Storming 'The Beach'

When he tries to infiltrate a movie set on a heavily guarded Thai island, Rolf Potts embarks on a rollicking post-modern travel adventure, somewhat starring Leonardo DiCaprio.


Rolf Potts
January 31, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

Day six: Jan. 22 -- Storming "The Beach" (Prelude)

It is 3 o'clock in the morning, and Lomudi Beach is possibly the
only stretch of sand on Phi Phi Don island that is completely
deserted. The only buildings here are small, sagging
bamboo-and-thatch dwellings that probably housed Thai fishermen
before the onslaught of sun-starved Europeans and North
Americans turned those fishermen into bellboys and T-shirt
hawkers. The high tide line here yields a sodden crust of garbage
-- plastic water bottles, rubber sandals, cigarette butts -- but this
detritus is only evidence of the boaters, snorkelers and sun-burned
masses who haunt the other parts of the island. Devoid of dive
shops, pineapple vendors and running water, Lomudi is quiet and
empty.

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Given the current development trends in this part of Thailand,
Lomudi will probably sport a disco and an airport within a couple
of months.

I hear the rhythmic thump of a longtail boat somewhere in the
darkness, and I realize that my moment is at hand. Gathering up a
sealed plastic bag of supplies, I wade out into the shallow waters to
meet the rickety wooden craft that will take me across a small
stretch of the Andaman Sea to the forbidden shores of Phi Phi
Don's sister island -- a majestic, cliff-girded island called Phi Phi
Leh.

Phi Phi Leh island is not forbidden because of ancient tribal
rituals, secret nuclear tests or hidden pirate treasure. Phi Phi Leh
is forbidden because it is the current filming location of a
Leonardo DiCaprio movie called "The Beach." My sole mission on
this dim night is to swim ashore and infiltrate the set.

I am not a gossip journalist, a Leo-obsessed film nut or a
paparazzo. I am a backpacker. The primary motivation for my
mission is not an obsession with Hollywood, but simply a vague
yearning for adventure. I wish I could put this yearning into more
precise terms, but I can't. All I can say is that adventure is hard to
come by these days.

Admittedly, I have a daunting task before me. In the wake of
ongoing environmental protests, Leo's purported fear of terrorism
and the obligatory packs of screaming pubescent females, security
on Phi Phi Leh has reached paramilitary proportions. Thus, I have
given up on the notion of a frontal assault. Instead, I plan to swim
ashore via Loh Samah Bay, change into dry khakis and a casual
shirt and -- under cover of darkness -- hike across the island to the
filming location.

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I'm not sure what will happen if I'm able to make it this far, but --
summary execution excepted -- I am prepared to cheerfully deal
with whatever fate awaits me.

This attitude has much less to do with optimism than with the
simple fact that -- after one week of obsessive preparation -- I
don't really have a plan.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Day one: Jan. 17 -- DiCapritation

Thai Air flight 211 from Bangkok to Phuket has been taxiing
around for the last 20 minutes, and there seems to be no end in
sight. The European package tourists in the seats around me are
getting fidgety, but this is only because they have not set foot on
actual soil since Stockholm or Frankfurt. I, on the other hand,
have been in Thailand for two weeks -- and I've already faced the
numbing horrors of Bangkok traffic. There, amid the creeping
tangle of automobiles, buses, tuk-tuks, humidity and fumes, one is
left with two psychological options: nirvanic patience or homicidal
insanity. Patience won out (barely) for me, and I am taking this
present delay in stride.

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In my lap sits a pile of notes and clippings about the movie
production -- most of it from Thai tabloid newspapers.
Considering that culling hard facts from tabloid gossip is a
challenge akin to discerning fate from sheep intestines, my mind
frequently strays as I dig through the information.

I wonder, for instance, what would happen if Leonardo DiCaprio's
teenage fans here were able to overwhelm his bodyguards. In
every part of Asia I've visited, I've noticed how young girls act in
the presence of their pop heroes, and it's somewhat unsettling. At
one level, there is a screamy, swoony, Elvis-on-"Ed Sullivan"
innocence to it all -- but at a deeper level, I sense an intuitive
desperation.

After all, not only is this part of Asia a survivalist bazaar society
(where patiently standing in line is not part of the manner code), it
also runs on a patriarchal system, where young girls simply have
fewer options in life. If Leo's bodyguards ever fail him, I
wouldn't be at all surprised by a frenzied display of grim,
no-future pathos -- a spectacle that, by comparison, would make
punk-rock nihilism seem like a gentle tenet from the Sermon on
the Mount. I keep getting this picture in my head of the handsome
blond movie star being lovingly, worshipfully torn to pieces -- of
adolescent girls brawling over ragged bits of spleen and femur.

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- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Several months before I came to Thailand, I read the Alex Garland
novel on which the movie is based. In the story, a strange man
presents the main character (a young English traveler named
Richard) with a map that leads to an unspoiled beach utopia hidden
in a national park in the Gulf of Thailand. The "Lord of the
Flies"-style moral degeneration that results after Richard's arrival
on the beach made for a thoroughly engrossing read.

After finishing the book, I toyed with the idea of emulating the
plot -- of finding some like-minded travelers, hiring a fishing boat
into the restricted national park islands, and seeking out an
unspoiled paradise. I ultimately discarded this notion, however,
when I discovered that tabloid obsession with the film had already
rendered my idea unoriginal.

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When I arrived in Thailand and the tabloid hype still hadn't let up,
a new idea struck me: Why not live "The Beach" in reverse?
Instead of seeking out a secret, untouched island, why not explore
the most scrutinized island in all of Thailand? Why not try
washing ashore on the movie set itself?

The pure novelty of this notion has led to me this very point: seat
47K, Thai Air flight 211, which has now finally begun to
accelerate down the runway. As the plane lifts off the ground and
banks for its southward turn, a view of Bangkok fills my window.

Below, urban Thailand spans out around the Chao Phraya River in
symmetrical brown-gray grids that, from this altitude, look like
the outer armor from a 1970s sci-fi movie spaceship. For an
instant, the earth looks artificial and foreign, as if it's been taken
over by aliens.

The aliens, of course, are us.

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Day two: Jan. 18 -- The Hokey Pokey

Although historically influenced by traders from China, Portugal,
Malaysia and India, the beach villages of Phuket island now seem
to belong to northern Europe as much as anyplace. Western
tourists abound, prices are steep and miniature golf is readily
available.

Since the cast and crew of "The Beach" sleep in Phuket, I came
here with the intention of scouting out some information before I
set off for Phi Phi Leh. Now that I've arrived, however, I'm a bit
stumped on just how I'm supposed to scout out information.
Mostly I've just been walking around and talking with other
travelers, which is not much different from what I did on Khao
San Road in Bangkok.

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But talking with other wanderers is telling in and of itself, since
nobody in the backpacker crowd wants to admit even the slightest
interest in DiCaprio or the filming of the movie. Instead, nearly
everyone I've met talks about their own travels in wistful terms
eerily similar to the characters in Garland's book. It would be
difficult to characterize the nuances from each of my beachfront
and street-cafe conversations this afternoon, but I can easily
summarize:

Phuket, it is generally agreed, is a tourist shithole -- best served
for anthropological studies of fat German men who wear Speedos.
For the ghost of Phuket past, try the islands of Malaysia or
Cambodia. Laos, incidentally, is still charming and unspoiled, like
rural Thailand in the '80s. The hill-tribe trekking around Sapa in
Vietnam is as full of wonder and surprise as Chiang Mai treks
were a decade ago. Goa and Koh Phangan still can't live up to
their early '90s legacy; rumor crowns Central America the new
cutting edge of rave. Sulawesi is, part and parcel, Bali 10 years
ago.

Granted, I have condensed what I heard -- but for all the talk, you
would think that paradise expired some time around 1989.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

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I am currently staying at the $5-a-night On On Hotel in Phuket
City, where a few interior scenes for "The Beach" will be shot in
March. Since it is an official movie location, I had secretly hoped
it would be brimming with an eccentric array of film groupies,
security personnel and rampaging Leo-worshippers. Instead, the
open-air lobby is filled with moths, mopeds and old Thai men
playing chess.

Earlier this evening, I spent a couple of hours here chatting and
sipping Mekhong whiskey with Ann and Todd, a young couple
from Maryland. Our conversation started when I heard Ann
quoting a book review of "The Beach" from Phuket's English
newspaper, which described backpack travelers as "uniformly
ill-clad ... all bearing Lonely Planet guidebooks and wandering
from one shabby guest house to the next in search of banana
pancakes, tawdry tie-dies and other trash particularly their own."
Since we agreed we prefer the Whitmanesque stereotype of
backpack travel -- pocketless of a dime, purchasing the pick of the
earth and whatnot -- this led to a discussion of what actually
distinguishes backpack travelers from tourists.

On the surface, it's a simple distinction: Tourists leave home to
escape the world, while travelers leave home to experience the
world. Tourists, Ann added wittily, are merely doing the
hokeypokey: putting their right foot in and taking their right foot
out; calling themselves world travelers while experiencing very
little. Todd and I agreed that this was a brilliant analogy, but after
a few more drinks we began to wonder where backpack travelers
fit into the same paradigm. This proved to be a problem.

Do travelers, unlike tourists, keep their right foot in a little longer
and shake it all about? Do travelers actually go so far as to do the
hokeypokey and turn themselves around -- thus gaining a more
authentic experience?

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Is that what it's all about?

The effects of alcohol pretty much eliminated serious reflection at
the time, but now that my buzz is gone I can only conclude that the
hokeypokey -- whether done well or poorly -- is still just the
hokeypokey.

Or, to put it another way: Regardless of one's budget, itinerary
and choice of luggage -- the act of travel is still, at its essence, a
consumer experience.

Do we travel so that we can arrive where we started and know the
place for the first time -- or do we travel so that we can arrive
where we started having earned the right to take T.S. Eliot out of
context?

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The fact that it's too late to know the difference makes my little
mission to Phi Phi Leh less quirky than it sounds.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Day three: Jan. 19 -- Lord of the lies

Except for the fact that I met the producer of "The Beach" and
somehow ended up stealing his Italian-leather screenplay binder,
today hasn't been all that eventful. Mostly I've just been rereading
Garland's novel. Tomorrow I leave for Phi Phi Don.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

This morning's Bangkok Post featured a press statement from
DiCaprio, who declared his love of Thailand, his affection for the
Thai people and his sincere concern for the local ecology.

The ecology comment comes on the heels of an environmental
controversy that has been brewing since last fall, when 20th
Century Fox announced it was going to plant 100 coconut palm
trees on the Phi Phi Leh movie set. The reasoning, apparently, was
that Phi Phi Leh didn't quite meet the Hollywood standards of
what an island in Thailand should look like.

The months following the coconut palm announcement have been
fraught with protests, promises, legal action, threatened legal
action, publicity stunts and rumor. Thai environmental activists
claimed the palms would disrupt the island's ecosystem; 20th
Century Fox responded by reducing the number of trees to 60.
When activists derided this as a meaningless gesture, 20th Century
Fox (perhaps misunderstanding the difference between ecology
and landscape maintenance) paid a $138,000 damage deposit to the
Thai Royal Forest Department and planted the trees anyway. Now
environmentalists are claiming that producers flaunted their
earlier compromise and brazenly planted no less than 73 trees at
topsoil depths up to a meter deeper than had previously been
agreed.

While the precise facts of this controversy would require a
Warren Commission reunion, the fact remains that 20th Century
Fox's actions are a drop in the environmental bucket compared to
the large-scale tourist development that has besieged southeast
Asia's islands over the last decade.

Garland alludes to this phenomenon in his novel: "Set up in Bali,
Koh Phangan, Koh Tao, Boracay, and the hordes are bound to
follow. There's no way you can keep it out of the Lonely Planet,
and once that happens, it's countdown to doomsday."

Countdown to doomsday. Kind of makes a person wonder if
Garland was aware of the irony when he sold his novel's film
rights to a media entity that makes Lonely Planet look like an
obscure pamphlet publisher based out of the back of someone's
Vanagon.

Protests aside, the real environmental impact of the filming won't
be determined until after the movie appears in theaters and half a
million star-struck teenagers in places like Nebraska and New
Brunswick simultaneously decide that they, too, are going to buy a
ticket to Thailand to seek out the last paradise on earth.

In a perfect world, I never would have had to sneak into the
verandah of the Cape Panwha Resort Hotel and skulk around while
the cast and crew of "The Beach" ate dinner.

Unfortunately, my more prosaic efforts at intelligence gathering
(wandering around town, sending e-mails to friends of friends)
had yielded little. Playing spy for a few hours was the only way to
accurately gauge what I was up against.

Since I am the type of person who would rather hike eight extra
miles than try to charm a park ranger into accepting a bribe, I was
not filled with confidence as I took a motorcycle taxi out to Cape
Panwha earlier this evening. I'd read on the Internet that the resort
had hired extra security guards, and I was not looking forward to
schmoozing my way past them.

Miraculously -- despite my patchy beard, motorcycle-tossed hair
and sweat-salted backpacker attire -- none of the hotel personnel
gave me a second glance as I strolled past the reception desk and
into the verandah area. I immediately spotted the cast sitting at a
long table across from the restrooms. Leo was not among them,
but I could tell from a glance that everyone there vaguely
corresponded to various characters in the novel. Somebody in
casting had done his job well.

Overcoming an innate, juvenile sense of dread, I moved to an
empty table overlooking the swimming pool and ordered a
Manhattan. I had never ordered a Manhattan before in my life --
but since it cost more than my hotel room, I figured it probably
contained lots of alcohol. I felt extremely out of place, and I
needed something to calm my nerves.

I sipped my drink and tried to act aloof. It was easy to tell the film
people from the other hotel guests. The movie folks ate and drank
and laughed; everyone else peered around silently. I'm sure that
half of the people there were waiting around on the off chance that
Leo would walk through. I also suspect that -- with the possible
exception of a chubby little Japanese girl who kept standing up in
her chair to gawk over at the cast -- those exact same people would
pretend not to notice if Leo actually showed up.

By the time Andrew MacDonald arrived and sat down at the table
next to me, I'd washed my Manhattan down with a couple of
Heinekens. My anxiety was mostly gone, and the only reason I
hadn't sauntered over to schmooze with the cast was that it simply
seemed like a stupid idea. Instead, I'd chosen the more
conservative option of sitting around and doing nothing. I took the
appearance of MacDonald -- the film's producer -- as a good sign.

Aside from DiCaprio, MacDonald was the only person from the
movie that I could have recognized on sight. From one table away,
he looked even younger and skinnier than he did in the newspaper
photos. Sitting there -- gangly, boyish and pink-toed in his
Birkenstocks -- he looked like someone who was sullenly waiting
to be picked last for a game of kickball.

Figuring it was the night's best chance, I feigned courage and
walked up to him. "Excuse me," I said, "you're the producer,
right?"

"I'm sorry, that's someone else you're thinking of," he replied,
looking everywhere but at me.

"No," I told him, "you're Andrew MacDonald."

MacDonald seemed to cringe as he looked up at me. I wasn't sure
if he always looks like this or if he expected me to sucker-punch
him. Either way, I took it as my cue to keep talking.

I decided to take a neutral, vaguely journalistic approach. "I was
wondering if I might interview some of your actors or spend some
time on the set of your movie," I said to him. "Is that possible?"

"It's a closed set," he said wearily.

"What about the actors, do you mind if I chat with them a bit?"

"We're not allowing interviews."

"I don't necessarily want to talk to Leo; anyone will do."

MacDonald took out a pen and wrote a phone number down on a
napkin. "This is the number for Sarah Clark. She's a publicist.
You'll have to go through her if you want to do any interviews.
But at most you'll probably just get an interview with me." He
didn't look too thrilled by this possibility.

"So are you saying that there's no chance I can get onto the set,
even if I swim there?" I said this as a kind of half joke, hoping it
might scare up some clues on how to get past the security cordon
around Phi Phi Leh.

"No chance on the island. You can apply as an extra, but that won't
be until next month in Phuket and Krabi."

"I was once an extra in a movie called 'Dr. Giggles,' but that was
like seven years ago."

This utterly irrelevant trivia nugget seemed to disarm MacDonald
a bit. "'Dr. Giggles'?" he said, smirking.

"Yeah, are you familiar with it?"

"No, I'm not. Sorry." He stared off at the pool, sighed, then
absently checked his watch. "It's been a long day," he said, almost
apologetically.

I didn't bother him when he stood up to go.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

The events that transpired as I tried to leave the verandah make so
little sense that they are somewhat difficult to recount.

First, I had a problem paying my bill, since the hotel staff assumed
that I was with the movie crew. When I asked the waitress for my
check, she just frowned and walked off. When she hadn't returned
after 10 minutes, I tracked her down to the cash register.

"I need to pay my bill," I told her. I figured it would be bad
manners to sponge drinks after having already interrupted the
producer's dinner.

The waitress gave me another strange look, then pushed a piece of
paper in front of me. "Just write your room number," she said.

"Can I pay now in cash?" I'm not sure why I was being so
insistently ethical; one Manhattan and two Heinekens pale in the
face of a $40 million film budget.

The waitress shrugged, and I gave her the money. I turned to
leave, and as I was passing the reception desk, the waitress came
running after me.

"Your friend forgot this," she said, handing me a yellow cloth
satchel.

Standing there in the lobby of the Cape Panwha Resort Hotel, the
word "friend" caught me off-guard. I couldn't possibly imagine
who she was talking about.

I opened the cloth satchel and took out a black Il Bisonte binder.
Embossed into the leather cover were the words "THE BEACH."
And in the lower right hand corner: "ANDREW MACDONALD."

Putting the binder back into the satchel, I thanked the waitress and
-- just moments after my valorous display of Sunday school ethics
over the drink tab -- walked out the front door.

I spent the motorcycle taxi ride back into Phuket City trying to
think of practical justifications for making off with Andrew
MacDonald's screenplay binder. Since the binder was empty, I
couldn't really think of any beyond using it as a kind of Hail-Mary
collateral if things got ugly when I invaded the film set.

Considering that the phone number MacDonald gave me turned
out to belong to a confused Thai family in Yala Province, the
personally embossed keepsake was the closest thing I had to an
asset.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Sitting in my hotel, I imagine myself on the shores of Phi Phi Leh,
lashed to one of the illegally planted coconut palms and bleeding
from the ears: I am being flogged with rubber hoses by a gang of
vigilante set designers, dolly grips and script supervisors. For the
sake of reverie, they are all female, vixenlike and dressed in
bikinis.

MacDonald swaggers over. He is wielding a scimitar and has
somehow managed to grow a pencil-thin mustache in the time
since I last saw him.

"Closed set!" he bellows, fiercely raising the blade above his head.

About to lose consciousness, I muster one last ounce of energy. "I
have your personally embossed Il Bisonte Italian leather
screenplay binder, MacDonald," I sneer. "Kill me, and you'll
never find out where I've hidden it."

A look of horror washes across the producer's face. "Not my
personally embossed Il Bisonte Italian leather screenplay binder!"
he screams, dropping the scimitar to the sand.

With a sudden look of resolve, he turns to the bikini-clad lynch
mob. "Untie the intruder," he commands, "and tell that DiCaprio
schmuck that his services are no longer needed." He turns back to
me with a flourish. "I think we've found our new leading man."

A bit overdone, as reveries go -- but I'll just blame that on the
movies.

They seem to make a convenient scapegoat.


Rolf Potts

Rolf Potts' Vagabonding column appears every other Tuesday in Salon Travel. For more columns by Potts, visit his column archive.

MORE FROM Rolf Potts

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