|"Not all who wander are lost." -- J.R.R. Tolkien|
So says one of the backpacking characters in The Beach, UK author Alex Garland's controversial novel set in Thailand. Published in 1997, the tale of a failed beach utopia slowly caught fire in the Gen X book market and in 1999 was transformed into a $40 million motion picture.
The story traces the fate of a small, loose-knit group of world travellers who decide to establish their own beach paradise on an island in Thailand's Ang Thong National Marine Park, not far from Ko Samui and Ko Pha-Ngan. The novel's selfish, Vietnam war-obsessed protagonist makes the mistake of passing on a map showing the beach's secret location to a pair of uninvited backpackers, whose island intrusion and subsequent confrontation with Thai dope growers brings the novel to its violent climax.
Although the consensus seems to be that the book makes a good beach or airport read, one could quibble about Garland's depiction of Thailand and the roving backpacker scene. Old Thai hands decried the attempts at Thai accents, which continually dropped the wrong consonants (resulting in an almost Cockney Thai, eg le'er for 'letter' and Mis'er for 'Mister', when something more like 'let-tah' and 'Misatah' would have been more realistic). Garland has Thais saying gues' for 'guest', when, as we all know, the Thai English pronunciation would be something like 'get'. And would a Thai ever say banan' for 'banana'? Never! Furthermore all the Thai characters seem rather dark and sinister. In interviews Garland has defended this criticism by pointing out that such portrayals were not intended to be realistic but were merely the perceptions of his characters. As Garland told Asiaweek magazine: "I think it's fairly obvious this novel isn't about Thailand. It's about backpackers."
More picky stuff: no Yank would say 'candy floss' but rather 'cotton candy', and it's common knowledge in Thailand, even among those who haven't tasted it themselves, that dog meat tastes like beef, not chicken. Also, given his supposed long history of South-East Asia travel, the protagonist, Richard, seems to be incredibly naive about the use of Asian squat toilets. The beach clubbers gladly eat plain rice for breakfast, but with the abundant fishing described in the novel there was no motivation for them to do so. Finally, why does Richard never wonder (as every reader must) where the money comes from to pay for The Beach's periodic supply runs to Ko Pha-Ngan?
The novel's strengths include good faràng dialogue and well narrated settings. Noting the resemblance between a dipterocarp's buttressed root system and a rocket's stabilising fins, Garland coins the delightful 'rocketship trees', for example. Intriguing video game references and a realistic travellers' conversation on Hat Rin regarding the use of 'Kampuchea' vs. 'Cambodia' also stood out. Although the novel's dip into backpacker culture and the Khao San Road scene hold up well enough (quote: "You know, Richard, one of these days I'm going to find one of those Lonely Planet writers and I'm going to ask him, what's so fucking lonely about the Khao San Road?"), the novel really hits its stride once the story confines itself to the secret beach and lagoon. For more discussion of the book's literary merits, check out the lengthy reader reviews on amazon.com and the lively debate on Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree web page.
Director Danny Boyle (of Trainspotting fame), teen idol Leonardo DiCaprio and a healthy 20th Century Fox crew turned up in Thailand in January 1999 to begin filming The Beach on the island of Ko Phi-Phi Leh. Almost immediately the film became embroiled in controversy when Bangkok protestors charged that the production's use of national park lands - with the express permission of the forestry ministry - was going to turn pristine Ao Maya (Maya Cove) into a wasteland.
The reality is that Ao Maya - like much of the rest of the Phi-Phi archipelago - has been under intense environmental pressure for many years now. First there were the dynamite and cyanide fishers, then came greedy resort developers and tour operators who over-ran Phi-Phi years ago and turned much of neighbouring Ko Phi-Phi Don into a trash heap. Ao Maya itself has received hundreds, perhaps thousands of group snorkelling tours over the last 10 years. Although some concession to the bay's park status had been observed - there are no bungalows or other permanent developments at Ao Maya (most likely because the licensed birdnest collectors on the island won't allow it) - improper anchoring and the dumping of trash had toppled this beach from any 'pristine' status it may once have enjoyed years before 20th Century Fox arrived on the scene.
Many local and international observers who visit Ao Maya on a regular basis and who were able to visit the production set here argue that Fox left the bay in better condition than it found it. During the crew's first week on Phi-Phi Leh, for example, they removed an estimated three to four tons of rubbish. Bangkok protestors, on the other hand, offered precious little evidence to support their claims of devastation.
Reef Check, a non-profit, UN-endorsed project that surveys and evaluates coral reefs world-wide, has monitored Ao Maya and other areas in the Phi-Phi islands for several years. When Reef Check's Thailand coordinators, Robert Cogen and Anne Miller, visited the production site after filming was under way, they published the following:
We were surprised to find that all of the trash and debris were gone. Not just on the beach, but in the water, too. A boardwalk trail had been constructed and about one-fourth of the foliage removed. All of the bigger shrubs, the figs and wild hibiscus were still there. Tight lines along the boardwalk bore signs to stay on the walk and out of the brush. Further back, there was a wooden platform and stairs to a small deck at the hole in the rock. There were chemical toilets off to one side. There was not a baggie or a cigarette butt anywhere. All of the construction had been cleverly done so that it was completely removable. There would not be a nail hole or strap mark on a tree. All of the driftwood that had been far back of the beach was still there. I thought the area behind the beach looked better than it had in years. Brush and grasses that had been removed were being cared for in a nursery on the island.
During the last days of January, there were more stories of coral damage, sand removal and, most awful, the planting of coconut palms. My partner, Anne, and I went back. A large barge was anchored in Lo Sama. More than half a dozen lines led off in all directions to anchors. Two large catamarans were tied up alongside. The barge was connected by a floating, wooden walkway to a wooden deck on shore which led through the rocks to the deck I had seen before. Anne and I checked every anchor. Each one was buried in the sand. None of the ropes touched any coral. No coral appeared to have been damaged in any way. In fact, the coral looked a bit healthier than it did in December. I inquired and was told that the catamarans, which came from Malaysia, did not pump any sewage into the water-all of it was retained, unlike the local boats. New mooring buoys with sand anchors had also replaced some that had been tied around coral heads.
I walked to the beach. The decks and stairs were all set above the landscape so as not to crush it. Lines and signs prevented access to the surrounding landscape. The deck had been expanded to approximately seven meters square. Again, the construction was exemplary by any standard. The area behind the beach was otherwise as I had seen it in December. The beach itself now had a forest of 60 coconut palms planted in the sand. Each was still in its burlap sack, watered by buried plastic lines, and could be easily removed. No new brush had been removed. Two areas of access from Ao Maya to this area had been widened, the sand pushed to one side, easily replaced. I wandered the water's edge, then back along the trail, double-checking my observations, wondering about the demonstrations in Bangkok, and why The Beach was the target of all this environmental ire.
For further information on Ao Maya conditions before and after The Beach, as well as other reef ecology issues, contact Reef Check (tel 76-383105, fax 76-383106, email firstname.lastname@example.org).