In Alex Garland’s seminal novel The Beach a young man search in southern Thailand for a seaside Utopia goes awry. In the Hangover Part Two a group of young men find a different kind of Thai experience. I went to Thailand looking for my own paradise idyll. I didn’t expect what I would discover.
The plane ride from NY to Bangkok was long and hard. Twenty-four hours. Three different planes. Six-in-flight showings of 21 Jump Street. Definitely not for the faint of heart. But even upon arrival there was no rest for the weary. I had to get to the train station, hop on the express, head south to Surat Thani, meet with my friend Garth who was living in Vietnam these days, and get on the ferry that would take us to Koh Samui Island and what was billed as the perfect beach.
Walking from the arrival area towards the taxis I was amazed by how different everything was from US airports. First I passed a Muslim prayer room. It made me wonder if anyone actually uses the chapel at JFK. Probably not I figured, because the notion of freedom of religion in the states means “I don’t have to pray in school”, and little else.
Next I passed an area of seats reserved for “Monks only”. It makes sense in Thailand, where all males must become monks for at least three months when they turn twenty. During this time they must visit hundreds of Temples and complete 227 tasks. It’s like a really long scavenger hunt.
Finding a taxi that would take us to the train station proved to be quite a challenge. Whenever I engaged in conversation with a taxi driver, he would smile and hand me a postcard with half a dozen naked women with ‘Taxi will take you here’ written on top. Preserving my dignity I took a bus to the train station.
I made it to the train with a half an hour to spare. This gave me time to hit the 7-11 and the pharmacy. While paying for my snacks, I thought about the things one expects to get at an institution like 7-11: hot dogs, Slurpees, microwavable burritos. I now could add fish-flavored potato chips and crab soda to that list. Oh thank heaven….
I was worried the pharmacist wouldn’t know any English and that I would have to make the trek vaccine-free. Fortunately, he knew all the necessary phrases, smiled and said, “Here’s your typhoid pill,” and “here’s your malaria pill”. Followed by “sorry sir, no syphilis pill”. Apparently he’s had many dealings with American nationals in the past.
With my body ready for almost any disease I might encounter, I stepped on the train, trading the frantic commotion of Bangkok for the serenity of the long scenic train ride. We wouldn’t arrive at Surat Thani until morning, so I was happy to learn that the seats unfolded into comfortable beds. I looked forward to the good night’s sleep that had been denied the night before on the long flight.
Five minutes into the trip, however, the funky-fish-flavored potato chips I’d eaten had caught up with me. It was then that I discovered that the trains were equipped with authentic Thai toilets, also known by the technical term “holes in the ground”. Granted they made doing the crosswords tricky, but you get used to it. I was more distressed by the lack of toilet paper and the stream of water that was their version of a bidet. Although as another passenger pointed out, “if you had crap on your arm, would you wipe it with tissue paper, or run water over it?” After pondering his query, I said I’d be more concerned with how I got it on my arm in the first place.
I became acutely aware of my interactions with the Thai train workers. I noticed I tended to change the way I spoke when talking to them. Specifically, I would talk slower and louder and remove all articles from my sentences. I found myself saying things like, “Fix bed please” and “No have toilet paper?” It hadn’t occurred to me that shouting like a caveman made me any more comprehensible — sexier maybe — but no more comprehensible.
In the morning the train pulled into the station. I got off and saw Garth waving madly for me to run and catch the bus he was outside of…the bus ride was longer than I expected — almost an hour — but singing along to the mixed tape of 90s grunge music the driver had put in made the trip go faster. The Thai and German passengers on the bus had a particular affinity to power ballads by Posion — you name it, they loved it.
We were in a giddy mood by the time we arrived at the ferry. We found ourselves talking to anyone around us. Suddenly the boat stopped. Realizing we had either arrived or were about to sink, I rejoiced when I saw land. The boat docked and my giddiness returned. We stepped onto Koh Samui Island, and I knew we’d reached our destination. One night on this side of the island and then we would reach the deserted, untouched eastern side. We would find our paradise beach.
With some time to kill for the first time since arriving in Thailand, I decided to do some souvenir shopping. More precisely I bought a ton of Playstation games for virtually nothing. Since we couldn’t walk more than a few feet without seeing a massage parlor, I broke down and decided to check one out. Now I know what you’re thinking, they have a certain reputation. But I figured what could they do that I couldn’t stop if I felt uncomfortable? Growing up in a “no means no” society left me unprepared for the experience. Upon leaving I had a sudden desire to call my mother. And, no I didn’t tell her about the massage.
I woke up at the crack of dawn excited to get to the other side of the island. After some searching I found someone willing to take us for about $12USD (or as I liked to think of it now: four Playstation games).
The drive took about an hour, and although we passed some beautiful scenery, all I could think about was THE BEACH. The mystical subject of Alex Garland’s novel; of Leonardo DiCaprio’s blockbuster. Untouched, unspoiled. No pollution, no tourists. Just miles of virgin sand and clear seas. Totally deserted except for a few hardcore adventurers willing to travel thousands of miles to enjoy paradise.
The car finally stopped, even though as we looked around we were clearly not in the right place. I showed the driver the map again and where we wanted to go. He nodded and said that we were here and demanded his $20. We stepped out of the car.
Garth and I couldn’t speak. “The Beach”, the mythical place we’d yearned for could more aptly be described as “the really cheesy tourist trap”. Fast food restaurants, cheap souvenir shops, bars with copyright-violating names like “Cheers”, “The Blues Brothers” and “The Hard Rock Café”. We didn’t know what to do until a group of super-hot French girls smiled as they passed us and head into a nearby McDonald’s.
We said little as we ate our Big Macs, until Garth made the following observation: “It’s kind of weird that even the numbers of the extra value meals are exactly the same as in the states.” I agreed. It was kind of weird.
Savas Abadsidis is Editor-in-Chief at Preferred Escapes.