Koh Tao – Searching for “The Beach”

Danny Boyle’s film “The Beach” Starring Leonardo DiCaprio was set around the theme of a mythical beach, located in a pristine bay which was tucked away somewhere in the Gulf of Thailand. In the movie, the beach had assumed a cult status amongst backpackers searching for a last unspoiled paradise. The film was based on a book by Alex Garland which was originally set around the island of Kho Pha Ngan in the Gulf. The film itself however, was actually made in Ko Phi Phi, off the opposite coast of Thailand.

One blustery Christmas Day, a few years before Garland’s book was published, I arrived on Kho Pha Ngan with another VSO friend from Kathmandu – it wasn’t a fun voyage and I remember being caught in stormy seas in a boat that would have been more suited to the River Thames at Henley, rather than the open ocean. I remember some rather nerve wracking moments as the hull groaned and creaked in towering swell and locals argued over possession of the 2 life jackets stowed on board. However, in the end we made it to Kho Pha Ngan that Christmas day, the jubilant captain setting off firecrackers in celebration and perhaps suggesting that the crew also felt lucky to get there. Later we heard that many boats had been wrecked or damaged in the the area during the storm that day.

The same morning we’d set off from Ko Samui in calmer conditions – the plan had been to stay there for a while. However Ko Samui had seemed rather a brash and overdeveloped tourist-trap, filled with package tourists, noisy bars and nightclubs and a lot of unwelcome traffic. It sounded like the more remote islands would have better to offer in terms of authenticity and general chill out appeal.

After the stormy crossing to Kho Pha Ngan, we decided to stay there for a couple of days before heading off to the even remoter island of Koh Tao, located another 50km or so to the NW. Fortunately our journey to Koh Tao went a lot more smoothly and our vessel proved more seaworthy on this occasion – being more like a Scottish trawler which rode the waves than the previous Thames barge which rode under them. Like the fictional island in “The Beach”, Koh Tao was known as a laidback backpacker haven with basic infrastructure and no proper roads. It was also regarded as a cool venue for scuba diving and dive training.

First impressions of Koh Tao were certainly favourable and the Island certainly appeared to live up to its cool and unhurried reputation. We stayed in a traditional palm thatched beach hut by the sublime Shark Bay. The infrastructure was pretty basic but included a rustic beach bar selling essential supplies such as cocktails, sea food specialties and of course other essential “supplies” for stressed out backpackers (the latter being of limited interest to a clean living person like myself ! ). There were also an interesting assortment of home baked items on offer including cakes which had some rather unforeseen effects, as I discovered later to my cost.

The location of the beach hut was fantastic, about 20m from the beach itself, the crystal clear aqua marine water being perfect for snorkeling. There was a lot of space around and so nobody felt too packed in. Other guests were fairly eccentric or alternative. These included a couple of German naturists, a guy who stood in the sea, up to his knees, playing the saxophone every morning and another musician from a British indie rock band, with his partner and rather annoying kid in tow, who kept telling us about the “blood feasts” he’d been to the previous night.

At night we were kept awake by small but very loud geckos, which shared our hut with us. At first we couldn’t work out what the commotion was and I even went to see if someone with a duck whistle was lurking about just outside. One evening, after yet another beautiful sunset, the sound was extreme. It was made even worse by a couple of English guys with a touch of “Delhi belly” who were throwing up loudly all night and swearing with equal gusto. Then a dog started barking non-stop which seemed to go on for hours, until suddenly a loud shot rang out and there was complete silence – I’m not sure exactly what happened, but possibly it wasn’t so good for the dog ! Even the puking backpackers were a bit quieter after that.

Generally though, the time spent on the island was just pure chill out; swimming in the ocean, watching the sunsets, reading (for some unknown reason “Pride and Prejudice”) or sitting by the little beach bar listening the the gentle tropical breeze rustling through the palm fronds. All in all, it was an ideal tonic to previous long months spent navigating rough Himalayan trails and high mountain passes.

We also took a short boat trip to visit a nearby group of offshore “islets” with connecting strips of shell sand beach linking the three small islands. The stunning location and colours certainly would have been enough to lure any would-be bounty hunters. I do remember the intensity of the sun there being just a little too much though without the welcoming shade of the palms found on Koh Toa.

All around the coast of Koh Toa, there are stunning reefs which are ideal for diving. We did some snorkeling and saw some fabulous marine life. However, it has to be said that some of the coral was showing evidence of damage due to the impact of dive tourism and also inappropriate fishing practices on the reefs.

As with all places though, Koh Tao has changed in recent years. Looking at recent Google Maps footage of the Island, it appears obvious that the place is now considerably busier and more developed than it was when I visited in the 90s, with many more houses, shops and a road network. As in the film “The Beach”, it seems that development invariably creeps in. The pioneering hippies and backpackers who first discover these places, pave the way for more commercial operators and then, at worst, for mass tourism, as in the case of Koh Samui.

Koh Tao also seems to have changed in other ways and certainly not for the better. Since 2014 there has been a spate of backpacker murders on the island, which as a consequence, has acquired the undesirable title of “Death Island”. There have also been reports of mafia style cartels operating on the island and a general associated increase in crime. All this would have been unthinkable in the 1990s when we visited this laid back utopia.

Perhaps “The Eagles” were right in the song “The Last Resort” on the topic of Manifest Destiny, when they said “call someplace paradise, kiss it goodbye”…

And now for something completely different…

On the way back to Kathmandu from Koh Tao, we spent a few days in Bangkok. I must admit this city was one that left my head spinning and with a real sense of culture shock. It was a loud, hectic, brazen, hot and grimy place which made Kathmandu seem like a village in comparison. There were many strange sights that made me think of scenes from dystopias such as Gotham City or Blade Runner – families living amongst piles of engine parts and gear box components with their 3 piece suite and TV set up, a motorbike that suddenly skidded across the street in a shower of sparks before the rider sprinted off and “tuk tuk” auto rickshaws that seemed to accelerate at around100 g.

That said there were also many interesting corners to the City, particularly markets which seemed to sell every living and dead thing under the sun and which were a real riot of colours and smells. The street food was also fantastic and a bargain at the price, with some amazing and subtle flavours and combinations.

There were many interesting temples and palaces to visit including some high profile destinations in the city. I was also really fascinated by the small “spirit houses” that are found outside most Thai houses as a place where the spirits can reside, thereby not inconveniencing the occupants of the houses too much. I was really fascinated by some of the detail of these  – some are certainly like mini works of art, whilst others are comparatively rustic in nature.

After a few hectic but fascinating days in Bangkok, I was happy enough to be heading back to Kathmandu though. That was another tale in itself however; I vividly remember after a flight of 4 hours, circling around above Kathmandu airport for 45 minutes or so in perfect visibility, before being diverted all the way back to Bangkok, stopping briefly in Dhaka, Bangladesh en route (where we were escorted off the plane by men in military uniforms). We never really received an adequate explanation for this – though to be fair we did get a lovely meal and a night in a luxury hotel courtesy of Thai Air. Fortunately though the next day the gods were smiling and our rescheduled flight made a perfect touchdown in Kathmandu in what seemed like very murky conditions indeed.

It was time to head back to Himalayan wanderings and to leave “the beach” to others.

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