I first travelled outside of the UK on a school French exchange programme aged about 14. At the time, I thought this was ‘travelling’. Obviously it wasn’t. The next time that I thought I was ‘travelling’ was when I backpacked around Europe for over 3 months with my best friend. Halfway through the trip, we took a boat from Algeciras to Tangiers and spent a week in Morocco. We took a night train to Marrakech, haggled in the markets, slept on a hotel roof, went on a 3 day trip into the desert, slept in the Sahara under the stars, and one of us even had some ‘toiletry’ issues. We thought this was ‘travelling’. I’m not totally convinced. I’ve also visited the less touristy bits of Beijing and Australia, spending two months in the latter by myself. I’m not sure that these trips constitute ‘travelling’ either.
My confusion partly arises because I don’t really know what ‘travelling’ means. How far do you have to travel off the beaten track before you’re no longer just ‘on holiday’? Do you need to be staying with locals in a family home away from popular tourist destinations? Do you need to be staying in a tent in a jungle, one false step away from immediate death in any direction? Does every aspect of what you are doing whilst travelling need to be a truly original experience (if this is even possible anymore)? Or do you just need to step outside your comfort zone (and/or the comfort zone of the average tourist) and take a bit of time to properly get to know a country, its customs, and its people, learning a little about yourself in the process?
Of course, the bigger question is does any of this really matter?
The question of how far you have to go to have a unique ‘travelling’ experience is at the heart of “The Beach”. I was at university in the UK when the movie version of this book was released. I observed the DiCaprio fuelled hype, read the dodgy reviews, and was forced to listen to a number of songs from the soundtrack on repeat. Consequently I resolved to have nothing to do with the film or the book. It took over a decade for somebody to persuade me to give the book a chance. I’m glad they did (but I still don’t intend to see the film!)
The book was published in 1996. My copy looks like this:
Thailand, the setting for much of the book, looks like this in the atlas:
The atlas is still clinging to the name ‘Siam’ (although not as the principal country name). Thailand is an odd shaped country, and the visualisation in the atlas doesn’t really do justice to the many islands that are also part of the country. I suppose it’s futile for Thailand to even think about competing for map space with the world superpower that is New Zealand…
Again, I’m blogging about a book which countless others have already described in detail (hopefully this will change in future blogs), so I’m only going to briefly outline the plot. It’s basically a book about backpacking for people who like backpacking. I guess the popularity of the film drew some people to the book, to the SE Asia region, and to backpacking in general, but I wonder how successful it was at converting people to the idea of ‘travelling’? Anyway, Richard is searching for escape and original travel experiences, and he thinks he has found this when he stumbles on an unspoiled island paradise in a Thai national park that is closed to tourists. The book follows Richard as he first becomes part of the small community that has secretly become established there, and then becomes one of the reasons for the unravelling of this group.
The Beach is basically the ‘Lord of the Flies’ updated for the pop culture generation of the mid-1990’s. The first three-quarters of the book are engaging. Alex Garland tells a good story, and cleverly draws you into the sights and sounds of this particular corner of SE Asia. The last quarter is, however, badly plotted, and is subsequently a jumbled mess. The introduction of the Vietnam War tangent adds nothing. The ending is somewhat signposted, and as a result I was quite happy to reach the last page of the book, not really the emotion you want from a reader when you’ve set out to write a page turner.
Compounding this issue (and this was a problem that ran through the whole book), I found it very difficult to empathise with any of the characters. There isn’t anybody who is particularly likeable, nobody that I wanted to survive or save the day. I didn’t really care what happened to any of them at the end of the book, so my emotional investment in the ending wasn’t particularly significant.
This is all well and good, but I guess the more interesting question (for me) is what does the book have to say about ‘travelling’? Richard starts off by saying that:
“Tourists went on holidays while travellers did something else. They travelled.”
which I guess captures quite neatly some of what I was trying to say in the opening paragraphs. The storyline is basically ‘man sets out in search of travel utopia but finds travel hell’, so superficially you might conclude that ‘travelling’ is overrated and doomed to failure. However I think this outcome says more about Richard and his search for an impossible dream than it does about ‘travelling’ in general. Maybe the take home message should instead be that travelling for the wrong reasons, with unrealistic expectations, is unlikely to be a fulfilling experience. What Richard wants no longer exists: he basically wants to go back in time 200 years. Taking the time to get to know the Thai people (as Lin does in Shantaram – see previous blog at https://afterspokane.wordpress.com/2013/04/15/shantaram/) might be a better approach.
Having said that, the book does have some pertinent things to say about travel. I wish I adhered to all of these pieces of advice:
“If I’d learnt one thing from travelling, it was that the way to get things done was to go ahead and do them. Don’t talk about going to Borneo. Book a ticket, get a visa, pack a bag, and it just happens.”
“…never refuse an invitation, never resist the unfamiliar, never fail to be polite and never outstay the welcome. Just keep your mind open and suck in the experience.”
“I don’t keep a travel diary. I did keep a travel diary once and it was a big mistake. All I remember of that trip is what I bothered to write down. Everything else slipped away, as though my mind felt jilted by my reliance on pen and paper. For exactly the same reason I don’t travel with a camera. My holiday becomes the snapshots and anything I forget to record is lost.”
Must do better, I guess.
Overall, “The Beach” is escapism at its best. Just take it at face value, heed the sensible advice about travelling, and have realistic expectations of what you can get out of a travelling experience.