I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by boredom, unemployed, hysterical, broke, dragging themselves through the naked streets of post-Thatcher Britain looking for a cheap flight to Thailand and an angry fix of adventure . . .
In the early 1990s, Thailand was the place to go for poor graduates hit by the recession. Unable to get a job, fed up with the rat race, my generation packed its bags and left England’s 40-watt-bulb sunshine for Thailand.
We were farangs (foreigners of European descent), Siam’s new invaders who came to smog-choked Bangkok looking for a route to sun, sand and Shangri-La. The Jack Kerouac of Generation X, Alex Garland, became our Thainik chronicler, the man who knew why we rejected the ordered, boring life for travel and the truth of instantaneous experience.
Garland’s novel, The Beach, tapped into the Gameboy fantasies of kids too cynical for On The Road and too young to remember Lost Horizon. Garland’s formula worked. The Beach sold five million copies, was translated into eight languages and has now been adapted for the big screen by the Trainspotting team, with a $50 million budget and Leonardo Di Caprio in the lead.
The film has met with a mixed reception from the Thais. The 90-day shoot, which had the set designer Andrew McAlpine reconstructing the novel’s fictional community on Ko Phi Phi Leh, a protected, unspoilt National Park, had environmental activists up in arms. Royal Forestry laws, they claimed, were broken; and they picketed the crew on Ko Phi Phi Leh and the US Embassy in Bangkok with placards depicting Leonardo as a blood- sucking vampire.
In the end, the prospect of profit had the locals changing their tune: the film, after all, is bound to increase tourism in the area. And tourism is vital to Thailand’s economy. As late as 1997, the IMF had to bail the country out of a crisis with a $17.2 billion loan. Michael Camdessus, the retiring IMF chief, now says he is delighted to see the country’s economic recovery – a recovery to which the one million-plus backpackers (most of them British) contributed significantly.
Thailand attracts tourists – not just young scruffy backpackers, but ageing hippies and professionals as well – because it is cheap. At the peak of the 1997-8 high season, the baht was valued at more than 50 to the US dollar, and even five-star hotel rooms in the most popular resorts, like Phuket, cost only 3,000 baht a night.
That is why I went. I arrived in Bangkok to follow the trail of Garland’s fictional hero from the boarding houses of the capital to the small islands south of Ko Samui, where he finds Utopia.
With a population of 36,000, Ko Samui is Thailand’s third-largest island. Once an exclusive spot for the alternative traveller, it has become the favoured destination of tourists since the late 1980s. Word was out and every farang came to Thailand with the hedonist’s formula: strong £ = cheap sex + cheap drugs = full- moon party on the beach.
Take the night train out of Bangkok to Surat Thani, bus to Don Sak and then ferry through high waves to a fog-covered Ko Samui. The island is gridlocked with tie-dyed tourists looking for hidden lagoons, white sand and cheap beds. Dodging Thai ladyboys, drug dealers and wacky Californian surfers, I managed to charter a small fishing boat to explore the small islands off Samui. No sign of a fairy-tale community on Ko Mat Lang or Ko Ang Thong.
My guide, a local fisherman who dabbles in the coconut business, was keen to tell me about the effect of tourism on the islands. “Everyone comes to Thailand looking for a beach,” he says. “One by one the islands have been destroyed by foreigners looking for paradise.”
After two days scouting for paradise on rubbish strewn beaches, I gave up and took the ferry to Ko Pha Ngan for the full-moon party on Hat Rin beach. Every month, the number of punters doubles for the event, swarming over the beach on a queasy combination of magic-mushroom omelette sluiced down with Thai whisky. High, loud and smelly, the half-naked Brits covered in luminous body-paint, are a parody to other farangs.
“The English people are sad,” a German told me. “All they ever do is get drunk and take pills . . . it’s really boring.”
The full-moon party is a headache for the Thai authorities; back on mainland Surat Thani, a dozen beds in the psychiatric ward are kept aside for the party’s druggy casualties.
The film of The Beach will almost certainly make things worse. Following Di Caprio, even bigger hordes of farangs will trespass into National Parks, looking for a paradise and creating chaos. One consolation is that his movie is doing lousy business – it only took £2.3 million in its first week.
The thing to remember is that “utopia” means “nowhere”.