On a Thursday afternoon many moons ago, my friend and then-colleague Madeleine asked if I wanted to join her that evening at a secret tiny post-premiere gig by formerly-Prince-formerly-Squiggle-now-Prince-again*. It involved going home to change into suitable attire and also pack for a wedding I was heading to straight from the office the following day, returning to Soho for 11pm, falling into bed around 3am, then sloping back to work a few hours later, suitcase in tow.
Naturally, I jumped at the chance.
Of course, she knew I’d say yes. We’ve always admired each other’s determination to seize the day. Or, you know, both have a severe case of FOMO.
Therefore when, prior to my departure, Madeleine and I discussed my impending travel plans, and I said “you should join us when we’re in South East Asia!” and she said “ok! Tell me when you’re in Thailand and I’ll fly out”, I knew she meant it.
I mean everyone says they’ll drop everything and head to exotic climes, given half the chance. But would you really do it? Stick on an Out of Office, turn a blind eye to your account balance, tell the boss “I’m just off to Thailand, brb”, and head to Heathrow with the intention of buying a bikini in the departure lounge?
We were in Penang when Madeleine and I chatted on WhatsApp. Peter and I had no idea where we were headed, besides north. So I told her “We’re crossing into Thailand in a few days. Fancy a spring break? Come out and join us!!!!”
I’d barely got a reply before Madeleine was googling “flights to Thailand”. In no time at all, she’d arranged to be in Koh Samui the following week.
And with that, Peter and I were headed to Thailand’s original island destination.
We probably wouldn’t have bothered with Koh Samui if it hadn’t made sense for Madeleine to fly in and out of the island’s airport. But since we’d always viewed Thailand as primarily a transit country, and we were frankly exhausted by all that eating in Malaysia, a week on the beach was remarkably easy to justify.
And because Madeleine was recovering from the inevitable trauma of returning to work post-Christmas, it was also perfectly acceptable to book three days in a beach-side resort with a private hot tub outside each room. Sold!
The islands off Trang’s coast had been gorgeous but fleeting. Now, for the first (and only!) time during the south-east Asian stint of our trip, we were able to chill out beachside and revel in the turquoise waters, soft white sand, and comically picturesque palm trees.
Mimosa Resort was as good a compromise as we were going to get; painfully more expensive than anywhere else we’ve stayed before or since, but not even half of what the truly upmarket resorts were charging elsewhere along the coast. Reached by a bumpy track off the island’s main ring road, it was swanky and tropical without being awkwardly posh, and only a ten minute walk to some hole-in-the-wall local restaurants for the ultimate pad Thai and green curry.
With spectacular timing, we’d managed to coincide our visit with the full moon. Thankfully, and also by accident, we were on entirely the opposite side of the island to where the teens were inevitably partying their brains out and vomiting all over Thailand’s once-beautiful beaches.
I must admit that the joy of being able to remember the previous evening now holds considerable sway over my youthful desire to get rat-arsed, and these days the inevitable 48-hour hangover sours the allure of cheap beer even more. Still, it doesn’t feel like so long since I would have been rampaging with drunken delight towards the party with the best of them, neon-painted, tequilaed up to the eyeballs. Now comfortably in our thirties, the three of us were quite content to stare through silhouettes of palm trees and exclaim softly at the lunar reflection on the darkened sea, sip a nice cool beer, and then head back to bed so as not to miss breakfast the following morning. (I mean, hello, it’s included in the room rate, why would you sleep through it?) What’s become of me? That’s a rocking evening, these days.
What a change a decade makes.
Travelling whilst slightly older than the standard backpacker crowd is rather an illuminating experience. Not least because with the accompanying increase in budget we can afford to stay outside of the restrictive backpacker areas and their inevitable alcohol-focused microcosms. Suddenly, we’re experiencing the same destination from an entirely new perspective.
I suspect it might be different when comfortably middle-aged, with kids of one’s own. In my early thirties I’m close enough to those happy drunkards to feel a pang of association, combined with self-loathing that I’m even remotely interested in joining them, or ever did. It’s not been so long since I developed the self-awareness and confidence to know that I don’t have to get wasted to enjoy myself. Nor, indeed, since I started earning enough to enjoy the luxury of not having to hole up amidst such behaviour if I don’t want to.
Despite my once-impressive alcohol tolerance, I was never one to travel for the sole intention of getting pissed in a new location each night. Nonetheless, when travelling in one’s early 20s and sticking to a budget, it’s surprisingly hard to avoid this uncomfortably pervasive mentality. Certainly in Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, and Fiji (and even New Zealand, to a point), the cheap hostels revolve around it. Less hardcore partygoers tend to have just one of three choices: a) give up and join in, b) waste precious funds on a proper hotel or private room, or c) avoid the cities and backpacker havens altogether; a real shame if you do actually want to meet people, but be (relatively) sober whilst doing so. This is one of the reasons I’m grateful that my gap year was in China. It was an undervisited country to start off with, but also far less fixated on drink and drugs than its south-east Asian compatriots (although things have certainly changed in the last 12 years . . . more on that to come).
Koh Samui is known as a party island and often referred to as being past its prime, now saturated with peeling resorts and perennially pissed western youths. But if you’re able and prepared to pay a little more, and content not to be within walking distance of the cheap bars and western restaurants widely available around the ferry terminal, Koh Samui is hardly the lost cause so often, and unfairly, suggested.
With a little distance, you can luxuriate in cleaner beaches, unspoilt views, good – but still inexpensive – restaurants, and expanses of water which aren’t dominated by banana boats. This can be said for most of the places we’ve visited, even the most touristy of towns. There’s no need to hurl yourself into the complete unknown or shun a city (or even country) in its entirety. In most cases, so long as you’re happy to spend a few pounds on taxis and aren’t actively looking for drinking companions or rooftop bars, a whole alternative world awaits, within spitting distance of the very part you’re trying to avoid.
It was the fear that these elements were all we would encounter in Thailand which had put us off more actively exploring the country. In Trang and Koh Samui, we quickly realised that whilst backpacking has perhaps ruined certain areas, and given the country an unfortunate reputation, it’s really not at all difficult to enjoy Thailand’s charms from a more removed, less destructive perspective.
Keen to continue our relaxation but reduce costs, we moved on from Mimosa to an AirBNB. This was the last place we’d have expected to find such accommodation, but when Booking.com failed to provide anything within our budget that also satisfied our picky anti-party needs, we thought we’d give it a go.
And that was how we ended up spending the next four nights in our very own traditional Thai wooden house, right on the sea, in a completely untouristed little stretch so far removed from everything else that even taxi drivers didn’t recognise the address.
I hope Madeleine was as happy do literally nothing for four days as we were: stretched out on our very own sofa, chilling on our very own balcony, watching our very own TV which didn’t have a signal but did have a library of films, that everyone (but nobody more so than Peter) was delighted to discover included Frozen, The Muppets, and the first seven Harry Potter films. Now that’s what I call a holiday.
We also established that it was possible to gatecrash the infinitely more expensive and almost-empty Movenpick Resort a couple of kilometres up the road, by buying a single cocktail and happily settling into the gigantic circular deckchairs overlooking the sea for a few hours. This is how you do it, folks. Get your own secret AirBNB house for peanuts. Steal the views and drink the cocktails of the posh people up the road. Recipe for holiday success.
We ate, we drank (totes responsibly), we discovered Werther’s Originals in the Family Mart across the road. We realised to our amazement that, despite being on the less touristed side of the island, we directly faced the sunset. It was a good week.
And after months of Peter and I spending every minute in one another’s company, it was wonderful to have somebody else to talk to, learn from, and even to discuss problems with which neither of us were involved. Madeleine, I’m sorry if I dominated the conversation with stories that started “This one time in Malaysia” and “I learnt this amazing thing in Korea!”, or bemoaning Peter’s irritating habits. I promise he’s not so bad. And I swear I really was interested in your life, honest. Coffee in three months??!
* Despite opinions to the contrary, my life in film was not always so glamorous. But that single night made up for many years of invoicing and contracts.