The Beach: Fantasy islands

Alex Garland's novel `The Beach' articulated every traveller's dream of discovering an unspoilt paradise. Photographer Simon Norfolk visited the locations for the upcoming film version and found the reality of life there is rather different. Words by Matthew Sweet

Life's a beach, and then you die - probably of some gruesome STD, if you've been putting it about in Pattaya, Thailand. Here, during the Vietnam war, US servicemen took a break from unloading napalm on the Vietcong to unload something else on the female population of this R&R resort, establishing a tradition of sex tourism that is still thriving today. These days, however, the clientele are golf-sweatered middle-managers away from their wives, pot-bellied paedophiles, and pensioners looking for a skinny girl on whom to spend their retirement nest egg.

It wasn't always like this. Before the GI Joes arrived, Pattaya was a tropical paradise, visited by only a few dedicated travellers. Those travellers have now moved off to more obscure islands in the Gulf of Thailand, looking for the next unspoilt beach. For your average backpacker, Alex Garland's novel The Beach has come to symbolise the desire to find that deserted cove in which to trip and sleep and snog away a lifetime, to opt out of the promotion battles in which their other mates are stuck. Garland's book is the tale of a British boy who joins an Edenic community on an island hidden from the outside world, and then precipitates its collapse. Paradise gone rotten.

Now, the islands where Garland imagined his fictions taking place are being encroached upon by the mass tourist trade. And now that the novel has been filmed by the team that made Trainspotting, with Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead role, visitors who've never read a book are being attracted to Maya Beach on Koh Phi Phi Leh. But Twentieth Century Fox, which financed the film, was accused of irreparably damaging the local environment when it reconstructed the island's vegetation to make it look more authentically tropical. DiCaprio was forced to make press statements denying that this disruption was taking place.

Thai environmentalists would prefer the film to be a flop - and they may get their wish. The $40m movie is released in the US in January, the quietest month of the year, often used as a dumping ground for releases that studios would rather forget. (British audiences get to see it in February.) If it's a huge success, however, the high-rise hotels may creep closer to this tropical idyll.

A dreadful place

Ten years ago, Patong beach was as idyllic and unvisited as anyone could want. Now the developers have moved in and put up high-rise hotels. Families on all-inclusive package deals slouch around the beach wearing identity tags (of the sort they put on hospital patients) which signal their entitlement to the facilities. Those on honeymoon knock back tacky cocktails under beach umbrellas. Paragliders scoot over the waves. Simon Norfolk's pictures shiver with contempt for the hordes that have followed the trail blazed by the Lonely Planet fraternity. A tubby Australian boy sports a Manchester United strip and a disastrous scattering of hair braids. Two Japanese women - their nationality betrayed by their silly plastic beach bag - cover their faces with towels.

Dance till dawn

The Thai mafia see to it that foreign visitors are well supplied with locally-manufactured amphetamines and ecstasy tablets. It's a kind of chemical Butlins, with bars and cybercafes and beachside video booths screening pirate copies of Hollywood blockbusters. "They sit with their backs to the beach in rows and watch movies like The Matrix and Saving Private Ryan," recalls Norfolk. "They're not interested in the environment - but how interested can you be if you've just come along to get off your face with your mates?"

Where filming ends, tourism begins

Maya Beach on Koh Phi Phi Leh isn't just a beach, it's The Beach, as you'll be told on any of the boat tours around the locations used in the movie (above right). You enter this hidden territory through a gap in a vertical rock wall, just like Doug McClure and Susan Penhaligon when they discovered The Land That Time Forgot. The deep bay is brimming with impossibly clear water, and hemmed by impossibly white sand. There is no fresh water here, tourists tend to make day trips from the nearby towns of Koh Phi Phi Don and Phuket. The men who forage for the raw materials for bird's nest soup are the only night visitors. In January, Leonardo DiCaprio was splashing about here, and the dispute that arose with Thai authorities was caused by the crew importing non-native coconut palms to meet the demands of the script. "The people I spoke to said the beach was in better condition after they left," contends Norfolk. So the plastic detritus (above left) has nothing to do with DiCaprio and company. Most of it, apparently, washes in from the resort of Phuket.

Staring at the sea

When Simon Norfolk arrived on Thong Nai Pan Noi beach, he thought he'd found the kind of tropical paradise where people in loincloths trip about discovering chocolate bars hidden inside coconuts. "We came on a fishing boat, cruising around Ko Pha-Ngan island, and just jumped out when we saw a bay we liked the look of." Fortunately, the place wasn't completely deserted. Only travellers who rejoice in digging their own latrines head for beaches where you can have a go at re-enacting the rude bits from The Blue Lagoon. Not that Thong Nai Pan Noi is a tourist trap. Not yet, anyway. It boasts a couple of cafes, a phone box, a group of bungalows on stilts, and a handful of backpackers, toasting behind their copies of The Beach, which is as much a part of the island hopper's inventory as a can of mosquito repellent and sachets of Dioralyte.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Extras
indybest
Travel
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Sport
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
football
News
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Poet’s corner: Philip Larkin at the venetian window of his home in 1958
booksOr caring, playful man who lived for others? A new book has the answer
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
art
News
Matthew McConaughey and his son Levi at the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros at Fenway Park on August 17, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts.
advertisingOscar-winner’s Lincoln deal is latest in a lucrative ad production line
Life and Style
Pick of the bunch: Sudi Pigott puts together roasted tomatoes with peppers, aubergines and Labneh cheese for a tomato-inspired vegetarian main dish
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

    £25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

    Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Support, Help desk)

    £25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

    Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Learning, SQL, Brokerage)

    £30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Lea...

    UNIX Application Support Analyst- Support, UNIX, London

    £45000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: UNIX Application Support Analyst-...

    Day In a Page

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape