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Publication: The Face, 2002

Ladies and Gentlemen, we are floating in space

Thailand is the world’s ultimate chill-out zone. but now they’ve banned music after 2am, cops patrol the beach and a weed bust will cost you £800. What now for the ultimate smoker’s paradise?

The Canadian dude in shorts standing on Hat Rin beach with a didgeridoo stares into a horizon as straight as a blue Rizla, and says, 'When I first got here, I didn't like it. I thought Thailand was a rip-off culture. Then I went to the north and talked to the people more, started smoking loadsa opium and hanging with the Thais. Now I'm just taking it for what it is: an escape. It's easy to do nothing here. I can just smoke dope on the beach. All day. Heh...'

Then didgeri-dude looks at the American man sitting on Hat Rin beach with a guitar, for a second a beam of telepathic paranoia shoots between them.

'You don't work for Interpol do you?'

No, man.  We just want to know whether you're feeling chilled. On a scale of one to, like, 10? Dude?

The Canadian grins a grin suggesting there's more than just gutrot Mae-Khong whiskey pickling cerebral cortex, a grin suggesting the number he's thought of just doesn't conform to any decimal standard whatsoever.

The Canadian dude has entered 'the zone'. He got out of the boat. We've lost this one: someone inform the parents. Ladies and gentleman, he is floating in space. Smoked-out and beach-bummed well into the fifth dimension, he is, in fact, exactly where most of mankind would now like to be right now.


Welcome to Thailand, man! Permasmiling locals, iridescent beaches, great big trees, no moody people and more drugs than you can shake Shaun Ryder at! Are you feeling chilled yet? You should be, because despite everything we endured - looming recession, planes demolishing skyscrapers, Anthrax: The Comeback Tour, suicide bombings, rightwing boneheads everywhere, impending thermonuclear war and not one but TWO hits for DJ Otzi - in 2001 culture got cryogenic its our asses like never before. Chilling out as a has never been so huge an industry, so popular a cultural pursuit, so widespread a collective impulse. Once, it just meant the post-coital cigarette of dance culture, the restorative power-napping that developed as a response to the energy flash of rave. But now, like just about every other aspect of dance culture it's lapsed into cliché. Once, chill-out meant embracing something: now it means rejecting everything, the active pursuit of nothingness. Given the unbearable shiteness of being alive during a time of massive global anxiety on a humanity-wide basis, the entire the world spent Christmas 2001 thinking it needed a proper vacation to get its smoke on and its head together.

Last years, megastore racks buckled under the weight of identikit chill-out compilations, Radio One launched it's late-night 'toke show' show for ardent weed smokers featuring, and if Afroman's 'Because I Got High' didn't articulate the non-thoughts of the Zombie Nation, then we're all Dutchmen. Which, given the amount of weed we're likely to be consuming following reclassification of Cannabis, you could easily mistake us for anyway.

We want to chill out, at a time when mass-long-haul tourism in the norm for rather than the exception, it seems like every man and his hammock has headed for Thailand's Costa Del Chill for New Year and rubbish British winter. Posh People (Kate, Jude, blah Sadie blah blah and Meg are all ardent fans), gap-year traveller and increasingly, normal folk of middle-England who've decided a fortnight in Torremolinos just doesn't cut it anymore.

On Hat Rin beach on the island of Kho Phang Nan - original setting for Alex Garland's dystopian traveller yarn The Beach - you can hear the phrase, 'pass us the skins and I'll roll a fat one mate,' in a billion languages, all of them vaguely slurred. Hat Rin was once thought to be the world's most horizontal place, the absolute last word in spliffcentricity for worldwide chillagers who want nothing more than good weed and zero stress for as long as their bugdets would carry them. For the past 20 years or so, Hat Rin's full moon party scene - which now comprises the any-excuse-for-a-do the half-moon, quarter-moon and black-moon (ie no-moon) parties - has provided the punctuation marks on a narrative of non-stop chillage.

Or so the legend goes. Today, you can stare along the stretch of sand bordered by rocks and a parade of bars of this arresting vista, and as far as the eye can see, dudes are chilling out with such commitment and intensity you'd swear someone had spiked the entire sea with hospice-strength temazepam. But it's not just e presence of a Seven-Eleven amid the multitude internet cafés, bars, shops and scooter hire centres that suggests this hippie utopia seem indicative of culture on the cusp of decline, a destination turning into a heavily-marketed imitation of its former, wilder, poorer, realer incarnation.

There are problems in paradise, and one of the problem is standing not ten yards form Canada's Mr Chill. It's dressed in hip-to-the-scene beachwear, wears a furtive expression and is trying very hard not to look the Thai copper the man so obviously is.

This year, sensing that the money lies not so much with the steady stream of young travelling folk but with affluent Western Family who demand more than just a beach hut and plentiful alcohol, Thai authorities imposed a 2am curfew on the soundsystems and beach parties in a move not unlike the regulation that did for Goa's fabled beach party scene. Weed prices are staggeringly low, while the penalties for possession as staggeringly high - in the region of 50,000 baht (about £800).

People come to Thailand for many reasons, and most reasons involve smoking. Not that Garry and Rich, from Cambridgeshire, had much by way of problem scoring in the time they've spent lolling around the well-travelled routes of Thailand's narco-tourist trail. A while back, they chucked in their jobs, bought £700 round trip flights and made directly for weed central, Thailand. 'We just thought fuck it,' considers Gary, hooking his hair behind a sunburt ear. 'Getting hold of gear is not a problem. In Koh Samui, literally every ice-cream seller is flogging opium, pills, weed, everything. Round here we haven't been approached once. It is here, but you've got to look for it.'

As it stands, they keep a vigilant watch over their narcotic activities, retain an edge of paranoia just  uppermost in their mind just to the forefront. Truth be told, they already clocked that Thailand isn't the U-toke-pia they're hope it would be,

'We didn't think it was gonna be as tacky as this,' Gary laments. 'It's beautiful, don't get me wrong. But all the kiss-me-quick tack is coming out. I didn't expect it to be as westernised. I've heard Krabi and Koh Phe Phe are more chilled out. On Koh Samui it's just geezers larging it up everywhere and in the end, you're trying to get away form everyone else.  The capitalist machine has already rolled in and set up roots to get money out of everybody. Pay for this pay for that pay for this. Some places you even have to pay a few Baht to get a bit of shitroll,' he adds.

Which may not be a particularly 'chilled' attitude, but is all the evidence you need to tell which way Thailand’s service economy is headed.


Though here are plenty of tales of how there were once only three bungalows on this particular beach and rent cost 25 Baht per month, or how the island was run by gangs of dogs, or how and you had to sell your eyeballs for a bowl of green curry back in the day, not everyone you speak to in Thailand will tell you It's Not As Chilled As It Used To Be. Older heads will put some perspective on how the primitivistic party mythology of Koh Samui, Hat Rin and the billions of obscure, recommendation-only locations scattered around Koh Phan-Ngan now vastly obscures the actuality. Cyrus Irani, a thirtysomething, Camden-based promoter from, is part of a demographic of club, music biz, fashion and media types who've been evangelised Thailand's charms for some years now. Right now he's staying in a bungalow on Koh Samui

'Thailand's got a lot of the things that people in the UK go away to find,' he says. 'And you can probably count the destination around the world with the right elements on one hand. There are myths attached to the place. The real problem is that a lot of people who come here just can't chill, because there's that out there,' he says, gesturing through the palm trees and half a mile up the road to an explosion of neon strip bars, shops and 'attractions' set back from the shoreline. 'It's the curse of the Westerner,' he says. 'Every night, people are like, Shall we? Shan't we? Shall we?'

The tractor beam in question is called Chaweng, the island's principal tourist drag. Chaweng is Blackpool 6,000 miles around the globe. It's like Regent Street on Christmas eve, only without less peace and tranquility, an action painting of consumerism wrought in neon, lipstick and tattoo ink. It's conceivably the world's least chilled place, no matter how much cheap weed you're furtively toking. And, as you weave between hordes of Thai girls and ladyboys, past the Starbucks, the Seven-Eleven, the Burger King and into the Basil Fawlty Bar and observes marauding squads of British and Northern European geezers out on the piss and on the fuck, one image enters you head: Ibiza. A culture of raw free-marketeering leisure enterprise running on western money, lust, drugs and banging beats. It's not particularly the kind of place you take your partner to on hols.

It remains to be seen whether the Thai embrace of tourism - if only since country's 'Amazing Thailand' marketing campaign of 1998, back when Koh Pan-Ngan didn't even have an electric grid - destroys what remains of the mythic 'vibe', as it has on Hat Rin.

When you witness in the glint in the eyes of Cyrus's contemporaries - people like Electric Stew's Mo Morris - when they scan the territory, it's clear that the ideal seeding conditions exists for canny club operators to translate the Full-moon vibe of yore into the well-packaged rave experience, even if it is just for the party instead of the money.

'We've spoken to the Thai people who own the beach whether they run the full-moon parties with a view to bringing an English superclub or our own DJs,' says Irani. 'They're aware that there are a lot of Europeans and travellers. I'm never gonna make any money, but it would be great to come one or twice a year and party.'

It's not like big  guns haven’t caught the same aroma of opportunity, either. Ministry of Sound recently franchised operations in Bangkok. At least one record company is considering a first Thailand-themed dance compilation. Dude, where's my virginal Island paradise gone?


SO IF Thailand really is the New Ibiza - because long-haul travel is the new two-week Med package tour - then where is the new Thailand on the world map of hip chillability? Depending on who you speak to, the index runs like this: Thailand was the new Goa. Now Kerala is the new Thailand while the new Goa is said to be a practically untouched islet in the Aegean sea whose whereabouts the elite are sworn not to reveal, on pain of death by independent financial advisers. However, the new Thailand could just as well be Bahia in Brazil (major beach scene there), assuming Na Trang in Vietnam doesn't gets there first, or that place in Laos people keep going on about. Babylon exists: we just don't know where.

As for shaven-headed IT engineer Jimmy Crangle, 22, crouched on the rugs with a bucket of vodka and Red Bull outside Hat Rin's Drop In Bar on Saturday night, he couldn't particularly give a toss either way. Out here, people keep asking him if he sells weed (he doesn't). For him the principal redeeming of quality of Thailand is that it's not Glasgow, his home town. He's not bothered that the legendary psychotropic chilledness is now, for the majority of those who pass through on cheap Qantas and BA deals, about as authentic as the Louis Vuitton holdalls of Bangkok's markets. In front of him is an the assemblage of bindis, Thai pants, delirious faces and cryogenically relaxed Swedish, Iraelis, Germans, and British, the new internatiolist peace corps in front of him. Spliffs circulate, and the DJ drops a choice selection of underground chill-out cuts. You now the type: Blue's 'All Rise', House Of Pain's 'Jump Around' and, yes, DJ fucking Otzi.

Is this the real life? Or is this just fantasy?

'You can probably travel five miles up the hill to find the real Koh Pan-Ngan,' he says, whose on holiday for as long as he can 'but this feels like Ibiza to me. It's down to the fact that you can fly here a lot cheaper than before. The standard of living has gone up so much that  you can live forever here for fuck all. 'Most of my mate will just got to Spain. They’ve a psychological thing about they can't go any further than a three-hour flight. I keep saying come over, they're like, 'och it's too far away.' Why spend the money and go to spain. Still, I hate to think what it's gonna be like in ten years.'

Jimmy reckons Thailand is being ruined. Anne, a 21 year-old kindergarten worker from Sweden, reckons so too. 'This place is where you learn you to travel. Everyone wants to chill out, yeah, but it's getting worse. Now there's a Seven Eleven and you see people going round with make-up up and skirts an high heeled shoes. When you got to Thailand you shouldn't have to worry about looking like that!"

No such consideration for wee bronzed dynamo Daniel from Melbourne, who, when he's not bombing between posses of girls, skinning up a spliff or untying his shorts, summarises his experiences of Thailand  thus: 'Beaches: amazing. Drugs: amazing. Women: amazing. Parties: amazing. This place,' he bellows, lolling all over his mates, 'is amazing!'

The myths hold no fascination for Daniel; all that counts are the fantasies he'll be dreaming up tonight with the aid of another magic mushroom shake. Because dream creation is Thailand’s singular business skill, conforming to whichever fantasies you care to project onto it. Somewhere in a palm-sheltered beach to the north of the island, chances are the psychedelians are lost in a vortex of THC and good vibrations. Right here, under the winking eye of McSevenElevenBucks on Hat Rin beach where the Drop-In bar’s soundsystem blares the global beach life Top Forty, this feels like Paradise lost. The funny thing is, everyone’s too chilled out to notice. But anyway, we should kick back, relax, reach for the Rizla, enjoy it while we can. Never mind Ministry of Sound. Interpol will be here soon. Just ask the man with the didgeridoo.

© Kevin Braddock 2002

All content ©2004 Kevin Braddock

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