Portrait of a modern day backpacker

PHUKET: Just as Americans are fond of saying, “We were all immigrants once,” so old expats in Thailand say: “We were all backpackers once.” Though some first came with the military or on teaching contracts, it’s true that most of us first stepped foot in Thailand as backpackers.

Technically, I was never a backpacker. In 1976, I carried my kit in a shoulder satchel. I avoided youth hostels and ingratiated myself with Malaysian friends in Malacca and Thai friends in Songkhla, as a prelude to marriage, family and a long assortment of jobs here. Still, I wonder about the lives of backpackers nowadays.

Thus, I was intrigued by Richard Arthur’s I of the Sun (Matador, Leicester, 2012, 356pp), which is supposedly the chronicle of one year in the life of a 22-year-old backpacker in Thailand. He is coy about his background: “I grew up in a regular place, a life as normal as the next,” he writes, though it becomes obvious by his slang that he is British. In a quest for authenticity, he nobly forgoes the use of his cell phone, though he avidly keeps in touch with family and friends through email. Four decades ago, our only contact were letters in Post Restante mailboxes.

I do believe completely that the author is 22-years-old. This is obvious by the philosophical sections that periodically interrupt the narrative – “philosophical” in the sense of dorm room bull session musings on good and evil, free will and predestination, and a plodding history of mankind starting from the Big Bang. Only a 22-year-old would
inflict these musings on his reader.

They, like the whale sections of Moby Dick, can be profitably skipped. This comes to sixty pages of blather which, trust me, will not be missed.

What’s left is a dutiful tour, told with no humor and scarcely any dialogue, of every backpacker haunt in Thailand – Krabi, Koh Phi Phi, Koh Phangan, Khao San Road, Chiang Mai – as well as Hue, Hanoi, Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng and even the remote Lao village of Muang Noi, where after an all day journey by songtaew (local bus) and river boat, his party of 15 backpackers “suddenly found ourselves in yet another backpacker ghetto, here in the middle of nowhere. Guesthouses, bad restaurants, banana pancake stalls and the rest. We obviously weren’t the first people to find this place.”

So it goes everywhere, the author moving on a conveyor belt of tour buses and ferryboats chock full of backpackers trundling along to yet another scene swarming with fellow stoned white kids: Full Moon Party on Koh Phangan, Songkran in Chiang Mai . . . “Funny how all us backpackers came to this huge country but ended up going to the same ten or so places,” the author observes.

“Everywhere I went I saw people I’d met previously in another part of the country.”

He is not unaware of the effects of his huge, roving, foreign tribe. Of a Lahu village, he observes: “It was the poorest place I’d ever seen in my life, cut off from the modern world, a simple way of life that all civilizations had emerged from – people living off the land, sustenance farmers of the forests. And yet their way of life seemed to have such an intrinsic beauty, untouched and unburdened by the madness of modernity, the people happy and strong, a good life, people of the earth, pure and simple. Then I remembered there were groups like us coming through the village every few days. Were we destroying the very way of life we’d come to visit?”

The author has a healthy appetite for booze, drugs and sex. Evidently, he is handsome enough to have fleeting romances with Thai women in Krabi and Chiang Mai, but he settles eventually as a shill on Koh Phi Phi, handing out flyers for a nightclub, drinking for free at night – buckets of Saeng Som and Krating Daeng – and stirring up the dance floor in return for a dingy room and a daily 400 baht for food. He settles into a cycle of woozy highs and horrendous hangovers. The only question in the end is: will he escape paradise?

Richard Arthur’s I of the Sun is available for download for the kindle from Amazon (click here), or by order through the main bookshops in Phuket.

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— James Eckardt

Thai Life

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