Vine time: lost in the Thai jungle (for an afternoon)
by Paul Oswell
In 1998, I read a little-known novel called The Beach by Alex Garland. I doubt you’ve heard of it, it’s pretty obscure. Anyway, it inspired me, a truly independent thinker with groundbreakingly original ideas, to dip a pioneering toe into independent travel, and I booked a flight to Ko Pha Ngan, Thailand. Nobody else did this, I was the only one who thought to go to the place that inspired The Beach, despite what the crowds of other recent college graduates, all clutching their dogeared copies, might have led you to believe.
My good friends Paul and Adi were already there with their friend Jane, decompressing for a few weeks on the final leg of a longer trip. They were staying in a huddle of flimsy beach huts at a cheap, no-frills resort called Haad Tien. These days, it’s likely all Huel-sponsored yoga studios and organic, reiki-powered smoothie bars, but in those pre-wifi times, it was cold water showers, temperamental electricity and lumpy beds. You know the kind of place: just basic enough to make white people feel like they’re bravely roughing it.
Close by was an ominous sign of what I assume has been a decades-long lurch into gentrification, a relatively salubrious resort called The Sanctuary. The guests at this relatively swanky retreat were there for remedial chakra realignment, or to get their chi topped up (for an incredibly funny description of The Sanctuary, I urge you to read ‘Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It’ by Geoff Dyer). You can imagine it, though - middle class hippies in white linens, one of whom I think I remember trying to bring a dead fish back to life via the power of their third eye.
Our little camp felt more ragtag and scrappy. It was probably ten or so dollars a day, a few Thai baht for curry from their kitchen, and no real amenities except the nearby stretch of idyllic beach. It was quiet, surrounded on all sides by thick jungle. If you wanted to catch the ferry back to the mainland from the island’s capital, Haad Rin, or go to one of the beaches that hosted Full Moon parties, you had to hop on a longtail boat.
The local fishermen ran a kind of an informal water taxi service connecting the main spots, and that mostly worked out for everyone. If you wanted to go to Haad Rin to hit up an internet cafe (kids, ask you parents) or to look at an almost unwatchably fuzzy, badly pirated copy of Armageddon or The Truman Show played at a deafening volume in a bar, you could hop on a boat and be there in a matter of minutes.
Most days, we just hung around the camp at Haad Tien, wearing our knock-off Red Bull t-shirts, eating pad thai like real culinary adventurers and drinking cheap Singha beer or Thai whiskey. We’d laze on our stretch of beach and then gather around the campfire at night, chatting with the two dozen or so other travelers. Acoustic guitars were occasionally involved and Oasis were very popular, so you do the math(s).
After about two weeks of this louche, sun-kissed existence, Paul and I had an itch to change things up. I hadn’t checked email in a fortnight, and so there were probably five or six messages I should reply to, and one of the bars in Haad Rin would show English football matches. Into a boat we hopped.
I don’t really remember the football, I think we’d probably watched a bit and then got bored and wandered out into the town, which even then was, as Dyer puts it, “choked by its own popularity, full of beautiful ravers, watching too-loud movies by day and waiting for the flouro nights”. We ran into Nate and Ruth, a couple of inordinately perky New Zealanders from our camp who had - unusually for them - furrowed brows.
They told us that they were concerned about the weather, something Paul and I had hereto been more or less oblivious to. They said that there were no longtail boats available because of an incoming storm, so unless we wanted to stay the night, we should probably walk home and set off pretty soon at that. Paul and I didn’t have any money, and as it was already late afternoon, we agreed to what we assumed would be a brisk hike.
On Google maps, it’s a 17 minute walk from Haad Rin to Haad Tien, but you’d have to be levitating with the power of a thousand crystal-boosted chakras to cover the distance in that time. The ‘pathway’ was a meandering, twisting trail of mud that weaved its way through a route that was - and I’ll again defer to Dyer here - “hilly, bouldery, wobbly with rocks, and crawling with serpentine vegetation”.
We began cheerily enough. Ruth and Nate lead the way with gusto, moving deftly and maintaining a pace that would have us all back to Haad Tien just before it got dark. There were no mobile phones with flashlights, and so still being in the jungle after sunset would generally be considered A Bad Idea, what with, you know, the wildlife and the lack of drinking water and everything.
It was about an hour or so in that some basic cultural differences started to become painfully obvious. Ruth and Nate were pink-cheeked Kiwis, healthy of fetlock and raised on a diet of fresh air and day-long yomps. They positively basked in their environmental comfort, moving fluidly through a familiar natural world. Paul and I were complete wrecks, wheezing with our pub lungs, calves with the muscular consistency of yogurt, men who felt ecologically exposed in city parks, showing all the resourcefulness of a newborn kitten tasked with overhauling a diesel engine.
Inclines and slopes came at us apace, our jellied ankles constantly rolling. Our uniform of shorts, tank tops and dollar-store flip-flops were particularly unsuited to this endeavor. Brambles would whip at our bare legs, the jungle unleashing a vindictive symphony of thorn-laden vines, sharpened branches and biting insects. Nate and Ruth skipped ahead of us like gym-toned gazelles, seemingly in a flow state as they floated balletically through the undergrowth, dominating the landscape, barely breaking a sweat.
Since Paul and I were loudly protesting and cursing almost all of the time, they eventually stopped for us to catch up. Drenched, branch-bruised and breathless, we probably looked like we’d been fifteen rounds with an aggressive cactus. But at last, some sweet reprieve in the form of a short rest.
Nate and Ruth were…not happy. It was explained to us in no uncertain terms that unless Team Paul picked up the pace, we’d all be in trouble. I got the feeling that if push came to shove, Ruth and Nate would actually just leave us Pauls to lie down in the moss and ferns to become skeletons, an option that, at this stage, wasn’t completely devoid of allure. “It’s going to be dark soon, and there are snakes, and you’ll get eaten alive by insects,” they told us. “Let’s get going, we’re almost there.”
I knew I didn’t really want the answer to this question, but I had to ask. Did they know how far along we actually were? A pregnant pause. “About half way,” came the reply. I’m not saying that this was the most disappointing moment in my life, but it’s up there with the time I won a raffle at an industry party and they told me I’d won a five-star, expenses-paid trip to the Caribbean but then a few minutes later, a hidden judge said they were drawing prizes in reverse order and that I’d actually won a cookbook.
Onwards. Not that we had a choice. It was starting to get darker, the jungle closing in spookily with menacing resolve. Paul and I settled into our now-familiar routine of getting hit by prickly branches, yelling OUCH or a swear word every 30-45 seconds and indulging in some Olympic-level bickering. We were truly Grand Masters of squabbling and petty recrimination at this point. Our crumpled bodies would fail us, we’d shout for help, Ruth and Nate would yell at us to stop being so unfit and remind us that we might die. Rinse and repeat.
We obviously made it. In reality, I doubt we were in any very real danger - not like one of those olde tyme solo polar explorers who had to scale arctic crevasses and eat their own fingers for nutrition, but for a couple of doughy Brits more adapted to jogging for a slowly-departing bus, it was…punishing.
Adi and Jane probably laughed long and hard at us as we rocked up to the camp around nightfall, wearing our saturated clothes and an exciting array of splinters. I don’t remember much about the rest of the evening, but what I do remember is the relief, hugging Nate and Ruth for their regimental tough love, and drinking what remains by far the sweetest Singha beer I’ve ever had.
TRUNK AND DISORDERLY: ELEPHANT POLO IN HUA HIN
TRAPPED IN ICELAND (FOR A NIGHT)