Closing my eyes, I can still taste the tang of the plastic buckets and the chicken sticks dripping with barbecue sauce. The hazy pain of a Chang-over. The daredevil two-wheeled tuk-tuks through the cities at night – “Schumacher! Mak mak!”
Thailand leaves its mark on those lucky enough to experience it. And, for a film that will resonate with all travellers to the Land of Smiles, The Beach really hits the mark. From director Danny Boyle (one of my favourites), it tells the story of American traveller Richard (played by Leonardo diCaprio), and his hedonistic adventures with a French couple to Koh Phi Phi Don, a hidden beach on an island off the southwest coast of Thailand.
It’s been 9 years since I packed a bag and headed east, inspired by Alex Garland’s book which then was adapted for the big screen. The Beach has no doubt motivated hundreds if not thousands of jetsetters to pack their bags and seek their own slice of white-sand paradise, eager to experience their own escape into no-holds-barred pleasure, and the Southeast Asian backpackers’ circuit of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam has probably been rubbing its hands in glee ever since.
As with most travellers to Thailand, Richard’s adventure starts off in the country’s capital, Bangkok, centering around the backpacker hub of Khao San Road. Here, Richard meets former resident of the island Daffy, played by Robert Carlyle, who will never be far away from Richard’s thoughts. We don’t learn much about Richard: “So what do you need to know? Stuff about my family or where I’m from? None of that matters. Not once you cross the ocean and cut yourself loose, looking for something more beautiful, something more exciting, and Yes, I admit, something more dangerous.”
These kind of details matter a lot in the backpacker community. They form a key part of the biographical identity of a traveller, and anyone who’s ever been anywhere will know some form of the magical five questions:
Where are you from?
How long have you been here?
What brings you to [insert country here]?
Where have you been?
How long have been traveling for?
The reason why we don’t like answering these questions over and over is the same reason Richard doesn’t choose to reveal his own: in a place like The Beach, you choose your own identity. Your real background doesn’t really matter – you have a clean slate to choose your own adventure. To make a new identity, try it out, see if you like the way it fits. So, we don’t really find out too much about Richard, or any of the other characters either. All we’re told are details like nationalities and a few stereotypical references: the Englishman who likes cricket, the Swedes who like skiing, the Frenchmen who is a good cook. As much as the above questions are mandatory, it’s quite interesting to know what brings people to various destinations and in turn, what their motivations for travel might be, why they’re seeking out adventure. The answers are usually quite simple (at least in my case): meeting new people, escaping modernity and beating boredom at a reduced cost to back at home.
Lies, broken relationships, and a run in with the drug dealing locals on the island means things take a turn for the worst. One of those lies ends up bringing more tourists to the island and brings up a much larger question about tourism in general: what impact do we have on the places we travel to?
I always come across the statement ‘I didn’t like X because it was too touristy.’ But so what if a place is developed for tourism? Just because a place is well known shouldn’t put you off going there – you might end up having a great time.
Koh Phi Phi is a case in point. If you’ve been, you’ll remember the main town. It’s a messy monster of fluorescent tourists, booze and drugs, all searching for thrills and paradise. You might have gone to the viewpoint – for a lot of tourists, that’s as much of the island as you’ll see. For others, you might have seen the hidden unspoiled beaches and bays, the tsunami memorial, or the inner island town still recovering from the major tsunami in 2004, the actual community where most of the island’s workers live. Underneath the skin of tourism, there’s often a completely different side to a place.
The sea isn’t always clear
Paradise has it’s pitfalls. After a while you can become used to the beautiful beaches, the great weather and the lack of all responsibilities (or morals). You can find yourself needing a break from your holiday. With Richard, this manifests in his transformation from geeky gamer with ‘well defined thumbs’ to ‘hallucinogenic jungle warrior’. While the beach community seems like a utopia in the beginning of the film, it can never last; its doomed to break apart, and Richard’s growing up moment is his being able to see through the illusion, realising what holding onto it can do to a person (remember Daffy?).
As with all of Boyle’s films, The Beach offers an amazing soundtrack featuring works from Faithless, Underworld and UNKLE, the highlight track being Porcelain by Moby (which has never been deleted from my travel playlist). It captures the essence of the time, the kind of party frenzy always about to break out that visitors to Thailand (especially around the 1990s and early 2000s) will know all too well.
It’s not Boyle or DiCaprio’s best work, but its great fun, engrossing, with just enough serious stuff to make you think, and it stays with you long after watching.