An account of a few weeks spent on the island of Koh Pha-Ngan in Thailand before it became the south-east Asian equivalent of Ibiza.
I was finally returning home to begin my university education after two and a half years of travels. I’d always maintained contact with my family while away and on two occasions my father had even come out to join me. However, when my return home had become imminent, I’d decided to withhold the date of my arrival, though I’m not too sure why I did this. Maybe I wanted to demonstrate the independence I’d attained through my travels by getting home without parental assistance . . . or maybe I just wanted to be dramatic.
I was flying home from Australia and had bought a ticket that included a four-week stopover in Thailand, my last opportunity to sample a different culture before returning to the familiarity of the life I had temporarily escaped. It was at a time when this country was becoming established on the backpackers’ circuit while still offering the chance for an authentic, south-east Asian experience. It would be quite a few more years before it built its current reputation of an inexpensive sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll tourist destination.
I arrived early evening and spent the first night in Bangkok at a backpackers’ hostel on the now legendary Khao San Road – a street of cafés, bars, budget accommodation and countless stalls offering boot-leg cassettes, watches, jewellery and clothing. The next morning, I travelled a few hours west to Kanchanaburi and realized a childhood dream to see the bridge on the River Kwae. The following day, I went to a national park nearby and spent the afternoon in a tropical forest laced with streams cascading into deep, crystal-clear pools. I’d also considered a trip north to Chiang Mai to make a trek by elephant, but my world trip was coming to an end and it was time to find the one geographical feature I had pursued with the most vigour throughout my travels: The Beach.
I’d read about an island in the south-west of the Gulf of Thailand, off the coast of the narrow strip of land that leads down to Malaysia. It’s called Koh Samui and had been highly recommended by many of the travellers I’d met in Australia who had arrived via Asia. I first consulted my Lonely Planet guidebook for travel information, then bussed back to the capital and took an overnight bus south. The next morning, feeling a little drained due to an uncomfortable journey spent trying to digest some rather spicy noodles, I made the four-hour ferry crossing to my chosen destination.
Unfortunately, when I arrived I was very disappointed at what I found. Although it must have once resembled the picture-postcard photos I’d seen, this island was brimful of backpackers and far too many reminders that I still hadn’t escaped from that part of the world that was ‘real’. I was looking for a beach resort for people who don’t like beach resorts. Koh Samui certainly couldn’t offer this but I’d read about another island close by that had only recently been discovered by backpackers. I concluded it might well be a suitable alternative, so I took a bus to a small village on the northern tip of Koh Samui where there were boats that made the short crossing to the island of Koh Pha-Ngan.
While sitting in a homely rural restaurant, waiting for the next boat, I spotted a familiar face. It was an English girl I’d met about a month earlier at the Thai Embassy in Melbourne when I’d been applying for my visa. This was something that had happened quite frequently during my travels, yet chance meetings with familiar faces still never ceased to amaze me. I knew just one person in Thailand and here she was, in the same restaurant as me!
I went over for a chat and had to ask her name, even though I was sure she’d told me when we first met at the Embassy. She was called Sue and after a brief exchange of travel stories – a custom that soon becomes protocol for any long-term traveller – we took the boat to Koh Pha-Ngan.
As we landed on Hat Rin beach, the sight of naked hippies playing Frisbee on acid made me think that, perhaps, this wasn’t the type of place I was looking for. While set in a beneficial location on a lowland peninsula at the eastern end of the island and noticeably less developed than Koh Samui, I didn’t feel that the obvious presence of a ‘drug culture’ would be conducive to the experience I was pursuing. I only stayed there for one night, and the following morning I headed up the coast in search of somewhere a little less contaminated with the shortcomings of the West.
Eventually, I came across an appealing hamlet of about a dozen bamboo huts – ‘bungalows’, as they were called by the locals – and a rustic restaurant. They were situated on a stunning stretch of beach with a barrier reef breaking the surf about a hundred yards out, and the whole complex blended beautifully with a backdrop of coconut fields rising up to mountains enshrouded in a canopy of jungle. It was about midway between the ‘hippie-zoo’ of Hat Rin and the island’s main town, Tong Sala, so was also relatively tranquil. Believing it would be impossible to find anywhere more comparable to my desired utopia, I rented an A-frame hut at a very reasonable rate and began three glorious weeks in a setting so idyllic that my mind almost refused to accept it.
The days quickly slipped into a relaxed routine of a short swim before a fruit salad for breakfast, and then a long snorkel over the reef followed by endless hours of sunbathing, sketching and swimming. On my second day there, my watch even stopped, thus enhancing the easy-going atmosphere of a place where time wasn’t important.
Around late afternoon, I usually wandered down to Hat Rin to enjoy the sunset from the top of a wooden lookout tower. It was always a very social event and invariably led to a meal with whomever I’d met, at one of the candle-lit, inexpensive but enchanting restaurants that catered for Hat Rin’s community of backpackers. These restaurants all served a variety of tasty Thai cuisine, and very soon I discovered a delightful dish that I found almost addictive. It was a vegetable deep fried in batter, served with a sweet and sour sauce, and was simply called ‘no name’.
On one of my sunset excursions I met Chris and Aden, a couple of guys from England. They were about the same age as me but had begun travelling after university and had chosen a route opposite to my global circuit, thus making Thailand one of their first destinations. Nevertheless, they were certainly far more familiar with this country than I was, having toured extensively before arriving on the island a few weeks earlier.
Chris seemed to possess a natural reticence, but I felt an excitement flicker somewhere inside me when Aden talked of all the experiences he’d encountered during his first few months of travel. Listening to him recount some of his stories, it was as if I were looking into a mirror at a young man just starting out on the big adventure I was now on the point of completing.
Towards the end of an enjoyable evening of Thai food, travel chat and rice whisky, they invited me to join them on a hike into the jungle the following day. This sounded like an unmissable opportunity and as I wandered back to my hut along a moonlit beach, my mind became pervaded with exotic images of the proposed tropical trek.
The next morning, I gathered together some food, a bottle of water, my sketchbook and a camera, and set off down the coast to meet the others. When I reached Hat Rin there was still a freshness in the morning air, but I had to patiently wait for Chris and Aden to get ready until we eventually embarked on our expedition in the heat of the midday sun.
The first part of the trek was very easy, a gentle stroll through the coconut groves encircling this backpackers’ resort, but it progressively became harder as we started to penetrate the interior of the island. It took a lot of stamina to hike up a mountain through dense jungle, and for Aden this was particularly arduous. He was quite small in stature, whereas Chris and I shared the same tall, slim build. Consequently, after struggling to keep up for an hour or so, he chose to return to Hat Rin, leaving us to continue with our battle through the incredibly beautiful landscape.
We had to ask for directions from locals a couple of times because the overgrown trail wasn’t that easy to follow, and at one point it led us right up to the front door of a small hut. This door was open, so we announced our presence and entered in the hope of receiving some guidance.
As we peered into the semi-darkness of this modest dwelling, we discovered it to be inhabited by a blond-haired English guy who was currently sitting cross-legged on the floor ‘wearing’ nothing more than the guitar he was strumming. He introduced himself as Gavin and told us he’d been living there for several months, so he was able to give us clear directions to the coast on the other side of the island. We thanked him for his help and continued on our way until we finally broke through the jungle onto a completely isolated, exquisitely beautiful beach with not a naked hippie or Frisbee in sight.
By then we were both completely exhausted but we still managed to find enough energy to pick a few coconuts for a refreshing drink much cooler than what remained in our water bottles. Then we sat ourselves down on the warm, inviting sand and gave our weary limbs a very welcome rest.
Some time later we were joined by Gavin, now clothed in the unusual combination of brightly coloured Bermuda shorts and a black trilby. He’d thought that a trek through the jungle had sounded quite inviting and had decided to catch up with us. Having spent several years travelling throughout Asia, he’d amassed a wonderful repertoire of travel tales, a few of which he recounted with the finesse of an experienced storyteller. Then we all set off to hike further along the undeveloped coast of Koh Pha-Ngan.
After a few hours, we came across a secluded cove with a virgin beach hidden by a curtain of coconut palms. In the centre of this beach there was a shimmering, freshwater pool fed by a fast-flowing stream that had eroded a deep gorge into the enclosing mountain ridge. It was like we’d come to the far side of paradise, and I loved it.
Even though our expedition had begun as a day trip, we all agreed it was the perfect place to set up camp for the night, as it was now far too late to return to ‘civilization’. We left our bags on the sand, picked a few coconuts and then set about collecting some driftwood to make a campfire for the evening meal. Gavin had some rice and local condiments with him and I had some tinned fish in my daypack, so he started cooking while Chris and I bodysurfed in pounding breakers not found on the other side of the island. After an invigorating swim, we bathed in the freshwater pool and then dined under the stars, chatting until the early hours whilst sipping sweet coconut water.
Despite a full stomach and a tired body, I was afforded little sleep that night. We were completely exposed to the open air, which was thick with mosquitoes, and I felt quite cold, as I was clothed in nothing more than a T-shirt and light cotton trousers. However, my discomfort was offset by the nocturnal chorus of the jungle combined with a full moon rising over a rippling ocean, and at the end of a long and almost sleepless night I saw the cool pink glow of sunrise too.
Following a quick breakfast, we collected our things together and resumed our hike. Here, the coastline consisted of cliffs, forcing us to cut inland through the mountainous jungle for some more punishment. As w’ad discovered the previous day, trekking through this type of terrain was extremely demanding but the pleasurable views more than justified the pain.
Around mid-morning, we reached a charming little coastal settlement comprising only three or four huts and a small bamboo pavilion. Gavin could speak Thai quite competently, so he asked one of the residents if they could prepare some food for us and it wasn’t long before we were each served an omelette with rice and a chilled bottle of Coca-Cola. Once we’d eaten our fill, enjoyed a moment’s respite and reimbursed the locals for their hospitality, we recommenced our trek, this time over rocks at the edge of the sea.
Along the way, we came across a Swiss guy living in a shack on the beach. By this time we were ready for another rest, so I had a nap in his hammock while Gavin chatted with him and Chris sat under a palm tree, engrossed in a book. When we eventually set off again, our little group had grown to four, since the Swiss guy had also decided to join us.
We continued on to Than Sedet, a small fishing village that could only be reached by first negotiating a steep, forested headland. The final descent was through very dense jungle, in some places virtually in darkness, but after a period of strenuous physical exertion we emerged from the thick vegetation into the brightness of a coastal valley.
This picturesque village was situated at the point where several small rivers converged before meeting the sea, making it a place of immense natural beauty due to the numerous waterfalls concealed in its environs. We crossed the rickety bamboo bridge that spanned these combined rivers and wandered through the huts until we came across the village restaurant. Then we slumped down onto a bench, soaked up the laid-back ambience and bathed in a blissful feeling of complete exhaustion mixed with a wonderful sense of achievement: we had survived two days in the wild!
At that moment of sheer satisfaction, I remember thinking about a book I’d read as a child. It was one of my own personal favourites, a book that had influenced my adult life significantly and in one sense had instigated the journey I’d just completed. It was called Lord of the Flies and told the story of a group of young boys, dropped into the wilderness of a desert island with no adults to supervise them, and their struggle to build a civilisation that ultimately ended in barbarism. It was the definitive ‘beach-life legend’ and would also form the basis of a novel to be written by another English backpacker, several years later, set in this very same group of islands.
We relaxed for a while in the shade of the restaurant veranda, and then set about organizing accommodation for the night. Gavin planned to sleep on the beach but both Chris and I decided we would rather stretch to the expense (and luxury) of a hut. That evening we sat on the beach with many other backpackers around the glowing embers of a campfire, all talking travel, telling jokes and singing songs until the early hours. Finally, the combination of a long day’s hike followed by a late night produced a very good night’s sleep, in spite of a mosquito net that was full of holes, not to mention the profusion of gaping cracks in the walls and floor of our hut.
The next morning, Chris and I chose the slightly easier option of taking a boat back to Hat Rin. I would have liked to continue with our expedition a little longer – I was enjoying my brief taste of life as ‘Indiana Jones’ – but my extended world trip was on the point of concluding and I had a flight to catch in a few days. When we reached the beach at Hat Rin, I said farewell to my fellow jungle explorer and began hiking back to my hut to prepare for the journey to Bangkok.
As I wandered along this now familiar stretch of beach for the final time, I felt a small pang of regret. The past few days had been the high point of my stay here, an experience I would never forget, and I’d shared it from beginning to end with Chris. Yet I knew so little about him. I wasn’t even sure what part of England he came from.
I left Koh Pha-Ngan the following day on the night boat from Tong Sala to Surat Thani. This ferry was affectionately known as the ‘Coconut Boat’ by backpackers because the hull was always loaded to the water line with coconuts before any passengers could climb aboard. During one stormy crossing the previous year, this boat’s predecessor had sunk. It was a dreadful disaster that had resulted in the deaths of all passengers apart from three German girls who swam for five hours towards distant, glittering lights until they eventually reached the shores of Koh Samui. A German backpacker told me this story as we chugged across to the mainland lying on thin mattresses in the cramped, three-foot headroom passenger deck with the unnerving sound of coconuts rolling back and forth on the deck below us.
Upon arrival, I bussed back to the capital, found accommodation on ‘Backpacker Boulevard’ and spent my penultimate day abroad buying gifts in Bangkok’s marvellously cheap markets. On my final night, I sat in a bar on the Khao San Road, a farewell glass of rice whisky in hand, thinking about all of my adventures around the globe. I realized I’d learned so much about the world that I could never have learned in any other way. But I also understood that I’d discovered a great deal about myself and even though my travels were about to come to an end, I knew they were something that would always be with me.
As I sat there, contemplating the past few years of my life, I started to have a strange feeling that I was about to meet someone I knew. Just as I was becoming aware of this sensation, I turned around and there, at the bar, was a guy I felt sure I’d met before. It had happened again, another chance meeting with someone from my past travels.
Although I never forget a face, names have always been a problem for me. As I studied his familiar features, trying to at least remember where we’d first met, absolutely nothing came to mind. With no other option available, I got up, walked over to the bar, tapped him on the shoulder and simply said, ‘I know you from somewhere.’
‘Steve!’ he replied without the slightest hesitation. ‘What are you doing here?’
‘Waiting for a flight, but w– where do I know you from?’
‘The International Network Hostel, Los Angeles, about a year and a half ago.’
‘Oh yeah, of course. You’re Swedish, aren’t you?’
‘Yeah, I was the one who got stuck in LA when the Greyhound Bus Company lost my backpack and I got a job at the hostel as night security.’
‘That’s it! I remember,’ I said as everything started coming back. ‘I had to wake you up very late one night to let me in after I’d been to a party.’
‘Yes, that’s right,’ he said with a friendly smile.
‘But, er, I still can’t remember your name,’ I added with embarrassment.
‘Of course, Petter! How’s it going, man?’
Unfortunately, we didn’t have much time to reminisce about our time together in Los Angeles or catch up on our respective travels since then because I had a plane to catch. It was due to leave at midnight, so at around nine o’clock I said my goodbyes and went to get a taxi. At the airport, I found the Scandinavian Airlines desk quite quickly but just before checking in, I realized there was one more thing I needed to do. I ceremoniously removed my well-used sandals, threw them in the bin and then laced up my hiking boots in preparation for my journey back to the rolling fields of England’s green and pleasant land.
Taken from Half-Time by Steve Devereaux
Published by Gringo Latino Books.