Paradises Lost: Koh Samui, Boracay and Paleochora

Beaches on three islands where I spent fantastic days; beaches on three islands where I never want to return.

We first arrived on Koh Samui in 1983. There was one bank in the harbor town and a few stores, and we took a ride in the back of a pickup to Chaweng Beach, where there were two small sets of primitive bungalows and one concrete guesthouse offering rooms at one end. The rest of the beach was empty, tourists were few and the water crystal clear. There were no stores and certainly no banks or restaurants other than those in the guesthouses and one which an enterprising Thai lady, who was a great cook, started at the other end of the beach. Her massaman curry was unbeatable, although four years later when we stayed at her bungalows, which had been built in the meantime, she was usually too tired to go through the long, involved process of preparing it.

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We stayed at Munchies bungalows where a simple room with mats on the floor for sleeping cost one dollar per day. There was an outhouse in the back for all and an outdoor shower. The restaurant served great Thai food that we could not get enough of. The bungalows and restaurant were called “Munchies” because there was a jar with hashish cookies on the restaurant counter where anyone could just help himself and jot down his consumption in a notebook. The restaurant also served magic mushrooms, and I was very surprised one day when a staid-looking English couple with two teenage daughters ordered the mushroom dish for the whole family.

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We reluctantly left after a week, but we were headed to Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia and only had a couple months’ vacation. Four years later, we returned in the winter, but Munchies had become a set of expensive bungalows. The cookie jar was gone and there were no more magic mushroom omelets. We visited the owner one day, and she said that she missed the old days with the simple bungalows and backpackers, who were a lot friendlier and when she had had a lot more fun. It had become a tiring business. Years later, she had a luxurious hotel built and obviously had become quite rich (after previously having been a poor fisherman’s wife), but she still regretted the changes.

When we returned the second time, we stayed down at the other end of the beach as Mem’s. She was sad at the development taking place there and soon sold her bungalows and restaurant and retired to another place where she could live in peace and quiet. That end of the beach has a lot of rocks in the water, but it was not far to walk to where swimming was great. Hard to believe that today that area is full of guesthouses although swimming there is not very good.

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Mem at her guesthouse and restaurant

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We returned every four years, and the third time we got to Chaweng Beach and immediately left for another more peaceful one. On our fourth visit, we even had to go farther to another part of the island to find a nice spot. I have been back a couple of more times, and if you just look at the water, perhaps it can be enjoyed. However, Chaweng Beach has been turned into an over-developed conglomeration for package tourists, full of souvenir stores, fast-food restaurants, discos and prostitutes.

 

I had 2 ½ months of semester break my first winter when teaching in Korea, and since it is very cold at there at that time and we needed a break, we flew to the Philippines and then headed straight to Boracay. Flights to the neighboring island of Panay were completely booked, but we were able to get seats on a small private plane that landed in a field within sight of Boracay.

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Short boat ride from the airfield to the island

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Tourism was just started to get developed, although there were already quite a few bungalow complexes along the beach. We stayed at a nice one where there was no electricity the first three weeks we were there. The family which owned and ran the bungalows would sit together every night, play guitars and sing. After three weeks, they got a generator, and after that they only watched videos every night, no more singing.

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The local children had no manufactured toys and were very happy to play with our daughter and the few plastic toys she had.

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The beach was one of the best I have ever experienced in the world, and every evening there was a fantastic sunset. there was a Frenchman who opened a restaurant and provided great buffets on Christmas and New Years with delicious fusion food such as mango quiche.

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We left after six weeks to head to the rice terraces in northern Luzon (but that’s another story), but hoped to return to this paradise one day. That never became a reality, and I read that the island became totally overdeveloped. Prices for accommodation and food apparently skyrocketed, putting the place out of my budget. Recently, the government closed it for six months, since the water had become so polluted from untreated sewages from the guest houses and restaurants flowing into the ocean. Hopefully, something positive will be done to save this island paradise.

 

I first visited Paleochora on Crete in 1973. Only few backpackers made it there, and most camped in tents under the trees next to the beach. There were no toilets and one outdoor “shower” and two restaurants in town a few meters away. In the restaurants, we had to go into the kitchen and point to want we wanted, since little English was spoken. Lots of interesting backpackers showed up, and we often played chess or guitar together. I still played classical guitar at that time, and even some other classical guitarists showed up.

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Young and carefree: where has the time gone?!

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Unspoiled beach in 1973

I made in back in 1975 and little had changed, although a policeman was claiming that backpackers were using the area behind the beach as toilets. Still, it was totally relaxing with a great beach and great food, all affordable for people like us with little money.

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In local garb

I have been back to Greece many times, but never back to Paleochora until a couple of years ago. We were staying in Sougia where the gorge of Agia Irini ends. We actually had hiked it years before, and the village only had two restaurants at the time and a harbor where you took a boat back to Paleochora. We arrived at the end of the season and a few places had already closed. There are now many guesthouses and a number of restaurants there, but no ATM, so one day we drove to Paleochora to get some cash. On arrival there, I was completely confused: one hotel after another, supermarkets, restaurants, souvenir shops, fast food joints, etc. I could not place anywhere where I had been years before. The beach was still there, but no more free camping, and the restaurants all had menus in English. From a quiet, laid-back tiny village on the coast, it had become a place for package tourists with full wallets.

In other words, impossible to go back somewhere after years and expect the same experience, expect to find the same ambiance of yesteryear. I suppose I could add a few other places, such as Khaosan Road in Bangkok, which only consisted of a few guesthouses constructed of plasterboard the first time I was there, but has now become an overcrowded tourist center. Or Siem Riep with Ankor Wat, which was a peaceful village in the 1990s where you could visit the ruins of Ankor Wat without competing with thousands of others each time and when the village center only consisted of a small market, not the multitude of restaurants with live bands, souvenir shops, and prostitutes not to mention the thousands of Chinese tourists.

Can’t blame poor fisherfolk from wanting to escape from poverty and difficult livelihoods. And I can’t claim these islands as my special, secret place where no one else dare go. Sometimes I wonder if I am similar in this respect to racists protesting against immigrants in their countries, taking their place and changing society. Are the hordes of tourists frequenting the islands that I wanted to consider my personal paradises any different? How much more peaceful and cheaper (!) these islands were before the arrival of package tourists. How much easier it was to find good accommodation before the Chinese and Russians were allowed or had the money to travel!

Backpackers, whom I have met, often prided themselves on going somewhere “where no [backpacker] had gone before,” but such places rarely exist today, at least I do not know of any where it is safe to go, i.e., no armed conflicts in the area. And when such places do exist, there is usually a good reason why no one goes there.

When I was in India for the first time in 1976, a Dutchman traveling remarked that I had arrived too late. In the 1950s, the streets were dark after sunset and the shops only had sparse goods and customers. He believed that I was no longer able to experience the “real” India. I suppose I could say the same to people visiting India for the first time today, since it has changed tremendously. But that would be pure arrogance.

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