Around these parts of the world it is rare you see a traveller without the big, obligatory yellow copy of Lonely Planet’s South East Asia On A Budget in their hand, me included. For a while though, my copy has been lodged between various items of clothing in my backpack, acting as extra weight more than anything. A while after beginning my trip I began travelling to places and doing things based on the recommendations of others. Word of mouth speaks volumes when you’re on the road. One person discovers something incredible, and ten years later you have things like Koh Phangan as we know it today – famous for attracting 60,000 people at a time to its beaches each month to dance under the full moon.
I don’t mind some common spots when travelling. If they’re popular, it’s usually for a reason, and getting off the beaten track isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be when you find yourself stranded in the middle of nowhere because the place you’ve chosen to explore is so remote that the only accomodation is a chicken shelter. As for recommendations in general, they had served me well until recently.
A number of people I met in northern Thailand told me their favourite of the eastern islands had been Koh Tao. Its world-famous dive spots and marine life have given the small island a reputation amongst travellers that could see it developing into a location with more guesthouses than houses. In reality, I should have considered their advice a little more carefully. It turns out that it’s true, the diving really is great in Koh Tao (or so I’m told). It also turns out there’s feck all else to do there when you’re at the end of your budget.
Given my fear of deep water, and therefore diving, I found myself sunbathing on the beach. That is, until it started raining on the third day and then I found myself in a cafe ordering seventeen smoothies a day. It was time to move.
But where to? I still had nine days left and didn’t want to spend all of them on Koh Phangan in case it didn’t differ that much from Koh Tao. I’d heard Koh Samui wasn’t all that great and there aren’t any more islands this side of the mainland. Then I watched The Beach. Yes, it seems a little sad and not very travel-like to copy an almost-turned mentally ill American tourist in a film from ten years ago, but then again, the character was played by Leonardo Dicaprio and if I get to take a photo accompanied by the caption ‘stood in the same spot as…’ then maybe it’s not such a bad idea. It’s strange how I think I prefer his older self, not something I expected before watching the film again. Anyway…
I did get a little of the buzz of experiencing new places you feel when you’re at the beginning of your trip again though after watching the film, and ended up thinking to myself that even if others hadn’t thought much of Koh Samui, at the end of the day it is still a Thai island. It is still going to be hot, still going to have beaches, and most likely still be beautiful. And can that really be all that bad? No, not in the slightest.
Koh Samui is an example of why I shall always take others’ recommendations with a pinch of salt, and remember that it is worth trying somewhere out to make up my own mind about it. There have only been a handful of times that I have felt ecstatically happy when reaching somewhere new, and this is one of them.
Having not booked any accomodation before arriving, I spent some time at the pier asking around for places to stay, and after finding that the fleet of taxis that had been there ten minutes ago were nowhere to be seen, I found a local man sat on a motorbike with ‘taxi’ written on his hat. He took me to a small town 2km from the pier and dropped me off down a side street full of little art galleries, craft shops, used book shops and a few small beach bungalows. I wanted to ask him how he’d gotten to know me so well by having me sit on the back of his bike for ten minutes, but instead I gave him some money and thanked him for juggling both me, and my 65litre backpack on his 50cc motorbike.
I found a lovely room with huge double bed for only 100B more than what I had been paying to stay in the town’s main hostel in Koh Tao. After a short walk around the area I sent an email to my friend, saying, ‘I LOVE it here. I went for a walk and ended up on the beach where there were loads of little beach cafes. One had pet chickens. CHICKENS. ON THE BEACH. I think I’ve arrived in my personal heaven. The sand is really soft and I sat having my tea on the beach and spent more than I have in one sitting on food yet because I was so happy. I actually laughed to myself. And to think, this is only the place I have come in order to be able to get to the national park where they filmed The Beach. I’m going tomorrow and don’t think I’m going to get any sleep, I’m so excited.’
And that’s about a place others described as ‘not that great’. Everyone has their preferences, it’s important not to travel through someone else’s.