Time Magazine’s 4th annual Asian sojourn issue just came out.. I’ve been following this series since they started it in 2001. Last year featured bits from Jessica Hagedorn’s Manila ghosts. This year, they’re still searching for the sublime, for nirvana, and it proves to be flighty thing, paradise is.
Pico Iyer tells us we need not journey too far to find paradise—it’s often right under our noses. Or as too many zen monks announce in their temples: “Look beneath your feet.” People have been chasing paradises throughout history. It’s in the water, in the hallucinogens we ingest, dreaming up Xanadu and Shangri-La. Jose Luis Borges thinks that paradise is some kind of library. Meanwhile, Lonely Planet believes it’s possible to “find your nirvana at a Buddhist temple, on a perfect beach, or in a bowl of noodle soup.” But still, we keep on chasing paradise, only to have it slip away when it’s in our grasp:
“The central paradox of paradise, of course, is that it is only presumed to exist when nobody has seen it. Set eyes on the place, and you're liable to bring it back into the realm of the mortal. And if paradise is the state of absolute perfection, the only changes that can come to it involve imperfection.”
That’s the cycle it goes through. Paradise exists in our minds, and when we find it, we can’t keep it for ourselves. It’ll turn out in guidebooks, get whispered about by other travelers, and soon enough, the paradise will be lost, disbanded, commercialized, or turned into a Hollywood movie. After all, Hollywood is the most ardent producer of this ephemera.
The legend of The Beach was one of those. From Alex Garland’s novel to the Leonardo diCaprio film helmed by Danny Boyle*, hitting the Beach was a wild sheep chase, the crumbling of an aging hippie paradise where the water is pristine and there’s a huge field of dope ripe for the taking. People wondered whether The Beach was real or not, as Garland was a known backpacker who did time in Thailand and Manila. (Or at least, his The Tesseract was set here in the islands.) But Chris Taylor spills the beans, the beach does exist, but it’s dolled up, charges you room rates, and serves you banana pancakes for breakfast:
Paradise is a place for people who can get there, for people who can afford it. How they get there is the measure of coolness. One thing certain is that “travelers,” as opposed to “tourists,” think that the guided masses are uncool. No matter if it’s Lonely Planet. After all, what’s so f*cking lonely about this planet?
The Sanctuary was different: a sprawling wooden structure built onto a rock face, with stairs leading up to a warren of bungalows. New Age music wafted through the vegetarian restaurant, and half the foreign travelers sprawled out on cushions were there on weeklong, supervised fasts. It was difficult to see how all this had sprung up overnight, but if it had not, it was equally difficult to see how it had slipped through the net of the guidebook industry.
At dinner, I joined Michael, the Sanctuary's Irish manager, and asked him how it had remained a secret. "For a long time, nobody knew we were here," he said. "There were 20, 30 of us. We'd turn up whenever we could get away. We built the huts up from the beach, in the trees, so you couldn't see them. You could sail past and you'd see nothing. We all knew each other. It was like a commune. You could drop in anytime."
"It was free?"
"Well, everybody contributed in some way. But it was free to stay here."
"People started finding out. Turning up. People who weren't invited. We had to make a decision: disband it all or go commercial."
It was at that moment that it occurred to me I had stumbled upon the setting for The Beach. And, if anything, Michael's denials made me even more certain that this was the case. An hour or so after our conversation ended, a young English guy who was working in the restaurant wandered over and whispered, "It's true. It's The Beach. Alex Garland stayed here before he wrote the book."
*Nice site. You can choose whether or not you view it as tourist or traveller.