An attempt to infiltrate a movie set on a heavily guarded Thai island results in a rollicking post-modern travel adventure, somewhat starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
By Rolf Potts
Day six: Jan. 22, 1999 — Storming The Beach (Prelude)
It is 3 o’clock in the morning, and Lomudi Beach is possibly the only stretch of sand on Phi Phi Don island that is completely deserted. The only buildings here are small, sagging bamboo-and-thatch dwellings that probably housed Thai fishermen before the onslaught of sun-starved Europeans and North Americans turned those fishermen into bellboys and T-shirt hawkers. The high tide line here yields a sodden crust of garbage — plastic water bottles, rubber sandals, cigarette butts — but this detritus is only evidence of the boaters, snorkelers and sunburned masses who haunt the other parts of the island. Devoid of dive shops, pineapple vendors and running water, Lomudi is quiet and empty.
I hear the rhythmic thump of a longtail boat somewhere in the darkness, and I realize that my moment is at hand. Gathering up a sealed plastic bag of supplies, I wade out into the shallow waters to meet the rickety wooden craft that will take me across a small stretch of the Andaman Sea to the forbidden shores of Phi Phi Don’s sister island — a majestic, cliff-girded island called Phi Phi Leh.
Phi Phi Leh island is not forbidden because of ancient tribal rituals, secret nuclear tests or hidden pirate treasure. Phi Phi Leh is forbidden because it is the current filming location of a Leonardo DiCaprio movie called The Beach. My sole mission on this dim night is to swim ashore and infiltrate the set.
I am not a gossip journalist, a Leo-obsessed film nut or a paparazzo. I am a backpacker. The primary motivation for my mission is not an obsession with Hollywood, but simply a vague yearning for adventure. I wish I could put this yearning into more precise terms, but I can’t. All I can say is that adventure is hard to come by these days.
Admittedly, I have a daunting task before me. In the wake of ongoing environmental protests, Leo’s purported fear of terrorism and the obligatory packs of screaming pubescent females, security on Phi Phi Leh has reached paramilitary proportions. Thus, I have given up on the notion of a frontal assault. Instead, I plan to swim ashore via Loh Samah Bay, change into dry khakis and a casual shirt and — under cover of darkness — hike across the island to the filming location.
I’m not sure what will happen if I’m able to make it this far, but — summary execution excepted — I am prepared to cheerfully deal with whatever fate awaits me.
This attitude has much less to do with optimism than with the simple fact that — after one week of obsessive preparation — I don’t really have a plan.
Day one: Jan. 17, 1999 — DiCapritation
Thai Air flight 211 from Bangkok to Phuket has been taxiing around for the last 20 minutes, and there seems to be no end in sight. The European package tourists in the seats around me are getting fidgety, but this is only because they have not set foot on actual soil since Stockholm or Frankfurt. I, on the other hand, have been in Thailand for two weeks — and I’ve already faced the numbing horrors of Bangkok traffic. There, amid the creeping tangle of automobiles, buses, tuk-tuks, humidity and fumes, one is left with two psychological options: nirvanic patience or homicidal insanity. Patience won out for me, and I am taking this present delay in stride. In my lap sits a pile of notes and clippings about the movie production — most of it from Thai tabloid newspapers. Considering that culling hard facts from tabloid gossip is a challenge akin to discerning fate from sheep intestines, my mind frequently strays as I dig through the information.
I wonder, for instance, what would happen if Leonardo DiCaprio’s fans here were able to overwhelm his bodyguards. In every part of Asia I’ve visited, I’ve noticed how young girls act in the presence of their pop heroes, and it’s somewhat unsettling. At one level, there is a screamy, swoony, Elvis-on-“Ed Sullivan” innocence to it all — but at a deeper level, I sense an intuitive desperation.
After all, not only is this part of Asia a survivalist bazaar society (where patiently standing in line is not part of the manner code), it also runs on a patriarchal system, where young girls simply have fewer options in life. If Leo’s bodyguards ever fail him, I wouldn’t be at all surprised by a frenzied display of grim, no-future pathos — a spectacle that, by comparison, would make punk-rock nihilism seem like a gentle tenet from the Sermon on the Mount. I keep getting this picture in my head of the handsome blond movie star being lovingly, worshipfully torn to pieces — of adolescent girls brawling over ragged bits of spleen and femur.
Several weeks before I came to Thailand, I read the Alex Garland novel upon which the movie is based. In the story, a strange man presents the main character (a young English traveler named Richard) with a map that leads to an unspoiled beach utopia hidden in a national park in the Gulf of Thailand. The Lord of the Flies-style moral degeneration that results after Richard’s arrival on the beach made for a thoroughly engrossing read.
After finishing the book, I toyed with the idea of emulating the plot — of finding some like-minded travelers, hiring a fishing boat into the restricted national park islands, and seeking out an unspoiled paradise. I ultimately discarded this notion, however, when I discovered that tabloid obsession with the film had already rendered my idea unoriginal.
When I arrived in Thailand and the tabloid hype still hadn’t let up, a new idea struck me: Why not live The Beach in reverse? Instead of seeking out a secret, untouched island, why not explore the most scrutinized island in all of Thailand? Why not try washing ashore on the movie set itself?
The pure novelty of this notion has led to me this very point: seat 47K, Thai Air flight 211, which has now finally begun to accelerate down the runway. As the plane lifts off the ground and banks for its southward turn, a view of Bangkok fills my window.
Below, urban Thailand spans out around the Chao Phraya River in symmetrical brown-gray grids that, from this altitude, look like the outer armor from a 1970s sci-fi movie spaceship. For an instant, the earth looks artificial and foreign, as if it’s been taken over by aliens.
The aliens, of course, are us.
Day two: Jan. 18, 1999 — The Hokey-Pokey
Although historically influenced by traders from China, Portugal, Malaysia and India, the beach villages of Phuket island now seem to belong to northern Europe as much as anyplace. Western tourists abound, prices are steep and miniature golf is readily available.
Since the cast and crew of The Beach sleep in Phuket, I came here with the intention of scouting out some information before I set off for Phi Phi Leh. Now that I’ve arrived, however, I’m a bit stumped on just how I’m supposed to scout out information. Mostly I’ve just been walking around and talking with other travelers, which is not much different from what I did on Khao San Road in Bangkok.
But talking with other wanderers is telling in and of itself, since nobody in the backpacker crowd wants to admit even the slightest interest in DiCaprio or the filming of the movie. Instead, nearly everyone I’ve met talks about their own travels in wistful terms eerily similar to the characters in Garland’s book. It would be difficult to characterize the nuances from each of my beachfront and street-cafe conversations this afternoon, but I can easily summarize:
Phuket, it is generally agreed, is a tourist shithole — best served for anthropological studies of fat German men who wear Speedos. For the ghost of Phuket past, try the islands of Malaysia or Cambodia. Laos incidentally, is still charming and unspoiled, like rural Thailand in the ’80s. The hill-tribe trekking around Sapa in Vietnam is as full of wonder and surprise as Chiang Mai treks were a decade ago. Goa and Koh Phangan still can’t live up to their early ’90s legacy; rumor crowns Central America the new cutting edge of rave. Sulawesi is, part and parcel, Bali 10 years ago.
Granted, I have condensed what I heard — but for all the talk, you would think that paradise expired some time around 1989.
I am currently staying at the $5-a-night On On Hotel in Phuket City, where a few interior scenes for The Beach will be shot in March. Since it is an official movie location, I had secretly hoped it would be brimming with an eccentric array of film groupies, security personnel and rampaging Leo-worshippers. Instead, the open-air lobby is filled with moths, mopeds and old Thai men playing chess.
Earlier this evening, I spent a couple of hours here chatting and sipping Mekhong whiskey with Ann and Todd, a young couple from Maryland. Our conversation started when I heard Ann quoting a book review of The Beach from Phuket’s English newspaper, which described backpack travelers as “uniformly ill-clad … all bearing Lonely Planet guidebooks and wandering from one shabby guest house to the next in search of banana pancakes, tawdry tie-dies and other trash particularly their own.” Since we agreed we prefer the Whitmanesque stereotype of backpack travel — pocketless of a dime, purchasing the pick of the earth and whatnot — this led to a discussion of what actually distinguishes backpack travelers from tourists.
On the surface, it’s a simple distinction: Tourists leave home to escape the world, while travelers leave home to experience the world. Tourists, Ann added wittily, are merely doing the hokey-pokey: putting their right foot in and taking their right foot out; calling themselves world travelers while experiencing very little. Todd and I agreed that this was a brilliant analogy, but after a few more drinks we began to wonder where backpack travelers fit into the same paradigm. This proved to be a problem.
Do travelers, unlike tourists, keep their right foot in a little longer and shake it all about? Do travelers actually go so far as to do the hokey-pokey and turn themselves around — thus gaining a more authentic experience?
Is that what it’s all about?
The effects of alcohol pretty much eliminated serious reflection at the time, but now that my buzz is gone I can only conclude that the hokey-pokey — whether done well or poorly — is still just the hokey-pokey.
Or, to put it another way: Regardless of one’s budget, itinerary and choice of luggage — the act of travel is still, at its essence, a consumer experience.
Do we travel so that we can arrive where we started and know the place for the first time — or do we travel so that we can arrive where we started having earned the right to take T.S. Eliot out of context?
The fact that it’s too late to know the difference makes my little mission to Phi Phi Leh less quirky than it sounds.
Day three: Jan. 19, 1999 — Flord of the lies
Except for the fact that I met the producer of The Beach and somehow ended up stealing his Italian-leather screenplay binder, today hasn’t been all that eventful. Mostly I’ve just been rereading Garland’s novel. Tomorrow I leave for Phi Phi Don.
This morning’s Bangkok Post featured a press statement from DiCaprio, who declared his love of Thailand, his affection for the Thai people and his sincere concern for the local ecology. The ecology comment comes on the heels of an environmental controversy that has been brewing since last fall, when 20th Century Fox announced it was going to plant 100 coconut palm trees on the Phi Phi Leh movie set. The reasoning, apparently, was that Phi Phi Leh didn’t quite meet the Hollywood standards of what an island in Thailand should look like.
The months following the coconut palm announcement have been fraught with protests, promises, legal action, threatened legal action, publicity stunts and rumor. Thai environmental activists claimed the palms would disrupt the island’s ecosystem; 20th Century Fox responded by reducing the number of trees to 60. When activists derided this as a meaningless gesture, 20th Century Fox (perhaps misunderstanding the difference between ecology and landscape maintenance) paid a $138,000 damage deposit to the Thai Royal Forest Department and planted the trees anyway. Now environmentalists are claiming that producers flaunted their earlier compromise and brazenly planted no less than 73 trees at topsoil depths up to a meter deeper than had previously been agreed.
While the precise facts of this controversy would require a Warren Commission reunion, the fact remains that 20th Century Fox’s actions are a drop in the environmental bucket compared to the large-scale tourist development that has besieged Southeast Asia’s islands over the last decade. Garland alludes to this phenomenon in his novel: “Set up in Bali, Koh Phangan, Koh Tao, Boracay, and the hordes are bound to follow. There’s no way you can keep it out of the Lonely Planet, and once that happens, it’s countdown to doomsday.”
Countdown to doomsday. Kind of makes a person wonder if Garland was aware of the irony when he sold his novel’s film rights to a media entity that makes Lonely Planet look like an obscure pamphlet publisher based out of the back of someone’s Vanagon.
Protests aside, the real environmental impact of the filming won’t be determined until after the movie appears in theaters and half a million star-struck teenagers in places like Nebraska and New Brunswick simultaneously decide that they, too, are going to buy a ticket to Thailand to seek out the last paradise on earth.
In a perfect world, I never would have had to sneak into the verandah of the Cape Panwha Resort Hotel and skulk around while the cast and crew of The Beach ate dinner.
Unfortunately, my more prosaic efforts at intelligence gathering (wandering around town, sending e-mails to friends of friends) had yielded little. Playing spy for a few hours was the only way to accurately gauge what I was up against.
Since I am the type of person who would rather hike eight extra miles than try to charm a park ranger into accepting a bribe, I was not filled with confidence as I took a motorcycle taxi out to Cape Panwha earlier this evening. I’d read on the Internet that the resort had hired extra security guards, and I was not looking forward to schmoozing my way past them.
Miraculously — despite my patchy beard, motorcycle-tossed hair and sweat-salted backpacker attire — none of the hotel personnel gave me a second glance as I strolled past the reception desk and into the verandah area. I immediately spotted the cast sitting at a long table across from the restrooms. Leo was not among them, but I could tell from a glance that everyone there vaguely corresponded to various characters in the novel. Somebody in casting had done his job well.
Overcoming an innate, juvenile sense of dread, I moved to an empty table overlooking the swimming pool and ordered a Manhattan. I had never ordered a Manhattan before in my life — but since it cost more than my hotel room, I figured it probably contained lots of alcohol. I felt extremely out of place, and I needed something to calm my nerves.
I sipped my drink and tried to act aloof. It was easy to tell the film people from the other hotel guests. The movie folks ate and drank and laughed; everyone else peered around silently. I’m sure that half of the people there were waiting around on the off chance that Leo would walk through. I also suspect that — with the possible exception of a chubby little Japanese girl who kept standing up in her chair to gawk over at the cast — those exact same people would pretend not to notice if Leo actually showed up.
By the time Andrew MacDonald arrived and sat down at the table next to me, I’d washed my Manhattan down with a couple of Heinekens. My anxiety was mostly gone, and the only reason I hadn’t sauntered over to schmooze with the cast was that it simply seemed like a stupid idea. Instead, I’d chosen the more conservative option of sitting around and doing nothing. I took the appearance of MacDonald — the film’s producer — as a good sign.
Aside from DiCaprio, MacDonald was the only person from the movie that I could have recognized on sight. From one table away, he looked even younger and skinnier than he did in the newspaper photos. Sitting there — gangly, boyish and pink-toed in his Birkenstocks — he looked like someone who was sullenly waiting to be picked last for a game of kickball. Figuring it was the night’s best chance, I feigned courage and walked up to him. “Excuse me,” I said, “you’re the producer, right?”
“I’m sorry, that’s someone else you’re thinking of,” he replied, looking everywhere but at me.
“No,” I told him, “you’re Andrew MacDonald.”
MacDonald seemed to cringe as he looked up at me. I wasn’t sure if he always looks like this or if he expected me to sucker-punch him. Either way, I took it as my cue to keep talking.
I decided to take a neutral, vaguely journalistic approach. “I was wondering if I might interview some of your actors or spend some time on the set of your movie,” I said to him. “Is that possible?”
“It’s a closed set,” he said wearily.
“What about the actors, do you mind if I chat with them a bit?”
“We’re not allowing interviews.”
“I don’t necessarily want to talk to Leo; anyone will do.”
MacDonald took out a pen and wrote a phone number down on a napkin. “This is the number for Sarah Clark. She’s a publicist. You’ll have to go through her if you want to do any interviews. But at most you’ll probably just get an interview with me.” He didn’t look too thrilled by this possibility.
“So are you saying that there’s no chance I can get onto the set, even if I swim there?” I said this as a kind of half joke, hoping it might scare up some clues on how to get past the security cordon around Phi Phi Leh.
“No chance on the island. You can apply as an extra, but that won’t be until next month in Phuket and Krabi.”
“I was once an extra in a movie called Dr. Giggles, but that was like seven years ago.”
This utterly irrelevant trivia nugget seemed to disarm MacDonald a bit. “Dr. Giggles?” he said, smirking.
“Yeah, are you familiar with it?”
“No, I’m not. Sorry.” He stared off at the pool, sighed, then absently checked his watch. “It’s been a long day,” he said, almost apologetically.
I didn’t bother him when he stood up to go.
The events that transpired as I tried to leave the verandah make so little sense that they are somewhat difficult to recount.
First, I had a problem paying my bill, since the hotel staff assumed that I was with the movie crew. When I asked the waitress for my check, she just frowned and walked off. When she hadn’t returned after 10 minutes, I tracked her down to the cash register.
“I need to pay my bill,” I told her. I figured it would be bad manners to sponge drinks after having already interrupted the producer’s dinner.
The waitress gave me another strange look, then pushed a piece of paper in front of me. “Just write your room number,” she said.
“Can I pay now in cash?” I’m not sure why I was being so insistently ethical; one Manhattan and two Heinekens pale in the face of a $40 million film budget.
The waitress shrugged, and I gave her the money. I turned to leave, and as I was passing the reception desk, the waitress came running after me.
“Your friend forgot this,” she said, handing me a yellow cloth satchel.
Standing there in the lobby of the Cape Panwha Resort Hotel, the word “friend” caught me off-guard. I couldn’t possibly imagine who she was talking about.
I opened the cloth satchel and took out a black Il Bisonte binder. Embossed into the leather cover were the words “THE BEACH.” And in the lower right hand corner: “ANDREW MACDONALD.”
Putting the binder back into the satchel, I thanked the waitress and — just moments after my valorous display of Sunday school ethics over the drink tab — walked out the front door.
I spent the motorcycle taxi ride back into Phuket City trying to think of practical justifications for making off with Andrew MacDonald’s screenplay binder. Since the binder was empty, I couldn’t really think of any beyond using it as a kind of Hail-Mary collateral if things got ugly when I invaded the film set.
Considering that the phone number MacDonald gave me turned out to belong to a confused Thai family in Yala Province, the personally embossed keepsake was the closest thing I had to an asset.
Sitting in my hotel, I imagine myself on the shores of Phi Phi Leh, lashed to one of the illegally planted coconut palms and bleeding from the ears: I am being flogged with rubber hoses by a gang of vigilante set designers, dolly grips and script supervisors. For the sake of reverie, they are all female, vixenlike and dressed in bikinis.
MacDonald swaggers over. He is wielding a scimitar and has somehow managed to grow a pencil-thin mustache in the time since I last saw him.
“Closed set!” he bellows, fiercely raising the blade above his head.
About to lose consciousness, I muster one last ounce of energy. “I have your personally embossed Il Bisonte Italian leather screenplay binder, MacDonald,” I sneer. “Kill me, and you’ll never find out where I’ve hidden it.”
A look of horror washes across the producer’s face. “Not my personally embossed Il Bisonte Italian leather screenplay binder!” he screams, dropping the scimitar to the sand.
With a sudden look of resolve, he turns to the bikini-clad lynch mob. “Untie the intruder,” he commands, “and tell that DiCaprio schmuck that his services are no longer needed.” He turns back to me with a flourish. “I think we’ve found our new leading man.”
A bit overdone, as reveries go — but I’ll just blame that on the movies.
They seem to make a convenient scapegoat.
Day five: Jan. 21, 1999 — Heart of dork-ness
I’m starting in on my second day on Phi Phi Don island, but (for reasons that will become obvious) I didn’t write anything yesterday — day four — so I’ll try to cover both days in this dispatch.
To put it succinctly: Things have gone sour in a way that I had not expected.
From a tactical standpoint, my mission is progressing nicely. The soaring cliffs of Phi Phi Leh stand just two and a half miles across the sea from my roost on Long Beach. A few casual conversations with some Phi Phi Leh dive-tour operators have provided enough physiographical clues for me to devise a landing strategy. I even found a deserted beach (Lomudi) where I can make a quiet departure in the dead of night.
The problem, however, is that I’m having trouble explaining why I want to go there in the first place.
I arrived here yesterday morning to discover that all the affordable lodging on Long Beach had been sold out. Welcoming the ascetic novelty of sleeping on the beach itself, I left my backpack with a friendly restaurant manager and set off to scope things out.
Technically, the island of Phi Phi Don is part of the same National Marine Park system that protects Phi Phi Leh from permanent tourist development. A person could never tell by looking, however, as an unbroken progression of bungalows and beach resorts lines the entire southeastern seaboard. Ton Sai — an old Thai-Muslim village on the isthmus that connects the two halves of the island — is clotted with luxury hotels, dive shops, restaurants, souvenir peddlers and discos. The only evidence of Muslim heritage is that some of the women selling Marlboros and Pringles wear headscarves.
When I met a Danish pair on the longtail taxi-boat from Ton Sai back to Long Beach, I was immediately struck by their similarity to a couple of characters in The Beach. In Alex Garland’s novel and, I am certain, in the movie script), Richard travels to the beach utopia in the company of Etienne and Francoise, a young French couple he meets on Khao San Road. Granted, Jan and Maarta aren’t French, but they certainly seemed graceful, companionable and adventurous enough to merit a comparison. When I discovered that they, too, were being forced to sleep on the beach that night, I took this as a sign that I should invite them along for my adventure.
I pitched the idea over a paad thai dinner on Long Beach. Since they were both familiar with the novel, I skipped straight into my plans to rent a boat and steal over to Phi Phi Leh. When I saw how this idea entertained them, I backtracked a bit and told them about my experience with Andrew MacDonald the day before. By the time I got to my fantasy about the bikini-clad lynch mob, I had the Danes in stitches.
“You Americans have wonderful thoughts,” Jan said between gasps for air.
I saw this as my chance. “Why don’t you two join me?”
“Yes,” Jan said, still laughing, “why don’t we join you?”
“Perfect,” I said. “This is too perfect. Let’s find a boat and leave tonight.”
The Danes stopped laughing. “Are you serious?” Maarta asked.
“I am 100 percent completely serious. Let’s leave tonight.”
“But we thought you were telling, kind of, a joke.”
This threw me a little. “Would you rather leave tomorrow?”
Jan and Maarta exchanged a raised-eyebrow look, which I took to mean either “This guy is really daring” or “This guy is a total dork.” Judging from the exchange that ensued, I’d put money on the latter.
“If you really want to go to the movie,” Jan said, “why don’t you just wait until they finish on Phi Phi Leh and go to work as an extra when they film in Phuket or Krabi?”
“That’s not the point,” I insisted. “The adventure is in going to a place where you aren’t supposed to go. The charm is in living the novel backwards — going to an exclusive and secretive beach that also happens to be famous.”
“The island is guarded like an army,” Maarta said. “You’ll never make it.”
“Even if you do,” Jan said, “what will you do when you get there?”
By this point, I felt like whipping out the novel and showing Jan and Maarta that they were saying the wrong lines. The issue was getting unnecessarily complicated. In the story, Francoise and Etienne were much more agreeable.
“I don’t know what I’ll do when I get there,” I said. “Walk onto the set, I guess. You know, see what happens when I violate their community. Like in the book.”
Jan and Maarta conferred for a moment in Danish, then turned back to me.
“Why are you doing this?” Maarta asked, with a tone of concern.
Since I thought I’d already answered that question, all I could do was stammer. Ultimately I changed the subject — to the relief, I think, of everyone present.
In my own mind the reason why I’m doing this should have been obvious.
Or, even more accurately, the reason why I’m doing this should be irrelevant.
Now that I’ve had time to think about it, I’d say the motivation behind my mission has a lot to do with a kind of traveler’s angst I’ve been feeling ever since I started my Asian journey. I know I’m not the only one who feels it.
In his 1975 essay “The Loss of the Creature,” Walker Percy attributes traveler’s angst to the idea that our various destinations have been “appropriated by the symbolic complex which has already formed in the sightseer’s mind.”
In other words, the angst originates not in watching fat, Speedo-wearing German men defile once-pristine beaches — the angst comes from our own media-driven notions of how those beaches should be in the first place. We cannot hike the Himalayas without drawing comparisons to the IMAX film we saw last summer; we cannot taste wine on the Seine without recalling a funny scene from an old Meg Ryan movie; we cannot get lost in a South American jungle without thinking of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel we read in college. It is the expectation itself that robs a bit of authenticity from the destinations we seek out.
Even the unexpected comes with its own set of expectations: In Garland’s novel, Richard interprets what he sees at his beach utopia through the language of the Vietnam War movies he saw as a teenager.
Percy attempts to explain this phenomenon in his essay. “The highest point,” he writes, “the term of the sightseer’s satisfaction, is not the sovereign discovery of the thing before him; it is rather the measuring up of the thing to the criterion of the pre-formed symbolic complex.”
The challenge this poses for the discerning traveler is that — here at the cusp of a new millennium — mass media has not only monopolized the symbolic complex of wonder and beauty, it has recently upped the ante by an extra 73 coconut palm trees.
Thus, by storming The Beach at Phi Phi Leh, I hope to travel behind the curtain, to break out from the confines of the consumer experience by attempting to break into the creation of the consumer experience.
In this way, I guess I could say that my mission is part of a greater struggle for individuality in the information age — an attempt to live outside the realm of who I’m supposed to be.
At least, that’s what I would have told the Danes yesterday, had I had my wits about me.
Today I successfully managed to avoid the Danes entirely. After sneaking a shower at a poolside changing room in Ton Sai, I set off to find a boat that would take me to Phi Phi Leh. Since stealth is an important consideration in my mission, choosing the right boat was a painfully difficult process.
Actually, choosing a boat wasn’t really a choice at all, since my only realistic option was to hire out one of the longtail boats that transport people and goods among the islands. Considering that these boats cut through the water as gracefully as bulldozers (none of them have mufflers), my only real option was in finding a driver who sympathized with my cause and wouldn’t try to cheat me.
Just before dinner, I found a seemingly earnest boat driver who agreed to take me to Phi Phi Leh for 2,500 baht. We leave in a few hours.
It is already well after dark, and I have stashed my backpack under one of the old fishing huts here at Lomudi. In addition to dry clothes, I have sealed my passport and a few traveler’s checks into my plastic swimming bag.
Andrew MacDonald’s Italian leather screenplay binder, I’m afraid, was too heavy and will have to stay behind.
I pace the shoreline, killing time before the arrival of the longtail boat. Tiny bits of phosphorescence glow, star-blue, at the edge of the waves, just as they do in the book.
Day six: Jan. 22, 1999 — Storming The Beach at Phi Phi Leh, continued
It occurs to me that I don’t know the name of the small, sun-browned Thai man who sits astern from me in the darkness. I hate to write him off as a minor character — “Boat Driver No. 1” — so I have been thinking of him as “Jimmy.” He just seems like someone who should be named Jimmy: trustworthy, average, unassuming. Even in the dark, he wears a wide-brimmed cloth cap.
Neither of us has spoken since I waded out and climbed into the longtail back at Lomudi. Both of us know we are breaking the law — that Phi Phi Leh is patrolled by police speedboats for the duration of the movie shoot. I am hoping that our drop-off site at Loh Samah Bay (instead of Maya Bay, where the film set is located) isn’t patrolled very closely at 3:30 in the morning.
Unlike most of the longtail operators I met in Ton Sai, Jimmy is a quiet, introspective man. When we were negotiating the trip yesterday afternoon, he nodded silently as I took out a dive-shop map of Phi Phi Leh and told him where I wanted to go. At first I thought he couldn’t speak any English, but he cut me short when I tried to use my Thai phrase book on him. “Three in the morning, OK,” he’d said. “I know Loh Saman Bay.” I suspect he is working to support a wife and kids somewhere.
2,500 baht — about $70 — is no small sum, but I have written it off as an inevitability. Edmund Hillary had to hire Sherpas; I had to hire Jimmy. Perhaps in an effort to accommodate me — or, just as likely, in an effort to conceal me — Jimmy has spread a rattan mat out on the ribbed wooden floor of the boat. Lying on the mat, clutching my plastic bag, all I can see is the bright wash of stars above me. Oddly, the thumping rattle of the outboard motor somehow makes the stars seem closer, like they are a glittering kind of music video that hovers just over the boat.
My thoughts drift as the boat pushes through the water. I think about my first week in Thailand, when I was quick-dosing on an anti-malaria drug called Lariam. Mild psychosis is a side effect of the drug, and — sure enough — on my second day of taking the pills I punched my fist through the door of my hotel room on Khao San Road. It was certainly one of the more violent acts of my adult life, and to this day I have trouble making sense of it. I don’t know why I did it; all I remember was how I felt in the moments before security arrived to kick me out of the hotel. It was not a feeling of dread or shock, as one might expect, but rather a bemused, incongruent sense of wonder. Certainly Leonardo DiCaprio must feel the same way each morning when he wakes up and walks into a world that is staring at him.
“What the hell,” I remember thinking to myself, “has happened to me?”
After about 20 minutes, Jimmy suddenly cuts the outboard motor. The silence leaves my ears ringing. I sit up on the mat uncertainly.
“Are we there?” I whisper. The boat rocks as Jimmy crawls up to join me on the mat. He pushes his face right up in front of mine, and I see that he is holding his finger to his lips. He rests a hand on my shoulder and peers past the bow into the darkness.
We sit this way for about 10 minutes. Strangely, I am not nearly as nervous as I was on the verandah of the Cape Panwha Resort Hotel. Swimming and hiking are tangible activities — far more cut-and-dry than schmoozing and coaxing information.
But swimming and hiking are not the only obstacles that remain: Jimmy curses softly and moves back to the stern of the longtail. Only then do I hear it — the sound of an approaching speedboat. Before long, our wooden boat is awash in the beam of a spotlight. I try to hide myself under the rattan mat, but it’s a useless gesture.
Embarrassed more than anything, I lie awkwardly in the bottom of the longtail while Jimmy and someone on the speedboat yell back and forth in Thai. I absently note that the sealing oil on the hull boards has a pleasant, cedary scent.
Surprisingly, Jimmy yells in his apologetic tone for only a couple of minutes before the speedboat cuts its spotlight and leaves.
“OK,” Jimmy says.
“It’s OK?” I say, looking out from my hiding place.
“OK,” Jimmy says.
I crawl out and move to the stern next to Jimmy. He rests his hand on my shoulder. “OK?” he says for the third time. I give him the thumbs up; he starts up the outboard and turns our boat 180 degrees. It’s a couple of beats before I realize that we are headed back for Phi Phi Don.
“Isn’t this where we just came from?” I ask, pointing my finger ahead into the darkness.
“OK!” Jimmy says.
It takes me a good five minutes before I can undo the knot on my plastic swim bag. I’m not particularly proud of what I’m about to do, but I feel like I’ve come too far to give up now.
I crawl back over to Jimmy and I shove the traveler’s checks underneath his nose. “Baksheesh,” I say, gesturing back at where we last saw the speedboat. Actually, I’m not even sure if “baksheesh” is the correct word for “bribe” in this part of the world. I feel a little doltish as I say it, like I’m trying to speak Spanish by throwing out English phrases in a Speedy Gonzalez voice.
Jimmy puts his hand on my shoulder in what I now take as a wizened parental gesture. He looks down sympathetically at my traveler’s checks. “Boat man, OK,” he says. “Eye-land man, maybe OK. Movie man: no. Movie man not OK.” He gently pushes my checks away.
“Yes! OK!” I say, still waving the traveler’s checks, but he just shakes his head.
The very trustworthiness that led me to hire Jimmy is now backfiring on me. Jimmy knows that, even if I manage to bribe my way past the various levels of Thai security on the island, a film crew with a $40 million budget will be less than impressed with my presence. Jimmy is simply trying to save me the money and stress of going through this whole ordeal.
I’m at a loss to convince him how that very ordeal is exactly what I want to experience.
Which Speedy Gonzalez catch phrases could make Jimmy grasp the pitch and moment that drive this enterprise? What can I say that will make Jimmy appreciate the intricate, shadowlike ironies of travel culture? How can I convince him that this “mission” is not merely another variation of the hokey pokey?
My tongue is ineffectual in its pivots; Phi Phi Leh recedes in the darkness behind us.
We go through strange rituals to prove things to ourselves in life.
As we near our trash-encrusted starting point, I insist that Jimmy cut the engine early, so I can jump out of the longtail and swim the last 200 meters back to the abandoned fishing village.
Since simple epiphany doesn’t screen well in the test markets, I will tell people that I swam those 200 meters with a defiant sense of triumph. I will tell them that each small step wading ashore was a giant leap for mankind.
I will tell them that I walked through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and that I feared no evil — for the Valley of the Shadow of Death will soon feature guided tours and a snack bar.
[This essay originally appeared in Salon on January 30-31, 1999.]