"He would live to look upon the western sea and he was equal to whatever might follow for he was complete at every hour. Whether his history should run concomitant with men and nations, whether it should cease. He’d long forsworn all weighing of consequence and allowing as he did that men’s destinies are given yet he usurped to contain within him all that he would ever be in the world and all that the world would be to him and be his charter written in the urstone itself he claimed agency and said so and he’d drive the remorseless sun on to its final endarkenment as if he’d ordered it all ages since, before there were paths anywhere, before there were men or suns to go upon them."
- Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian
Fruition is a wonderful thing. After years of abstract dreaming and many months of serious planning and work, I have finally realized a long held ambition. This was something that I had dreamed about in a vague, far off, hypothetical kind of way for years and years. It was something that I had never realistically comprehended until recently. In a general sense, what I yearned for was to behold with my own eyes a glimpse of the foreign and exotic beauty of the world. I wanted to see places that are referred to as ‘paradise’ without exaggeration. For as long as I can remember my most defined and exemplary understanding of that beauty was manifested in the tropical island featured in a movie called “The Beach” – a tropical island that happens to be located in the Andaman Sea, off the west coast of southern Thailand. This story tells of my adventure to that island. It’s about my own quest to experience paradise and how a desire sparked long ago came to be fulfilled.
My journey to paradise began by flying from Bangkok to Phuket, the largest and most internationally renowned island in Thailand. Tourists from all over the word travel to Phuket to enjoy its many spacious white sand beaches, crystalline waters, and tropical atmosphere. The west flank of Phuket is scalloped with beaches one to two kilometers long, and from each of these beaches has grown towns of varying sizes. The largest and most popular beach town on the island is called Patong, but I stayed two beaches and about 15 minutes south of Patong in a much smaller and quieter community called Kata. I left Bangkok at 9 am on a Monday morning and by 1 pm that day I was lounging in the middle of Kata Beach staring west out over the Andaman Sea.
This was the beginning of the low season for tourism in Thailand. Apparently the disparity between low and high seasons is quite large, because throughout my week in the islands there was an obvious dearth of travelers. It was a strange feeling to be in one of the most famous islands on this side of the world, but have the beaches, restaurants, and guesthouses almost entirely to myself. In the beginning there were constant and conflicting senses of eerie emptiness and peaceful sleepiness, but after a day or two I accepted the sunburned, speedo-wearing void as a good thing.
I spent my days in Phuket relaxing on the beaches, sampling the incredible seafood selection at the numerous eateries around town, and catching up on my reading. This was after all, the break after my first term as an English teacher in Bangkok. It was nice to be able to pump the breaks on life again. In the flurry of our daily grinds it’s too easy to get caught up in routines and schedules, and before you know it months have gone by of which we can’t recall a single notable experience – rather it appears in retrospect as a slurred amalgamation, the average of which not being particularly distinctive from any individual day or moment. We seldom have the opportunity to sit back, take a breath, and reflect. While lounging on a covered beach chair on Kata Beach, I found myself doing just that. Looking west out over the Andaman towards the Indian Ocean and beyond, I was sucked into a long moment of perspective. I sat there watching the waves, contemplating where I’ve come from, all the places I’ve been, where I am now, and the vast distances in between. Upon this sort of reflection, it’s hard not to become overwhelmed with the scope of it all and the memories that lie therein. What I did not expect was the accompanying feeling of contentment. A confident contentment born from the realization that whatever paths loom in my future, I will at least be equal to them, as I have been to those in the past, and thus will walk them as they come but not before. It’s amazing the places the mind will go, given the time and the opportunity to wander.
After a couple restful days in Phuket, I jumped on a ferry to make the roughly 90 minute voyage to Koh Phi Phi. Phi Phi must be one of the most naturally beautiful places on Earth. It would hurt my brain to imagine otherwise. Koh Phi Phi is actually an island chain comprised of one prominent island called Phi Phi Don and a few other smaller uninhabited islands. The group of islands is located in the middle of Phang Nga Bay about half way between Phuket and Krabi. The next largest island after Phi Phi Don is called Phi Phi Leh. Within this smaller island resides the famous Maya Bay – otherwise known as ‘The Beach’. Accommodation is only available on the largest island, which is also where the ferry arrives. As the ferry slugs into the bay, giant green limestone cliffs sprout from the water and slowly begin to encircle the boat. Looking forward you can see the flat, narrow isthmus connecting the mountains of green on your right and left. To look down is to glimpse the shadow of the ferry against the ocean floor through only the thinnest layer of turquoise glass. I had finally made it to paradise.
Given my generally flabbergasted and all together good mood, I decided to splurge and book a sea side bungalow for the few nights that I would stay on the island, although as a rule I normally opt for the cheapest form of accommodation available. The bungalow ran me a staggering $15 US per night which, all things considered, I suppose was a good deal.
I spent my first day on Phi Phi Don exploring the island. I found some trails that snake up the side of one of its towering cliffs leading to a series of view points. I followed these steep jungle trails – much to the dismay of my legs – all the way to the end and managed to snap some incredible pictures along the way. After this somewhat exhausting excursion, I found a quiet beachside bar near my bungalow with a hammock slung up in the shade of an upturned longtail boat and settled in with a book, a frosty beer, and the breeze.
The next day I chartered a longtail boat tour of the smaller Phi Phi Leh for a whopping $6 US. The half-day tour included a number of stops at a variety of mind bogglingly beautiful locations, but the main event was an hour long stop in Maya Bay. This is the exact location where, in the aforementioned film, Leonard Dicaprio and friends stumble out of the jungle to witness a natural scene so beautiful it can justifiably be used from then on as both a concrete and metaphorical representation of the idea of paradise, thus inspiring a generation of travelers to go in search of their own secret slice of bliss. So does the real thing measure up to the Hollywood version? Yes, it does in every possible way, except one. When you step down onto the beach of beaches, you immediately realize that it’s no longer a secret – not by a long shot. In fact you are likely sharing the beach with hundreds of other tourists. While this does not necessarily detract from the incredible environment, it does seem somewhat bittersweet. No one’s idea of paradise ever includes fat Russians in speedos or Japanese men swimming next to you in four feet of water with snorkel masks on.
Speaking of snorkeling, I got to do some of that too. Koh Phi Phi is famous for its numerous dive sites, around the islands and off-shore. After our stop in Maya Bay we braved a short tropical storm that seemed to manifest itself in a matter a seconds. Although the storm dissipated even faster than it arrived, there were a few moments when I feared for the constitution of our rickety wooden longtail boat. Eventually we motored into a quiet little cove and spent about a half hour consorting with schools of fish of so many colors they would make a rainbow jealous. This was the last stop on the Phi Phi Leh tour, so when the snorkeling was finished we began the short voyage back to the main island.
The next day I would leave Koh Phi Phi, heading back to Phuket. But my island adventures were not yet finished. The last thing I wanted to do before leaving southern Thailand was explore Phang Nga Bay. Reminiscent of Halong Bay in Vietnam, Phang Nga is famous for its hundreds of limestone rock formations that jut vertically out of the water. The most famous location in the picturesque bay is a small island with a shallow bay, in the middle of which balances a rock tower like an inverted mountain. You may recognize the location as the secret island hideout of the villain Francisco Scaramanga in the film ‘The Man with the Golden Gun.’ The island is quite unimaginatively known in Thailand as James Bond Island. From Phuket I booked an all day tour through the bay on a large multilevel cruiser. The tour included a stop at James Bond Island for pictures, a kayaking trip through some caves, and a brief hitch at a small traditional Muslim fishing village that is famous in Thailand for its youth soccer club. I recently found an amazing short film spot lighting the island and the story of its footballers here. The day after the Phang Nga tour I left the islands of the south, heading back to Bangkok, back to work, back to life.
It has been said that the world is like a book. People who never travel only get to read one chapter of that book. If that’s true, then I suppose I could summarize my recent life ambitions as wanting to read as much of the book as I possibly can. This trip to the islands of southern Thailand was for me more than a beach vacation. In a way, this trip was representative of my whole Asian adventure. When I was young and the world was still incomprehensibly large, I never imagined that I would be witness to such scenes of unimaginable beauty. But now that I’ve been there and done that, I understand that the only difference between the magnificent and the mundane is perspective. Paradise doesn’t exist - at least not in the way that most people perceive it. I still believe in paradise, but now I know it’s not some place you can look for, because it’s not where you go. It’s how you feel when you’re there, when you’re immersed in something previously unbelievable. And when you do find that moment, know that it doesn’t last forever. That’s why its precious. That’s why we chase it.