a group gathered to watch our march. From the mixture of other drunk adults and families, the reaction to our hardly hidden bodies varied between drunken jeering and pure, lip-curling disdain. The excited ones laughed heartily, clapping and running up to shake our hands.
One of them pulled a camera from his pocket. Click. A lineup photo of 15 future politicians’ finished careers. A yearbook portrait for the skinny dipper society. In the flash, we scattered into the relative safety of tree shadows. My angel on my shoulder, sobered by the shock, leaned in once again to whisper as he bounced along to my strides.
“Don’t do that again.”
Lesson learned: I won’t dissuade anybody from skinny dipping. It’s fun. But to witnesses, it straddles a certain line between harmless fun and cultural contempt. In the countries bordering the South China Sea, the reaction can change in seconds. It’s better for everybody to leave no witnesses in the first place.