It never ceases to amaze and depress me that people constantly say, “It’s not the real world, is it?” The supposed ‘real world’ must always be a grim urban environment where people work eight hours a day and struggle to pay the bills. Apparently when you’re studying or travelling or just relaxing on a beach it’s not real. Reality has to be mundane to be believed. Well from my point of view the opposite is true. A place that doesn’t inspire is lacking in life and therefore reality. Months can go by at work without anything memorable happening. Memories make a place and an event real for us. If a life is monotonous without troughs and peeks surely there is little to remember? Whereas who can forget a lonely mountain pinnacle or an empty beach next to the jungle? Who can forget that night on mushrooms in Indonesia when the drums and stars melded into a merry dance of creation? The more beautiful the place and moment the more memorable, and hence real it becomes. And of all my memories (that I’ve been lucky enough to gather) one of the most out-standing has got to be the 16 months I lived on a tropical beach. Life was a beach back then, leaving it to put on a shirt and make money was a bitch.
For 10 months my wife and I were away from our former beach home in Thailand. It had been a wrench to leave and it was a joy to return. Whilst being departed from my beloved I foolishly thought that I had managed to cure myself of my addiction for living on a beach. How naïve of me! It only took a few days to make me hopelessly hooked again on a sandy locale and its demanding routines. I get up late and have a joint. Go for breakfast and stare at the sea. Come back to the bungalow for smoke number two and a spot of reading while the wife hand washes the clothes. Then it’s smoke number three and on with the sun block before taking the minute-stroll to the beach. Then it’s a good long plunge in the warm water and maybe a game of frisbee. Then it’s time to return to the bungalow for a quick smoke and shower before lunch. After lunch we either read, watch a downloaded movie or sleep. Then it’s the final swim before getting ready for dinner. After dinner we sit around and chat or go out and socialize in a bar. By the time we get to the final smoke I’ve lost count what number it is. It always seems enough because I never have any troubles drifting off to sleep. During this hectic schedule there never seems enough time for those other irritating tasks like changing money, scoring gear, driving to the main town to buy provisions and doing the inevitable visa runs. Life on the beach robs you of your sense of time; and then when it’s over leaves you bereft of contentment. Before you know it you are in work and pushed for time.
The return to the beach was just a short visit. I had an appointment with lots of potential reality in South America to keep. So it was a quick hello and goodbye to the beach life. We left saddened but not despondent because we weren’t about to re-enter ‘the real world’ of early mornings and shaver blades, but instead we were about to plunge into the world of lamas, mojitos, and Incas ruins.
This article is dedicated to the beach, which I won’t name for obvious reasons, where myself and my wife stayed and have been continually re-visiting for over 12 years. I’ve managed to divide my comments and anecdotes into several categories in order to try and impose a bit of structure on my hazy but fond memories.
People are entirely mistaken when they imagine that Thai food is nice. The stuff being sold in the restaurants isn’t Thai food. It’s loosely based on Thai food and made suitable for farang tastes with a lot of samey Chinese dishes thrown in. The average Thai eats unfeasibly spicy food which often consists of brown sludgy soup full of stuff you can’t eat like lemon grass and the odd bit of pork. And side dishes of barely edible jungle leaves.
To save money we got into the habit of buying box lunches from the ‘motorbike woman’ who came every morning from the main town carrying dozens of polystyrene boxes and plastic bags fastened with elastic bands. Invariably I choose chicken and rice with a complimentary plastic bag of soup stock. After eating the same lunch for 2 or 3 months my body started rejecting it. Every morning I woke with stomach cramps followed by a brief outpouring in the toilet. It got to the stage where I simply skipped lunch. After 16 months I lost 4 kilos in weight.
The problem of how to feed yourself cheaply was approached by Olga in a different manner. Olga was and probably still is an irritating Russian woman in her 40s. She lingered around restaurants looking for scraps that tourists had left on their plates. At night we heard her banging the trees to get the crab apples. She also bought her ingenuity into play and started collecting stuff from around the beach. She was always trying to get us to buy a lilo or hammock she had found. It didn’t take me long to realize that she had been rummaging around in the bungalows that had been vacated recently to get first pick of all the junk visitors tend to abandon in their huts. I got thoroughly fed up when I caught her rifling through our bin looking for re-saleable items. In the end I had to tell her to stay the fuck away from our rubbish.
I got some minor satisfaction when we saw Olga one morning with horrendously swollen lips. She had tried to eat cashew nuts without grilling them first. The grilling is essential because cashews contain some minor poison which is drawn out by the heat. If she’d been a better person, a local would have told her how foolish it was to eat uncooked cashews.
This is a bit of a misnomer because most of the Thais living and working on the beach are from some other place in Thailand or South East Asia. There are a few notable exceptions such as the T family who run the bungalow outfit where we stay and M who owns one of the two nightclubs on the beach. The other ‘locals’ are from places like Nakhon Si Thammarat, Ayutthaya, Burma and Laos.
One of our favourite locals is Big Kong. She is a surprisingly active grandmother who has never learnt a word of English. She has a small shop that she lives in. Business is slow because none of the tourists can understand her and her stock is expensive and probably much of it passed its sell by date. We often see her tending her flower garden or pulling up pineapples. She always has a big smile and some incomprehensible chat for us when we encounter her. But what makes her our favourite is the delightful rumour that this white haired old dear has previously paid for someone to be bumped off. I doubt whether it’s true, but Big Kong is the grandmother you don’t fuck with.
Every beach in Thailand has its gay inhabitants and this beach is no exception. There are a few lady boys working in various hotels and bars. For a while one she-man was sporting quite a dashing moustache. But the character I wanted to mention is gay but not a lady boy. What is of note about him is that he is scarily gay (sg), in that he’s a predator. He used to wear fisherman pants with little holes cut out of them around the arse. With his batty exposed he would ruthlessly hang around handsome straight farang (Thai for ‘foreigner’) men getting drunk in the bars. No doubt hoping they would get so drunk they would forget their sexual orientation and take him home with them. You would think it was a hopeless tactic but recently I heard SG man managed just such a feat. A huge body builder type was one of his confirmed victims. The body builder soon left after the dire night, only to return a few weeks later with a bar girl. He no doubt wanted to prove his heterosexual credentials, but with such awful gossips such as myself around the consensus of opinion still firmly places Mr. Bodybuilder in the gay camp.
All the ingredients for a party are on the beach: wine, women and song. The ‘wine’ category has naturally improved over the years and now includes a panoply of drugs besides ganja. The ‘woman’ part is covered by locals and tourists and the ‘song’ is loud with Thai characteristics. The most salient characteristics being that the sound system must intermittently fuck up because of power cuts or speakers blowing, and secondly, that the DJ must play the same 8 or 10 killer tunes every night. The result is that now I don’t care if someone loves the way I walk or if its ‘dare’ and that ‘beautiful girl’ sometimes make me feel ‘suicidal’ too.
Twice a week the music is cranked up from 7pm and doesn’t come to a permanent halt until 6am the next day. We happened to live within 100 metres of both party venues. Fairly frequently the rain would cause some problem with the power line from the main town (24kms away) and revelers would sit and shout by candlelight. Never have the fates been kind enough to cause an all night power cut on a party night. Perhaps the real killer blow from our position was that another bar on the opposite side would often start off with Oasis or salsa music at 10am. Combined with a cramped bungalow and soaring morning temperatures it often made me feel groggy and bearish.
Naturally the solution is to join something you cannot defeat. So my wife and I would go to the parties and pass buckets with friends and strangers and come back to our bungalow and pass out. On a few nights we would also DJ. It was all generally good fun and we had many memorable nights, including a New Year’s bash with magic shakes. We got used to missing two full night’s sleep and the toxic Thai whisky. It was also a great way to hang out with the locals and when on two or more occasions they warned us to leave because the police were soon coming to temporarily shut the party down and perhaps bust a smoker, we felt that partying was paying interesting dividends.
Sadly, one night my temper got the better of me. I had foolishly imagined that taking all the stress out of my life by swanning around on a beach would take all the stress out of me. To my profound dismay I would find myself fuming with anger over relatively trivial stuff. It seems you can take the boy out of England, but not the English out of the boy. I have some ‘fair play’ categorical imperative gland tucked somewhere in my cranium that occasionally makes a strong connection to the motoring part of the brain. On the particular night I have in mind, the gland’s pre-eminence was triggered by a tour group of about 100 German minimal techno freaks. Every year they bring with them famous(ish) Berlin DJs, their own equipment and considerable group spending power. The locals put up their drinks prices and the lucky bars that get official venue status also get a revenue bonanza. Although watching professional DJs close up and listening to music that doesn’t change genre every 40 minutes was at first enjoyable, I soon wearied of the slow repetitious clicking and beeping with only ‘minimal’ breaks. The parties would finish precisely at 6am. On the night in question, the resident Thai DJ who is probably equal in DJ capabilities to his rich German counterparts, started playing after 6am. It was the same tedious minimal sound. Sore-eyed with zero sleep, the drugs definitely not working, I stormed into the bar in only my dirty shorts and started shouting at the DJ to turn it off. He nicely turned it down a fraction so the 5 or 6 straggling Germans could also participate. I naturally pointed out what time it was and suggested they were being selfish (naturally my actual words were far more abusive and abrasive). I raged for over a minute and I’m sure lots of poor sleep-deprived souls were also listening with rapt attention. To my regret I failed the silent majority and turned and walked out. The music went up a notch to its original amplitude and I heard laughter.
I guess there might be some spiritual benefit to be had from screaming in a nightclub at 6 in the morning. So far I haven’t found the page in Wikipedia that deals with this teaser. On a more mundane level my outburst was later more widely chorused and the bar nearly lost its lease. It was only saved by doing some sound proofing work that kept the bar without walls but square instead of round. This must be that squares absorb sound better than circles. Nevertheless the 4 months hiatus in one of the party nights gained enough good will to buy into the square theory, which of course turned out to be entirely fallacious on the opening night, but loads of people had a great time anyway.
The story has one final twist. Half the beach front was bought up by a fancy arse developer that has built a boutique mass of tightly packed 2 storey villas with pools. Naturally enough they are very expensive and with money flows political power. The backers have bought the Bangkok war on alcoholism to the beach by getting the usually lethargic local constabulary to make it down the bumpy, hilly road to the beach and shut down the parties at 2am. Such tactics have immediate results. For some reason policemen have more moral authority than me and the music instantly goes off. The Thai flavor to the story is that the police have failed to regularly turn up and the secret warning channels of communication seem very much open. So closing time fluctuates. The same has been true of other beaches in the wider area. What cannot be in doubt is a trend for catering for the higher end of the market that doesn’t quite fit with the older, freer and more dangerous style preferred by the not so posh. When we went back for a few weeks the parties had hit an all time low. On nights that used to host maybe 60 or 70 people the attendance has dropped to just 10. I’ve seen more people partying during the height of the monsoon. On our last visit the music went on past 2am but it felt like Bangkok politics (reds vs yellows) and the 5 star beach resort nonsense had already dealt the killer blow to the late night loud party. It was no longer ‘dare’.
When we lived in China only one friend visited; when we lived in Japan my family and a few other friends visited. When my address moved to Thailand people suddenly didn’t lose it so quickly. It seemed every month someone from Japan or the UK dropped in for a few games of frisbee and more than a few smokes. It would make an interesting psychological study to compare people’s behavior shortly before arriving on the beach with their behavior during the next few days living on the beach. For most you can see the stress lifting form their shoulders and often you hear the groan of pleasure when they first get in the warm sea. For D and C they got so relaxed they left their passport in the bungalow ‘safe’ (actually a locked drawer) and headed off for Bangkok. Luckily someone in the T family spotted the lost passports in the safe and high tailed it to the port. They managed to spot D and C on the deck of the ferry. D and C got off the boat and retrieved their passports but they were forced to spend another night on the beach.
Z turned up after being forced to exit Japan and get a new visa. He went at it with a vengeance. He quickly found a group consisting of a Scottish bird, a weird German and a mellow man from Canada with his South African wife and baby daughter. He hit the booze in typical Z fashion – getting plastered early and managing to vaguely hold it together for the rest of the evening while sipping on any convenient boozy drink to hand. He recalled a nasty tale of getting naked with the undainty Scottish lass and mistakenly poking away at her arsehole before being promptly given his marching orders. On another night he recalled waking up face down in the sea after briefly passing out during a post binge night swim. Z was also under the bizarre illusion that real outdoors men from the States didn’t need sun block. Apparently a couple of days exposing his pale over-weight frame was going to awaken the chestnut browns of former summers back home spent chopping wood and killing animals. His body must have got its dates muddled because what awoke wasn’t healthy browns, but instead sunset reds: a painful reminder that you have been kissed by the sun of Thailand, which I might add has a ferocious ability to burn bodies and nicely warm the sea.
Another friend from Japan, S came to visit. She was a young British woman intent on experiencing the full benefit of a beach life. She fought off the ganja lethargy and then did exceedingly well to refrain from getting involved with the dodgy business schemes proposed by Werner (an odd German bloke who speaks in fluent pidgin English) and Mr. B (a shady Thai looking to exploit a partnership). Instead, she plowed straight into a diving course. Then she motored her way through the buckets and dragged an even younger Thai chap back to her bungalow at the edge of the village. The Thai chap seemed particularly well pleased with himself for the next few days before S shot off to a distant beach to learn yoga. The story writes itself. She yoked her atman to the Brahman and found true Thai love – a love that was to sadly wither outside the idyllic setting of a beach.
Finally, for this installment, there is the amusing tale of a good mate from Australia called Jason who came to the beach with 4 other mates. I hadn’t seen Jason for ages. Naturally what happens when good mates get together after a long absence? Yes, that’s right: coke and shrooms and buckets and pills and spliffs and a couple of hours sunbathing that’s what happens. One particular night we pulled out all the stops. Chemical love was in the air. F had put on his pyjamas for the event. Josh had on his usual metro kit of white slacks tight around the bum with an embroidered white shirt left completely open at the front. Nobody seemed to be bothered about the moronic music at the party. Instead I caught two of my mates line dancing with the locals.
Soon enough night started easing into day and I left with Ob and F to go for a swim and watch the sunrise. The sea was choppy and kept pulling down my underpants, so I gave up and went to bed.
The next afternoon we all started gathering at F’s bungalow. My brother (who was also living on the beach at that time) told us that he had just come from the village where he had heard the locals gossiping about a farang seen walking back to his bungalow with a lady boy in tow at a suspiciously early hour of the morning. After further enquiry it came out that Jason might have walked a local lass back to his place, and that he might have invited her in, and that he might have performed some close quarter maneuvers with her. The ribbing grew in intensity on our part and uncertainty grew on Jason’s part. Our barbs became more obscene and inventive. He had more stick than Brazil. Jason soon started to wear dark sunglasses and linger in shady corners in order to avoid being spotted by his transsexual paramour.
This went on for a whole day and night before my brother finally revealed that he had made up the entire story about the lady boy and foreigner seen trysting by the locals. Obviously Jason was relieved but we carried on abusing him anyway because it made a fun soundtrack to the holiday.
And there ends part one of Life is a Beach. It’s amazing that while writing this article on the beach in question so much came flooding back. All the good times; the goofy times; the times spent rolling around in the dirt off my head on magic mushrooms; the times spent exploding on the toilet; and those spiritual times spent lying spread-eagled on my back in the sea watching the moon coming up.