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The Beach is perhaps the most famous piece of travel fiction written about Thailand. It is a book by Alex Garland that became an instant cult classic when it was published in 1996. It is a story about a group of young people that hide out on a beach in Thailand on an island that is never visited. The merry band lead an idyylic life in the sun until things start to go wrong, and they are eventually forced to leave the beach.

The book works on several levels. It is about the great hippy dream of living free in paradise – free from visas, free from work and with as much free dope as they can smoke. It is also a story about group dynamics in isolation like the Lord of the Flies. It is also a psychological examination of how man is actually unfit to lead a harmonious life – how you can leave society behind but how the troubles of society, fitting in, falling in love, infidelity etc. follow you where ever you go.

The parts of the book that describe Khao San Road and its cheap hotels with electrocuting showers are well observed and lead up to the shock of the suicide and the  map that leads to paradise. Another part of book that will have resonance with anyone who has been to Koh Phangan are the descriptions of Haad Rin and the debauchery of the Full Moon Party.

I read The Beach while spending my days hanging out on the beaches of Thong Nai Pan. It struck me at the time that Alex Garland must have had the Ang Thong National Marine Park in mind when he wrote his book. It also struck me that he probably went to the wrong parts of Koh Phangan. While the south east has become inundated with party minded youngsters, the northern beaches such as Chaloklum and Bottle Beach remain peaceful and ideal spots. On the east coast Thong Nai Pan and Than Sadet also stand out as blissful and quiet places to spend a holiday.

Besides being on a Thai beach without Thai culture is missing out on half the experience. The notion of the beach as paradise is indeed an illusion just as the book rightly demonstates. Beaches in Thailand are indeed paradisical but they offer only temporary shelter from the cares of life; they are not the solution to life.