The Beach, Victim of Its Own Virality

In 1996, Alex Garland’s first novel The Beach was published to critical admiration and incredible commercial success.

The novel revolved around a young backpacker named Richard who, after a chance encounter with a maniac Scotsman in a Bangkok youth hostel, sets off to discover a rumoured paradise beach, hidden among the many islands of the Indian Ocean.

What he discovers is an idyllic, secret community who live quietly in a sheltered bay where they regard their way of living as a riposte to the increasing commercialisation of Thailand. Inevitably their community comes under threat and the steps that they take to mitigate this leads to a Lord of the Flies style denouement and the end of what they created.

The success of the book lead to a film adaptation by Danny Boyle with Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role and the search was on to find an appropriate paradise for the shoot. They settled on Maya Bay on the island of Ko Phi Phi Ley which lives up to its billing in the film.

Sadly Maya Bay has just closed as the Thai government have finally discovered that the revenue from 5000 visitors a day doesn’t justify the increasing ecological destruction that is occurring - over 80% of the coral in the bay is estimated to have been destroyed.

Ironically, DiCaprio is a huge environmental campaigner and his indirect role in the destruction of such a beautiful destination must be unpleasant for him to countenance.

Not that I’m calling him culpable. Garland wrote the book as a satire on the backpacker ethos and its inherent belief in its moral superiority so he must feel similarly. Thailand welcomed the influx of book and movie fans at the time.

"This is the perfect commercial for the park, and for Thailand," said Royal Thai Forestry Director General Plodprasop Suraswadi. “You couldn't buy better publicity for a tourist destination.”

The novel was a work of the era, existing in the very early days of the internet, documenting a way of travelling that no longer exists. The loss of true discovery and the hunger for truly unique experiences that the book describes are more apt than ever in the Instagram age of geotags and identikit tourist experiences.

I devoured the book aged 13, having heard of it through reading the newspaper and it was swiftly passed around our classroom where a couple of copies were shared between the lot of us. In any one break time or before a lesson you could see people hurriedly snatching a couple of minutes with the book, eager to be able to talk to those who had already read it.

In this way, the book went viral in the real world, heard of through word of mouth and literally passed hand to hand. The fact that it became such a big hit in this fashion, combined with its evocative depiction of the viral nature of backpack tourism prefaces our current methods of consumption.

We read a blog post and it goes viral, photos are shared in an instant. Destinations become destinations purely due to their Instagramability. Witness the Cornish comments about their Poldark-related influx of visitors. The Beach was just an organic version of the same phenomenon.

The narrator, the bored and jaded traveller Richard, lover of Game Boys, Vietnam War films and weed, inadvertently describes our contemporary photographic bombardment (probably set to a Doors soundtrack):

I don’t travel with a camera … My holiday becomes the snapshots and anything I forget to record is lost. Apart from that the photographs never seem to be very evocative.

This is hilarious when read now, against the backdrop of a thousand travel bloggers and drone shots, where accounts like @beautifuldestinations turn their subject matter into one long tiled advert for wherever will pay them to come and shoot and people flock to the latest hotspot to photograph it and leave.

Photographs are not very evocative now. The snapshots have become the holiday. If the moment is all there is, existing purely to be captured, a photograph doesn't evoke anything. Nothing happened.

The problem for Richard in the beach is that he is waiting for something to happen. He’s found what he thought he wanted but finds it increasingly less satisfying as the days blur together.

Richard becomes bored of paradise and bored of himself, itching for some real excitement or experience. He ends up with ‘the scars’ that he never got from a real war, inflicted instead by other disaffected backpackers.

Similarly Thailand has bored of its tourists; their ecological footprint has become too big, the scars too deep and the damage to their destinations too great. Virality has caused the closure of the real life beach, once the embodiment of paradise.

The tension in The Beach is the impending dread but also the curious excitement about what could happen. Richard’s morality and senses become twisted as he creates his own reality up above the community; the film makes him run through the jungle as if in a video game. He literally gamifies his existence, talking about losing lives as he walks through the jungle, turning the island into his own war zone fantasy.

In the same way we’ve gamified travel, ticking off the top rated spots and competing for likes when we’ve documented them. Turning up has become the goal and increasingly, as the world homogenises, it’s easy to not engage with anywhere. You do so through a digital window, Instagram or Pokemon, whichever augmented reality you choose to compete in.

The Beach and its film adaptation are both a depiction of a way of travel that no longer exists and a prediction about where travel would go. Garland saw the rapaciousness of tourism and the hunger for the new, skewering it effectively, but also saw how the pursuit experience for its own sake leads to ennui.

It’s the old classic - you can’t outrun yourself.

Ben Mercer