Reading Alex Garland’s The Beach on the Gulf of Thailand
Many years ago while traveling in Europe, I picked up, at Shakespeare and Co in Paris, a second-hand copy of Tender is the Night by F Scott Fitzgerald, whom I was in the process of discovering at that time. I didn’t know a lot about the book before I bought it; only that it took him ten years to write it and that it was about how his wife went crazy.
The next stop after Paris was Nice, and, after unpacking, I took the book down to the beach. I sat on a bench looking out at the French Riviera, opened the book, and with no expectation of what I was about to read, read this:
On the pleasant shore of the French Riviera, about half way between Marseilles and the Italian border, stands a large, proud, rose-colored hotel. Deferential palms cool its flushed façade, and before it stretches a short dazzling beach. Lately it has become a summer resort of notable and fashionable people; a decade ago it was almost deserted after its English clientele went north in April. Now, many bungalows cluster near it, but when this story begins only the cupolas of a dozen old villas rotted like water lilies among the massed pines between Gausse’s Hôtel des Étrangers and Cannes, five miles away.
The hotel and its bright tan prayer rug of a beach were one. In the early morning the distant image of Cannes, the pink and cream of old fortifications, the purple Alp that bounded Italy, were cast across the water and lay quavering in the ripples and rings sent up by sea-plants through the clear shallows. Before eight a man came down to the beach in a blue bathrobe and with much preliminary application to his person of the chilly water, and much grunting and loud breathing, floundered a minute in the sea. When he had gone, beach and bay were quiet for an hour. Merchantmen crawled westward on the horizon; bus boys shouted in the hotel court; the dew dried upon the pines. In another hour the horns of motors began to blow down from the winding road along the low range of the Maures, which separates the littoral from true Provençal France.
I looked up from the book, and I was looking at the scene Fitzgerald described, almost 100 years on. It was like I could see the history beneath the surface of what I was seeing. I could see the light and the color of that beautiful passage. It was an unplanned, serendipitous moment, and I felt a frisson. It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had traveling, and like most of the best travel experiences, its unplanned nature was part of what made it good. It somehow felt more authentic because of that.
Since then, whenever I’ve traveled, I’ve always sought to replicate that experience by reading something associated with the place I am visiting. It’s never been quite the same, of course, because it’s intentional. But whatever I read does tend to inform and color my thinking about where I am. I think it’s a good habit.
During my summer vacation I went to Sihanoukville, on the southern coast of Cambodia in the Gulf of Thailand. I wasn’t sure what to read in search of that experience. There are a few famous books about Cambodia, but many of them deal with the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot, and the fall of Pnohm Penh, and I wasn’t so interested in reading about that.
Eventually it occurred to me that I could re-read The Beach, by Alex Garland. I hadn’t thought of it immediately because it is set in Thailand, not Cambodia. But it is set on the islands and beaches of the Gulf of Thailand; it was I realized the same landscape, if not the same country.
And it did work, as it always does. It made me think about what I was seeing in a different way. Eventually it caused me to change my plans, extend my vacation, and go looking for my equivalent of Alex Garland’s beach.
But that was later.
Pattaya was a hell-hole. Chiang Mai was rainy and cold. Ko Samui was hot and beautiful. Ko Samui was where she had stayed with her boyfriend for five months doing strange things she was both reluctant and keen to talk about.
A-levels out of the way, my friends and I scattered ourselves around the globe. The next August we started coming back, and I learnt that my babysitter’s paradise was yesterday’s news. Ko Pha-Ngan, the next island along, was Thailand’s new Mecca.
A few years later, as I checked my passport and confirmed my flight to Bangkok, a friend telephoned with advice. “Give Ko Pha-Ngan a miss, Rich,” she said. “Hat Rin’s a long way past its sell-by date. They sell printed flyers for the full-moon parties. Ko Tao. That’s where it’s at.”
– Alex Garland, The Beach
These days, Alex Garland is best known as a successful Hollywood writer (28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go) and, lately, director (Ex Machina) and he doesn’t write novels any more. But when he was 25 he wrote a book called The Beach, which was, during a time in the nineties, as likely to be found in the backpacks of 20-something travelers as Lonely Planet. It was made into a really terrible Leonardo DiCaprio movie which kept everything it should have changed, and changed everything it should have kept and which made a lot of headlines for ironically trashing and touristifying a beach in a Thai marine park.
It’s an imperfect book. The plot is episodic; it sometimes feels like Garland is casting around for what might happen next (“I don’t know… a shark attack?”). Like many books written by people in their twenties, it strives a little desperately to convince you of its own coolness. The denouement feels contrived. Despite these flaws, it’s tremendously fun and readable. And its drive comes from an interesting idea I’ve never seen tackled elsewhere: it’s about the desire to be a traveler, to have authentic experiences, to not be a tourist. It’s an idea with plenty of issues, which I’ll get to – most glaringly, it’s an almost perfect illustration of what these days is referred to as “first world problems”. But it’s a feeling that almost everyone who has loaded up a backpack and headed off to travel in their youth can associate with.
The novel is narrated by Richard. When we meet him he is being dropped off at a hostel on the Khao San Road in Bangkok, for what (it is clear) is not his first time traveling in South-East Asia. At the hostel he meets a Scottish traveler who tells him of a legendary beach: a secret place beyond where other backpackers go. Later, the Scottish traveler spectacularly kills himself, but not before leaving Richard a map to the legendary beach, which Richard, and some other backpackers he meets, decides to seek out. The remainder of the novel is their journey to the beach and the adventures that happen to them there as paradise is, somewhat predictably, lost. That will do for a plot summary; I hate writing plot summaries.
Richard and his friends’ motivation – the dilemma of every backpacker – is spelled out a number of times throughout the book: a traveler wants to have “authentic” experiences, see things nobody else has ever seen. This is what distinguishes you from a tourist, who merely goes to hotels and sees the sights. But it’s an almost impossible pursuit: travelling around with the same Lonely Planet as all the other backpackers, all you ever find is other tourists, doing exactly the same things in the same places.
Most of all, I could pick up the scent of decay. It hung over Hat Rin like the sandflies that hung over the sunbathers, zoning in on the smell of sweat and sweet tanning lotion. The serious travelers had already moved on to the next island in the chain, the intermediate travelers were wondering where all the life had gone, and the tourist hordes were ready to descend on their freshly beaten track.
– Alex Garland, The Beach
I can associate with Richard’s feelings on this. Look, there is a place I have returned to again and again in my travels, although I’ve never wanted to go there and would be happy to never see it again. I call it Tourist Town, the World.
You can find versions of this place, as the name implies, in almost any tourist city in the world. Book into any hostel that promises to be “at the heart of the action” and you’re likely to find yourself surrounded by it. Whatever the original attractions of a place might be, once the tourist dollars arrive, it turns into something exactly the same as everywhere else: a center of hedonistic and banal attractions. And while you can find versions of Tourist Town almost anywhere, it flowers most spectacularly in South-East Asia.
Pizza restaurants. Mexican restaurants. Money exchange places. Hotel restaurants selling mixes of Western and local foods. Hostels. Pubs with cheap beers and cocktails. “Expensive” bars with the same cheap beers and cocktails at higher prices. Counterfeit watch and sunglasses sellers. Cheap t-shirts with a mix of locally themed and vulgar motifs. Strippers. Prostitutes. Weed guys. Tour buses. Calling cards. Doctor Fish.
Fucking Doctor Fish! For me they epitomise everything wrong with Tourist Town. You see a bunch of tourists in a row in the window of some bar: tank tops and tan lines; unshaved; sun-streaked greasy hair; drinking oversized colourful cocktails with their legs in a fish tank, “doctor fish” biting away at the dead skin of their feet. These tourists are so pleased with themselves! They’re having an “experience”, and it only cost three bucks!
Forget that having fish eat the dead skin off your feet has no known health benefits, and might actually be dangerous and unsanitary – what really irks me is this: do you know where doctor fish come from? Take a moment to think about it – where exactly in the world is this a traditional native practice? Got your answer…?
If you said, “Turkey and parts of the middle-east”, congratulations, you’re correct. Doctor fish have nothing to do with South-East Asia or any other tourist hell-hole where you’re likely to find them – it’s just another bullshit Tourist Town experience. But tourists love to try it, wherever they are; it’s as solid a Tourist Town business model as paragliding or bungee jumping.
“Awesome! Would not travel to any other beach in Sihanoukville. Otres 2 (most southerly end of the beach) is quieter and easier to sleep at night. Get there before the developers do!”
– TripAdvsor review of the beach I stay at in Sihanoukville
Like Richard, I do my best to avoid these places. I do my research before I come. At Sihanoukville I am staying at Otres 2 beach. The internet says it’s the furthest beach along, the least developed, and this turns out to be the case. In the rainy season, at least, it’s mostly deserted. There are only a few massage ladies on the beach, and a couple of guys who wander up and down selling sunglasses and weed.
Otres 1, the next beach along, is busier. There are more bars and more backpackers. After that is Serendipity. Serendipity is the beach closest to Sihanoukville town, and was the first to be discovered by the tourists. It’s a hell-hole. Tourist Town, the World, in all its grotesquerie. Mexican food, endless throngs of peddlers along the boardwalk, euro-dance music blasting from bars, prostitutes. The point of competition at all the bungalow bars that line the beachfront is cocktails sold by the bucket. Eight dollars, five dollars, five dollars with free pizza. In the early morning heroin hippies nod off on the papasan chairs along the beach.
“Heroin hippies”, that’s from The Beach. One of those small details of travel in South-East Asia that Garland gets exactly right: “He was, I guessed, one of the heroin hippies that float around India and Thailand. He’d probably come to Asia ten years ago and turned an occasional dabble into an addiction. His skin was old, though I’d have believed he was in his thirties.”
I wonder what Richard would think of Otres 2. Despite his snobbery, he doesn’t always give the impression that everything is fucked. Some of the nicer and probably more autobiographical passages in The Beach refer to the simple pleasures of simple travel. On their way to the Beach, for instance, Richard and his friends stop at a resort. It’s very much like where I’m staying. They check in to some beach bungalows, go swimming, smoke some weed while watching a rainstorm, meet some travelers whom Richard finds tolerable. It’s a section in which Richard seems remarkably free of cynicism, at least until the next day, when he walks along the beach and starts counting the guesthouses. “After twenty minutes I’d counted seventeen, and they were still showing no signs of thinning out. If anything, the palm trees were more cluttered with Ray-Bans and concrete patios than before.” This leads him to his previously quoted rumination on lessons learned early from traveling babysitters, until we come back to the present and he complains that “The only Thais I met were selling gemstones and baseball caps. By the time I got back to my beach hut I was exhausted, sunburnt, and pissed off.”
I think I know what Richard would have thought of where I was staying. He might have enjoyed himself for a while, but he would have noted the garish, incongruous holiday unit developments, and counted every bungalow and massage lady. He would, I’m sure, have drawn on a cigarette and muttered about the rot setting in.
Of course, you can pick a lot of holes in The Beach’s traveler ethos. For all Richard talks about getting beyond the tourist trap places, his desire for authenticity at no point causes him to seek out the company of local people, who might actually show him something beyond what the tourist usually sees. The Thai characters are bit parts, caricatures who either facilitate or frustrate Richard’s journey, or who else act as comic relief. They speak in phonetically rendered broken English which sounds reasonably well-rendered to my ears, but what do I know of how Thais speak? The European characters don’t get the same treatment. Richard initially hears the Scottish character’s pronunciation of beach as “bitch”, but the Scot speaks standard English thereafter. An Italian character is given one line in accented English – “Don’ta pausa on thata platforma” – before Garland wisely decides to drop it, telling the reader to just imagine it from there on.
In prose, Garland almost gets away with all this – you are almost convinced that Richard really does find some sort of amazing paradise and is having a unique travel experience. One of the problems which the movie fails to overcome is that you can actually see it. You actually get to see all the traveler types who inhabit this secret paradise. And they seem like the exact sort of douchebag backpackers you’d see at any hostel anywhere in the world. They look the same, act the same, do the same sorts of things. It’s hard, watching the movie, to convince yourself that Richard has found anything different to what he would have found on the Lonely Planet tour.
“It’s a beach resort.”
I frowned. “A beach resort?”
“A place to come for vacations.”
I frowned harder. By the look in Sal’s eyes I could see she found my expression amusing.
“Holidays?” I tried to say, but the word caught in my throat. It seemed so belittling. I had ambiguous feelings about the differences between tourists and travelers – the problem being that the more I traveled, the smaller the differences became. But the one difference I could still latch on to was that tourists went on holidays while travelers did something else. They traveled.
Set up in Bali. Ko Pha-Ngan, Ko Tao, Borocay, and the hordes are bound to follow. There’s no way you can keep it out of Lonely Planet, and once that happens it’s countdown to doomsday. But set up in a marine park, where you aren’t even supposed to be…
– Alex Garland, The Beach
The Beach makes me think about my own credibility as a traveler. What would Richard think of me? The answer, probably, is not much. I’ve been to a credible number of countries: 17, at last count. However almost half of these were vacations I took with my family when I was young. I’ve stayed in hostels, but don’t like sleeping in dorms much and have mostly avoided it. I know I could just turn up to a place and probably find great deals, but I tend to book ahead and thoroughly research where I’ll be staying and how to get there on tripadvisor. (God, what would Richard have said about tripadvisor, had it been around back then?)
On the positive side of the ledger: I’m quite happy to travel alone. I’ve lived in a foreign country for a number of years, and made decent progress with learning the language. I never join tour groups. When I go to a place I like to set off on my own, walking or using local transport, eat the local food, meet – if possible – local people. At Otres 2 I spend two weeks hanging out on the beach, talking to the guys who sell sunglasses and weed. I hang out with them in the Khmer-run bungalows without electricity when it’s raining on the beach and ride on the backs of their motorbikes around the town. They’re part of the tourist industry, of course, and in that sense aren’t entirely without monetary motivation – it’s not the same as getting to know local people who aren’t part of that scene – but it’s about as good as you can do in two weeks. And I do feel – perhaps incorrectly, though I hope not – that I relate to them on a human level which goes beyond a purely mercenary interest.
And a lot of that is stuff which Richard never bothers to do. So while I’m sure Richard would sneer at me, I feel like I would be happy to tell him, “Fuck off back to your hostel, poseur.”
But it bugs me. Because, see, I never went backpacking in my twenties. I regret that. I vaguely wanted to, but the circumstances never came up where I had both money and somebody to travel with. And I was too scared to travel alone. That was a mistake, but it’s a natural one.
I’ve told here before a story about something which made a big impact on me as a traveler, and which is relevant. I’ll reproduce it here:
The second piece of advice was from one of my oldest friends, whose bravery when it came to travel had always induced awe in me. She had, for example, once gone to Africa with some friends, landed in a city, and with no more specific plans bought a truck and driven it across the continent. That sort of travel takes balls, and I asked her how she did it. I told her that travel scared me; that I didn’t know how she could do that.
“Here’s the thing,” she said to me. “It scares everybody. It’s scary for me, too, you know. But it’s the thinking about it that’s scary. You just have to do it, and when you’re actually there, it’s not actually so scary or difficult.”
That’s a truth that Richard never acknowledges, and it pisses me off. In his deadpan laconic cool and sneering at the other tourists, he never gives any sense of his own progress; that at one time, traveling was new to him, too. In this he reminds me of people who’ve been in Korea for six months: they’re always so full of confidence and pleased with themselves, and they forget that they too were scared as hell when they first boarded the plane to Incheon.
My friend is right: it’s scary for everyone. You imagine the worst. But you get there, and discover that you’re not actually Marco Polo! The things you want to do are the same things everyone else wants to do. There’s a whole industry devoted to making it easy for you, in return for your tourist dollars. Everyone doesn’t speak English. It’s just that everyone you meet is trying to make money off you, so they’ve learned English.
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Garland makes this point – kind of – in an interview. Of his first travel experience, he says “My memory is basically that I had a good time, and the main thing that I learnt was how easy it is. If you get the money together and a ticket, you can pretty much go anywhere you want to go. I suppose I imagine that there was some sort of invisible barrier that stops you from going to these places, but the only real thing that stops you is cash.”
But the obvious corollary to Garland’s feeling, which is a feeling most first time travelers experience – of surprise at how easy it is – is to remember that it once seemed difficult and scary. And this is not something that Richard ever expresses.
Would The Beach be a better book if Richard wasn’t always so contemptuous of basically everyone who doesn’t subscribe to his backpacker ethos of cheap, unplanned, and off the beaten track? If he acknowledged, even once, that there was a time when he, too, was scared, booked ahead, and ate at a place based on a recommendation in Lonely Planet? I’m not sure. The youthful swagger is part of the book’s appeal. And of course, Richard is a character – a believable one, but the ethos he espouses doesn’t necessarily reflect the author’s point of view.
In fact, in another interview Garland’s seems a bit irritated by this! He wants to make it clear that Richard’s point of view is absolutely not his own:
He feels a lot of critics miss the satire. “I hear that The Beach is about Asia, and that it’s a bad book. I think it’s fairly obvious that this is really a book about backpackers. It’s a document about a certain kind of traveler.
“A lot of the criticism of The Beach is that it presents Thais as two dimensional, as part of the scenery. That’s because these people I’m writing about – backpackers – really only see them as part of the scenery. They don’t see them or the Thai culture. To them, it’s all part of a huge theme park, the scenery for their trip. That’s the point.”
Wearily, he adds: “This book is anti-traveler in a lot of ways. That was absolutely my intention. The Beach was meant to be a criticism of this backpacker culture, not a celebration of it.”
With respect to Alex Garland, I miss the satire, too. If that was really his aim, I think he failed to communicate it very well. The message I get from the book is not, “These first world travelers are hypocrites, claiming to seek novel experiences while ignoring and exploiting local poverty and cultures,” but rather, “Backpacking through Asia is super-fun and cool!” I have to believe that the legions of backpackers who set off for South-East Asia with a copy of The Beach in the bags felt the same way.
Did you have that sort of sneering attitude to package tourists that many backpackers have? Do you think there’s a difference between travelers and tourists?
No. Although the very first time I went away I was 17 and I probably did then. I felt backpacking was more adventurous. Of course there are differences. You end up doing things package tourists would never do, but whether that makes you any better than a package tourist, I don’t know. About three years ago I went with my friend to their parents’s villa in Spain near Benidorm; it had a swimming pool and all that, and was absolutely fantastic. I haven’t done it since but I really would love to.
– Alex Garland, Salon interview
Just the same, I start to wonder if I have it in me to “really travel” – to get all the way past the tourists. There are a lot of islands near Sihanoukville and I decide to seek out my version of The Beach – or at least the best simulacrum of it I can find.
At the place I’m staying there’s a girl who works reception part-time. She’s Richard-level credible: a British traveler who’s been going round the world for two years. She’s been around these parts for six months, working odd jobs and hanging out. She’s cool; I like her. Perhaps influenced by The Beach, I want to be accepted by her as a credible fellow traveler. I talk to her about living in Korea, and my experiences seem to pass with her; it feels like we speak as fellow Richard-level worldly beings.
I hit her up for advice on which island to go to, although I first make sure we’re speaking the same language – I make sure she’s read The Beach, which of course she has. So she understands what I’m looking for.
She tells me to go to Koh Rong Samloem. Koh Rong, the neighboring island, is long past its used-by date, she tells me. Party bars and full of backpackers. Koh Rong Samloem, by contrast, is still relatively untouched. She spent six weeks there, just hanging out on the beach next to the beautiful Saracen Bay, enjoying the relaxed lifestyle (and possibly doing things with her boyfriend she would be both reluctant and keen to talk about).
So that’s where I decide to go. There is another reason I want to go there: at night you can swim amongst photoluminescent plankton, an experience Garland describes lovingly in The Beach:
At first I could see nothing but the disturbed water and reflected moonlight from where Keaty had vanished. Then, as the water settled, I began to see light below the surface. A milky glow at first that separated into a thousand tiny stars, next becoming a slowly moving meteor trail behind the brightest cluster. The cluster rose and turned back on itself, and turned again to form a glittering figure of eight. Then it sunk downwards, disappearing for several seconds.
I extend my plane tickets and book the ferry out to Koh Rong Samloem, where I plan to stay for five nights. This island is so authentic that there is no internet, and only patchy electricity, at night, from generators. So I send my father an email telling him about my plans, and that I’ll be off the grid for a while.
“Sounds exciting. Always good to get to a place before the tourist rabble get there. I saw both Bali and Ko Samui in 1972 when there were very few tourists around and it was great.”
I’m amused to realise that this attitude isn’t limited to the backpacker generation. Probably back in Cro-Magnon times, some guy was getting annoyed when the beach he discovered with all the turtle eggs got popular with the other cave-men.
Koh Rong Samloem is, if not Alex Garland’s beach, then perhaps that beach five years after the story finishes, when word has gotten out and the first developers have arrived. There are no roads: transport is limited to small power boats and sleds which are used to drag supplies along the beach. The bungalows are built, with varying degrees of skillful or unskillful carpentry, from trees cut out of the jungle. Most bungalows offer electricity from generators from 7pm to midnight. At other times the generators run intermittently to supply power tools, and you can hear their hum and the whir of those tools all up the beach.
I swim at night in Saracen Bay amongst the photoluminescent plankton. It’s amazing! Better than Garland describes. In fact I wonder if he ever experienced it himself, because his description doesn’t ring true to me. I swim out into the center of the bay. The lack of electricity means you can get past the lights. When you move your hands through the water you create trails of blue-green light. I feel like a superhero sending out bolts of electricity. When you hold still in the water tiny lights adhere to your skin, and you can see the shape of your body in the blackness.
I have a good time, but after four nights, I’m happy to come back again. I stay at a few different places. A couple of them are run by what seem to be Russian ex-sailors; lean, tough men who are good with their hands and good at dragging sleds along the beach. I stay one night at a place I really don’t like. It’s staffed by a couple of backpackers, and they are the worst. They’ve been here for six months, and just like people who’ve been teaching in Korea for six months, they’re full of themselves and keen to pass on all their newly-gleaned wisdom about “Cambodia time” and how to live well on an island. This is annoying, but then they start trying to tell me what it’s really like teaching English in Asia. I check out the next day.
There are a lot of things which I realise Alex Garland doesn’t mention in The Beach. For instance, bugs. One night I go out onto the balcony of my bungalow and the entire bottom railing is black with some nightmarish, swirling, massive army of ants, flowing in great pulsing waves. As I watch they cover the second railing, and then the third. I’m terrified that they will find their way into my bungalow. Fortunately they never do, but it makes me wonder – why is their virtually no mention of bugs on Garland’s paradisiacal beach?
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But the real problem is all the intrepid travelers. Man, they’re fucking everywhere. They’re all just like Richard – pleased with themselves for having made it this far, in search of Oriental “experiences” that only cost, like, five bucks. And yes I do realise that to an outside observer I would probably appear indistinguishable from these people. But I realise I don’t really want to be one of them. The real problem is that, unlike where I stayed at Otres 2, there is no real Cambodia here. It’s a place built by and for travelers. Hanging out at Otres 2 at the Khmer bungalows with the Cambodian weed sellers seemed much more authentic than anything I find on Koh Rong Samloem.
Still, I’m pleased with myself for having made it to the final island, the end of the backpacker line. Perhaps there’s another, secret island out there somewhere in a marine park, where an elite group of backpackers smoke stolen weed and snicker to themselves about travelers who think Koh Rong Samloem is anything more than a tourist trap. But I’ll leave it for them. I’m happy to head back to Korea, a place where I’ve really learned how to get past what the tourists see. I had a great time! It was a great holiday – and in the end I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that word.