I thoroughly enjoyed my trip to Ko Samui, but for different reasons to most of the beer-swilling lobsters around me. I enjoyed it because it reminded me exactly what it is that I don't like about the traditional two-week beach holiday, with its incessant drinking, sitting on the beach, eating steak and chips, and inevitable sunburn in the attempt to get a tan in time for the flight home. Ever since a holiday from hell in Gran Canaria, I've been incredibly wary of beach resorts, but both Charlie and I looked at Ko Samui in utter horror, and revelled in it.
Where can I start to describe the anathema of Lamai? Perhaps the first shock that springs on the unwary and unassuming traveller is the standard of the tourists; for some reason, even the normally disparaging word 'tourist' seems too classy to apply to the clientele of Ko Samui. Everyone is either English or German, with a few minority appearances from other European nations; I do not exaggerate when I say I heard no other accents except Cockney, Mancunian, Liverpudlian and German. It was amazing.
But not as amazing as the bodies these people flaunt. I'm fairly used to seeing travellers in shorts and T-shirts, because that's the standard dress, but very few of them have potbellies or that pale, north-European skin that reminds one of flaccid, plucked chicken. The world is different on Ko Samui; the possession of a beer belly is almost an entry requirement, and if you don't have the requisite waistline, it's expected that you'll do something about it in the myriad bars scattered around. One exception to this rule is if you have a tattoo, in which case you're instantly accepted as one of the gang; if you're fat, pale and have a tat of a rose enshrined in barbed wire at the top of your left arm, you're practically a deity in these parts.
But who is going to hang out with all these pasty slouches? (They're all single, because if they were married the expense of keeping a wife and kid in TV and nappies would absorb the cost of the air fare to Thailand, and besides, the wife would rather go to Ibiza or Majorca with her friends from the housing estate, where they can all keep an eye on their erring husbands.) The answer lies in the cultural make-up of the Thais, to whom prostitution is a legal and perfectly respectable profession; many Thai women head off from their country villages into the cities to solicit for a few years (mainly in their late teens and early twenties), and return to the country when they've earned some money, where they are fully accepted back into society without the taboos and bigotry inherent in western society. As a result, there are plenty of willing Thai girls floating around Ko Samui for the beached whales to try to land; I'm not saying everyone is a pro – there are plenty of girls who just want to entrap a rich westerner to take them away from all this – but there are enough willing Thai girls around to ensure a high score rate for the waistline-challenged visitors.
And it's a sorry sight. Old, balding men; young, fat drunkards; even slick dudes who could pull any white girl on the beach if they wanted to... they drive around on their rented motorbikes, Thai chick on the back, and goodness only knows what they actually do all day (well, apart from the obvious). I do know they go to restaurants and end up making very little small talk, mainly with the man talking rubbish and the Thai girl smiling sweetly, if a little falsely, at every nuance of the conversation, if such a conversation can be said to have anything as sophisticated as nuances. Then, of course, it's back to the room for sex and an account to settle.
I don't understand how anyone with a self-respecting streak in their cranium could act in the way that the tattoo brigade do. They live for getting pissed as farts, eating curries, and the premier league results. They cut their hair in astounding fashions that make them look even more stupid than they really are. They hate all Johnny Foreigners, unless those foreigners sell them ecstasy or draw, in which case they're pretty damn cool. They're sexist pigs – women are only there for one thing, and it ain't the cooking – and two weeks on the beach getting slaughtered and dancing 'til six at the rave clubs on the beach is their idea of heaven. Wicked!
But they do manage to pull (outside of the Thai girls, that is) because there are plenty of idiot women around who have just as many mental screw-ups as their Neanderthal sexual opposites. The big difference is that a lot of the women on holiday in Ko Samui are stunning; they have bodies that defy gravity, tans that defy skin cancer, and bikinis that defy the law. But they also have brains that defy belief, and although I'm there with all the other red-blooded males gawping at the Venusian peaks on the beach, as soon as these girls open their mouths, any stirring in the nether regions deflates as quickly as if I'd thought of Thora Hird in a swimsuit (which is a useful tip for those who suffer from P.E.). From the mouths of babes idiocy flows, and although the girls might not have the tattooed chicken skin of their friends from the dangling sex, their brains are just as liquid. Thank God they get together with each other and save the rest of us from making the biggest mistake of our holidays.
The overall result is an insight into a culture – a part of western culture, I might add – that just leaves me dumbstruck. That party of Boyz from East Landahn who have been sitting next to me on the beach for the last few hours gets up to hit the bars, and leaves behind it three plastic bottles, two Fanta cans, and a scrunched up packet of cigarettes. A couple of older men, who are obviously just ancient versions of the younger love machines walking down the street, are sitting outside the 24-hour supermarket ploughing through a bag of beers, wondering why they're single. A lone American, with a boxer's nose, a week-old cut across his cheek and the bleary eyes of the excessively drunk, sits at the end of a bar, staring at the game of American football on the TV, by turns leaping up and shouting, 'Yes! Yes! Yes!' when his team scores a touchdown, and burying his head in his hands when the opposing team crosses the line; he's drunk enough to have alienated the few friends he originally made in the bar, and his loneliness is both loud and painfully obvious. An old couple walks hand in hand along the road, staring at the pick-up joints and tacky rock bars with a look of slight incredulity, wondering at the youth of today and bemused but amused at the available entertainment; they're an ocean of sanity among the craziness, and you can't help wondering if they booked the wrong holiday by mistake. The hotel's food and drinks menu has all the usual foodstuffs – lots of rice dishes, Chinese cooking, Thai curries, wonderful fruit drinks – and tucked away at the very end is an entry, highlighted in red, that says, 'Magic Mushrooms, 200-300 baht,' and they mean it, too. This place is a dream.
Even the Thai culture is totally based round tourism (of course). Hawkers stride the beach, selling kimonos, sarongs, hammocks, food and drink, and even Indian mysticism1. The Thai masseurs on the beach do their stuff, but the massage parlours in the conurbation manage to add a certain dimension to massage that can only be performed behind closed doors. The restaurants do western food and, if you're lucky, a few Thai dishes, though it's heartening to note that there are a few warung-type places around, where I ate almost exclusively. The shops sell western goods at outrageous prices – outrageous for Thailand, that is – and everywhere English reigns. Of course, this is an inevitable result of tourism, and I'm not criticising the set up in Ko Samui; it's just that you could be anywhere in the world, not necessarily Thailand.
So, Ko Samui, you were good for Christmas and New Year; the beer was cheap, the sun shone, the beach was extremely beautiful, I got a tan, the sea was crystal clear and warm, the food was plentiful, the bungalow near the beach was pleasant enough, and there was plenty to look at. It almost makes me glad to be getting back to the stress and strain of travelling; in this respect, Ko Samui has been a complete success.
1 A young man approached me on my first day on the beach, introducing himself as an Indian mystic from Kashmir who read palms. I told him I didn't want to know about it, but he insisted on taking my palm and jotting down some details anyway; then when he came to the inevitable bit where he asked me to put some money in his hand to get my fortune, I told him I'd already made my fortune, but it was back at the hotel and he wasn't getting any of it. He got the message and left. The next day, he came back, and failing to recognise me, he started with the same spiel. This time I interrupted him and told him I didn't want my fortune told, and that I still didn't have any money on me, and he looked rather hurt and said, 'But I haven't asked you for money. I tell you what, I will tell you the first name of your mother, and if I am right, you can pay me, and if not, you don't have to.' I told him I already knew the first name of my mother, and I didn't need to pay someone to remind me. Faced with such irrefutable logic, his brow wrinkled and, before long, he'd wandered off down the beach, a mystified mystic. He never bothered me again.