The debut novel by Alex Garland in 1996 is probably one of the most well-known items on the traveler’s book shelf. It used to be seen everywhere in hostels, cafés and airports.

One of the reasons for the success was the movie adaptation of the novel, featuring Leonardo DiCaprio as the backpacker Richard trying to find the perfect beach. While the book may be a fan favorite for backpackers, the film is not nearly there. But the first half is quite good at portraying the mass tourism in Thailand, bringing back the feeling of backpacking in the early 2000s to a time-typical soundtrack from Moby.

The Beach cover

At the turn of the millennium, Thailand was arguably the epicenter of backpacker activities. These were the good old backpacking days before the area got too exploited. Many people including me adopted the “full-on dirtbag travel mode” as author Rolf Potts called it.

“There’s no way you can keep it out of the Lonely Planet, and once that happens, it’s countdown to doomsday.”
— Alex Garland, The Beach (1996)

While heavily shadowed by the movie, the book is quite interesting in itself. The initially naive tourist epiphany is gradually turned into something more sinister, as a pop culture version of the 1954 classic Lord of the Flies. I think it does a good job depicting the hypocrisies of Westerners bringing their own cultural values into a foreign setting, clashing with the harsh reality of the locals. In essence, it’s the search in itself that ultimately ruins that perfect beach.

Ironically, the book and the movie played a huge part in the allure, as people arrived in droves looking for their perfect beach. This made the book into a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Maya bay at Phi Phi Islands Maya Bay, as I found it in 2003.

Speaking of pop culture, the novel feels quite stuck in its time period, and I wonder how readers will react to it in a few decades time. The characters are a bit dull, but I can forgive that since the main point of the novel is more about communicating the message anyway.


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