As I stared into the abyss of my sixtieth birthday, they consoled me that another day wouldn’t make any difference… that as a sexagenarian I’d feel exactly the same as I did before. What rubbish that was!
As I wake up in my bamboo hut on the beach on Koh Chang I feel like death warmed up and at least several decades older than before. I think I must be suffering from a bad attack of bamboo hut syndrome!
As I try to get up from the rock hard mattress on the floor of the hut, I’m stiff and achey, my brain swollen to twice its usual modest size. I long for a cold drink, to splash water onto my face and I desperately need a pee. You can see from the picture that the hut has no loo and as the keen types are already out on the beach jogging with little wires stuffed in their ears, I can’t avail myself of the world’s largest WC.
I fumble around for my wallet and watch but as always in a tiny bamboo hut, everything I so desperately need is irrecoverably lost. I think of asking the recumbent Cat where she’s put them, but I know that if I do, she’ll curse me loudly, insisting she’s still deeply asleep.
Seriously dehydrated from last night’s drowning of sorrows, I now stagger outside and prop myself up against a coconut palm for temporary support before walking down the blinding sand to get a much needed coffee.
I’m thinking that a major cause of my sudden acceleration into old age was probably yesterday’s long drive from Surin to Trat which took a horrible seven hours. Crossing some high mountains which definitely weren’t there last time we did the trip, we nearly died a thousand times trying to overtake streams of slow trucks and facing kamikaze pick-ups, all seemingly brand new, flashing their lights and coming at us on our side of the road. When we finally got to the passenger jetty at Laem Ngop it was already dark and, horror of horrors, they told us the last car ferry to the island had left at five.
‘Dammit, Cat,' I complain. “So why are we late then? Why are we going to have to stay in a grotty little place in Laem Ngop and not on the most beautiful beach in the world? Because you had to go into town this morning to buy a new cable for your purple insect trap and made us two hours late!’
‘But, Andrew, now Mama and Nan have insects while we’re away. Not get hungry!”
So that’s okay then, is it? Me missing my sixtieth celebration!
I remind myself that this is Thailand, so we forlornly drive to the car ferry pier on the off chance and to my joy we’re immediately ushered onto the seven o’clock boat which is just about to leave. So I got my evening celebration on the beach after all and as a consequence, a memorable anniversary hangover the next day.
Sprawled on a bar stool overlooking the beach, I now begin to enjoy my seventh decade, taking in the spectacular beauty of mountains, beach and sea around me as I sit nursing my head and my coffee and thinking about the island. I find it’s always a shock coming back to Koh Chang because, as an Isaan woman selling som tam told Cat, it changes every day. Two years away and it’s become a substantially different place.
Nonetheless, the sea and mountains are still there and in spirit it’s the same as when I stayed here at the far end of the beach five years ago. It was inevitable that Ben, the protagonist in my novel, “Thai Girl” should also stay in the same place and, like me he made many close friends setting the world to rights in long boozy sessions on the sand.
Both Ben and I, and thankfully Cat too, love the uncomfortable romance of a bamboo hut in preference to sterile, hot concrete and, while Koh Chang is now going up-market, there are still a few huts around on White Sands Beach. I asked at reception what the future might bring for this last unspoiled stretch of beach huts and she told me the builders move in on 1st May. Couldn’t they just keep them until my seventieth?
In Chapter 30 of “Thai Girl”, Ben and his friends sit with Sang Som in hand and gloomily predict an environmental disaster on Koh Chang and I fear their predictions were not far off the mark. Each time I’ve come back here I’ve been shocked and depressed at the frantic rate of change which is the one thing that always stays the same. This time though, I begin to accept that the island is no longer a simple backpacker place with quiet lanes winding through palm trees. It’s already a major resort and the road behind White Sands Beach is now more like Chaweng on Samui than its nearest rival Koh Samet.
As I stroll along the broken pavements, the Indian tailors target me aggressively.
‘Hey boss! You come my shop!” they say.
Why do they have to do this? It only turns people off. The special quality of Thailand in contrast to India or even Bali is that traders rarely hassle you. They’re far too polite and dignified and it’s for this above all that tourists come back to Thailand… for the discreet charm of the Thai people. Who comes to Koh Chang to buy suits anyway?
The official plan from the Thaksin era is for Koh Chang to be developed with a series of up-market resorts which isn’t a bad idea but only if informal, small-scale development can be restrained. But of course it can’t be and they’re jerry building like there’s no tomorrow. The authorities do a reasonable job of controlling the jungle which is scheduled as a National Park but the old plantations are up for grabs and so of course, as everywhere, money rules. Now, with the development of the road down the west side, the sleepy little villages merge one into the next in a ribbon of motorbike repair shops, markets, shop houses and tourist accommodation. The beauty of the mountains on the one side and of the sea on the other accentuates the tackiness of what has sprung up in between in so very few years. Ben would be truly shocked if I brought him to life again.
Nonetheless, as I swim out to sea and look back at the island, it’s still incomparably beautiful and I think I’ll always want to come back. After showering, I take to my hammock, trying inconspicuously to shake the sand out of my underpants. I mustn’t grumble that there’s too much sand on the beach, and, bamboo hut syndrome or not, I realize my headache’s not quite as bad as it was.
I even try some light reading, ‘The Two Faces of Islam’ by Stephen Schwartz. More than ever it convinces me that the West’s demonizing of Islam is so terribly and stupidly wrong. My six decades living on several continents, including among Muslims, tell me that people everywhere of whatever faith just want to get on with their own lives in peace and harmony. Violent extremism is an unnatural perversion which burns itself out unless we fan the flames by tarring all Muslims with the same brush. Which is what so many non-Muslims are doing and is precisely what the terrorists want us to do.
How can Bush not see the irreparable damage his aggression must inevitably do? But then how can people blow each other up when the world is as beautiful as this?