The Beach by Alex Garland (1997) 436 p.
I read this novel in the first week of my round-the-world backpacking trip (in fact, I’m writing this review in a decrepit hotel in Phuket) when I was and still am disillusioned with Thailand. We arrived on the islands of the Andaman Sea only to find over and over again, on Ko Lipe and Ko Lanta and Ko Phi Phi, that what had once been a beautiful tropical paradise had been ruined by tourism, degradation, and pollution. The beaches are strewn with rubbish. The coral is all dead. The wildlife is gone. The islands are drowning beneath resorts, hotels, bars, hawkers, and endless swarms of Westerners who want nothing more than to get shitfaced somewhere warmer than London or Toronto. It’s an awful place, all the more so because it’s a corpse of something that used to be beautiful.
The Beach, therefore, fit my mood perfectly well. It’s a novel about a young British backpacker named Richard, who sees Thailand the same way I do, who wanted paradise and instead found purgatory. On his first night in the country, Richard meets a crazed Scotsman in the room next to his in a cheap Bangkok hostel, who rants about a wonderful beach and then leaves a map taped to his room door. When he goes to ask the Scot about the map, Richard finds that he has committed suicide.
With a newly-met French couple, Richard decides to hunt down the beach, on an island somewhere in a marine park west of Ko Samui. After paying a fisherman to illegally drop them off in the marine park, swimming across a channel, crossing a marijuana field guarded by Thais with AK-47s, and jumping down a waterfall, the trio discover the idyllic beach, where a group of about thirty Westerners have developed a commune of sorts. They grow and hunt their own food, swim in an unspoilt lagoon, laze around smoking marijuana and generally enjoy paradise on earth.
All does not remain well, of course. The Beach has a very strong Lord of the Flies and Apocalypse Now vibe, delving into the dark heart of the human soul, the things man is capable of, the horror and the violence. There’s also explicit influence from the Vietnam War in general. Towards the later passages it’s quite gripping; as Richard tries to escape the community, there was a taste of the climax of Fight Club.
It doesn’t always quite stick together. I didn’t always buy that a self-reliant, self-sufficient community could turn on itself so easy, and the escalation of violence seemed to be missing a few steps somewhere along the way; there were a few unbelievable leaps. But I bought most of it, and on the whole it was a great read.
It was also, of course, a movie, starring Leonardo di Caprio and directed by Danny Boyle. I haven’t seen the movie in years and have only vague memories of it, but it has 19% on Rotten Tomatoes so you’re probably better off reading the book. It was filmed on the southern island of Ko Phi Phi, as the travel agencies there were always ready to tell me, and because the film studio didn’t think it looked enough like paradise they brought in a bulldozer to shape the beach a little, removing some trees and adding some more sand. This angered the Thais, who said the producers had damaged the island’s natural landscape, and the lawsuits went for years.
If you ever go to Ko Phi Phi, take a look around at the huge piles of rubbish, at the endless rows of resorts, at the longtail motors dumping waste into the ocean, at the layer of scum that clings to the surface of the water all along the coastline, and you decide for yourself who did more damage to the island.