Trouble on Fantasy Island
Twentieth Century Fox sought out an isolated tropical beach in Thailand. Then they put Leonardo DiCaprio on it. And then created a vision of wilderness despoiled by a tale of wilderness despoiled. Out of which unfolds a media fable with real-life consequences in a world haunted by travelers' dreams of paradise.
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And how does Leo arrive on the beach? Is his route tangled, governed by mere chance, like all things that land on Maya Beach? Has he been pushed by winds swirling counterclockwise from the Indian Ocean? Ridden along on the easterly swells of the Andaman Sea? Spun up into the Phangnga Bay and squeezed between the high limestone faces of the twin islands Phi Phi Don and Phi Phi Lay? Did he move with the gentle current across the shallow bowl of Maya Bay, ten pulses each minute, and then wash aground on the narrow half-crescent of fine white sand? That is how things find themselves on the beach, after all, driven there through fluke and serendipity and fleeting human whim. And such forces apply universally, even to Leonardo DiCaprio.
But start earlier: Open on Phi Phi Lay, a curling slip of an isle in the Hat Noppharat Thara National Park, 400 miles south of Bangkok. Pure chance has covered Phi Phi Lay in dark green casuarinas, bamboo, pandani, and palms. It brought red jellyfish and leopard sharks and angry green crabs into the bay, and set upon these creatures the inevitable predators: hungry macaques and hornbills and Andaman kites. Decades ago chance led the chao náam—small bands of Thai nomads—to Maya Beach, only to chase them away again when a random discovery on the island yielded a bounty of fragile swiftlet nests. Boiled and served as soup, the birds’ nests are worth their weight in gold to Chinese gourmands. So off were shooed the chao náam settlers, and in 1983 Phi Phi Lay was declared officially uninhabited, no overnighters—yet another law for the island, immutable as the natural ones, and enforced by park rangers policing the shoreline in belching longboats, lest a swiftlet grow disturbed in its nesting by an errant human.
The ephemeral influence of fiction first came to Maya Beach in the form of a popular novel, The Beach, written in 1997 by a 25-year-old Englishman named Alex Garland. His book tells the story of a young backpacker who by luck and chance locates a paradisiacal Thai beach, befriends its blissed-out occupants, and then unwittingly brings the Eden to a bloody and cinematic ruin. The best-selling novel—which is glib and fast and possessed of icy dark undercurrents—reads like a screenplay.
Thus, inevitably, one drizzly morning in the middle of 1998 a location scout for Twentieth Century Fox motored into Maya Bay, looked around, and declared it fine. For two weeks in January of last year, a full production crew—200 bodies led by director Danny Boyle, who had explored Scotland’s underbelly in the film Trainspotting—made its long way to Phi Phi Lay. Eager to spin Garland’s novel into celluloid gold, they brought with them Leonardo DiCaprio, who had contracted for a reported $20 million to play the backpacker, known only as Richard. When the luxury yacht carrying the actor glided into the shadows of the island, DiCaprio hopped off, followed a boardwalk overland, and emerged from the canopy of trees onto the gentle slope of the perfect beach.
Now one more scene, several months later: The commercial harbor in Phuket, Thailand, a scrim of fog cloaking the rusting trawlers and tankers. A charter boat pulls from the dock with 40 Taiwanese tourists aboard, 20 young couples on a pilgrimage to the location of a movie they have not yet seen, based on a book they have not yet read, and starring an American actor they know mostly from Titanic, a film that still plays in theaters in Taiwan. Call it chance that I was on the same boat.
“You are going to Leo Island?” a member of the tour, a young Taiwanese woman, asks.
You mean Phi Phi Lay?
“Yes, Phi Phi Leo,” she answers. It is an hour past dawn, already hot, the Andaman Sea shiny-calm except in patches where schools of fish foam, feeding at the surface. Like the other passengers, the woman wears a name tag and has dressed to match her date, in black cargo shorts and a black-and-white-striped shirt. Every few minutes a couple leaves the gently rocking deck and clutches along toward the bow, laughing. Curious, I follow.
When I reach the front the boy in the striped shirt hands me his video camera. “Would you film us?”
He and his girlfriend step their way to the bowsprit and, after signaling me to begin filming, strike a pose: the woman’s arms thrown wide like wings, the boy encircling her waist, the two of them leaning face-first into the wind. The scene from Titanic. A second pair of young Taiwanese wait patiently off-camera, clapping. When the first couple finishes, the next two hand me their camera, move into position, and assume the pose. So it goes much of the morning, Leo after Leo, Kate after Kate, while the signature cliffs of Phi Phi Don and Phi Phi Lay gather shape on the gray horizon and a woman behind me, for the benefit of the video sound track, sings Titanic‘s theme song in a not-bad voice.
Here, here I am, in Dyersville, Iowa, on the baseball diamond from Field of Dreams; that’s me at the Timberline Lodge in Oregon, the one from The Shining; and that’s me in Austria, outside Leopoldskron Palace, which was the Trapps’ home in The Sound of Music. There I am in Tuscany, in the town from Stealing Beauty; and that’s me in Istanbul, in the bazaar from Midnight Express; and here’s me in Rockville, Maryland, the town called Burkittsville in The Blair Witch Project. Now those are the stairs from the Exorcist, and that’s the crater from Starman, and that was the town from The Last Picture Show, which wasn’t really a town but is now, sort of, because of all the tourists. You saw those movies, didn’t you? Because then you’d recognize these places…
The clerk at Hello Internet Café glanced over my shoulder to see if the computer was working, and then wandered away. It was early in Bangkok, a weekday, and the place was quiet. An albino Thai boy loitered near the front of the open-air café, moving only to glide past my table and flash a palm of hash at me. The attendant watched uninterestedly; drugs were common on Khao San Road. Last night they’d been offered by the taxi driver who ferried me through the city’s monsoon-flooded streets, and again by a disheveled woman in the lobby of the New Joe guest house, where I took a sagging bed. At breakfast a German backpacker mimed a heady drag, pointed, and nodded, Yes?
Backpackers come to this strip from all over the world for the dope or the prostitutes, or to make cut-rate arrangements to get somewhere else. Scrubby guest houses and cheap massage parlors cram the place, and narrow alleys spike off this road, where discount travel booths peddle no-fuss arrangements to Angkor Wat and Kathmandu and Phnom Penh—perennial must-sees on the backpacker circuit. Among the trips for hire along Khao San are a Good Morning, Vietnam tour (the movie was filmed in Bangkok and on the island of Phuket) and several Emmanuelle tours, featuring the French soft-core classic acted for real in Bangkok’s infamous Patpong district. The film allusions allow for a type of sellers’ shorthand, sketching the experience and lending richer visuals than a crude brochure.
Shortly before I arrived on Khao San Road, a small travel company called Sunshine Travel began offering a Beach tour. It was simply a trip to the remote but somewhat well known island of Phi Phi Lay, no different from the one offered last season or the season before that. But Hollywood had altered the worth of the small island, and increased its marketability.
What is there to see? I had asked the girl in the Sunshine booth, which was no more than a cart wheeled onto the puddle-clogged lane, two wheezing dogs slumbering underneath.
“Very nice beach, bird’s nest cave, good snorkeling,” she answered. She was about 19 years old and had long and wickedly curved fingernails on her left hand only, painted gold.
And the movie?
“Oh, yes, very good movie,” she said, as if she had seen it already. We talked money, even though I wasn’t planning to use a tour to get to the island, and I thanked her and left.
Next morning, under the bright sun, the street seemed less exotic and far shabbier. The tang of the city came in a rush, a mix of rot and sweet and smog that burned my nose. Before I headed south to the islands, I wanted to gauge the heat of an ongoing controversy surrounding the filming of The Beach, so I spent the morning at the Hello Internet Café, reading back issues of the Bangkok Post and the South China Post and the various Web sites that had sprung up to either flack the film or claim outrage at the destruction it had allegedly caused on Phi Phi Lay.
One activist, a 39-year-old Bangkok-based filmmaker named Ing Kanjanavanit, appeared frequently, frantic about the way Twentieth Century Fox was mistreating her country. Fox was, for instance, planting 60 additional palm trees on Maya Beach for the benefit of the cameras, and bulldozing sand to widen the strip, and temporarily uprooting native spider lilies and grasses. More than once she burst into tears of frustration before the reporters, her sobs placed into the record as she wailed about the ineffectualness of her efforts and the thickening corruption of her nation.
“Everything in this country is for sale,” she told one reporter, suggesting that the $100,000 fee that Fox was paying to film on the island was pure payoff. “This affair of The Beach is like a mirror. It shows me what sort of country I’m living in.” In the preceding months Ing and her allies had petitioned the U.S. Department of Justice to halt the filming, citing the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, and she oversaw the marshaling of 39 Thai law professors in a petition to the Thai government, which successfully called for Fox to post a larger security bond prior to filming.
On the Web, small factions of pro-film and anti-film advocates did battle, the latter calling for boycotts of the movie and public rallies and heated debate on the serious environmental issues, while the former relied heavily on the yumminess of Leonardo DiCaprio for its ammunition. And in fact, had the extraordinarily popular DiCaprio not been involved in The Beach, it’s likely the production would have passed through Thailand with barely a ripple. Phi Phi Lay, after all, was not even a cinematic virgin: Cutthroat Island, an unfortunate film starring Geena Davis and Matthew Modine as pirates, was filmed on Maya Beach in 1995; not a protester was to be found. But as any agent can tell you, Matthew Modine is not Leonardo DiCaprio.
From the computer at the Hello Internet Café I noted the charges leveled by environmentalists and the defenses offered by Fox and the film’s director and DiCaprio himself. (“I would never be part of any project that did anything to harm nature,” the star declared in a statement last January.) The sites were entertaining. There were photos of a serenely desolate Maya Beach in the weeks before the production, and blurred telephoto shots of the actors at work, and plenty of good gossip: Leo passes out from jellyfish bites; Leo impregnates his teenage costar; Leo requires a $45,000 mobile home to be shipped in from Britain; Leo looks fat.
The movie was re-creating a journey from a novel that I also was attempting to re-create, in part because I wanted to see what became of places that happened to slip, usually by chance, into popular culture. In his novel, Alex Garland has Richard start his journey on the Khao San Road. There he meets a Scottish backpacker who, prior to killing himself, gives Richard a map showing a necklace of small islands far to the south of Bangkok, near the popular tourist destination of Ko Samui on the eastern side of the long Thai peninsula. Rumors of a beach—unspoiled, idyllic, peopled with a small and happy community of expats—had been buzzing along the backpacking circuit, and Richard decides that this map is evidence of such a place. Armed with the map, Richard and a young French couple he has met (she: slender brunette, winning eyes, partial to toplessness; he: undeserving) set off to find the beach. The three move from Bangkok to Ko Samui, and from there to a smaller island, and finally to a smaller island still, where they find the beach. Richard and friends are accepted into this beach society, and several pleasant months follow—the expat islanders fishing and gardening for sustenance, smoking dope and playing soccer for recreation. But Garland infects Richard with Vietnam War fantasies, and these, coupled with the presence of armed Thai marijuana farmers on the island, slowly ratchet up the tension until the place erupts in an orgy of bloodletting, triggered by the arrival of several more backpackers on the beach—a not altogether subtle suggestion of the effects of tourism.
As it happens, Phi Phi Lay, which is located on the western side of the Thai peninsula, is never mentioned in the book. Garland based his fictional island on one he knew from the Philippines and then sited it in Thailand’s Phangnga Bay. But this is a distinction that will soon be lost, since the film effectively trumps Garland’s novel. The Beach is forever now on Phi Phi Lay.
There, there, that’s me at Devil’s Tower, in Wyoming, the butte from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and me on the Chattooga River in Georgia, the one from Deliverance, and that’s me with Blue Lagoon Cruises in Fiji on Nanuia Lailai Island, next to where they filmed The Blue Lagoon, which is Turtle Island, and you can visit that too…
Up close, the limestone cliffs of Phi Phi Don and Phi Phi Lay appear melted, as if a massive blowtorch passed up and down the five-story-tall faces, bubbling the stone and causing great long rivulets to run to the sea. But from a distance, say on a charter boat coming from Phuket, the whitened cliffs catch the sun and shine like spinnakers in a yachting regatta, locked side by side in a never-moving race.
For the past week, before heading for the Phi Phi islands, I had traveled a path defined by Garland’s book, from Bangkok to Surat Thani to Ko Samui and Ko Phangan and the other islands in the Ang Thong Archipelago. It was the tail of the season, a week before the monsoons would begin in the southern portion of Thailand; they had already begun up north.
What remained on the islands were mostly backpackers, young Europeans and a few Americans and Asians—people Garland certainly would have recognized, budget travelers who skittered around Asia looking for the unspoiled place even as they herded together in picturesque backpacker ghettos such as Ko Samui. Garland had in fact been one of them, as he had explained to me over the phone. “I’d been backpacking since I was 17, and I started out as a vicarious-thrill kind of backpacker who treated Southeast Asia as an adventure playground,” he said. “I think later I started querying aspects of that, and that’s what started the ball rolling with the book.”
On a straight reading The Beach seems to cast backpackers into two types, divided by a shorthand ideology. The first is the sort Garland admits he once was, a thrill-seeker who looked on the native culture as an exotic treat and who charted his travels by the Lonely Planet guidebooks. The second type is the sort who feels outrage at the presence of other backpackers and who is ever seeking virgin spots yet unsullied by them. The character Richard falls into this category.
While the novel can read like a critique of the noisy, boorish, carefree vagabonds who swarm places like Khao San Road and Ko Samui, it’s actually far more damning to pious travelers like Richard, who often muck up the pristine places they’re so keen to discover. Unfortunately, this critical nuance can sail, untouched, over the dreadlocked heads of most of the young Western travelers hopping the jeweled islands of southern Thailand. Concurrent with the paperback publication of The Beach was its adoption as a sacred text for backpackers, and it was impossible to walk on a Thai beach without spotting a young foreigner sprawled on the sand with the novel, beach towel littered with postcards and cigarettes. More than one person told me they wished they could find a beach just like the one Richard finds. “I hear wildly different accounts from backpackers on what, exactly, the book means,” Garland said to me. “And I accept that I misjudged and failed to represent some things in the way I wanted to represent them, and that I left them open to interpretation. But what was I going to do? I was 25 years old; I’d never written a book before. I got some things wrong.”
As the tour boat made its way to the Phi Phi islands, it began to rain, a short squall which soon died away, the sky clearing to a milky white. At Phi Phi Don we moored beside several ferries carrying organized tour groups and a dozen speedboats that had brought backpackers and divers to the island. A few hundred yards up the beach ran a small line of shops and food shacks, and the tourists made for them. At the beach’s opposite end grew a copse of curving palms, where the backpackers sprawled in the dark beneath. Thai girls in thin sarongs attended to them, massaging necks and legs while the scruffy young men reclined in satisfaction, some with drinks in their hands: a postcard of languid sensuality. I walked to an empty spot of sand between the shops and the shaded hollow, settled in, and dug a copy of The Beach out of my bag.
Beneath the entertainment of the novel’s plot, Garland parries with the different ways in which to wander the world—with the notion that there are tourists and there are travelers and the breeds are distinct. “I had ambiguous feelings about the differences between tourists and travelers—the problem being that the more I traveled, the smaller the differences became,” muses Richard in The Beach. “But the one difference I could still latch onto was that tourists went on holidays while travelers did something else. They traveled.”
Richard is echoing a point made four decades ago by the historian Daniel Boorstin, who argued that in the middle of the last century—just at the time the word “tourist” first came into use—the character of foreign travel began to change. “It was the decline of the traveler and the rise of the tourist,” Boorstin wrote in 1961. “The traveler…was working at something; the tourist was a pleasure-seeker. The traveler was active; he went strenuously in search of people, of adventure, of experience. The tourist is passive; he expects interesting things to happen to him.”
It was peculiar, lazing in the sun within swimming distance of Phi Phi Lay and thinking about these twin islands passing from the hands of travelers and fully into the hands of tourists. In the early 1970s the few visitors who happened onto Phi Phi Don came for the unusually fine diving and snorkeling, or to climb the two islands’ high cliffs and tally the exotic bird life. They were destinations with no amenities, and accommodation was a mesh hammock or a woven mat smoothed flat on the sand. But word gets out, as Garland’s Richard laments, and greater numbers followed. Several bungalow hotels sprang up on Phi Phi Don, and a pizza joint or two, and then several bars serving hamburgers and tacos and warm Mr. Pibb. Even Lonely Planet grieved, and without irony, in the 1997 edition of its Thailand guide: “Bay packed with boats…new hotels building by the pier…endless rows of dreary, crowded bungalows,” it laments. “Where’s the nature? No one harvests nuts anymore and no one fishes. Why bother when you can ferry farangs around the coral reefs?”
Off on the horizon were even more foreign tourists, more farangs. The Thai government was counting on it. “This is the perfect commercial for the [marine] park, and for Thailand,” Thai Forestry Director-General Plodprasop Suraswadi, whose agency issued the filming permit, said last March. “You couldn’t buy better publicity for a tourist destination.” The film’s producer, Andrew Macdonald, joined in the boosterism: “Thailand will become famous as a country where paradise is possible.”
Whether it does to the degree the bureaucrats hope is now mainly dependent on the filmmakers’ skill, and following them, the critics. After all, the movie might stink. Early screenings suggested as much, or suggested trouble at least, as preview audiences found the film too dark and violent, all in all too un-Leo. Fox elected to shoot new scenes and re-edit the film, pushing the release date from a Titanic-like Christmas 1999 opening into the non-blockbuster precinct of mid-February 2000. And should the fixes not take hold and the movie flop, well then a pilgrimage is a hard sell, as Richard Bangs, founder of the tour company Mountain TravelSobek, discovered. “We saw no shortage of interest in Kenya after Out of Africa,” Bangs told me. “So in 1992 we put together a trip called At Play in the Fields of the Lord, to northern Brazil. But the movie completely bombed, and there was no interest in the tour. It just died.” Of course, the star of At Play in the Fields of the Lord was the actor Tom Berenger, and as any agent can also tell you, Tom Berenger is no Leonardo DiCaprio.
See, see, there’s me on the Na Pali Coast on Kauai, where they filmed part of Jurassic Park; and that’s Fripp Island in South Carolina, where Forrest Gump was made; and Squam Lake, New Hampshire, which is the real On Golden Pond; and that’s the town in Finland where they shot Doctor Zhivago, except it looks so much like Russia that when tourists come to Saint Petersburg and want to know where the movie was, the Russians have to lie to them about it…
Phi Phi Don had grown quiet in the muggy afternoon. The shade beneath the palms no longer held a Gauguin tableau, and the day-tourists had vanished as well. I began to consider how I would get to Maya Beach. For a moment I thought about swimming the mile of open water, as Richard does in The Beach, but then I remembered that I’m a lousy swimmer. Hiring one of the boats that gave tours of the bay wouldn’t work, because they are required to keep close watch on the visitors they bring to Phi Phi Lay. What I intended to do was spend the night on the beach. I had originally hoped to see if I would recognize the signature landmarks from both the novel and the movie: the lagoon completely enclosed by cliffs, or the soaring waterfall from which a terrified Richard leaps to gain access to the beach. Before I even got to the island, though, I learned that no waterfall marked the entrance to the beach—DiCaprio’s stuntman made his leap over the Haew Suwat Falls in the Khao Yai National Park, 120 miles north of Bangkok. And the lagoon was digitally enclosed by the Computer Film Company.
I also wanted to get a sense of the beach itself: to find out if there existed an untouched feel to the place, or if both the novel and the movie were projecting onto the island a character it did not naturally possess. Overnight stays on the beach are not allowed, but I’d traveled far enough to believe that I needed to have at least one evening on the island, absent all souls.
Along the beach, local fishermen had spread woven nets and monofilament line and were knotting and smoothing and coiling to prepare for the evening’s work. Maybe I could hire a fisherman to drop me on the beach and then pay him enough not to return until the next day. I knew money had tightened in the weeks since the film production left. The flush crowds everyone expected to descend on the two islands wouldn’t arrive until after the release of The Beach, at least. Until then it was mostly a fishing life again for the locals, a hard life, and one that they were apparently eager to leave.
In the early stages of the protests against Fox, environmental activists argued that the filming should be forbidden because it would disrupt the economy of the local workers. But when protesters staged a sit-in on Maya Beach during pre-production, they were booted off Phi Phi Lay not by Thai police or Fox security, but by furious locals from Phi Phi Don. “It was a very exciting day,” Andrew Macdonald, the film’s producer, recalled with enthusiasm in an interview with Time. “These ten wimpy greens from Bangkok facing off against 60 to 100 angry locals.” For most of the remaining weeks of filming, the fishermen—now on the Fox payroll—formed a floating blockade of longboats across the mouth of Maya Bay, keeping protesters and paparazzi away.
On Phi Phi Don, the issues of the mainland and foreign activists gained no traction. Everyone knew Maya Beach wasn’t unspoiled; foreign travelers had been going there for years. Trash could be found on the beach, and the coral in the bay was dying or dead from the props of fishing boats. In fact the efforts of the production actually seemed to benefit Phi Phi Lay, an opinion set forth by, among others, a committee of environmental experts appointed by the Thai Forestry Department who visited the set and deemed the island in fine condition. The environmental watchdog group EcoLert also gave a positive report, as did the independent organization Reef Watch, which noted that the coral in Maya Bay actually appeared healthier than it had prior to the filming.
Far down the line of brightly painted longboats I saw a fisherman who owned just one net, which he had draped on a tepee of bamboo stalks to dry in the sun. It took only a moment to reach an agreement. A few minutes later we were moving across the channel to Phi Phi Lay, the water going from pale blue to emerald with increasing depth. Hugging the island, the boatman stayed close to the limestone walls that overhung the sea. At the base they had been cut by years of sea action, and as we neared the gap into Maya Bay he steered the noisy craft beneath the roof of stone and smiled at the hollow echo.
I was the only one. I walked up and down the sand, and when the sand ran out I walked into the bay, running my hand along the craggy boulders that ended the beach. The rocks continued for a while and then gave way to sand again. I waded around them and back onto land, and then turned away from the water and toward the island itself.
Rising through the forest was a faint trail, a curving line of pale green between the dense green of the trees. I followed it up, careful with my footing on the steep slope, stopping only to clear cobwebs from my eyes. The heaviness of the jungle hung in the air, as fecund as a hothouse. I was on the cliffs that cupped the bay like a giant’s hand.
As the trail ascended it leveled out, gradually becoming no more challenging than a flight of stairs. I pushed at the branches that clogged my path. Air ferns spilled like unkempt hair across the branches and large black beetles clung to the strands, swinging in the breeze. Near the top the trees cleared out, and suddenly I was standing on a knob of rock high above the bay.
Over the wall of cliffs I could watch the Andaman Sea and the lumps of trawlers backlit on the horizon, but there was nothing on the water within several hours of me. Behind my head the jungle moved with birds and insects and things I could not see. The moon was already in the sky, though the sun had a few hours left to go.
I found the trail that returned to the bay, emerging at a spot far down the grinning curve of the beach. The tide had lifted all the footprints from the sand, including most of mine. What few remained had been discovered by crabs, which hurried from one depression to the next and then hunkered down until their eyes were level with the sand. I watched them until the sky grew orange and the bats came out, and I watched the bats feed until Maya Bay filled with moonlight.
I had brought a bag with fruit and bread and several Thai beers, and I put my dinner together before it grew too dark. I had brought a small candle lantern with me as well, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to use it. I certainly wasn’t going to build a fire and signal to the evening patrol that I was on the beach.
After some time I lay back on the sand and listened to the island. The waves were almost inaudible, a gentle metronomic swish in the middle distance. Green crabs made their own noise, a rapid clicking as they scrambled on the rocks and, in the near silence beneath this sound, a ticking that might have come from the contact of their claws against their hard shells as they settled into a crouch. The island’s birds had mostly quieted for the night, and if there were other things on the beach or even nearby, they were moving toward sleep as well. I did hear something large crashing in the inland trees, but the sound came and left too quickly to place. I stayed on my back in the still-warm sand, following the river of stars above.
In the morning when I woke there were footprints on the beach, but no sign that a boat had landed. I never saw the person.
An eternity ago, in 1922, the poet Vachel Lindsay went into a darkened room crowded with people and emerged 30 minutes later, having experienced his first motion picture. “It has come then,” he wrote, “this new weapon of men, and the face of the whole earth changes.”
A few months ago, a reporter asked Alex Garland whether the film of his novel would have any effect on Maya Beach, and whether he worried about that. “I really don’t see Leo fans jumping on planes and coming to Thailand,” Garland answered. “I hope not.”
A few weeks ago I called Garland up and told him that Leo fans were indeed jumping on planes and coming to Thailand. There was a significant pause. “If that’s true, then there’s a part of me that feels I fucked up,” he said. “I find that slightly dismaying. I don’t know how to feel about it.”
A few days ago I dug out the snapshots from my weeks in Thailand. There was me in Bangkok, in a chrome-heavy tuk-tuk swamped to the floorboards by floodwater; me near Chiang Rai, hiking along a high bare ridgeline with Myanmar below; me in Phuket, leaning into the wind at Laem Phromthep point, the Buddhist monks in their pumpkin robes coloring the foreground. There was me on Maya Beach, just another tourist lingering too long without invitation, one of the first of many. There was me on the Chao Phraya River, and me in Krabi Town, and finally me in a tiny velvet-lined taxicab, the background blurry with motion, on my way to the airport, on my way home.
Here, here I am on a different island in Thailand, one of those limestone uplift isles that look like giant furry thumbs pushing out of the ocean. It’s in the Phangnga Marine Park, about 40 miles north of where they filmed The Beach. You can actually get to it from there, do them both in the same day if you find a speedboat fast enough and if the sea stays nice and calm. Anyway, do you recognize it? About 25 years ago they came and filmed The Man with the Golden Gun here—you know, the one with Roger Moore and Christopher Lee as that guy Scaramanga and the midget Hervé Villechaize as his assistant. This was Scaramanga’s hideaway, where James Bond finally tracks him down and saves the world again. There’s that great scene where Bond lands his seaplane on the tiny beach and when he gets out the midget is there with a silver tray and a martini and says, “Welcome, Mr. Bond.” Well, that’s me on that beach. It was a hard picture to get because the beach was packed with tourists, and there were boats everywhere and dozens and dozens of souvenir shacks selling T-shirts and other guys selling Singha beer and everyone seemed to have a radio on too loud and after a few minutes you start feeling nervous and uncomfortable and begin looking for the boat to get you the hell out of there. Which is too bad, because it’s a gorgeous island. It’s called James Bond Island, and it’s funny because that’s even the name they have on a lot of the maps. Before the movie came out it was called Ko Pingan, but my boat driver said that if you told someone nowadays that you wanted to visit Ko Pingan, they wouldn’t know where to take you. I guess no one uses that name anymore.