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In 1998 the UK’s Channel Five made a documentary about backpackers in Thailand. At the start of the program we meet Chris, who explains that No price is too high to pay for any new sensation. Chris is a Philosophy Graduate, who is 23 years old. During the opening scene he is lying on the beach at the full moon party in Koh Phanang waiting for round two of the mushrooms to kick in. He wants go for a swim, but he can’t get his new tattoo wet. He tells us that he has been been travelling for a year and was trying to give up his prejudices and wants to try new forms of life, new drugs and new ways of having sex. He lives out of one bag that contains everything he has in the world. He says that he has friends but is not sure if he will see a single one of them again. He is also filmed in the Khao San Road that he describes as Asia for the white tourist who does not really want to go all the way to Asia.He goes on to say that at 3 or 4am he experiences the real Khao San Road as this is the time that everybody is drunk, desperate for money and desperate for sex.
Next we meet Steven from the London borough of Bromley who is 21 years old, he has had various jobs, he travels, goes back home, gets work, saves up and then goes away again. When asked if he is running away from something he replied “maybe I am running away from England” He is asked “is this hippy heaven?” his reply – “ask a hippy, do you have a prejudice? Just because I have long hair does not mean I make daisy chains and dance around a bush!”
The program the takes us to the Khao San Road in Bangkok the jumping off point for what the narrator describes as druggie beach holidays. He goes on to say that the backpackers see it as a place to meet with Thai culture and find the inner self. Over a million backpackers arrive each year from Europe and America with the British being the largest single group.
Steve tells us that the Khao San Road is the no 1 place for travelers in Bangok, geared for western people coming into Thailand. The next lady we meet says that all of the English people she meets are taking pills and drugs all the time and she finds that a little bit sad. An English girls tells the channel that the Thai people think that English people are “un-respectful”
One lady describes it as a twilight zone a place where you can eat and drink 24 hours a day another guy says that people come along dressed like clowns and hippies and Mother F***ers and he hates it, a statement that forces the viewer to ask if that is the case, why is he there! Another girl tells us that she came to Thailand for a two week holiday, she has now been in the country for eight months, another guy describes the area as a Thai version of Disney land!
We are then invited to get the point of view of a Thai man, who says that backpackers are in a tropical country but they don’t seem to wash and he points out that many of them have a strong body odor. This does not go down well on a busy bus. The bus station can take three hours to reach in heavy traffic even though it is only six miles away from the Khao San Road.
At the bus station at 7am we meet Nick a 27 year old chef who says has not slept, he has been out partying all night, and is about to board a bus that will take him to the beach that he is yearning for, the problem is he has no idea which bus he is meant to be getting on. Steve is also at the station, he says that not knowing where the bus is really does not pose a problem, time is not a problem, he does not care if it comes today or tomorrow, both are looking for peace and quiet on the beach away from the crowd the problem is twelve thousand others people are heading south, looking for the same thing.
When Nick and Steve arrive, after their long journey, on the bus they eventually found, in Koh Phangan they follow the yellow marker spots to their bungalow, a trail that takes them through the jungle on which they discuss their experiences and what they expect to find on this trip. When they find their beach Nick is sorry to find it covered with litter and there is not much sand and only rates the beach five out of ten.
Meanwhile Chris is heading to Koh Samui to look for new experiences. He finds Natasha, a bar owner who was Miss Koh Samui in 1991, dancing on a pole. She tells him that Ko Samui is sea, sex and sun, that’s it! She very quickly asks him if something could happen between them and explains that when you come to Thailand you have to do things you would never normally do, she says, you have to try everything. He thinks this approach is far too easy, he seems to wish there was more of a chase and is trying to get her to slow down. She thinks she turns him on. She then reveals that she is not a woman. Chris finds this exciting as now this is a new experience for him, and going with a lady boy adds the intrigue that he is looking for. The following day he describes the experience and says that Natasha was very shy and there were many things that she did not want to do and that she had many virginal qualities. Natasha’s take on this is that it was Chris who was not open to the experience, he goes on to explain that he is one hundred percent heterosexual, so physically he did not want to do it but mentally he did it, towards the noble cause of trying everything, and for exploration and growth. However, the thought that she used to have a penis kept coming back to him and at the back of his mind, he knew it was not right.
Next we meet two backpackers who are heading up north to find the real, unspoilt Thailand. MiMi is thirty four years old and from Paris, she has been on the road for four years. She has just met Danique who is also from France but has only been travelling for a few months and enjoyed a previous visit to Thailand a few years earlier where she believes she found real Thai culture. They find themselves in a town on the northern Burmese border where they meet the long neck tribes. Finding themselves in the heart of the real Thailand it is amazing how many souvenirs are on sale. One of the long neck tribe members said that she was very scared the first time she met a western person and that their blue eyes made her cry as did having her photograph taken for the first time, an experience that made her ill. The French travelers think that they have found traditional Thailand however the we soon discover that ten years ago the village did not exist and the long neck tribes are actually refugees from Burma whose only income comes from tourism.
Back in Koh Phangan Nick and Steve are still looking for some seclusion away from the crowds, they meet up with some other backpackers and twelve of them take a longtail boat in search of a deserted beach, when they find one it happens to be covered in rubbish, so they head off to find something less deserted but less littered, but come up empty handed.
Tour guide Dan Sattayanusate explains that it is impossible to find what the backpackers are looking for, as every time a visitor discovers a new beach, on an untouched island, word gets out and very soon it becomes like every other beach, dirty and full of tourists that just want to have sex and take drugs, he says the beaches have been destroyed, one by one.
In the meantime Chris decides that he needs to visit what he calls the Betty Ford Clinic of Thailand, the International Buddhist Retreat to get away from drink, drugs and lady boys, he plans to stay for ten days, many of which he will not be allowed to speak. Steve on the other hand is getting into magic mushroom shakes and tea he explains the only thing you really need on a deserted island is a marijuana tree, for rope, soap and dope! He then proceeds to get completely wasted on a beach surrounded by litter that is certainly not deserted.
Back up north in the jungle MiMi is tries to catch a chicken to cook for dinner, much to the amusement of the local Thai children, in a desperate effort to experience the real Thailand. Unable to make the catch a local lad catches and kills the chicken for her.
By day six at the Buddhist Retreat Chris feels like he is going out of his mind. He explains about his life growing up an at university, where he had no access to women, drugs and alcohol and now that he has them he is determined not to give his new lifestyle up until he is sick of it. In the group discussion at the end of the ten days he announces that he is strictly anti Buddhist and wants to get back into the party lifestyle.
The documentary concludes with a trip to the full moon party. What started off as party with one man and his guitar is something quite different even when this documentary was made. What used to be reggae enhanced by marijuana is now techno enhanced by hard drugs says a local man who seems to find westerners quite strange. Chris is upset that the guys that promised to bring him ecstasy did come up with the goods and he had to resort to drinking two bottles of whiskey and eating a mushroom omelet, Steve on the other hand is back on the mushrooms enjoying his life to the full.
It seems that drink, drugs and techno music is what brought the backpackers to Phangan fifteen years ago, and although both Koh Samui and Koh Phangan have both changed dramatically since this documentary was made, the heart of the party has remained very much the same.