Backstage on "The Beach"

A backpacker's quest to storm Leonardo DiCaprio's movie set ends in an epiphany that won't play in Peoria.

Published February 10, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

Second of two parts

Day five: Jan. 21 -- Heart of dork-ness

I'm starting in on my second day on Phi Phi Don island, but (for reasons that will become obvious) I didn't write anything yesterday -- day four -- so I'll try to cover both days in this dispatch.

To put it succinctly: Things have gone sour in a way that I had not expected.

From a tactical standpoint, my mission is progressing nicely. The soaring cliffs of Phi Phi Leh stand just two and a half miles across the sea from my roost on Long Beach. A few casual conversations with some Phi Phi Leh dive-tour operators have provided enough physiographical clues for me to devise a landing strategy. I even found a deserted beach (Lomudi) where I can make a quiet departure in the dead of night.

The problem, however, is that I'm having trouble explaining why I want to go there in the first place.

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I arrived here yesterday morning to discover that all the affordable lodging on Long Beach had been sold out. Welcoming the ascetic novelty of sleeping on the beach itself, I left my backpack with a friendly restaurant manager and set off to scope things out.

Technically, the island of Phi Phi Don is part of the same National Marine Park system that protects Phi Phi Leh from permanent tourist development. A person could never tell by looking, however, as an unbroken progression of bungalows and beach resorts lines the entire southeastern seaboard. Ton Sai -- an old Thai-Muslim village on the isthmus that connects the two halves of the island -- is clotted with luxury hotels, dive shops, restaurants, souvenir peddlers and discos. The only evidence of Muslim heritage is that some of the women selling cigarettes and Pringles wear veils.

When I met a Danish pair on the longtail taxi-boat from Ton Sai back to Long Beach, I was immediately struck by their similarity to a couple of characters in "The Beach." In Alex Garland's novel (and, I am certain, in the movie script), Richard travels to the beach utopia in the company of Etienne and Francoise, a young French couple he meets on Khao San Road. Granted, Jan and Maarta aren't French, but they certainly seemed graceful, companionable and adventurous enough to merit a comparison. When I discovered that they, too, were being forced to sleep on the beach that night, I took this as a sign that I should invite them along for my adventure.

I pitched the idea over a pad-thai dinner on Long Beach. Since they were both familiar with the novel, I skipped straight into my plans to rent a boat and steal over to Phi Phi Leh. When I saw how this idea entertained them, I backtracked a bit and told them about my experience with Andrew MacDonald the day before. By the time I got to my fantasy about the bikini-clad lynch mob, I had the Danes in stitches.

"You Americans have wonderful thoughts," Jan said between gasps for air.

I saw this as my chance. "Why don't you two join me?"

"Yes," Jan said, still laughing, "why don't we join you?"

"Perfect," I said. "This is too perfect. Let's find a boat and leave tonight."

The Danes stopped laughing. "Are you serious?" Maarta asked.

"I am 100 percent completely serious. Let's leave tonight."

"But we thought you were telling, kind of, a joke."

This threw me a little. "Would you rather leave tomorrow?"

Jan and Maarta exchanged a raised-eyebrow look, which I took to mean either "This guy is really daring" or "This guy is a total dork." Judging from the exchange that ensued, I'd put money on the latter.

"If you really want to go to the movie," Jan said, "why don't you just wait until they finish on Phi Phi Leh and go to work as an extra when they film in Phuket or Krabi?"

"That's not the point," I insisted. "The adventure is in going to a place where you aren't supposed to go. The charm is in living the novel backwards -- going to an exclusive and secretive beach that also happens to be famous."

"The island is guarded like an army," Maarta said. "You'll never make it."

"Even if you do," Jan said, "what will you do when you get there?"

By this point, I felt like whipping out the novel and showing Jan and Maarta that they were saying the wrong lines. The issue was getting unnecessarily complicated. In the story, Francoise and Etienne were much more agreeable.

"I don't know what I'll do when I get there," I said. "Walk onto the set, I guess. You know, see what happens when I violate their community. Like in the book."

Jan and Maarta conferred for a moment in Danish, then turned back to me.

"Why are you doing this?" Maarta asked, with a tone of concern.

Since I thought I'd already answered that question, all I could do was stammer. Ultimately I changed the subject -- to the relief, I think, of everyone present.

In my own mind the reason why I'm doing this should have been obvious.

Or, even more accurately, the reason why I'm doing this should be irrelevant.

Now that I've had time to think about it, I'd say the motivation behind
my mission has a lot to do with a kind of traveler's angst. I know I'm
not the only one who feels it.

In his 1975 essay "The Loss of the Creature," Walker Percy attributes
traveler's angst to the idea that our various destinations have been
"appropriated by the symbolic complex which has already formed in the
sightseer's mind."

In other words, the angst originates not in watching fat, Speedo-wearing
German men defile once-pristine beaches -- the angst comes from our own
media-driven notions of how those beaches should be in the first place.
We cannot hike the Himalayas without drawing comparisons to the IMAX
film we saw last summer; we cannot taste wine on the Seine without
recalling a funny scene from an old Meg Ryan movie; we cannot get lost
in a South American jungle without thinking of the Gabriel Garcma
novel we read in college. It is the expectation itself that
robs a bit of authenticity from the destinations we seek out.

Even the unexpected comes with its own set of expectations: In
Garland's novel, Richard interprets what he sees at his beach utopia
through the language of the Vietnam War movies he saw as a teenager.

Percy attempts to explain this phenomenon in his essay. "The highest
point," he writes, "the term of the sightseer's satisfaction, is not the
sovereign discovery of the thing before him; it is rather the measuring
up of the thing to the criterion of the pre-formed symbolic complex."

The challenge this poses for the discerning traveler is that -- here at
the cusp of the next millennium -- mass media has not only monopolized
the symbolic complex of wonder and beauty, it has recently upped the
ante by an extra 73 coconut palm trees.

Thus, by storming "The Beach" at Phi Phi Leh, I hope to travel behind
the curtain, to break out from the confines of the consumer experience
by attempting to break into the creation of the consumer experience.

In this way, I guess I could say that my mission is part of a greater
struggle for individuality in the information age -- an attempt to live
outside the realm of who I'm supposed to be.

At least, that's what I would have told the Danes yesterday, had I had
my wits about me.

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

Today I successfully managed to avoid the Danes entirely. After
sneaking a shower at a poolside changing room in Ton Sai, I set off to
find a boat that would take me to Phi Phi Leh. Since stealth is an
important consideration in my mission, choosing the right boat was a
painfully difficult process.

Actually, choosing a boat wasn't really a choice at all, since my only
realistic option was to hire out one of the longtail boats that transport people and goods among the
islands. Considering that these boats cut through the water as
gracefully as bulldozers (none of them have mufflers), my only real
option was in finding a driver who sympathized with my cause and
wouldn't try to cheat me.

Just before dinner, I found a seemingly earnest boat driver who agreed
to take me to Phi Phi Leh for 2,500 baht. We leave in a few hours.

It is already well after dark, and I have stashed my backpack under one
of the old fishing huts here at Lomudi. In addition to dry clothes, I
have sealed my passport and a few traveler's checks into my plastic
swimming bag.

Andrew MacDonald's Italian leather screenplay binder, I'm afraid, was
too heavy and will have to stay behind.

I pace the shoreline, killing time before the arrival of the longtail
boat. Tiny bits of phosphorescence glow, star-blue, at the edge of the
waves, just as they do in the book.

DAY SIX: Jan. 22 -- Storming "The Beach" at Phi Phi Leh, continued

It occurs to me that I don't know the name of the small, sun-browned
Thai man who sits astern from me in the darkness. I hate to write him
off as a minor character -- "Boat Driver No. 1" -- so I have been thinking
of him as "Jimmy." He just seems like someone who should be named
Jimmy: trustworthy, average, unassuming. Even in the dark, he wears a
wide-brimmed cloth cap.

Neither of us has spoken since I waded out and climbed into the longtail
back at Lomudi. Both of us know we are breaking the law -- that Phi
Phi Leh is patrolled by police speedboats for the duration of the movie
shoot. I am hoping that our drop-off site at Loh Samah Bay (instead of
Maya Bay, where the film set is located) isn't patrolled very closely at
3:30 in the morning.

Unlike most of the longtail operators I met in Ton Sai, Jimmy is a
quiet, introspective man. When we were negotiating the trip yesterday
afternoon, he nodded silently as I took out a dive-shop map of Phi Phi
Leh and told him where I wanted to go. At first I thought he couldn't
speak any English, but he cut me short when I tried to use my Thai
phrase book on him. "Three in the morning, OK," he'd said. "I know
Loh Saman Bay." I suspect he is working to support a wife and kids

2,500 baht -- about $70 -- is no small sum, but I have written it off as
an inevitability. Edmund Hillary had to hire Sherpas; I had to hire
Jimmy. Perhaps in an effort to accommodate me -- or, just as likely, in
an effort to conceal me -- Jimmy has spread a rattan mat out on the
ribbed wooden floor of the boat. Lying on the mat, clutching my plastic
bag, all I can see is the bright wash of stars above me.
Oddly, the thumping rattle of the outboard motor somehow makes the stars
seem closer, like they are a glittering kind of music video that hovers
just over the boat.

My thoughts drift as the boat pushes through the water. I think about
my first week in Thailand, when I was quick-dosing on an anti-malaria
drug called Lariam. Mild psychosis is a side-effect of the drug, and --
sure enough -- on my second day of taking the pills I punched my fist
through the door of my hotel room on Khao San Road. It was certainly
one of the more violent acts of my adult life, and to this day I have
trouble making sense of it. I don't know why I did it; all I remember
was how I felt in the moments before security arrived to kick me out of
the hotel. It was not a feeling of dread or shock, as one might expect,
but rather a bemused, incongruent sense of wonder. Certainly Leonardo
DiCaprio must feel the same way each morning when he wakes up and walks into a world that is staring at him.

"What the hell," I remember thinking to myself, "has happened to me?"

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

After about 20 minutes, Jimmy suddenly cuts the outboard motor. The
silence leaves my ears ringing. I sit up on the mat uncertainly.

"Are we there?" I whisper. The boat rocks as Jimmy crawls up to join me
on the mat. He pushes his face right up in front of mine, and I see
that he is holding his finger to his lips. He rests a hand on my
shoulder and peers past the bow into the darkness.

We sit this way for about 10 minutes. Strangely, I am not nearly as
nervous as I was on the verandah of the Cape Panwha Resort Hotel.
Swimming and hiking are tangible activities -- far more cut-and-dry than
schmoozing and coaxing information.

But swimming and hiking are not the only obstacles that remain: Jimmy
curses softly and moves back to the stern of the longtail. Only then do
I hear it -- the sound of an approaching speedboat. Before long, our
wooden boat is awash in the beam of a spotlight. I try to hide myself
under the rattan mat, but it's a useless gesture.

Embarrassed more than anything, I lie awkwardly in the bottom of the
longtail while Jimmy and someone on the speedboat yell back and forth in
Thai. I absently note that the sealing oil on the hull boards has a
pleasant, cedary scent.

Surprisingly, Jimmy yells in his apologetic tone for only a couple
of minutes before the speedboat cuts its spotlight and leaves.

"OK," Jimmy says.

"It's OK?" I say, looking out from my hiding place.

"OK," Jimmy says.

I crawl out and move to the stern next to Jimmy. He rests his hand on my
shoulder. "OK?" he says for the third time. I give him the thumbs
up; he starts up the outboard and turns our boat 180 degrees. It's a
couple of beats before I realize that we are headed back for Phi Phi

"Isn't this where we just came from?" I ask, pointing my finger ahead
into the darkness.

"OK!" Jimmy says.

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

It takes me a good five minutes before I can undo the knot on my plastic
swim bag. I'm not particularly proud of what I'm about to do, but I
feel like I've come too far to give up now.

I crawl back over to Jimmy and I shove the traveler's checks underneath
his nose. "Bak-sheesh," I say, gesturing back at where we last saw the
speedboat. Actually, I'm not even sure if "bak-sheesh" is the correct
word for "bribe" in this part of the world. I feel a little doltish as
I say it, like I'm trying to speak Spanish by throwing out English
phrases in a Speedy Gonzalez voice.

Jimmy puts his hand on my shoulder in what I now take as a wizened
parental gesture. He looks down sympathetically at my traveler's
checks. "Boat man, OK," he says. "Eye-land man, maybe OK. Movie
man: no. Movie man not OK." He gently pushes my checks away.

"Yes! OK!" I say, still waving the traveler's checks, but he just
shakes his head.

The very trustworthiness that led me to hire Jimmy is now backfiring on
me. Jimmy knows that, even if I manage to bribe my way past the various
levels of Thai security on the island, a film crew with a $40 million
budget will be less than impressed with my presence. Jimmy is simply
trying to save me the money and stress of going through this whole

I'm at a loss to convince him how that very ordeal is exactly what I
want to experience.

Which Speedy Gonzalez catch phrases could make Jimmy grasp the pitch
and moment that drive this enterprise? What can I say that will make
Jimmy appreciate the intricate, shadowlike ironies of travel culture?
How can Jimmy come to understand a moral world where it's somehow vital
to avoid eating at McDonald's in Manila, virtuous to intentionally
bypass the "Mona Lisa" while at the Louvre and noble to sleep in a ditch
in Africa?

How can I convince him that this "mission" is not merely another
variation of the Hokey Pokey?

My tongue is ineffectual in its pivots; Phi Phi Leh recedes in the
darkness behind us.

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

We go through strange rituals to prove things to ourselves in life.

As we near our trash-encrusted starting point, I insist that Jimmy cut
the engine early, so I can jump out of the longtail and swim the last
200 meters back to the abandoned fishing village.

Since simple epiphany doesn't screen well in the test markets, I will
tell people that I swam those 200 meters with a defiant sense of
triumph. I will tell them that each small step wading ashore was a
giant leap for mankind.

I will tell them that I walked through the Valley of the Shadow of
Death, and that I feared no evil -- for the Valley of the Shadow of
Death will soon feature guided tours and a snack bar.

By Rolf Potts

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

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