30 June 2009

Now I get "The Beach....."

Every backpacker wants to be the first to set foot on an island, in a medieval village, in a former communist stronghold – anywhere. We want to be able to tell you “Oh yeah. Minsk? I was there 8 years ago, y'know – before it got popular.” The more dire the conditions the more we wanna be there – we're willing to endure the primitive guesthouses and limited restaurant choice for the sheer glee of being there first, before your Grandma goes on a coach tour of it and your 18 year old Aussie cousin finds a way to debauch it. Backpackers are a greedy and jealous bunch.

And that is precisely what Alex Garland's cult classic “The Beach” is all about. A maudlin group of fed- up backpackers desperate to escape the Banana Pancake Trail1 and experience something real set up a camp on an uninhabited, unspoiled Southern Thai island and become very territorial when it is threatened. The desire and need to be a part of something untouched – to visit a place that no one has traveled proves to be a powerful thing – ultimately even a reason to kill.

And it is after a long foray into a less crowded traveling experience that we find ourselves in Southern Thailand, looking for that elusive perfect swath of sand. Along with the grandmothers and your 18 year old cousin. It is beautiful – stunning at times, and I am not willing to miss it on account of the crowds. It is low season, and we were able to find a deserted beach quite easily. But in order to see all of the amazing things nearby, we do run into the crowds. Often.

Today S and I booked a day tour to Phi Phi Leh, the island that was the set of film adaptation of “The Beach”. It is a craggy jutting rock that pokes out of the ocean covered in streaky rust and leafy trees, prehistoric in its untouched nature. Before Leo filmed 'the movie' (as it is known here) the hidden secret of Phi Phi Leh was only known to a few intrepid travelers and local fishermen – behind the rock walls and sheltered on all sides is a nearly circular bay with a pure white beach. Getting there requires a treacherous walk up a dodgy ladder while trying to avoid being crushed against the rocks every time the tide surges forward, and after half an hour of great snorkeling we decided to head over the barrier to the bay.

Ko Phi Phi Leh

Unfortunately at that moment dozens of board-shorted and string-bikined frat kids arrived, bee lining for the ladder and walking all over the coral reef in their attempts. Boobs threatened to burst forth from their tiny triangle holdings and dudes “whoa-ed” and high fived their way along the rope guides. The cacophony of British slang and vapid laughter followed us until we reached a cluster of tents in the trees. These were the evidence of the nightly “Maya Bay Camping Trip – Free Bucket2 Included!” organized in the youth oriented tourist land of Phi Phi town and sold at an exorbitant rate. Here the marble mouthed teens paused in a reverent hush, recognizing the sanctity of the hangovers of those within.

Surrounded by Nemos!

A loud American family came next, part of a charter package tour and shouting “Lynn. Lynn! Lotsa Photos – Lynn! Take lotsa pics baby doll! Lynn. Lynn!” their voices growing louder until Maya Bay was upon us. Despite the tacky tourists the view was amazing, well worth enduring the Brits faffing about in the water and the Americans snapping a photo album's worth of family snaps (Lynn!)

Once we made our way back to the boat our driver pulled around for one more snorkeling opportunity, this time on the opposite side of the island in a smaller bay. The coral and fish life were amazing – moray eels, clown and angel fish, 20 legged hairy purple starfish. I was pleasantly enjoying the cracking clicky underwater reef sounds when suddenly, over top of the gentle reef noises I could hear more British teenagers. This time it was a whole tour group of them, squealing and splashing away. More and more boats pulled up – some filled with excited snorkelers and others just filled with dozens of Japanese tourists with cameras snapping away hungrily. (I'm sure that many of those photos include my bum as I floated past....) We left Phi Phi Leh right as 3 huge yachts filled with hundreds of people were approaching – daytrippers all the way from Phuket eager to see but not experience anything.

What was extremely ironic about the whole experience is that The Beach, both the movie and the book, is about escaping exactly these people – these tacky shouting party animals and severe humourless upper middle class - all with no concept that they are the reason true backpackers move on from a place. Yet here were dozens, if not hundreds, of package tourists, trust fund babies and drunken frat guys ogling the stretch of pure sand so famous for its testament against them. It was kind of poetic.

I always need to remind myself that even though these people may be completely clueless and disregard Thai culture, disrespect nature and generally act like boors – they do not make the water any less blue. They do not make the snorkeling any less amazing or the beer any less icy afterward. They don't even succeed in ruining my vacation. They just irritate it. But sometimes the youngest ones grow up to be really good travelers after they realize that rather than memories of a rich cultural experience, their first trip to Thailand left them only with a hangover, a drained chequing account, 40 new facebook friends and the clap.

And what, you may ask, makes me so much better? Just ask Alex Garland. I believe he wrote about my kind in a book you may have read. :)

1.A term coined to describe the predictable circuit that backpackers make through Southeast Asia, named for the most common of all backpacker fare.

2.Buckets are a Thailand phenomena that has spread throughout Southeast Asia. Originally a mix of Sangsom whiskey, Redbull, coke and ice served in a child's sand pail, now you can get all manner or liquor and mixer combo.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

When I read your blog it makes me LMAO! weeee hooooo!

Next time I travel I want to travel with you- I instinctively stay away from 5 star, shiny marble
hotels- and always prefer something a bit more colorful.

I have a friend who is married to a lady from Thailand...they go there several times a year- I've heard many stories but have never been there- hopefully I'll get there someday soon! Cheers!