In the late 1990s, the bookshelves of beach shacks and guesthouses across Southeast Asia were dominated by copious copies of the same volume: The Beach. Alex Garland’s bestselling thriller deftly skewered the backpacking scene in Thailand at the time, sketching smug travel one-upmanship and flipflop hedonism in a dark tale of the traveller’s tireless quest for the ultimate unspoiled beach idyll. Ultimately illustrating how rapidly paradise becomes paradise lost in human hands.
A few years later, after reading the book, watching the Danny Boyle movie and dancing around my bedroom to All Saints’s Pure Shores on the soundtrack, I backpacked around Thailand myself. I found that the backpacker scene that Garland painted hadn’t gone anywhere. Thailand’s allure, for young European and American students like myself, was the stuff of legends: icy bottles of Chang for 50p. Massages on the beach for £5. Beach huts for £7 a night. Ridiculously delicious Thai green curry for £1. In Thailand, we could afford to live like kings – not skint students. And, what a place to live like a king in, with thousands of islands ringed by white-sand beaches, compelling culture in the cities and the sort of easy-access spirituality that appeals to anyone hoping to “find themselves” by losing their hometown.
Twenty years on, Thailand’s appeal to travellers hasn’t dwindled. Okay, so the beach huts and Thai curries cost a little more, but it remains a phenomenally affordable destination for most Europeans. It sounds crass to focus on cash, but Thailand’s cheapness played a major role in the development of the backpacker tourism industry, enabling students to holiday for six months, rather than a fortnight, and making barefoot luxury feasible for a new breed of international tourists who discovered it was cheaper to holiday in Thailand than the Costa del Sol. But, although Thailand welcomed the boost to its GDP – in 2011 tourism was worth £16 million to the Thai economy – young, drunk students and package holidaymakers aren’t exactly known for their cultural sensitivity. (Trust me, I’ve been one.) And the trappings of the tourist trade can be ugly: rapid development, tacky bars, polluted beaches, and – worst of all – cultural tension between the locals and the tourists.
Nevertheless, development hasn’t dimmed Thailand’s allure. I’ve now been to Thailand as a student, a honeymooner and as a travel writer, and every time, the country casts a spell over me. A view echoed by Juliet Kinsman, fellow travel writer and founding editor of Mr&MrsSmith.com. “I first enjoyed a Thai beach holiday 25 years ago, when it was just backpacker huts, so yes, when I went back to Koh Samui recently I was shocked at how built up the main touristy hub had become, but the soft white sand is as gorgeous as ever, and with a bit of digging you can find fantastic little boutique hotels and eco-resorts. We stayed at The Library on the busiest stretch of all, Chaweng Beach. Despite the development, Koh Samui is still a serene pocket of paradise.”
Happily too, there are now signs that the travel industry in Thailand is developing into a healthier, gentler and more sophisticated ecosystem. Recently the Thai tourism minister, Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul, announced plans to attract a wealthier breed of traveller. “Our goal is to focus on quality and to make tourists stay longer and spend more money,” she said, adding that Thailand was hoping to attract 32 million visitors in 2016, by targeting women, luxury holidaymakers and sports tourism.
On my most recent visit I was heartened to detect a new emphasis on sustainable and responsible tourism; there’s a new breed of better-off backpacker, professionals in their twenties and thirties who are seeking out beach shacks with soul, over crude cheapness. Back in the 2000s, all everyone cared about was cheapness; bragging rights came courtesy of how little you’d paid for your room that night, not the eco credentials or Instagram appeal of a little boutique eco-resort. Twenty years after The Beach, Thailand is still hard to fault as a travel destination. But us tourists? We need to behave a bit better.
Alex Garland’s twentieth anniversary edition of The Beach is published by Penguin, currently on offer at £6.29 at WH Smith