“Jump in water,” says the boat operator, holding his hands above his head like he’s holding up a backpack.
We all tie our sandals to our backpacks, put our wallets in the topmost pockets, roll up our shorts. We hoist backpacks above our heads and jump into the clear water. Immediately soaked up to our waists, we wade for about 70 meters toward a beach with some huts standing on tall stilts.
On the shore, a barefoot, shirtless man in shorts, smiling, greets us in Kiwi English, “Hello, want a joint?”
My first trip to Koh Chang, 18 years ago, seems like a variation of the “young traveler finds paradise beach” we sometimes find at the airport bookstore, in the section called “Related to Thailand.”
I think of that arrival as I stand on deck of the ferry that takes me to Koh Chang now. The family with two young children are in the car behind mine. A little boy climbs the ferry’s side just to see what it’s like, and some young Singaporeans take turns taking photos of each other against the afternoon sun. There are about four backpackers on the ferry; the rest have suitcases with rolling wheels and designer labels.
We’re not going to be jumping off the ferry and wading to some huts this time.
Instead we drive off the ferry and into a place that feels like a mini-Krabi: a strip of hotels and resorts, boutique shops selling swimsuits and sunhats, internet cafes, bars and restaurants. 7-11 convenience stores every 10 kilometers or so. The road is smooth although it is still a two-lane street. I call my hotel from the ferry asking for directions. “It’s just the one road,” the receptionist tells me, “and when you get off the ferry, turn right and keep driving for 22 kilometers.”
After the strip, the road winds and dips, climbs and dips. It’s a drive that requires concentration, with a lot of hairy turns and changing of gears with the undulations of the island’s coastal hills.
I remember when this road was nothing but gravel. We rented motorbikes and struggled not to slip on the slopes. A dangerous drive, but we were young then, with the invincibility of the young. I remember having to go to the clinic on the island for a motorbike exhaust pipe burn. The nurse said, “Lucky you. A lot of foreigners slide down the road and get hurt worse.”
I pass short strips of tourist traps. I’m concentrating on the road too much to read too many of the signs, but there’s seafood restaurants, more cafes advertising free wi-fi, an Indian food joint, a Mexican restaurant. The Lucky Gecko. The Happy Turtle. More 7-11s and ATMs. And prominently, signs about The Dewa, a five star hotel similar to the one with the same name in Bali that costs more per night than a round-the-world air ticket.
My hut 18 years ago was a wooden square building with a thatched roof, a porch, and tall stilts. In the high tides the water lapped under the hut; the toilet was a hole in the floor. There was a porch; from there, you got an unobstructed view of the water. If you wanted to go to shore, you could jump in the water and swim to shore. Or walk, if the tide was low. There was no electricity; just a lamp made from a Red Bull bottle with the labels scrubbed off, and a wick made of cloth and kerosene inside. If you wanted to shower, you had to go ashore to a row of cement shower stalls, scoop out water from a large plastic drum, and pour water over yourself. I went to the beach where we stayed, and the bungalows are condemned now, roped off, the wood rotting.
I finish showering in my room at the Dusit Princess and dress to go to Barrio Bonito’s for the second time. Barrios Bonito’s is a Mexican restaurant serving really good authentic Mexican run by a Frenchman and his girlfriend from Mexico. They are friendly with fresh faces, and they have settled here, running a place with the restaurant and rooms to rent with a pool they share with a diving school. It’s my second time at the restaurant, and this time I order the special. It’s early, and I am the only customer at this hour. The man hands me a bottle of sauce. “It’s a special chili sauce, the best habanero chili in Mexico, I get it shipped here.” The label on the sauce says it’s the personal brand of a Mexican restaurant called La Red, in Mexico City. The sauce is heavenly, not just hot but flavorful. I drip onto my burrito more of the sauce that has traveled far.
I forget what I ate here 18 years ago, but I’m pretty sure it was Thai food.
Where we were on the island, there was a two-kilometer walk through a small cliff jutting out over the water, over sand flanked land that was overgrown with brush and trees, onto a bamboo and wooden deck overlooking the water. The only bar and restaurant for miles around, where they served Thai food and Mekong.
One night that summer, my friends and I shared the food and a lot of Mekong, as the moon rose higher. Reggae hiccupped its easy beat on the stereo. The tide rose. In the dawn, people straggled out of the bar and crawled to whatever huts they were sleeping in, and the four of us started our trek home. Except that the cliff was now under water. We either had to scale the cliff and go over to get to where we were staying, or swim. Full of Mekong, we made the only logical decision. We held hands and swam under the rock to cross the cliff.
We lived through the drunken swim; I woke up the next morning with salt all over my sticky clothes.
I never read any of the books about “young traveler finds paradise beach,” except for the fiction of Alex Garland’s The Beach. All these years, I’ve watched Thailand grow from a place where you couldn’t get a cup of coffee anywhere outside the capital except at a tourist hotel, to a place where there’s a coffee stall serving cappuccino beside a jungle. They now make lasagna and borscht in places I could only get phad thai and som tam.
But there is a new crop of young travelers that come through here every year, their faces fresh and full of anticipation. I know that they have read the guidebook and loaded the map app into their smart phones; they’re ready for an adventure. And, they still hope there is a hidden place in Thailand, a secret place with a secret beach that looks exactly like the picture in their minds.