The Beach, Stripped Bare

Illustration by Ryan Olbrysh

Illustration by Ryan Olbrysh

I do not know the family in the YouTube video. Their accents and conversational idioms suggest that they’re American, almost inappropriately so considering what’s going on in the clip.

“We’re leaving today, if we can get out of here,” a male voice says. “This is no longer the beautiful place it once was. Thank goodness we’re on the third floor.”

No, I don’t know the family in the video. But I do know the third floor. It belongs to the hotel where my friends and I stayed in November 1999 when we visited the island of Ko Phi Phi Don, just off the western coast of Thailand. Ko Phi Phi Don is one of several islands tightly grouped in Thailand’s Andaman Sea; another, Ko Phi Phi Ley, was used in the Danny Boyle film The Beach, which wrapped filming before our visit.

The week I spent on Ko Phi Phi Don was the most relaxing of my life. The weather was desert-like when it wasn’t pouring rain (which it did with awe-inspiring suddenness, disappearing just as quickly). The sand was hot white, the sea warm turquoise. The beach was covered with Dutch and German tourists, which meant that we all shared these treasures with little more expressed than smiles and nods. All I did for one solid week was lay on the beach, listen to music (mostly Moby’s Play, Scritti Politti’s Anomie & Bonhomie and Underworld’s Beaucoup Fish), write in my journal and take long, languid swims, either in the sea or the hotel pool. At night, we’d drink heavily while watching Asian soap operas, eat at Mama’s Resto (curries, pizza or both), and dance in the island’s clubs with an ever-changing landscape of European tourists and drag queens from the mainland.

It was pretty typical island-vacation stuff, but I allowed it to blow my mind. I’d never left the United States before—save for one childhood trip to Puerto Rico that I barely remembered—and there I stood on the other side of the world on land so staggeringly beautiful that I couldn’t imagine anyplace better. And though I wasn’t doing anything more important than drinking my lunches and swimming away my cares, I marveled at the relative otherness of Ko Phi Phi Don. I took pains to learn the Thai phrases for “please” and “thank you.” I took photos of everything, from the jackfruit to the doorknobs. I talked to the residents of the island, many of whom were Buddhist. Their calm was jarring. To borrow a phrase from Vonnegut, they seemed to “glow like bass drums with lights inside.”

My trip to the island was bookended by visits to Bangkok, where the otherness was even more intoxicating; we did all the things tourists should do, like overpay for items in the open-air marketplaces and get into the wrong tuk-tuks and taxicabs. (We even checked out one of the strip clubs on Khaosan Road, but it made us kind of sad—we even left before the “pingpong show” could begin.) But my memories of Ko Phi Phi Don overpower my memories of Bangkok, because I have almost never felt more at ease with myself than I did there. It seems only natural that this happened thousands of miles from home. I wasn’t thinking about being myself while I was there; I was thinking only of being there, and giving myself over completely to my senses.

I’ve always got Ko Phi Phi Don in the back of my mind. Despite the wonderful time I had, I’ve never gone back. I gave serious thought to returning about five years later, even looking at flights and hotels … but then, soon after, the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami wiped the island clean. More than a thousand people died almost instantly.

I knew that video of the tsunami hitting Ko Phi Phi Don existed, but I couldn’t bring myself to watch it before last week, when I decided to write this. In a moment, I was back in my hotel room, looking out over the blue-green waters and white sand with not even the slightest notion that anything bad could happen to that place.

But now I can’t separate my trip from the tragedy that followed. I think of those Dutch and German tourists, and I mourn. I think of those kind locals, and I mourn. And I think of that American family in the video, struck dumb by events beyond understanding, and I hope that the children I hear crying in the background, now adults, haven’t been having nightmares of that day for the past decade.

As for me, I’m beginning to process what I saw in that video and what I keep in my heart. The one thing I’ve decided in trying to reconcile the two is this: I have to go back to that island. I have to.

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