Many people told me to watch The Beach before moving to Thailand. The scenery was to die for, they said, and the story was a classic expat-moves-to-Thailand tale. Maybe I would relate? I saved the film in my Netflix cue, but never got around to watching it before my move. During my year and a half living in Thailand I continued to skip it because I had yet to travel to Phi Phi (the idyllic filming location) and thought the story/scenery would make me envious. When I finally did watch the movie I was surprised. I was not filled with the idealistic wanderlust I had been expecting. Instead I couldn’t stop sighing and rolling my eyes. I hated the story, I don’t understand the moral, and I would have been happier had nearly every character died (except maybe the French guy, but, let’s be honest, everyone in that movie was a gigantic tool).
The Beach tells of a group of expats, all white and western except for a single token minority, who have laid claim to a small inlet on one of Thailand’s famous islands. They’ve chosen the spot because, to them, it is the absolute definition of “paradise.” Just like Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love inspired thousands to trek to Bali, Indonesia, so did The Beach (book written by Alex Garland) inspire hoards of western backpackers to traipse down to Thailand’s southern islands.
The spot made famous by the movie is Thailand’s Maya Bay, a small crescent shaped alcove on Koh Phi Phi Leh in the Phi Phi archipelago. Even if you’ve never heard of Koh Phi Phi or The Beach you have seen Maya Bay. A generic Google Image search of ‘Thailand’ brings up the bay as one of the first five photos. (It’s also worth noting that thousands of tourists have traveled to Maya Bay because of the movie, and they’ve subsequently trashed it so much that the Thai government barred any further tourism to the site in the hopes that the native marine life will have a chance to thrive once more. So good job The Beach.)
Leo DiCaprio learns of “the beach” after a crazed Scottish man gives him a hand drawn map. This man later dies and it’s left to the viewer to decide whether it was by murder or suicide. When Leo and his two french companions finally make it to the beach they are immediately treated as intruders. The self-professed leader of the expat colony (because, let’s call it like it is, these beachy expats are a not so subtle reference to colonization), Tilda Swinton, is immediately suspicious of Leo and his friends and demands to know how they found the beach and if they’ve told anyone else.
Here is where my annoyance with this story begins. Tilda Swinton’s character tells Leo that their colony has made a deal with some local farmers and that as long as they don’t allow any other expats onto the island then the colony is allowed to stay. However, Tilda still seems to think that they (the expats) “own” the land. That it is inherently theirs to take and give.
There’s a certain type of backpacker who comes to Asia who feels that Asia is their “calling.” They’re into yoga, wear Om necklaces, talk about how “this way is the right way of life,” and refuse to eat anything processed. When they come to Asia they feel like they really get Asia because Asia is chill and meditative and not at all consumer obsessed or fast-paced like the West. These are the type of backpackers who come to Thailand and immediately head south to Phi Phi, Koh Pha Ngan, and countless other islands so that they can live off the bare essentials, smoke up, and live some naturalist lifestyle that they would never admit was only made possible because they have some form of financial security back home.
First off, these people irk me because they believe their view of Asia and Asian life is so open and worldly, but it’s not. When they’re in Bangkok, do they even bother to look at the myriad types of malls and shops every few blocks? What about the night markets? How about the fact that walking in Thailand is like playing Frogger 2.0 because not only do you need to watch for vehicles, but you also need to watch for the adult man who just stopped mid-step heading down a BTS staircase because he’s too engrossed in the game on his phone. How about my students who were given the question: “would you rather live forever without human touch or without ever touching an electronic again?” and THEY ALL CHOSE TO LIVE WITHOUT HUMAN TOUCH. ALL. OF. THEM. Asia isn’t a consumer obsessed society? Ummmm…no. Grow up, look around, and stop treating Asia like it’s made of 4.5 billion sitting-on-top-of-a-mountain monks.
Asia is chill? All of Asia? All of Thailand? Again: it’s not billions of swamis out here.
On the topic of forcing preconceived notions upon an entire populace, the other reason I cannot stand the idyllic The Beach colonizers is because their colony is only considered a tropical paradise until it behaves like a tropical paradise. Naturally when you have a film set near/on an ocean, there’s gotta be some sort of ocean-related catastrophe. In The Beach, three expats get attacked by sharks. One dies immediately. Another is gravely wounded. What happened to the third? I don’t remember, nor do I care. When the wounded one begs to have a doctor come to the island Tilda Swinton forbids it. “No one can know about us,” she says. So no doctor can come.
I’m sorry, but you guys established a colony on a beach, where your primary source of food is coming from the ocean. Sharks aside, what about the lethal box jellyfish known to Thailand? What about slipping down a waterfall a breaking a leg? Sun poisoning? Dehydration? The flu? Maybe I’m too much of a cynic and maybe I was placing too much reality into this movie, but a tropical paradise still comes with bugs, humidity, heat, sharks, and just normal bodily processes that require medical attention here and there. So you planned to have a paradise where no one ages and it’s impossible to get hurt? And you don’t even have room for a Plan B?
When the injured shark fisherman’s moans become too much to bear the colonizers move him to a tent in the woods. Out of sight, out of mind. Now: their version of paradise, in which no one can die or be seriously hurt, is restored. (This is where the French guy proves to be a slightly redeeming character. Leo’s character? Leo’s character can go jump straight into the jaws of one of those sharks.)
The movie eventually ends with more people being killed, Leo briefly going savage, and the colonizers leaving after they realize just how insane and delusional their leader (and their lives?) has become. The last shot is of a photo of all the colonizers on the beach and the general heartfelt message of “we will never forget how lucky we were to find this paradise.”
Is this what the British thought when they left India? What a swell time that was! I will forever be grateful that I experienced it! What a paradise! What an exciting time to live life to the fullest! If I were Leo’s character I would be ashamed. Deeply, deeply ashamed because not only did his colonizing and naivete lead to at least six deaths (the one shark fisherman wasn’t totally Leo’s fault, but he was still an accomplice), but he was entitled enough to think that he could lay claim to land in a country where he didn’t even help contribute to that country. Again, I get that this movie is fiction and I need to jump off my reality high horse, but how many of us know of people who glorify this movie? Or doing things similar to this movie because to live off the grid is more “authentic.”
I want to know about the Thais in the movie. What about the farmers? Were they really cool with a bunch of expats just staking claim to their land without forking over any sort of benefits? Or, in reality, did the farmers probably assume the expat colony wouldn’t actually last that long?
I heavily support immigration and welcoming people from all over (screw Trump’s wall), but when you’re a visitor to another country you need to appreciate and respect that you are–up to a certain point–a guest in that country. You can’t just go around and plant your bloody flag on a beach alcove and be like “this is mine now. I love it, so it’s mine.” It also belongs to that country and to the people of that country.
Would I have such a problem with The Beach if the colonizers weren’t white? Honestly, I don’t know. Would I have found the idea of a beach colony more romantic had I never been to Thailand and been surrounded by idealistic-to-the-point-of-being-naive backpackers? I don’t know that either. Maybe my annoyance is a combination of living as an expat in Thailand, my age (I think the colonizers in the movie are supposed to be about 18-25), and having gone to a very woke college where we practically flip tables the moment a group of white people do something even remotely privileged.
Or maybe my assumption that The Beach was a happy romance about living in Thailand was wrong. Maybe The Beach is just a story about shitty people doing shitty things.