‘You bought your shoes in Nepal, I see’, said the stranger to yet another Aussie (me) on the ferry to Ko Phang An from Thailand’s mainland. It was a few seconds later that I realised he was referring to the army-green Kathmandu flip flops on my feet that I had picked up for five dollars in an op shop back in Sydney prior to my booking of a one-way ticket to Thailand.
My self-set mission had been to get to the smallest, most isolated-looking beach on map in the island’s dedicated section of my Thailand Lonely Planet, to escape the unending chaos of Khao San Road, and set up life indefinitely in a bungalow on the beach, one copy of Shantaram in hand. Time was on my side with a two-month visa and nowhere to be. According to the map, it appeared that would be Thad Thong Reng, right up in the north east corner of the island. A road to my destination existed – a good start. An elaborate plan of eating, sleeping and reading – all day – had been hatched.
Once you get off the ferry on Ko Phang An, there’s a bunch of taxi-trucks that take travellers to various beaches around the island. The cost is usually shared with other travellers, but in my case, no one else was going where I was going, so I paid a premium of around 400 baht.
‘Where you’re going is a five-minute walk from my home, so I will drive you as far as there, then you can walk. That beach is only five minutes away! Five minutes!’ said the driver.
It was a bumpy, jumpy 30-minute ride on a dirt road littered with holes caused by collapsed earth. She let me down from the back of the truck, took my fee, and, leaving me there, walked hurriedly into her house and shut the door.
My driver had abandoned me to a fork in the road and I was forced to chase her down and demand she at least tell me which road to take. There was no beach in site, (five minutes? I thought) just the fork in the road, and the jungle around us. She reluctantly came back to her front door, pointed out the way, and slammed the door shut again. At this point, nothing had struck me as particularly strange until I found myself ninety minutes later, still trekking along that dirt road through the jungle on my sun-burned, flip-flopped feet, 14kg-backpack in tow.
It’s funny what goes through your mind in a situation like that. You find yourself becoming increasingly drenched in sweat; you didn’t think you’d need water for this quick five-minute stroll down to the beach; in the meantime, the visual of your Mum reading headlines about daughters gone missing in the jungles of Thailand flashes by and you seriously regret not taking those Thai boxing classes back in Bangkok; you’ve payed ‘top dollar’ to a driver who was simply driving themselves home anyway; and you’re slightly concerned about getting robbed and being stranded in the middle of nowhere. ‘Good times!’, a traveller I met later would say in moments like this, I mused nostalgically.
My ninety-minute journey finally and triumphantly ended by arriving at my elusive destination. Bungalow upon brightly decorated bungalow decorated the land surrounding the tiny bay. I was able to enjoy momentary joy that I had made it here, well, alive.
Only problem? The place was deserted. I had stumbled upon a veritable backpacker ghost-town, where, many moons ago, all-night parties may once have been held, a place where my like-minded predecessors had once carried their lives on their backs to, (copies of Shantaram in hand, too), but no longer.
And then two signs of life emerged from a central structure closer to the road and explained they were essentially still hanging around after management had closed the place down.
‘You’ll need to go to Had Sadet, the next beach across. You’ll find somewhere to stay there.’ They offered me a bottle of water as I sat down on the steps leading up to the building, still panting from the walk and wiping my brow with my already sweat-covered hands. There was no way I was picking up that backpack again for at least another fifteen minutes. ‘You rest,’ they said, demonstrating mind-blowingly sincere hospitality, and pointed the way.
Had Sadet was a slightly longer beach, and my dismay at not being able to stay on the ‘smallest, most isolated’ one soon faded as I realised this beach was quiet and peaceful, devoid of other travellers, yet still had bungalows ready to stay in, and a place to eat. One last sweaty push was required to get me up the cliff’s uneven stone staircase to the Silver Cliff Bungalow’s restaurant and the mother-daughter team that would check me in and look after me for the next week and one day.
I took a simple wooden bungalow for 200 baht a night, dumped my backpack on the wooden floor, pulled on my bathers and sprung into the ocean as a matter of urgency to wash off the sweat in the salty water of the Gulf of Thailand.
On Khao San Road, the old backpacker exchange of second hand books read on the road had now become an industry and hawkers harassed every minute of the day with the scraping of ridged wooden alligators’ tails to buy as toys. All that had served to dispel any preconception I had had about the mythical nature of Thai hospitality. But then, at the Silver Cliff Bungalows, I was permitted but a taste of it.
My long, lazy days were spent breakfasting in their restaurant with the beach below me, wading in the ocean, and poring over the story told in Shantaram. I often found myself lounging on their huge cushions with a glass of something freshly squeezed on the table beside me, the ceiling fan whirring above, and reading perhaps the scene in which the protagonist first befriends a tout named Prabaker, or when he establishes a medical clinic in a slum and becomes a hero.
Apart from a couple or solo traveler staying for just a night or two, I was really the only one staying there. I kept to myself and did my own thing. I was there to relax, and my hosts made sure I felt very welcome. I would lay on the sand, put my book down, close my eyes and lose myself in this new found state of pure bliss.
Electricity for the beach was switched of at midnight every night. I’d light a candle, lie in the hammock on my bungalow’s verandah, and watch as my new companion, a lovely green-scaled gecko, perused the inside of the tin roof above my head. I’d blow out my candle after reading a compelling narration of days spent in an Indian prison in the pages of Shantaram or the description of a passport forgery factory, and as my eyes adjusted to the darkness, watch as the frothy whites of the waves below me glimmer in a magical silver hue.
Days are long when you’re in a state of utter relaxation that was previously so alien an experience. After around five days of my daily routine, a few days before the Full Moon Party was to take place the southern coast of the island, a bungalow outfit at the other end of the beach opened to meet the demand for accommodation on Ko Phang An. I began to walk down to their bar and chat with the new arrivals every now and again.
The world-famous party was looming. I was on my own, I told the people I met, and was advised that it didn’t matter one bit.
‘You should go!’ They said. ‘For the experience, if anything.’ Torn between doing it for ‘the experience’ and establishing myself in my hammock for the night, further pressure was applied when I was warned that everyone there was going, and I’d be the only one left that night. Another voice in my head said it would just be a bunch of ravers getting silly. Would I ever regret not going? Would I ever get the chance again?
The night of the party came and I still hadn’t made my choice. Such an idyllic, blissful, indulgent week of doing nothing was enough to turn the smallest of choices into a major decision. It was seven o’clock and the travellers had converged at the bar, arranging their transport to the party and back.
‘There’s a 1am bus or a 5am bus, Liz – you need to let us know now which one.’
Everyone one in the world, or at least everyone in what had become my universe, was going, including the super-timid blonde chap I had strained to make small talk with the last couple of times he spoke to me.
‘Are you coming?’
I looked up and over towards the Silver Cliff Bungalows at the other end of the beach, spotting the hammock hanging across my verandah, and thinking of my gecko companion. Would I still be living life ‘to the full’ if I didn’t go to that party?
‘I’ve only got ten pages left of Shantaram. Might see you in the morning.’