LIKE A PAGE torn from Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar, our journey began on the Chumphon Express from Bangkok, a sleeper train bound for southern Thailand and the islands of the Gulf. My girlfriend needed this trip even more than I did; she was working as an English teacher in Bangkok and the heat, noise, and pollution of the city had drained her spirits and fouled her mood. Several days on a tropical island seemed like the right prescription. Once aboard the train we wasted no time in opening a bottle of local whisky – the singsong Hong Thong – and passed it back and forth as the city began to slip away. It was early evening and the traffic outside was miserable, but we were unaffected by it, gliding past on slightly raised tracks. The frenetic streets we lived with on a daily basis were magically reduced to a spectacle that we could watch with detached interest, comfortable in the knowledge that we were not a part of it.
We would be traveling some 300 miles down the Kra Isthmus, also known as “The Devil’s Neck”. Paul Theroux had taken this stretch of railway (and continued on to Malaysia). It was the monsoon season and his train had been delayed amidst flooded fields for hours, leaving him “baffled. It was a long day in the hot wet train with the sweating Thais.” Between the whisky and the air-conditioning our experience was vastly more pleasant as we headed south with visions of palm trees and white sand beaches in our heads. Ko Tao, our destination, was the smallest island of a threesome which lay off the southern Gulf coast. It was a Goldilocks scenario: Ko Samui was too developed, Ko Pha-Ngan was too frat, but little “Turtle Island” was juuuust right.
At ten oclock the porter came by and lowered our sleeping berths, which were simply larger versions of overhead luggage compartments, but with this simple change the aisle had been transformed into a movie set. Rows of curtained berths and the rhythmic sound of the track set the stage for the entrance of strange characters; serious-faced men in turbans and hippie girls draped in colorful scarves who squeezed my waist playfully as they squeezed past. I would not have been surprised if we’d entered a tunnel and heard a gunshot, accompanied by a scream.
We retired to our separate berths and pulled the curtains closed. I was happy to find that I could stretch out to my full length in the bunk, but the jerking of the train made it hard to sleep. It didn’t matter though, since I was loathe to close my eyes on what was a very pleasant and novel experience – a sleeper train. I’d first encountered this novelty in China a couple of years before, but none of the trains I’d ridden had offered the privacy of a curtain. Generally it was a hard bunk in a compartment with several other passengers (all of whom seemed to snore and have more food than I did). Funny how a simple piece of cloth could turn the experience into a romantic adventure. Inspired by these thoughts, I grew feisty and decided to pay my girlfriend a visit across the aisle. I poked my head out from behind the curtain and looked up and down the aisle. It was deserted. I slipped out of my bunk and down the ladder, then carefully pulled back the curtain of her berth, revealing her face in repose.
“Hey,” I whispered.
She didn’t respond, and I couldn’t bring myself to wake her. In sleep she was childlike and at peace. I closed the curtain and returned to my bunk. When I told her about this episode the following morning she reprimanded me harshly: “Why the hell didn’t you wake me up!”
We were woken by the porter at Chumphon. It was early morning and several people were already shouldering their packs in the aisles and disembarking the train. It was still dark and nothing seemed to be happening on the station platform. Backpackers milled about in groups, unsure of which way to go as food vendors looked on from behind stacks of sweets. It wasn’t long before an official appeared and sorted things out. He was with the ferry service and he told us to wait for the bus that would be coming along shortly to take us to the pier. He sold tickets and checked those which had been purchased in Bangkok, slapping different colored stickers on our shirts with the careless efficiency of a store clerk pricing merchandise: Ko Samui, blue sticker. Ko Pha-Ngan, black sticker. Ko Tao, yellow sticker.
The bus arrived and took us to the pier. By now the sun had risen and it was already quite hot, but there was a large communal area which was shaded by a canvas roof and furnished with deck chairs – an open air waiting room for would-be castaways – where the backpackers gratefully collapsed and went back to sleep.
There were several islands visible just offshore, like stepping stones to the horizon. We were waiting to be taken out there, somewhere beautiful and remote. But for me it wasn’t a desire to turn my back on the world. I wasn’t searching for The Beach of Alex Garland’s imagining. I could identify much more easily with another Alex – Alex Sheshunoff – who wrote “Stranger in Paradise”, a short story about his visit to a small Pacific island where he briefly contemplates whether or not to stay. He decides against it because “for seventeen days I hadn’t sat in a chair. That, I realized, was what I missed most: chairs.” For me, it was knowing that this was to be a finite arrangement, this trip to paradise, that made it paradisal.
The ferry arrived – actually a high-speed catamaran – which we reached by walking out about a hundred yards on a very flimsy wooden pier that was missing planks and, quite often, nails. Ko Tao was the first stop on this voyage, which we would reach in about two hours. Sitting on the deck, enjoying the cool breeze as the ferry churned away from the mainland, we quickly passed the nearer islands and were soon staring out at open water: the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea, and beyond that, the vast Pacific.
The ferry slowed and turned into the pier at Mae Haad village, a colorful assortment of beach shacks, bungalows, dive shops, and bars with a backdrop of palm trees and lush, green hills. The pier was crowded with all manner of watercraft as well, painted in various hues and giving the scene a postcard quality. It was all on a very human scale: no large, imposing structures. Nothing impressive or oppressive. Just a smattering of useful shops and the promise of laid-back leisure.
Once ashore we called the resort where we’d reserved a bargain bungalow, costing us less than seven dollars apiece. They said they’d send a water taxi, and presently a longtail boat pulled up to the pier and we were ushered aboard. The craft resembled a Venetian canal boat with an ugly motor attached to the stern from which a long shaft extended, at the end of which was a propeller. Our driver swung the shaft past my head and plunged the spinning blade into the water, churning it to foam and turning us toward the bay.
My girlfriend raised an eyebrow. “Did that make you nervous?” she asked.
We sped along the coast, going south past beautiful coves and Condé Nast scenes of sun worshippers on deck chairs and hammocks. These were the more upmarket retreats, and I awaited the tumbledown shacks of our own “resort” with a certain degree of resignation. As we passed a rocky headland I spotted another of these coves, tucked along the coast with a beautiful half-moon curve of white sand, bungalows and palm trees. To my surprise, we pulled in and landed.
“This is ours?” I said, unable to contain my surprise.
My girlfriend hopped off the boat, laughing, and I realized that it was a sound I hadn’t heard much lately. It is a testament to the power of such places – the appeal of the island getaway as the ultimate destination that we see in everything from cult novels to Corona commercials – that her transformation was so immediate and complete.
Our bungalow was a simple affair, as bungalows should be, with mosquito netting over the bed and a porch with a hammock. We quickly settled in and headed for the beach. The water, not quite as warm as I’d hoped, was still a tonic. I swam around the cove, disturbing green-shelled crabs that hurriedly scuttled away from me, and thought of tsunamis. It was, perhaps, the wrong image for such an idyllic setting, but there you have it. It was the fifth anniversary of the 2004 earthquake that struck off the western coast of Indonesia and caused the tsunami which killed more than a quarter of a million people. Like the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883, also in Indonesia, the initial geologic event caused few deaths and little damage. It was the tsunamis that resulted from these events which caused the true devastation. The one image that stayed in my mind from the 2004 earthquake, more than any other, was of the lone figure standing transfixed on the beach as the wave rolled towards him. He did not move. He watched the approaching violence with seeming equanimity, and was engulfed by it. I have no idea what was going through his mind, but I imagine that what he saw – and accepted – was a vision of Kali and her thugs striding towards him in a roar of triumph which left him paralyzed. Running from such a force would have been comical, but seeing this man face his doom without flinching was inspiring in the most disturbing sense.
These disquieting images were quickly dispatched as I lazily swung in my hammock back at the bungalow. In all honesty, these musings were little more than affectations of peril, tantamount to the artificial dangers of a carnival ride. While the threat of tsunamis was real, and governments had taken steps to provide a modicum of warning, such as the signs that directed people to seek high ground in case of an alert, these warnings served a far more superfluous purpose; to give vacationers such as myself a titillating sense of danger. And this was necessary because there is nothing more superfluous than a beach holiday.
It was the last night of the year, and a full moon, which meant the non-natives would be restless. But most people were heading to Ko Pha-Ngan for the monthly Full Moon Party, which can draw as many as 30,000 revelers in the high season (which it was). Instead, we watched the sunset from a ramshackle bar that was perched unsteadily on stilts at the shore. We grabbed our beers from the cooler as the owner, a rail-thin local, squatted in a corner in a limp muscle shirt. I watched as he hunched over his task, tearing leaves and chopping them into a small pile, then rolling them into cigarettes. He looked up and smiled.
“You want?” he asked.
I glanced at my girlfriend and she gave a nod, so the man brought over a long, expertly rolled spliff, charging us 100 baht; about three dollars. We both looked around before reaching into our pockets. The man smiled again.
“It’s OK. No police here.”
He said it was locally grown, and even offered to show us his field. I thanked him, but demurred. It’s never really struck me as a good idea to know the location of a pot grower’s field, even if it is upon an invitation.
The moon rose and we went back to our bungalow to get high, something I hadn’t done in years, but the sensation was familiar and I soon decided that a moonlight swim was in order. We donned our suits and strolled down to the beach. The effect of moonlight on the ocean, especially the turquoise water of the tropics, was already hallucinatory, so this promised to be quite an experience. As we stepped into the water my ears picked up the sound of crabs scuttling over rocks in the cove. It was low tide and we had to wade out to the far end of the cove in order to reach deeper water. We avoided stepping on the coral, following instead the winding path of sand that shone in the moonlight. When there was no more sand we swam until another patch revealed itself. Soon we were standing in chest-high water, exchanging salty kisses while the current moved us gently back and forth. Some thirty miles away the beaches of Ko Pha-Ngan were being pounded by thousands of dancing feet, people were smearing themselves with florescent paint and shouting to be heard above the din of techno music as enormous amounts of alcohol were moving north and south through their bodies. Meanwhile, in a small cove on Ko Tao, the New Year arrived as unobtrusively as a warm ocean breeze.
Another bonus to the island of Ko Tao was its manageable size. We were able to sign up for a snorkeling tour the following day which circumnavigated the entire island in a lazy boat and included a visit to nearby Nuanyuan Island: an impossibly beautiful trio of pocked-sized paradises that were linked, barely, by a sand bar. The new year was off to a good start.
Back on Ko Tao, at the main village of Mae Haad, we wandered the sand-sprinkled streets in search of a cold beer. To the dismay of my vegetarian girlfriend I bought a chunk of fried chicken from a street vendor and happily tore into the tender meat tucked beneath its crisp exterior. She was upset because it smelled good enough to tempt her from the True Path. There was help though, in the form of a poster nailed to a palm tree. It was a quasi-Buddhist encouragement to forswear the pleasures of the flesh. Penned by a certain Mr. J, a local who also rented bungalows, the text was entitled “More sex = More problem”, and according to its peculiar doctrine the act of lovemaking was a game of diminishing returns. “Polite” sex would be rewarded with the birth of a son. “Romantic” sex would only get you a daughter. And “sexy” sex would land you with a ladyboy. It got worse. “Free” sex meant that you would reincarnate as a poor dog, and god help you if you had to pay for sex because then you would return as a black rat or even a cockroach, and all you could look forward to was “bad food in sewer”. Luckily, this fate could be avoided simply by eating a vegetarian meal and getting a good night’s sleep.
Such examples fed my belief that islands are not conducive to deep thought. To the contrary, their limited space seems to contract the mind as well. There are innumerable examples of people who have gone mad living on islands, in real life as well as in allegory. The former are adequately illustrated by the pirate practice of giving a marooned man a pistol so that he could commit suicide when he reached the point of insanity. The latter include such exemplars as Lord of the Flies by William Golding and Alex Garland’s The Beach. Islands, after all, have their dark side – cannibalism, volcanoes, typhoons – and have been favored in the past as penal colonies, with places like Devil’s Island, Alcatraz, Australia, and even Ko Tao serving this function (which is ironic when you consider that islands live in our imagination because they represent the ultimate escape). But at some level we all recognize this as false. You can’t just shunt off to an island in this day and age and expect to happily disappear from the world. Perhaps that is why all of these escapades, endlessly catalogued, end so badly. Herman Melville was the most eloquent observer of this dark side and exemplified it not in his South Seas adventure stories such as Typee or Omoo but in the character of Pip, who went overboard in Moby Dick and, seul au monde, lost his mind when he experienced the awful lonesomeness of the sea. The others aboard the ship turned their backs on him (except for Ahab, who recognized that he had joined the ranks of the inspired and understood, like the jihadist suicide bombers of today, that “man’s insanity is heaven’s sense”).
On the morning of our departure we hauled our bags to the beach, reduced now from castaways to outcasts as we weaved past restful bodies in hammocks and languid souls in sun loungers. The French have an expression that goes something like this: You should always leave the table a little hungry. This thought gave me comfort as I stepped into the longtail boat for Mae Haad and the mainland ferry. After all, Paul Theroux continued his train voyage to the end of the line in Singapore. What he found there, on that island at the southern tip of the Devil’s Neck, was a marooned gang of expatriates who were “like me – like everyone I knew in Singapore” just waiting for their chance to escape.