Thursday, 15 March 2007
"My Special Island"
I remember as a child in the mid-fifties escaping from the cold, grey, windswept streets of Birmingham, then one of England’s ugliest city centres, into the warmth of an Odeon cinema to see Mike Todd’s amazing movie of the Broadway show “South Pacific”.
There for the first time I saw coconut palms and banyan trees, and there for the first time I fell hopelessly in love with a sweet-faced Asian girl. It was France Nguyen, a Vietnamese teenager who played the nubile little daughter of Bloody Mary, a sow of a mother who was ready to offer her daughter’s hand for a fat wad of dollars. In the words of the song, ‘Bloody Mary’s always chewing betel nut, but she don’t use Pepsodent’!
There in that cinema so many years ago I learned that while, like me, some people live on a lonely island, lost in the middle of a foggy sea, ‘some people long for another island, one where they know they would like to be’. The movie had a big impact on me and I became a dreamer, longing for that other island. Now, finally I seem to have found my special island and of course it’s Koh Chang, a dreamy spine of jungle clad mountains adrift in the warm ocean off the Eastern seaboard of Thailand not far from Cambodia.
When five years ago I stayed on Koh Chang for the first time, I rapidly filled my writer’s notebooks with all I saw and absorbed. Later I used this material to write my now bestselling novel, “Thai Girl”, a story about British backpacker Ben who falls for a sweet and flirtatious Thai girl, Fon, a masseuse on the beach at Koh Samet. Contrary to stereotype she refuses to go with Ben and when she tells him to get out of her life, he goes to cool his heels and drown his sorrows on Koh Chang.
These are his first impressions of the island and perhaps mine too.
“The massive bulk of Koh Chang, elephant island, the second largest in Thailand, reared up out of the sea as the smoky little ferryboat drew closer. From his seat in the bow, Ben could make out the coconut and banana plantations which ran from the shore up into the jungle-clad mountains behind.
A row of pick-ups standing on the dark laterite of the vehicle park, their drivers touting for fares, greeted the arriving travelers. The first ones quickly filled up with passengers and left and when Ben found himself about to be crammed inside the last to go, he decided instead to ride shotgun on the wide metal step at the back. The step was heaped with sacks of fresh fish and ice, but he could just find a foothold.
The overloaded pick-up moved off and began to career wildly along the narrow concrete road at the foot of the mountains. With the wind in his face and clinging on precariously, he began to feel life was worth living again. New perspectives appeared around each corner. Plantations followed scrub and jungle, then a village and a Chinese temple, and to his right the sea and the distant hills of the mainland.
Soon the pick-up was beginning to climb, to struggle and slow, its exhaust farting and burbling beneath his feet. Grinding down through the gears, the driver swerved through the potholes and round hairpin bends, threatening to throw him under the wheels of the more powerful truck that snarled impatiently behind.
He stared up at the mountains as they climbed to where the narrow ribbon of road cut into the vertical side of the rock face. Then as the road reached its highest point, he caught his first glimpse along the island, a chain of bays, headlands and peaks, softened by a gentle evening light that merged the colours together in a warm glow.
All this and the rush of hot air, richly scented of earth and foliage, the tallest trees and densest jungle he had ever seen and the sweat and exertion of not quite falling off the back of the pick-up brought his usual optimism flooding back.
Now as the pick-up began to wind down through the mountains towards White Sand Beach, he was beginning to feel more positive. The excitement of moving on and the beauty of his surroundings were doing him good.
The island was a National Park and as tourism had arrived decades later than on other islands, he was hoping Koh Chang would be pristine and unspoiled. But as the pick-up reached the bottom of the hill and cruised along through the coconut palms behind the beach, he was dismayed by the messy developments on either side of the road. There were huts and bungalows everywhere, mini-marts, noodle stalls, obtrusive signs, motorbikes for hire and all the disorder of Thailand in pursuit of the tourist dollar.”
Since my visit five years ago, Koh Chang remains as vibrant and as passionate as ever, no longer quite the untouched virgin that she once was but still with a charm that’ll bewitch the most jaded traveler. I never tire of going back there, but then I have a special affection for it as the place that gave me much of the inspiration for “Thai Girl”, my first novel.
The book is widely available, (see http://www.thaigirl2004.com/), but I warn you… this island and my simple love story are distinctly dangerous. They could get under your skin and change your life forever, just as they have mine.