25 November 2023

"Take Me to My Beach": Thailand, Wanderlust and the Spirit of Adventure

For the first part of my big birthday celebration, I drew inspiration from the delightful déja vu of New York. And for the second, I looked instead to the jamais vu of Thailand.

It’s remarkable, isn’t it, that a place can feel so familiar even though you’ve never been? But it’s not the real Thailand so much as the Thailand of The Beach, Alex Garland’s 1996 novel that, for a time, must have been in almost every tourist’s backpack and almost every hostel bookshelf, as well as the subsequent 2000 film. Even now, those distinctive opening notes of Pure Shores by All Saints transport me not just to a different place and a different time but a different state of mind. One of possibility and adventure. One of fernweh, as the Germans put it, and wanderlust.

I devoured The Beach as a 16-year-old, hooked by the promise of excitement, warmer climes and Guillaume Canet, and I stayed up late to finish it before I went to see the film with my friends. “It’s such an excellent film,” I wrote in my diary. “I want to visit Thailand so badly, to experience new countries and different cultures and have an adventure of my own.” It was the first time I had felt such powerful wanderlust even though The Beach is much more about the problematic tourists themselves than the places they were visiting, the people and the heritage.

Then, 18 months later, The Beach resurfaced. The soundtrack to the film was one of the few CDs on repeat at the sandwich shop in which I worked part time during my last year of school. I must have listened to it hundreds of times and it’s still one of my favourites. Pure Shores as well as Spinning Away by Sugar Ray, Porcelain by Moby and songs by Underworld, New Order, Faithless, Blur and all the others perfectly encapsulated the spirit of the film and the spirit of discovery.

And it made the perfect backdrop to the tales of travel shared by my older, more experienced coworkers, who were constantly heading off to or returning from new and exotic destinations a world away from staid, grey Oxford. But I took inspiration from them, even taking my PADI Open Water Diver certification with one of my colleagues, a dive master. The frigid, murky waters of Stoney Cove weren’t quite the tropical turquoises that I had in mind but the course gave me a buzz for the underwater world that I’ve never lost.

But when I finally travelled outside of Europe and the US for the first time, it was Hong Kong (partly because I had free flights) and Cuba that came calling. My publishing salary during my post-university years meant that most of my long-haul travels during this period were extensions of work or family trips to the US. Then, in 2013, I travelled to Costa Rica and have taken a two-week long-haul trip to somewhere new every year since then.

Well, except 2020 – ironically, given that I was planning to go to Thailand. I’d almost combined a trip with my visit to Vietnam in 2016 but decided both countries needed at least a full two weeks. And then in January 2020, with flu-like symptoms and a persistent cough, I booked flights to Thailand for my birthday in November. I planned a rough trip, bought a guidebook and then…well, we all know what happened in 2020. My trip was officially cancelled in August but I was pretty sure long before that it wasn’t going to happen. I scaled back my birthday plans based on which countries were open, from Thailand to Sicily to Athens and then the Dorset Coast. In the end, a lockdown was declared shortly before; my parents and I tried to make the best of it in Oxford.

My trip to Bali last year renewed my yearning for Southeast Asia and so 2023 is the year that I will finally visit Thailand, the country that kickstarted my passion for travel decades before I ever set foot in the country. Part of me wonders if my experience would have been very different if I’d gone in 2003 instead. Apart from staying in nicer accommodation and seeking out a few nicer restaurants, maybe not that much. I’ve always prioritised culture, history and heritage (including food traditions) when I travel. I don’t think my experience would have been very much like The Beach.

And maybe that’s it. The film wasn’t just about Thailand but about what travel represents — the freedom, the escape, the never-say-no attitude and willingness to try new things and step outside my comfort zone. Those are what that my sensible 16-year-old self was craving more than anything. And if I’m really honest, they are still things that I find it easiest to pursue when I’m away from home, away from work, away from expectations and away from reality.

So, here’s to Thailand! I have two weeks in the country — not enough time, of course (it never is) but enough to explore Bangkok and Chiang Mai and, of course, go to the islands for some much-needed beach time. Just enough before I start to crave the city again.

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