Monday, 7 November 2011

The Beach


Apparently there is a novel called The Beach, which has apparently spawned a film called, I believe, The Beach. My limited understanding of these cultural phenomena extends as far as having been told that the opening scene takes place in Khao San Road, Bangkok. This place, to the unfamiliar, is hard to describe in any fashion that does justice to the depths of its depravity. A wise man once told me, long before leaving the UK, that when we were in Bangkok we were not to stay anywhere near Khao San Road or I’d end up killing someone. What he didn’t say was that even wandering down a few blocks of it, with its cavernous British pubs, full of white backpackers, eating British food, drinking British beer and chatting happily to each other in English over the blare of British music about the delights that South East Asia has to offer, was cause enough for justifiable homicide. These people, apparently, are highly motivated to find the “perfect beach”, and this quest takes them to places like Sihanoukville. This, of course, is merely a jumping off point, for Sihanoukville is achingly uncool, with its crowds of other beach bums, hawking children, cocktail merchants and occasional beggar. I suspect that the perfect beach would be one that is populated by the minimum number of locals required to service the needs of a very small and self-selecting group of fairly wealthy gap year students with a high alcohol tolerance and a languid enthusiasm for adrenaline sports. Some sort of backpacker version of “terra nullis”, except with a well-stocked 7/11 hidden out of sight.

In order, therefore, to break completely with this culturally insensitive and ideologically problematic behaviour, we left Sihanoukville after two nights and headed for Otres Beach, six kilometres to the south. On the promise of finding beach-side huts we took a tuk-tuk ride down an unpaved dirt track and after a lot of bumps, came to the village. The village consisted of a series of bamboo shacks, surrounded by rubbish and fetid pools of rain water, dotted along the side of the road for about 100 yards before the road swung left and then ran parallel next to the beach. Here the collection of about two dozen bars and guest houses and bungalows that make up Otres began. And ended. The place was verging on the non-existent, but we found a lovely German couple who had just recently started up their own business with a series of bungalows, and so we had a dreamy palm-thatched little residence situated a whole twenty seconds walk from the edge of the water for a sum so trifling that it beggared belief that the Germans could make a living out of it.

The week we spent there went by in an alternating blaze of sun and overcast skies. We managed not to get burnt any further, collect a lot of sea shells, eat sumptuously and get through a bottle of Malibu without really trying. An ear infection meant I had to head back to the big smoke of Sihanoukville, where a brusque doctor prescribed me three more types of medicine (nearly one for every orifice). When I asked if the antibiotic would interfere with the antibiotics that we were already taking as anti-malarials, the offended doctor’s national chauvinism kicked in and he started to lecture us that there was no malaria in Cambodia. Indignant local doctor knows better than the World Health Organisation – that’s a tricky scenario to negotiate as a non-specialist in the field. The conversation then proceeded towards the absurd, as he seemed to come to the conclusion that I thought my sore ear was a symptom of malaria. We cashed the prescription, phoned home for some friendly pharmaceutical advice (“take all the drugs, don’t take the risk”), and headed back to the beach.

Oisin made friends with the family that ran the bar
I asked Ulla, our landlady, about the row of shacks at the edge of the village. To my surprise, given that she and Pieter had been there for about a year, she wasn’t able to tell me anything about the local people who lived nearby. Not how they made a living, nor what they did, or if their kids went to school. Next to their plot with the bungalows there was a Cambodian-run guesthouse with a large area at the front with tables and chairs, and a menu board propped against the front wall. Every day we walked past it, and every day it was empty. The sparse lights glared a clashing red and green at night, the music played loud and it wasn’t good music. Next to it there was a new place, the “Mushroom Point”, run by a couple of Croatians and a guy from Brighton. There was a delicious food, hammocks swung over the scatter cushions around the edges of the main cafĂ© space, the music was suitably “chilled” and their wifi connection was fast. The “mushrooms” that they had as accommodation were little round houses with a little round bed that was just big enough for a romantic couple who wanted a little break from the bustle of Sihanoukville. There was so much business for them that one night in a different restaurant I got chatting to a bloke from Northern Ireland who’d had to stay a couple of nights somewhere else while he waited for a mushroom to become available. I could understand it, the set-up of somewhere like the Mushroom Point was wonderfully convivial to the Western travellers who were literally queuing up to sleep there.  But I  
"Our" bungalow
couldn’t understand why the locals next door couldn’t look at it and pinch a few ideas in order to make their place as appealing. It seemed a shame that this state of affairs would end up with all the money from the tourist trade going into the pockets of savvy ex-pats who know how to cater to the whims of Western travellers, while any semblance of local control of (and presumably, some local benefit from) the business is slowly strangled. Khao San Road becomes a type of virus – once released, the local tourist economy cannot do anything but succumb to the “winning” formula of providing travellers with everything that they have presumably travelled half the world to leave behind. And who knows better how to do that that one of their own. The locals get locked into a spiral of merely cleaning the rooms of hotels set up and run by ex-pats as control of their economic destiny slips further out of their hands.

The more we travel, the less tourism looks like a good idea. Perhaps it is the language barrier, perhaps it is the necessity of attending first to the needs of a small child, perhaps it is the nature of the brief stops we make in each place, but getting some idea of local culture seems to involve going to museums or historic sites, and rarely talking to the people whose country we are in at the time. At the moment I can’t see how that could be any different.

Sundown on Otres beach