On this very day 30 years ago, my erstwhile friends on Koh Samui gave me this birthday card - a caricature of myself at 24.
A jolly stickman, rather fit, bearded and bushy. It's one of my most prized possessions.
I was in paradise, with coconut palm trees, smiling sunshine, a bottle of Mekhong in one hand, a volleyball in the other.
Oh, Lordy, how we loved our daily volleyball games.
Koh Samui is an island off Thailand.
Back in 1983, it was reachable only by ferry boat, a rusting bucket of a ship spewing diesel fumes over a slippery deck of passengers and cargo alike.
The ferry pushed off the coastal town of Surat Thani thrice a week, on a 6-hour voyage across choppy waters that made the South China Sea look like captain Ahab's ocean of lore.
It was fabulous - a fine way to separate the travelers from the tourists.
Samui (Koh means island) was the heralded mid-point destination for hardy backpackers doing the South-East Asia trail, from up high in the jungles of Chiang Mai, to down low to the tip of the Malaysian peninsula, and onto Singapore, Indonesia, and onward to Australia, if the time permitted.
And time is what we had plenty in supply.
It was a well-beaten road, most young travelers toting Tony Wheeler's original Lonely Planet guidebook – the legendary, yellow-covered South-East Asia on a Shoestring.
Koh Samui had white sandy beaches, fine like Turkish coffee. Family-owned "bungalows" dotted the coastline, rudimentary and sometimes ramshackle huts with frond roofs and bamboo walls.
The “villages” had names like Joy Bungalows, Liberty Bungalows, Moon Bungalows and Big Buddha Bungalows. Each ran about a dozen huts, none with electricity nor running water. I stayed at Sunshine Bungalows, with a startlingly beautiful view of the bay.
Granted, they all did.
The main house up the hill served as the owner's domicile, restaurant, lavatory and communal hangout. We'd while away the days by lounging, reading each other’s novels, writing long letters of self-discovery or short postcards we couldn’t yet send. We played with pet monkeys and hiked the leafy forest on the other side of the main road. We lived in idyll.
We made fast friends from all parts of the world, sharing remarkable stories of adventure and distress. There was Dolf from Denmark, Toby from Vancouver, John and Hanna from Tasmania.
I went by "Tom", to keep things simple.
Local Thai women in sarongs would stroll by each day on the beach, selling rambutan, lychee, coconut milk and trinkets.
We ate like fiends, acquiring exotic tastes that still linger with nostalgia on my tongue’s memory buds.
By mid-afternoon, we'd be freshly roasted, both by the blazing sun and the ganja cookies so dutifully prepared up the hill, and on the menu.
Then came the ritual of volleyball, as the day cooled and players from all surrounding bungalows gathered around the net.
The games were ridiculously competitive, and fun beyond reason – an exclamation point to the splendor of each day.
It was hilarious, like being intentionally stranded on fantasy island, no worries, no fears, no connection to the outside world.
Or, at least, not much.
Tragic news did somehow drift our way about a Korean jet shot down by the Soviets over the Sakhalin Islands. I couldn’t forget the airline number if I tried: KAL007. Hearing about this, 2 weeks after it actually happened, standing in salty surf running through my toes, looking beyond the horizon, the world was distant, surreal.
We were detached, like Lords of the Flies without the ambition. A nation of ephemeral travelers sharing a bubble of time.
The volleyball games ended with just rewards. We plunged into the luxuriant sea, washing our sweaty, sticky bodies and refreshing ourselves for lovely evenings of eating, sitting by bonfires and reading by candlelight.
Times have changed. Koh Samui now has an airport, big-chain hotels, newspaper delivery and crime.
It's a popular getaway destination for weekend merrymakers, I think there may even be a Club Med where once stood tin shacks.
I've never gone back. I don't imagine I could.
I spent one month on Koh Samui exactly 30 years ago.
And, somehow, I don't think I ever left.
Sept 26, 2013
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