Excitement is in the air! Youth chatter and bustle, talking about their exciting travels around south-east Asia ("Oh you've been there too! What a coincidence!") and comparing their plans ahead. And the plan ahead is awfully exciting right now - a Full Moon Party on one of the Thai islands! As a big round moon beams down, loads of enthusiastic teenagers, or thereabouts, will dance and bodypop on the beautiful beaches of Koh Phangnan, Koh Tao, or somewhere like that. It will be an exhilarating slice of travel-party action, as they explore their wanderlust youth with hundreds and hundreds of other wanderlust youth, being really drunk on a beach together. It will be a crazy time and an essential part of the south-east Asia travel experience!
I, Niall Christie, age 33, will not be attending.
I'm sitting on a boat, stationary at present, which is about to leave some port or other and go to a few islands dropping people off, before dropping me and Burness off at Koh Tao. The boat is small and every seat taken, and the air reverberating with the happychat of young Europeans, American and Antipodeans. Alas, the excitement is not infectious. Dread may be closer to my current state.
Koh Tao may turn out to be amazing and I'll then happily take back all my words, but so far the signs are not good. Everything I hoped to avoid is present currently. The bus we arranged from Bangkok was one of probably more than twenty, all packed with louche hip youth, some sporting trendy oriental tattoos, funky baggy fashion, almost literally eye-catching piercings, or even a handful of white dreadlocks. Other irregular hairstyles abound. Their conversation, the many snippets that have reached my ears, has been unbearably earnest. I overhead one guy say the film, "The Beach" inspired him to come here. I bet the rest saw "Eat Pray Love." Packed onto a double-decker coach at around 7pm, we were entertained with a "Fast and the Furious" sequel ("So Fast, 2Furious-MAX" I believe), something involving guns, and finally, the start of Mel Gibson's "Braveheart" until midnight brought with it silence and darkness and the chance of sleep.
Foolishly, I'd believed that it was just a simple bus and boat that was involved in our bus-and-boat ticket, but this morning, after arriving in some anonymous southern Thai town after the overnight bus, we were given a sticker to wear, herded into a minibus, brought to a central location with lots of other tourists, given another sticker to wear, then herded into another coach and taken to a boat terminal. The boat I'm on now is the first of two. Each stage has been a bewildering series of bus exchanges based upon sticker colour, although everyone seems to be on the same boat now anyway.
Although it feels and sounds like it, this isn't a tour I'm on. It's the simply the means of transport from Bangkok to Koh Tao, or one of the other islands in the vicinity. However, the bus-and-boat ticket, purchased via a travel agents, is no doubt one for the tourists. No locals are present, both because there are cheaper but less convenient ways of travel, and also because I don't think many locals are interested in the ghastly hell that is a Thai island on a Full Moon Party. Because make no mistake, they say war is hell but it has nothing on the crass underworld-on-earth that is a thousand gross wasted youth being on holiday and partying to the musical genre known as pish-trance. I've not even been to one and I know this.
As you can see, I'm unimpressed, and alongside cat-calling me for being a grumpy old man, you might justly say "Why on earth are you going, if you hate this place so much?" Faithful readers will already know the answer: Burness. Burness has a passion for beaches that is as sincere as it is misguided. Spurred on by getting his diving certificate in Malapascua, he now wants to do some real diving, and Koh Tao is the recommended place in Thailand. Unfortunately, although I appreciate someone who likes beaches wanting to visit beaches, his picks seem to be a little, well, astray. The secluded paradise of Malapascua turned out to be a diving resort (albeit, we were lucky to find accommodation that was social and friendly and made the stay alright), and Koh Tao has been timed with a Full Moon Party, and all the human detritus that this entails.
Alas, so far Thailand has lived up to my grim expectations. I will fully disclose that I arrived in Thailand with preconceptions and a big chip on my shoulder, and they have been fulfilled. It has become the traveller resort of the world, a country where you can pretend to travel and be free, but never actually exercise independent will. Go to Bangkok and stay in or near Khao San Road, which satisfies every urge to eat, drink, and arrange onward travel. From there, you can go to the various highlights of Thailand without ever trying. The travel agents or hotels will do it all for you. This is travel-lite. You'll get picked up at your hotel for every bus journey, bundled on a bus with a bunch of other wide-eyed tie-dyed travelling tourists, and deposited in the backpacking quarter of your next mainstream destination. It's all too easy - and all too sanitised. It's a holiday, not a journey into the unknown. But if you're 19 with a nose-piercing and bags of enthusiasm for your first adventure in the world, it all seems like terrific fun. So long as you don't get into conversation with someone as downright miserable as myself.
My backpacking experience of Thailand will unfortunately not stray too far from this thoroughly beaten, thrashed and tarmacadamed path. Time and beaches are the two reasons. Burness wants to visit some stretches of sand and that pretty much takes up our time until he goes home for Christmas on the 21st December. We reconvene in Delhi, in January. The only other thing we have time for is my two Wonders here, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok, and the ruined city of Ayutthaya about a hundred miles north.
The former I managed to have a glimpse of yesterday, pending doing a proper tour when we return to Bangkok in about ten days. I wasn't in the best form when I saw it, suffering from an undeserved hangover on top of lack of sleep and the tail-end of this cold that's been hanging around me. Nonetheless, I was more impressed that I thought I'd be. First impressions were "big", "pretty" and "what's the collective noun for tour groups?" The heat of the midday sun and my weak, pathetic body meant I just sauntered about it and didn't get stuck in, but it was a good preview for the proper visit.
Which hopefully will find me in better fettle. Despite my grim fears about being straitjacketed into the commercial travelling experience that is Thailand and its alluring beaches, and despite my old-man scorn towards all these young, happy people enjoying their youth ("I was young once, but I still dressed respectfully and was able to enjoy a tipple and have fun without getting over-the-top,"), Koh Tao does have some potential to be quite relaxing. Provided I stay clear of the beaches. And the moon. And all the young people.