The Real Beach

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Tamara graduated from the University of Wisconsin last spring and headed east, first to Japan and then to Thailand. She had planned on a two-week stopover on the islands off Thailand's Surat Thani province. She's been here seven months.Back home she was a sorority sister, a pre-med student. She dated a guy named Dave who still sends her e-mail about his first year at law school. To Tamara, 23, now stretched out on a beach on Ko Pha-Ngan island, those missives read like what they are: archival records of what has become, for her, a lost civilization. Torts. Civil procedure. What is he talking about? Dave would hardly recognize her now, with her navel ring, Balinese warrior tattoos and baggy Thai fisherman's pants. Tamara, this retiring, freckled brunette with a narrow body and tiny waist, this daddy's girl from La Jolla, Calif., roves the beach barebreasted in daylight and raves the night away at Full Moon parties or up at the Backyard trance club. She will tell you, seriously, that what is going on here is a whole new civilization. One in which those laws that Dave is studying just don't apply.

There are at least 2,000 kids like Tamara here on Ko Pha-Ngan island, a 20-sq.-mi., palm-fringed, mountainous speck off the eastern coast of Thailand. The beaches are pristine--white sand, yellow boulders, coral reefs and gently slapping waves. You can rent a bungalow for $5 a day. The boys and girls seem to be young, thin and beautiful. They convene from all over the globe: club kids from London, bar hostesses from Tokyo, English teachers from Taipei, tech refugees from Silicon Valley--all looking to partake of this new civilization on the island that has become synonymous with hedonistic decadence.

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By the time Alex Garland used it as the setting for his 1997 novel about young travelers in Thailand searching for the garden of Eden, Ko Pha-Ngan was already a legend on the Asian traveling circuit. Garland's The Beach has taken on a talismanic quality here: waterlogged paperbacks pass from bungalow to bungalow. It is the founding myth of this place: you come looking for paradise.

What paradise offers, besides an idyllic setting, is a chance to remake yourself in far-off Asia, to become a more glamorous person than the one laboring in that cubicle in San Jose, Calif., or pouring drinks in that Surrey pub. Elsewhere your time is spent playing a role--work, family, career. You don't push the boundaries spiritually and physically, says Backyard Dave, a deejay who became globally renowned through playing Ko Pha-Ngan rave parties. Out here you can be who you really want to be.

Of course, it's easy to indulge this fantasy when you are footloose in a foreign land, living off savings or money from home in a country where a beer goes for 60, without any of the reminders that you really should be doing something productive with your life.

For Tamara, her epiphany--the sense that she had broken through to discover what she calls this new sense of freedom--came on a Thursday (or was it a Friday?) in November when she first indulged in a hit of Ecstasy, a drug that is illegal in the U.S. but quite plentiful on Ko Pha-Ngan, and got lost in the orgiastic besotment of one of Ko Pha-Ngan's legendary Full Moon parties, where trance music blares for days and thousands of foreigners lose it on Hat Rin beach. While she was dancing with friends she had met on the boat trip over and the new friends she was making by the second, she felt bathed in a sense of community and shared purpose that surpassed anything she had felt back at the sorority. What they represented, these kids from all over the world, with their nose rings and tattoos and sarongs and dreadlocks, was the possibility that through music, dance and, yes, even drugs, there could be liberation from the routine, from the drabness of post-graduate life, of a pre-ordained career. This is the first time in my life that I feel I can do anything I want, says Tamara, lighting a cigarette as she sits with her legs drawn up on a straw beach mat. I'm not, like, trying to be something I'm not.

But what is she? Just this girl on a beach, trying to have a good time. And that's enough here.

For the Thais who have been living on Ko Pha-Ngan for five generations--since their forefathers migrated from Hainan island off the coast of China--the notion of Western kids coming here and convincing themselves that they are pioneering a new civilization is further proof that these farangs (foreigners) are as clueless as they look. For one thing, Thailand is a real country, with real laws that it expects tourists to abide. I don't know about any 'new civilization,' says police captain Suthat Phronakson. What they seem to be doing is smoking a lot of dope, having sex with each other and walking around in their underwear.

Foreigners have been dying on Ko Pha-Ngan at the rate of about 10 a year. They overdose. They drown. They crash motorcycles. Captain Phronakson throws a few Polaroids of corpses onto his desk: an Englishman fished out of a well; a German who was attacked by a shark, huge gouges taken from his arms and legs. Phronakson arrests about 10 foreigners a month, usually for drug possession. The word among foreigners is that for a 70,000 baht fine, about $1,800, the Thais will deport you rather than imprison you. As for the Canadian currently being held in the second-floor lock-up: according to detectives, he's ingested too much lamphong, a locally grown intoxicating flower that causes vivid hallucinations and can cause permanent psychological damage. They'll be shipping him to a psychiatric ward on the mainland, to a place called, of all things, Suan Sanarom--the Garden of Joys.

The Thai entrepreneurs who owned the prime Ko Pha-Ngan waterfront were, at one point, the black sheep of their respective clans. Beaches were useless: the prime coconut-farming plots were inland. But with the arrival of the sand-loving farangs, a whole new economy emerged. Families like the Thuaycharoens, known locally as the Khaos, grew wealthy building bungalow complexes and beach bars. Mustachioed Mr. Khao is now governor of the whole province. Bespectacled Mrs. Khao manages their real estate empire from behind the counter of her two-aisle grocery store. The kids who buy rolling papers and beer from her would be bummed to know she is dreaming of erecting a luxury hotel complex down the beach.

They think Ko Pha-Ngan is their special place, even though it may be just the latest port of entry for kids in their generation to go off the grid and out of their heads. Previous generations too have wandered everywhere from Key Largo to Kathmandu for post-school, pre-career adventures. A few stumbled upon scenes where they felt, for a few magical moments, that the old rules didn't apply. But just as those paradises were transformed by the brutal economics of tourism, Ko Pha-Ngan is already morphing into a travel brochure. Electricity arrived in 1997. Roads are being paved. And along Hadrin's main thoroughfare, where Thai kids once touted magic-mushroom shakes, cyber-shops now offer e-mail access.

For Tamara, stories of a pre-electric island--when it really was paradise--are merely the grousing of the kids who got there first. She doesn't believe she is living the twilight of the Ko Pha-Ngan era. But just as surely as she will eventually return to California and begin the next phase of her life, so too will Ko Pha-Ngan pass from the domain of ravey subculture to just another pretty tourist trap. The Beach was just the latest book to get it right: Paradise will always be lost.