Braving the bars, lady-boys and beaches in the Gulf of Thailand, I search for some genuine cultural curiosity amongst my fellow dissolute drifters.
There are snakes underneath my skin, coiling around my shinbone and slithering into my feet. The wrinkles wrapped around my thumbs are miniature orbital rings and the sand scattered across the floor glows and hovers like a constellation of earthbound stars. In the wooden slats of my bungalow roof there are a hundred boatpeople clawing through the lines to escape the hellish prison my mind has forged for them. But since I’m feeling like God I merely concentrate and eradicate all evil from the internal universe I’ve created. The hallucination slowly morphs into hundreds of beautiful Thai women, beckoning me over their bare shoulders with sultry winks.
There’s nothing left to do but call my mother and tell her what a fantastic time I’m having on magic mushrooms in the Gulf of Thailand. But the two Pommy travellers (re: drug dealers) who live in the bungalow behind mine, stop and ask if I’m okay. Why wouldn’t I be okay? I’ve been sitting naked in a hammock for ten hours smoking an endless cigarette (it’s not even lit) and reading minds beyond the horizon. Sure I’m happy, happier than I’ve ever been until I come down in two hours and I’m stumbling around in the shower unable to determine my dick from my jeans. Not even Buddha knows that kind of detached enlightenment.
But how the hell would I know? When I visited Phra Yai Temple in Koh Samui I was more concerned with my ribs. The night before a Thai hooker had gleefully cracked them by pushing me into a nightclub swimming pool in Chaweng, the party district of Koh Samui. I had just escaped the eye-watering grope of a kà-thoey (re: lady-boys) to suffer this terrible affront. The wheezing had me contemplating giving up smoking before I realised the shortness of breath was merely the development of another drunken night, and the only cruelty was the hundred steps leading to the Buddha statue atop the temple. When I got to the top I said a prayer for myself and lit another cigarette.
Over my shoulder was a looming 12 metre high golden statue known as Big Buddha and it reminded me that 95% of Thais are Buddhist. The reason that this gigantic reminder of how unhealthy I am is covered in gold comes down to the belief amongst Thai Buddhists of making merit. To gain more merit when visiting a temple, also known as wàt, Buddhists place an unopened lotus into a large shallow pot and light a bundle of incense at the base of an altar. The last piece of the offering is a gold leaf which is rubbed into the Buddha statues that lounge all over the country like golden garden gnomes. Merit could really stand for ‘spiritual credit’; the process is undertaken so a person may be born in a higher station in the next life.
Yet if you stick to the beach bars, the only Big Buddha you’ll hear referred to by Thai people is fat pale English backpackers with hair wrapped in unwashed hundred baht cornrows. These Buddha are also known as White Whales to Thai bartenders, who mockingly cast their invisible lines out into the ocean of revellers, hoping to hook a woman that would spirit them back to England and a better life.
At first it seems strange to a wayfarer such as me, having such a good time drinking all night where the cigarettes are ten cents a pack, that anyone would want to leave to go back to a dreary, rain soaked country. I suppose the grass is always greener (though not always this close to the Golden Triangle), especially when the monthly wage is the same amount I’ve spent on Red Bull in the last week.
Take Koh Pha-Ngan for example, the 168 km2 dot of heaven between Koh Samui and Koh Tao, where I met the aspiring whalers previously mentioned, Nuk and Tuk. Before 1939, when an enterprising general named Phibul Songkhram took over the country after King Rama VII abdicated, ending absolute monarchy in 1932, Thailand was known as Siam – the land of smiles. These grinning young bucks did the old idea proud, the friendliest people you’d ever meet, so friendly they’d try to paw off free Pomeranian puppies at any chance. But behind the constant smiling there was a weary frustration with a life of fire twirling and beach volleyball.
And if you were Thai, wouldn’t you want to get out? Koh Pha-Ngan, discovered by backpackers around twenty-five years ago and now world famous for Full Moon Parties, swells every lunar cycle like a tourist gorged on phàt thai from 11,846 people to between 10 and 30,000 more party-goers. After the festivities kids covered in fluoro moons, suns, love-hearts and swear words trudge back to their bungalows while others wait for the five-hour ferry back to Surat Thani on the concrete tongue poking fun at the sea. No one is cleaning up Hat Rin Nok (Sunrise Beach), the fingernail of white-sand beach lined with coconut palms they’ve just spent a week chugging sang-sung buckets on, gobbling ecstasy on, snorting cocaine on, smoking pot on, dancing on and fucking on. Not even me, but I had to escape two Swedish girls who could’ve gone tag-team in the ring against Hulk Hogan and the Undertaker. The fact that much of the Western world comes to Koh Pha-Ngan, can’t even figure out how to say khàwp khun (Thank you) and behaves like some undersexed and inappropriate alcoholic uncle at a family Christmas and then expects people like Tuk and Nuk to clean it all up may have something to do with their nightly conquest to net their own Moby Dick.
So, rather than earning merit in the Buddhist sense of the word, the backpackers of Thailand seem to be doing the exact opposite and revving towards spiritual bankruptcy as quickly as their 150-baht-a-day scooters will allow them. By night the beaches and nightclubs are a cesspool of boozed-up jocks wearing the tourist must-have of Same Same but Different singlets, grinding like unoiled robots against girls, hoping for awkward misunderstandings amongst the sand. By day the beaches are full of posers nosing through The Beach by Alex Garland, later scoffing down hamburgers while watching the televisions every Thai restaurant has dangling from the ceiling.
No one knows that in WWII Thailand allowed the Japanese access to the Gulf, or that by 1946 the government became a loyal supporter of French and US foreign policy in Southeast Asia, perhaps the reason they are the only nation in the region never to have been colonised. No one knows that King Rama V loved Koh Pah-Ngan, visiting it 20 times during his reign and referring to it as ‘The Royal Stream’, the real translation being ‘Sandbar.’ No one knows that sea-gypsies were the original inhabitants of the island 2000 years ago. But then again it’s likely that a lot of Thai people the age of backpackers don’t know this either, and without them the country’s economy would fall apart.
So is the real culture of the Gulf of Thailand to be found in Suan Saranrom (the Garden of Joys) psychiatric hospital in Surat Thani that takes on additional staff once a month to handle people like me? Or is it that Thailand is both the monasteries and the infamous sex-shows? The come-down of mushrooms creates shadows where before there were tiki-sticks. For days I dared not leave the bungalow, fearing invisible monkeys, sure that everyone in the street was waiting for the opportune moment to sell me into the sex trade (5% of Thailand’s GDP comes from prostitution – that’s 50 billion baht a year), yet before that I was greeted with nothing but the excitement of the exotic, confirmed by a landscape of friendly smiles.
Sure I may not have visited the famous waterfalls, or gone snorkelling on the coral reefs, woke up before midday or bowed for illumination before a Buddha and though it was a bungalow and not a temple, Thailand still offered the most religious experience of my life. The past month of travelling provoking a completeness and connectedness never before experienced. There aren’t many moments in life to sit without a care in the world watching the sun slowly turn the crystal water gold, weeping cause some guy named Sam made you a milkshake from his garden, realising for the first time just how beautiful life really is. I’ll take all the come-downs and chauvinistic assholes in the world to have thousands of Thai women seducing me from my bungalow roof. So I may not have scored any points with karma, but this life is enough for me anyway.