So much for a relaxing week in the tropics.
I decided to stretch my five hour Bangkok stop-over into a weeklong stay en route to Australia, my plan was a simple one: find Thailand’s best beach and lie on it. Although I’d spent over a month in the country on my Asian marathon in 2001, I hadn’t made to one of its fabled beaches. Instead I'd spent my visit volunteering at an AIDS clinic near Chiang Mai, pandering to the delusions of a boss who was convinced Jesus was shooting pool in the beech tree outside his house.
So I’d resolved that this time the final leg of my trip would be nothing more than a self-indulgent binge of sand, palm trees and thom yum kai. The only issue left to resolve was which of the country’s coastal Edens would play host to my travel-worn arse.
I mulled over this blessed dilemma on my first day in Bangkok from the Outkast-blaring security of a Kao Sanh Road café. Depressingly little had changed on the five hundred metre stretch of bitumen since my last trip. Crammed along the global epicentre of backpacker excess the cunning counterfeit t-shirt sellers and pad thai hawkers were still choking under neon coloured clouds of sesame oil and the trashy bars were still harbouring the alcoholic regrets of every twenty-one year old who has ever bought a rucksack and headed for Asia. In fact the only noticeable difference was that the McDonald’s had been joined by a Starbucks and as testament to the improving skill of Thai surgeons, the ladyboys looked a little more like ladies and a little less like boys.
I was petrified of fleeing Kao Sanh Road, Bangkok, only to find that every beach was a palm-fringed clone. An explosion in tourism has seen most of the country’s best coastline converted into theme parks for Alex Garland groupies downing bucket cocktails and banana pancakes to an R Kelly soundtrack. The only alternative I knew of came from an in-flight magazine that tortuous boredom on a trans-continental flight had reduced me to devouring. Ko Miang, the small article had assured me, was simply stunning—the microscopic island’s legendary snorkelling reefs had earned it marine park status and protected its pristine waters from development.
By all accounts it sounded like heaven, but the only problem was getting there: Ko Miang was a gruelling thirty-six hours from Bangkok that would force me to delay my return flight to Melbourne for the sixth and final time.
I still hadn’t made to one of Thailand’s fabled beaches. Instead I'd spent my last visit volunteering at an AIDS clinic, pandering to the delusions of a boss who was convinced Jesus was shooting pool in the beech tree outside his house.
Still unsure I flipped a coin, which told me to stop complaining and pack my bags. So armed with the fruits of ten minute’s research—that a boat service to the island left a mainland village called Thap Lamu every morning—I grabbed my rucksack and headed to the bus terminal, relying on a well-practiced technique for negotiating the labyrinth of unsigned buses.
“Thap Lamu?” I asked of everyone in sight until a kind man with a hideously ugly baby shepherded me on board a bus. I collapsed onto a red vinyl seat next to an emaciated man sporting a plump goatee and fell asleep until the driver’s proddings woke me up almost twelve hours later.
“Thap Lamu?” I groggily asked the driver, who just grunted, pointed to his now-empty bus and indicated that this was his last stop.
I stumbled off the bus, still half asleep, and looked around. I was in the middle of nowhere: a lonely road cutting its way through the thriving green carpet of Thailand’s rural backwaters with nothing to break the monotony but some gargantuan mountains in the foggy distance and a sickly palm tree standing forlornly by my side. As the bus trundled off, I realised that this didn’t look like a coastal town at all. Come to think of it, I hadn’t spotted a single inch of coastline during the last twelve hours of jolt-stuttered sleep. Where on Earth was I?
A farmer came sauntering down the road carrying a chicken and dragging a small pig behind him on a home made leash. He reached me ten minutes later, studying me with a look you’d find on a person trying to identify an unfamiliar but otherwise harmless odour, then yanked on the leash to hurry along his lagging pig and continued on.
“Wait! Thap Lamu?”
The farmer turned back, now looking like he’d identified the odour but hadn’t decided if it was pleasant or not. I was struggling for words and desperately wishing I’d invested in a phrasebook, guidebook, or even a map.
“I go Ko Miang,” I explained, using a fallen branch to scratch an outline of Thailand in the chocolate earth and pointing at the island’s vague location. “Is this Thap Lamu for boat?”
The pilot of our longtail boat admires the view while being paid 100 baht for the privilege. Enlarge »
The farmer shook his head and took the stick from my hand, gesturing vaguely to Thailand’s north; well over a thousand kilometres away from where I thought I was. The misery on my tired face must have been obvious because the farmer handed me the pig’s leash and his softly clucking chicken, gestured that I was to wait here until he returned and started off down the road again, humming to himself.
Around forty minutes later I was whispering thanks to the kindness of strangers but hoping my saviour wouldn’t be too much longer. The restless hen was determined to break free from my grip while the pig, which I’d tied to my leg, was straining wildly against its leash. Oh well, at least help was on its way.
It was about then that it started to rain. Not just a drizzle either, but torrential, monsoonal walls of water cascading down from the sky amid booming claps of thunder. As I searched in vain for some form of shelter my barnyard charges made their dissatisfaction clear by squealing and pecking with increasing frequency, while the pig paused every few minutes to defecate spitefully in a puddle beside my pack.
So now you know how I got here, I just wish I knew where here was.
By the time the sun makes a timid entrance from the edge of a receding cloud twenty minutes later, the pig and I are no longer on speaking terms although the chicken seems to have satisfied itself with the shredded remains of my shirtsleeve. As I pick over the soaked contents of my rucksack the farmer finally chugs his away towards me, seated beside a friend on a coughing tractor. I choose to fume silently over a soup stain on his shirt that suggests he waited out the storm from the shelter of a hawker stall while I was busy babysitting his animals in cyclonic rain.
The farmer ignores the water still dripping from my clothes, reclaims his animals and motions that I’m to get on the tractor.
As I searched in vain for some form of shelter my barnyard charges made their dissatisfaction clear by squealing and pecking with increasing frequency, while the pig paused every few minutes to defecate spitefully in a puddle beside my pack.
“Thap Lamu?” I ask the driver as I clamber on.
He shrugs, laughs and guns the engine.
The only thought that sustains me over the thirty sleepless hours of buses, motorbikes, tears, tuk tuks, bribes and car fumes it takes to land me outside the ferry office in Thap Lamu is that in very little time at all I’ll be sitting on one of the world’s most beautiful beaches with nothing to interrupt my Vitamin D bender but the sound of waves crashing against a white sand shore.
“One ticket for today,” I ask of a lady yelling at her unruly toddlers from the cooling comfort beside a faltering electric fan.
“No today, no tomorrow” she says, then screams at her youngest who has busied himself suckling my little finger. “Boat in twelve days. Rain season stop, then boat go.”
Luckily the clerk’s poor grasp of English affords me the luxury of venting the frustrations of fifty hellish hours with a wonderfully cathartic string of expletives before trudging out the door and hitching a lift to the nearest city, Phuket.
Once at Phuket’s neglected bus station, the generosity of an amiable Belgian couple sees me with a photocopied chunk of guidebook wisdom and a plan, of sorts. Figuring that any beach is better than none at all, I lay the nearby island of Ko Phi Phi in my sights and jump on the next available ferry.
During the two hour trip I begin to understand why Thailand’s islands have achieved such revered status amongst disciples of the sun. It’s as if everybody idea of tropical perfection has found form in the world’s warmest waters. Fantastical limestone cliffs frosted by luminous green vegetation rise out of crystal turquoise water at seemingly impossible angles, and at small bays carved into their backs sprawling white sand beaches are too sweet a sight for the four bare-chested Americans who are standing on boat’s the prow, swigging beer and whooping with delight.
“Dude!” shouts a Dirk, or he might be a Todd, who probably spends his summers down in Baja and winters working at a Californian pizza parlour. “This is awesome! Beach, beer and babes for the next two weeks!”
“Bring it on!” agree his friends, who are probably named Bodhi, Grommet and Chase. They seal their pact with a communal butting of chests and swig from their cans.
It’s a sweet moment of male bonding, but I’m worried they’ll soon be galloping around the boat and urinating on the most desirable females to mark their territory, so I duck inside to grab my pack and prepare for our imminent landing.
“Hat Ranti!” announces the pilot of the longtail boat I’ve chartered half an hour later as our boat rounds a jungle-covered cape and he points its nose towards the shore. The Belgian couple had tipped me off about this secluded beach away from the worst of Phi Phi’s crass development, and now my gaze follows the pilot’s finger and I smile: palm-fringed sands with only a handful of snorkellers and not a bucket whiskey or 7-Eleven in sight. It seems my search for a slice of coral encrusted heaven is over.
And that’s when, right on cue, I notice the boat is sinking.
Aaah, the beautiful beach of the somewhat secluded Ranti Bay. It would have been perfect, had this photo of sunshine and sand not been taken as I was leaving after three days of miserable weather. Enlarge »
The water level in the leaky longtail boat, held in check until now by the pilot and a plastic bucket, is now up to my calves and quickly rising. I point out this concerning state of affairs to the pilot, who looks far more alarmed than I think reassuring and starts frantically bailing water out. He throws me an empty container and yells something unintelligible—though translation seems largely unnecessary—and guns the engine towards the beach.
With around one kilometre to cover before we reach land, and armed with only a bowl, I launch into a losing battle against the sea with only one goal: make it to shore before the water claims my Discman, digital camera and passport. At the two hundred metre mark I’m forced to stand and balance my rucksack on my head, while rather pointlessly scooping the water out with my free hand; it’s pointless because I’m now standing waist high in water and all but an inch of the boat’s walls are peeking out above the waterline. Locals, who are either eager to help or have come to greet the two Messiah’s who must look like they’re gliding unaided through the ocean towards them, are standing waist deep among coral and clown fish and throwing us ropes.
When the boat finally thuds against the shallow reef and begins to tip, I throw my bag to a helpful fisherman, lose my balance and topple ungracefully into the water. Standing up amid laughter and chuckles, I reclaim my gear and leave my pilot to study a saucer-sized hole in his hull and the Styrofoam plug he’d stuck in place with duct tape as he tries to decipher how such a sound maintenance job could possibly have failed him.
I clearly haven’t suffered enough, because I’m soon told that all fifteen bungalows on Ranti Bay are full. The managers, two young brothers who spend their days smoking dope and indulging in Old Skool hip-hop, take pity on me, though, so I drift off to sleep that night from the discomfort of a straw mat laid out on a leaky bamboo platform built onto the sand for beach front dining. And of course it rains, a lot.
Locals, who are either eager to help or have come to greet the two Messiah’s who must look like they’re gliding unaided through the ocean towards them, are standing waist deep among coral and clown fish and throwing us ropes.
After a couple of days at Hat Ranti enduring temperamental weather I find myself back at Ao Ton Sai, Phi Phi’s commercial centre. Ton Sai is still called a village, though that would be like calling Ozzy Osbourne’s speech therapist only a little busy. The once humble settlement now resembles a mini-metropolis of convenience stores, bars, resorts internet cafes and firetrap guesthouses; it all looks laughably out of place on a sandy island only a few kilometres wide. At every step along its sandy paths I’m offered accommodation, dope, tours and happy-finish massages, while cash-strapped tourists stranded on the island hawk the offerings of various nightspots hoping their commission will be enough to get them back home to England, Australia or the States. I console myself with an espresso—OK, so maybe unrestrained development does have one advantage—while studying a map of the surrounding islands. There must be an idyllic beach hidden somewhere amongst the dozens of dots littering the Thai coastline.
“Whatever you do, don’t go to Ko Lanta,” says a gentle voice with a sing-song accent from behind me, “unless you’re nineteen and like getting drunk every night.”
I turn to find a smile with ocean-matted hair tied back with a Cambodian bandana peering over my shoulder.
“That eliminates most of them,” I lament. “Any suggestions?”
It turns out that Anne, a Dutch girl and former trapeze artist of all things, has spent the best part of a year bumming her away around most of Thailand’s beaches. She is a common breed of backpacker: a twenty-something European who wanders endlessly about the globe yearning for some mysterious religion to save her from the dreary emptiness of her Western life. They treat the world a spiritual playground, picking and choosing token moments in replica ancient temples and the glimmer of cheap crystals to construct a self-absorbed creed that has no room for local beliefs, cultures or people.
But Anne mistakes polite curiosity in her travels for a deeply felt spiritual connection. “It’s amazing,” she comments rather prematurely after just twenty minutes of conversation, “our auras seem so … synchronised. You must be a Sagittarius.”
Longtail taxis ready to ferry wave after wave of backpackers around the tranquil waters and white sand beaches of Ko Phi Phi Don. Enlarge »
I’m too busy figuring out if what she said amounts to a pickup line to tell her I’m an astrology-disbelieving Capricorn that thinks she should quit looking for amulets and incense to save her soul—but then you’d expect that from a Capricorn wouldn’t you?—when she finally adds something of interest.
“I’m living on a great little beach I’m sure you’d like; I’m just in Ton Sai to get supplies. You’ll have to camp, but I’ve got a two-person tent with plenty of room.”
I’m hesitant about going anywhere with Anne since I’m justifiably afraid that she might tie me up for a midnight séance to summon the spirit of Ra, just so we can have even numbers for Scrabble. “Are there many people there?” I ask.
“Only eight or so, and the snorkelling’s so beautiful,” she assures me.
Nothing ventured, I reason, nothing gained. “When’s the boat leave?”
Two hours later we’re on another longtail boat as it skims across turquoise water under Anne’s direction. After a short ride to a nearby island, she guides the pilot between two limestone cliffs and into gorgeous cove with a stunning coral reef sitting just a few metres beneath us. A cluster of dive boats are floating at one end of the inlet, but Anne asks to come ashore on a small patch of sand near the entrance that’s barely noticeable at the foot of a towering rock wall, and throws our gear out.
“Grab your bag and run behind that tree,” she orders. “Quick!”
I do as she says, wondering exactly what I’ve gotten myself into, and push behind the wall of branches to find myself in a small clearing. Five tents have been set up in a circle and two shirtless guys are passed out in neighbouring hammocks with a bamboo bong on the ground between them. Two girls, playing cards and chatting in Spanish, stop and regard me with suspicion.
A photo taken by Anne en route to our secret camping spot on Ko Phi Phi Leh. Bribe me enough and I'll tell you where it is. Enlarge »
“How did you find us?” one of them demands.
“It’s OK Maria,” Anne replies, trailing me with her own pack. “I brought him. Don’t worry, he won’t tell anyone.”
I soon discover that I’ve just crashed an illegal squat, of sorts. These eight people have secretly pitched tents on the island of Ko Phi Phi Leh, an uninhabited marine park that forbids overnight visitors of any sort. They’ve been living clandestinely on this small patch of hidden heaven accessible only by boat for the past three months, passing their Robinson Crusoe days with nobody to disturb them but the day-tripping divers who desert the bay at sunset.
I ignore the suspicious glares of the campers and resolve to enjoy myself, diving into the water to revel in the spectacle of its underwater reef. The fish and coral are marvellous, but I swallow almost a litre of sea water from fright when a ten foot sea snake lunges at me from beneath a rock I’m examining, gnashing its teeth and flashing me a defensive look.
“I see you met Harry,” says one of the guys—a British sound engineer fleeing the responsibility of a healthy life in London—as I cough and splutter on surfacing. “He’s usually friendly, but piss him off and he’ll take a chunk out of your leg. They named him after me, I guess I should be offended.”
That night we all share in a dinner of green papaya salad from coconut bowls prepared by an American couple who are pleasant enough but manage to steer every conversation towards the “spiritual genius” of The Celestine Prophesy. Thankfully they’re interrupted by a government boat with a spotlight on a routine patrol.
I’m hesitant about going anywhere with Anne since I’m justifiably afraid that she might tie me up for a midnight séance to summon the spirit of Ra, just so we can have even numbers for Scrabble.
“Hide!” comes the alarm from Maria as the chug of a boat comes within earshot.
And a few minutes later, as I lay face down in the vine-strewn floor of a Thai jungle, evading detection by authorities as a searchlight plays on the ground beside me, I reflect that it’s always the simplest plans that end up being the most fun.
Anne wakes me up at dawn the next morning with a tap on the shoulder from her sleeping bag, “I want to show you something special.” As I reach for my trousers she disconcertingly adds, “and you won’t be needing those.”
She leads me out of the tent and runs straight into the warm water, easing into a leisurely free stroke. We swim for a couple of hundred metres to the far end of our cove and onto another small beach backed by a limestone cave. We climb through and soon find ourselves on the other side of a rock wall, trekking through a tangle of ferns and the mating calls of rainbow-flecked birds. Stumbling onto a track, we tiptoe past the island’s ranger station, dormant at this early hour, and after a few more minutes break out of the lush forest and into another bay.
“Oh wow.” That’s all I can say to sight that greets me, and even now words fail me. There aren’t enough superlatives in the dictionary to describe what is quite simply the most beautiful beach I have ever seen. It is exactly what I’d come for: the amalgam of every tropical postcard I’d ever fantasised over, every travel show feature I’d dreamed about. And at this moment, it’s deserted. It’s all mine. “This is some beach.”
The oh-so-famous Maya Bay, mega tourist attraction and location for the shooting of a certain film about a group of wanky travellers who locate the world's most beautiful beach. Enlarge »
“It’s not just any beach,” Anne corrects, “it’s The Beach, from the movie.”
So this is Maya Bay. I’d heard stories about this beach, almost mythical in nature, from other travellers on the way to Phi Phi. Relatively undiscovered until a few years ago, this inlet became an instant backpacker Mecca when it was chosen as the location for the movie adaptation of the bestselling novel about a group of twenty-something backpackers who found a hidden utopia on a staggeringly beautiful beach in a Thai national park. And although the bay is empty at dawn, I’m sure it’ll soon be packed with boatloads of the book’s devotees, swigging crates of Singha beer and eager to play out their own Leonardo di Caprio fantasies.
But who am I to criticise?, I contemplate forty hours later as I float beneath the starlit waters of my temporarily staked slice of paradise; after all I’m doing a better job than most of destroying a national park just so I can satisfy some infantile need for an ‘unspoiled’ beach experience.
Anne and I have returned to Maya Bay in the middle of the night after a day spent doing everything I’d come to Thailand for—snorkelling, swimming and basking in the sun—but to be honest I’m feeling bored. Bored and guilty. Although my mission’s been accomplished and I’m floating alone off what is arguably Thailand’s most breathtaking beach at 3 a.m, all I’m thinking is what now? Where to next?
“I’m leaving tomorrow,” I announce to the moon.
As I lay face down in the vine-strewn floor of a Thai jungle, evading detection by authorities as a searchlight plays on the ground beside me, I reflect that it’s always the simplest plans that end up being the most fun.
Anne, drifting a few metres to my right, is surprised. “Why? It’s so beautiful here. You could stay here all your life.”
“But this isn’t my life. My real life’s waiting for me back home. Friends, family and the dream of doing something with my life.” And suddenly I’m feeling something new. “I want to get back to it, I want to go home.”
“You’ll never be happy,” Anne says, “until you’ve found yourself. That’s why I’m here.”
“Bullshit! Anne, do you really think you’re going to find salvation on a Thai beach, or in some Cambodian temple that you’ve studied for two minutes in your Lonely Planet? You float around the world because you’re unhappy and bored with life in Holland, but nothing’s going to change until you go back and fix whatever it is you can’t bear to face. This isn’t a spiritual quest, it’s a bloody holiday.”
Anne takes this admittedly unforgiving advice to heart. “You … you, fucking arsehole!” she stands and storms off to the shore in tears.
OK, so I’m not the world’s best agony aunt.
Luckily I don’t have to face Anne in the tent when I awake the next morning as she’s off practising tai chi under a giant fern. I pack my bags and jump in the balmy water for a farewell swim with Harry, but on surfacing am surprised to see my pack joined by Anne’s on the beach. She comes strolling out of the jungle with her tent packed away in a bag and stony look on her face that makes it clear apologies and comments are not welcome.
She walks to the beach and waves over one of the longtail boats moored in the bay.
“Don’t say anything,” she interrupts. “Let’s just go. Go home.”
MELBOURNE (Australia). November 30, 2004. 4:32 PM:
I know I’ve been back for almost three weeks now. I know my finances won’t even let me out of my suburb, let alone my country, until the compound interest on my remaining $62.78 amounts to a plane ticket out. I know that I really, really, really should do as my career-minded friends have done, and start taking life a little more seriously. So if I know all of this, why can’t I bring myself to unpack my rucksack? Why do I assure friends and family that I’m not going anywhere for a while but still crane my neck towards the window displays of travel agents?
Thankfully my friends have me answering somewhat different questions during catch up sessions, prompting the usual round of retrospective navel gazing: What was your favourite country? When were you most scared? Most happy? What did you learn?
And like all my trips, I have to give the same disappointingly vague answers. If my 2001 trek through Asia was an awakening and East Timor my coming of age, then I guess this adventure through three continents in nine months was a reaffirmation. A reaffirmation that despite the fear and self-obsession that seems to be gripping the world, its staggering beauty remains unchanged, we are still one race capable of leading the most inspirational lives and that, most importantly, there are still people willing to roll up their sleeves and prove it.
In Geneva I slaved away alongside hundreds of impoverished UN and NGO interns who are sustained only by the knowledge that it’s honourable to work for a living, but an honour to work for the lives of others. Beneath the Florentine domes of Italy I discovered the sheer splendour that can be born from human passion and a paint brush. In Croatia I met Sam and Kara, two newlywed wheat farmers from NSW whose curiosity drove them to honeymoon through the war zone of Kosovo because they saw its citizens as people rather than headlines. In Spain I was infected with an overwhelming lust for life while in Iran I discovered the ancient and majestic origins of my own. In Sarajevo I marvelled at a city’s ability to endure and in Serbia I danced with a generation shrugging off the shadows of war to prove that music and youthful zeal can heal even the deepest ethnic divides.
The route of my "two month" trip of Europe, that turned into a nine-month, three continent extravaganza. Enlarge »
And at every step along the way I met, talked to and travelled with an army of people whose curiosity, generosity, compassion and humour made the past nine months a chapter of my life I will never forget. I journeyed through 20 countries in a grand total of 265 days, meandering through 72 cities, towns and villages and across 38 international borders. I learned to say “hello” and “one coffee please” in 16 languages and had to wrap my head around 12 new currencies including the rial, the krona, the florint and the dirham. By night I collapsed on 108 different beds, couches and park benches and spent over 10 sleepless nights in transit, reading one of 25 books or chatting to any one of 31 travelling companions. I refuelled on almost 690 coffees and dozens of new foods including camel kebabs, honeyed ants, congealed blood and deep-fried water beetles. I recorded all this with over 2,659 photos and described it to over 500 readers in 9 emails transcribed from 5 notebooks, totalling an obscene 31,224 words.
“You must be sick of travelling by now,” an uncle remarked just a few nights after my arrival back home. By that time I’d already satisfied nine-month cravings for Degraves St coffee, a steaming bowl of Victoria St pho ga and the laugh of a kookaburra drowning out my thoughts. “You must be fairly content with what you’ve seen.”
But the problem is I’m not. Far from it, the past year has just shown me how much I’m missing out on and made me even hungrier to get away and grab the rest. When friends ask “Where to next, Travel Boy?” I feign indifference and vow I’m done for now, but that’s just because I can’t choose just one country, or even one continent.
My dilemma is that I’m overwhelmed by just how damn beautiful this world is. How full of life it is. How full of possibility. There are times when I just want to run out there and devour it all: every mountain range, every laugh, every desert, every tear. I feel helpless to be point of desperation to know that this planet—this mad, parched, joyous, teeming, anguished, enraged, luxurious, destitute, radiant, planet—holds so much that I’ll never get a chance to experience. So many shades of skin I’ll never touch, so many jungles I’ll never explore, so many languages I’ll never learn to say “thank-you” in, so many smiles I’ll never see.
And while I’m too exhausted and poor to even contemplate another jaunt overseas for the next year or so, you’ll still find me flicking idly through atlases and browsing phrase books in flea markets. So ask me again where I’m headed to next and I’ll probably answer it with a question of my own: 2006. New Orleans to Buenos Aires. Overland.
Anyone else game?