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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.