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Island Laziness Disease

By John Locke - Posted on 28 February 1996

You've been working a stressful job for years. Perhaps you've been traveling for a while, and you feel like slowing down for a bit. Maybe you come from someplace that's always cold, or you just finished a strenuous bicycle or climbing trip. If so, watch out, because you may be susceptible to a dangerous, highly contagious virus, the greatly feared and poorly studied Island Laziness Disease (ILD).

Students, lawyers, doctors, professors, and long-term travelers are especially vulnerable. But it can strike anyone, given the right circumstances.

It starts innocently enough. You decide to visit a tropical island somewhere, to take a little vacation. Before you know it, you've lost all sense of time, and everything slips away. If you ever recover, you will wonder what happened to the intervening years, just like Rip Van Winkle.

The virus attacks the Western mindset, the drive to do something productive. Telltale symptoms include a gradual darkening of the skin, glazed eyes, putting off obligations indefinitely, and forgetting what month it is. If it is not caught early, the infected person may never adjust to Western society again, and could be doomed to live out the rest of her life surrounded by the sea, stuck in a slower pace.

I contracted a mild case of ILD on a January visit to Thailand. It could have been much worse, but through sheer luck I received a few vaccinations at crucial stages of the disease's progress. Perhaps my story can help prevent others from becoming infected.

I had just finished a month-long bicycle tour in New Zealand, and before that I was working in a remote, chilly corner of Alaska for the summer. I had two strikes against me: I was ready for a break from moving non-stop for months, and it had been years since I had been anywhere hot. Fortunately, my resistance was strong, and I survived with few side effects.

When I arrived in Bangkok, the sheer mass of eight million people in one place overwhelmed me. The air vibrated with feverish activity, though not much got done. Bangkok has long had the worst traffic jams in the world. While I was there, it stole the distinction of having the worst pollution on earth from Mexico City. Motorcycle taxis zipped between gridlocked cars, carrying women with something to get done riding side-saddle on back. The telephone system is as crowded as the city streets--it can take longer to connect than it would to drive there. Visitors to Bangkok quickly learn that they can only hope to accomplish one task in a day. Need to confirm your plane tickets, get a visa for the next country on your itinerary, and collect your mail from the General Post Office? Better allow three days. By the time you visit a market and a couple of temples, you've been there a week.

The colors bewildered my western eyes, accustomed as they were to the clean, drab vistas of New Zealand and North America. Everything moved fast. I couldn't get away from Bangkok fast enough. And so I embarked on a whirlwind multi-modal journey three hundred miles south to the islands. It might have been easier to swim.

First I bought a train/ferry combination ticket to the island of Ko Samui. The next evening I boarded the overnight express train to Surat Thani. Then I boarded a bus. At the bus depot I sat around for an hour. Then I took another bus. I waited around some more. I took a long, skinny, high-speed ferry. Then came a ride in a pickup truck. And finally, I found myself in paradise, Chaweng Beach, all ready to do nothing for a week.

Well, not quite paradise, but close enough for a beach-starved exhausted Alaskan.

Before I could play, I had to find a place to stay. Lodging establishments dotted the vegetation behind the beach, haphazard rows of bungalows in the bamboo and palm trees. There were about thirty bungalow operations on the beach, each with ten to thirty bungalows. Maybe I could have a beer first.

As a somewhat experienced traveler, I had developed one defensive strategy that helped me resist ILD--travel as lightly as possible. Before I came to the islands, I ditched all but the essentials: a towel, a swimsuit, a book, and a toothbrush. I left everything else with a contact in Bangkok. What more do you need on a tropical island?

Some people arrive with a thirty pound pack, which may not seem like much on a backpacking trip, but in the tropics it is like lugging around a household. Once you unpack in your bungalow, moving again requires inviting everyone you know to help you pack. If you have come down with ILD, you may not even be capable of carrying your pack at all. Besides, it is pretty comfortable, right where you are, so why bother going to all that effort?

I donned my tiny rucksack, removed my sandals, and hit the beach. Little bits of coral peppered the otherwise perfect white sand, pricking my feet when I wasn't careful, but my tension and worries evaporated as the sand massaged my toes.

The beach stretched out before me in a gradual arch. At the far end, a headland rose, towering over the sea. Across from me at the top of the beach there was a small island, more a reef than anything else. Behind that a larger island sheltered the northern half of the beach from the waves. Three small boats floated near the far island, with Thai people fishing for somebody's dinner. In the large bay, I saw two small sailboats, half a dozen jet skis, and a speedboat dragging a parasailer around. Bodies of the infected littered the beach, mostly Europeans, mostly topless.

I strolled into bungalow after bungalow, in search of one in the $4 range. Each place I stopped was either full or over $10. I was beginning to wonder if I had come to the right beach. This place smacked more of resort than hangout. I've never been much of a sun-worshipper, or a fan of power sports. Those seemed to be the main activities here.

The open door of a scuba shop lured me in. "How's the diving around here?" I asked the woman behind the counter.

"There's not much to see right here, but up by Ko Tao, it's great," she said with an Australian accent. "We go up there by speedboat to do our diving." She described the various courses and trips they offered.

"So you just arrived in Chaweng today?" she said. "How long are you gonna stay?"

"Oh, I don't know. Maybe three or four days, maybe a week," I answered.

"That's what I said when I got here."

"How long ago was that?"

"Well, let's see. Two years ago? Yeah. Something like that."

She suggested I try Charlie's Bungalows. "They're pretty cheap, and you can pay by the month, too."

Charlie's Bungalows had a bamboo hut available for $4. It was not as pleasant as some of the others, and I had to use a common toilet, but it had a padlock and a mosquito net and clean sheets. Fine.

There are several different strains of ILD, each attacking with a slightly different strategy. You may be resistant to many different strains, but spend enough time in the islands, and one will get you when you are vulnerable.

It was two days before I did anything. I lounged around, drinking fresh fruit shakes, reading a book, eating banana pancakes, writing a bit, drinking more shakes, chatting with other guests. I hardly even ventured to the beach.

Leslie, Stuart, and Gary, all from Scotland, had been there a week. They would make it to the water every other day or so, playing Frisbee for half an hour here and there. They had just come from India, and felt like doing nothing. A Canadian family occupied the bungalow nearest the water. The father had brought a mountain bike. The two young boys scampered up and down the beach. The mother had been visiting this beach every year for the last eight, spending a month at a time.

I felt myself sinking into this life of leisure. When had I last spent a day doing absolutely nothing productive? It felt good, too good.

I had been exposed to the most common strain of ILD, the Sun God/Goddess strain. You find yourself doing less and less, until going to the bathroom becomes the major activity of the day.

But my immunity to this strain was strong, and the beach had too much to offer for me to sit around for long. Soon I grew restless. That western drive to do something got me moving. I rented a kayak for an hour, paddled around a small island offshore, sprinted up and down the beach, dodging the jet-skis, the water-skiers, and the parasailing boats. I played a game of volleyball with a group of Israelis, who were fresh out of the army and out for blood. I bodysurfed, amazed at how far the froth carried me--there's not much opportunity to bodysurf in Alaska.

At night, a steady ninety beats a minute of techno-pop music resonated up and down the beach, emanating from the Reggae Pub, where the only reggae they played was a couple of Bob Marley tunes now and then. I went to bed early, by Chaweng standards, around 2 a.m. While I ate my breakfast at 9:00, the stragglers from the night's partying would just be getting home.

In the afternoons, older Thai women wandered the beach, selling barbecued chicken which they cooked on the grill they carried at one end of a balance beam. Older Thai men carried similar beams, with coolers stuffed with beer and Cokes. Younger Thai men sold shirts and pants. Younger Thai women sat in groups and giggled, trying to pick up boyfriends from among the farangs, the foreigners. These girls were carriers of a second strain of ILD, the romantic strain.

Before my trip, all my friends thought I would have a great time, visiting the cultural attractions, meeting the people, being in this old, entirely different world. My parents, and all of their friends, just warned me about AIDS and drugs--they didn't seem to be aware of any other reason to visit Thailand. I arrived having heard all about the sex industry and rampant prostitution. On the plane to Bangkok, I sat near a Vietnam vet who spent four months of every year living on Ko Samui. I knew several other regular visitors to Thailand who had Thai girlfriends. My contact in Bangkok had married his girlfriend. They had a daughter and split the year between Anchorage and Bangkok. But I still thought the whole thing seemed sleazy.

I arrived to find the situation much different than I had thought. True, there is a big sex industry in Thailand, and sex is very apparent if you visit Pat Pong Road in Bangkok, or other known sex destinations. Most other places, I'm sure sex is available, but it's not in your face. Japanese businessmen, and many others, take sex tours to Thailand, but you won't see them if you're backpacking.

The Chaweng Beach girls were not selling sex. They were selling companionship. A British expatriate in Bangkok described how it worked, telling me about his first Thai girlfriend. After my initial revulsion passed, I came to understand that it was a symbiotic relationship. The girls come from underdeveloped corners of the country, and, due to some misfortune, are unable to make enough of a living through a regular job. They want a farang boyfriend, not just for his wealth, but also for the excitement, the status, and the potential for getting out of the situation they find themselves. They offer companionship and caring support in addition to sex.

The farang boyfriend, on the other hand, usually does not fit in at home, has had a hard time meeting a woman who will spend time with him (who hasn't?), and appreciates the devotion his Thai girlfriend gives him. While he may or may not have much money by western standards, just being able to go to Thailand puts him in a much higher class, makes him feel wealthy and capable of making a real difference in his girlfriend's life.

As I got to know a few different situations, I was forced to reevaluate my notions. Perhaps the farang boyfriend-Thai girlfriend relationship was not so bad after all. They each use the other to satisfy their own needs, but is it ever any different? If anything, the class difference makes the whole situation more honest--they have no illusions that the other person matters more than the role he/she fills. Meanwhile, each enjoys the romance, and the traveler finds himself infected with ILD.

I guess I'm a romantic at heart--and a cynic. I still cannot get past the facelessness of these relationships. When the farang goes home, the girlfriend finds another boyfriend--she cannot afford to go without. Ultimately, it does not matter who the farang is--any will do--just as any Thai girl will do as a girlfriend. But I can no longer criticize that as being worse than many other relationships I know.

Exposure to this strain of ILD, rather than infecting me, boosted my immunity--or so I thought.

Chaweng Beach was not for me, I decided. Too much activity, no peace. Maybe I'll go check out the next island, Ko Pha Ngan. Tomorrow.

Tomorrow broke with a torrential rainstorm. During a brief lull, I dashed to the dining area with my books, and stayed under the shelter with Marie, a Swede who had just arrived. So much for leaving today. The romantic strain of ILD has more than one form.

We rented a scooter and explored the island, hiking in to two waterfalls, wandering several other beaches, shopping in the town of Na Thon, and visiting the Big Buddha at the northern end of the island. We rented a sailboat and sailed around the bay. We played backgammon while drinking coffee at the only place on the beach that didn't serve Nescafe. And three days later, we finally went to Ko Pha Ngan.

Had Rin Beach on Ko Pha Ngan was almost worse than Chaweng. Instead of naked Germans and older Americans, it was full of stoned college dropouts wearing tie-dye. Had Rin was home to the Full Moon Party and "special mushroom" omelets. The full moon was still a week away, but bungalows were filling up with kids in altered states who wanted to get there early and not miss a minute of the monthly 3-day party. Most participants were doomed to contract a third strain of ILD: the Altered States strain.

The whole scene disgusted me, but Marie was intrigued. I couldn't bring myself to stay. The third strain of ILD saved me from the second.

My bout with ILD seemed to be little more than a hiccup, a week of recuperation after some non-stop travel. I was ready to resume traveling proper, away from the resorts, away from the tourists, away from the places where Thai culture was hidden under a smothering layer of commercialized leisure.

But then I found Ko Tao.

I was only going to go for the day. I was lucky to leave at all.

Ko Tao harbors a fourth strain of ILD, to which I was highly susceptible: the Divemaster strain. It has conquered many otherwise ambitious, motivated people, because unlike many other strains of the disease, it allows for action. Rather than causing your mental facilities to atrophy from lack of use, channeling your mind towards Henry Miller, and beyond into Henry James, until ultimately all you notice are trivial details amidst the grand futility of the world, the Divemaster strain engages your mind, distracts you from all that and focuses your attention somewhere else: the underwater world, and how to survive a visit there.

I was floating in darkness. The sound of bubbles rushed past my ear with every exhale; with each inhale came a frantic hiss. The insistent thud of my heart punctuated the flow of air with a ragged beat.

Ahead of me, Nicole, our instructor, floated in the gloom. She waved her light at a crack she hovered over, motioning for me to come take a look. With a couple of gentle kicks, I was there, peering into the crack, searching for what she found so interesting. Some pancake-shaped white, yellow, and black fish with long white banners trailing behind them were swimming through the crack, a little panicked at our presence. Did she wave me over to point out these banner fish? We had seen others on an earlier dive, during the daytime.

My light swept past a row of teeth. Sharp teeth. I focused to see a great head skulking back in the crack, with an enormous mouth, filled with a toothy grin. A moray eel. Cool! I thought, as I backpedaled to keep my distance. I watched a moment and then moved on, giving Jan, my costudent, a chance to see. He glanced in and moved on.

My afternoon visit to Ko Tao had already turned to four days before I noticed what was happening. Since my luggage was so light, when I found myself surrounded by people who were doing something other than sitting around satisfying the urges of leisure, I got sucked right in. These were people on a mission. At least half of the westerners were there for longer than two months, and some of them longer than two years. Not because it was the easy life, but because it was a cheap place to live and get upper level scuba training. These were students learning a trade that they could use anywhere in the world--anywhere with a body of water nearby.

The beaches were empty. The action was offshore, underwater. The strip of bungalows buzzed with diving students discussing nitrogen narcosis, the merits of dive computers, and the amount of nitrogen currently in their bloodstreams. There were only a few Thai people around--before divers invaded it, Ko Tao had been a bamboo plantation, with a very low population. The non-diving tourists ignored Ko Tao, found it a boring place to visit. I dove in, and took an advanced open water course.

I tried to leave the day it ended, but a storm kicked up, and the afternoon ferry was cancelled. I had no choice but to attend the birthday party for my scuba school that night. I talked with a few people, but for the most part, I was too new to know anybody. This was a crowd who had been here a while. Half of the people had been there for years, and had no intention of leaving other than the mandatory trek to Malaysia every three months to renew their visa. Only a quarter of them were travelers like me, visiting to dive and then move on. I wove through the people sprawled out on the grass, making my way to the punch bowl. A guy with blond hair and a beard saw me and hollered, "Hey, you okay?"

"Okay!" I answered, giving the okay sign. He put a hand to his ear. "Okay!" I said again, putting my fingertips on my head in the Scuba Okay sign.

"Okay!" He answered, doing the same. And then we had an amazing conversation, about metaphysics, about careers, about love, about life. He was from Belgium, and had started traveling a couple of months before. In Indonesia he had been offered a job with a multi-national company, thanks to being fluent in several languages and meeting a guy in a bar. He turned it down, for now, because he was at the start of his trip and didn't want to work yet. He had met an Australian girl a week before, and had fallen in love. Now he didn't know what to do because in only 10 days, she would leave him to visit Vietnam with a girlfriend. We sat around for hours, drinking Mekong Whiskey and Coke, while his girlfriend and several other people drifted in and out. Finally, around 4:00 a.m., I had to go to bed. "See you next time around!" we agreed.

The Divemaster strain of ILD almost infected me. I began to visualize what it would be like, hanging out here for three months, diving every day, drinking pineapple shakes all afternoon, talking with interesting people all the time, going to sleep when they shut of the generators at 10 o'clock, waking with the roosters at 4:30. I would have to go into debt to pay for the course, but meanwhile, my living expenses were only about $7 a day, if I sated myself. It wouldn't be so bad, I thought, it's only three months. I don't need to see northern Thailand. I could stay here. And when I finish the course, I could go to some island in Indonesia, and work. Then I could just stay...

Now I felt at home here. Where else could I be? I wasn't immune to Island Laziness Disease--I just had to be around people with similar values and ideas. There seems to be the right beach for everyone, somewhere in southern Thailand.

Around 8 o'clock the next morning, I woke with a Mekong Whiskey buzz still in my head. I realized, in a moment of alcohol-induced clarity, that if I was going to leave, I had better go now. I gathered my things, lurched to the ferry dock and boarded the boat.

That moment of clarity got me moving, but was not enough to break the spell. While I was this far south, I had to cross the Malay peninsula and see the other side. Rumor held that not only was the diving better over in Krabi, Phi Phi, and Phuket, there was also rock climbing.

Great limestone cliffs rose straight out of bubblegum-blue water in Rei Ley Bay. I clutched my stomach and looked up at towering pinnacles from the rocking longtail boat. Long, skinny boats with an engine mounted on the stern, longtails look a little like a Venetian gondola with a spindly drive shaft shooting out the back. They are propelled not by an outboard motor, but by a car (sometimes even a truck) engine balanced on a gimbal, with a propeller mounted at the end of the drive shaft.

I was on the Andaman Sea, taking a water taxi from the town of Krabi to Rei Ley Beach, and I was feeling distinctly nauseous. It wasn't the boat. Perhaps it was the Mekong Whiskey, or maybe the Chinese noodles I'd eaten the night before. A Canadian named Mitch had joined me for a few days, but he was feeling fine.

Rock climbers pilgrimage to Rei Ley for free climbs (without ropes) that are difficult but safe, since they fall into deep water. The climbers are dwarfed by the sheer size and variety of the routes, and remain invisible to the casual sunbather. Rock climbing brought me to Rei Ley, along with the promise of diving off Ko Phi Phi.

Rei Ley beach was even more developed than Chaweng. The bungalows were clean, well finished, and equipped with western toilets, but they also cost upwards of $20 a night. It felt as if we had arrived in Club Med, after traveling through slums. Suddenly the only Thai people we saw were waiting our tables, cleaning our bungalows, cooking our food, serving us in some way. It was a vacation destination, not a traveler's stopover. The excitement was gone--along with the contents of our wallets.

My traveling logistics kicked in, and we hunted for cheaper accommodation. I was loath to pay $20 a night when I hadn't spent more than $4. We poked into every bungalow on the beach, my head splitting and my stomach churning. Finally, a place with a single bed for $4. Anything for a bed. I looked at it, and the walls were full of holes, and the place was filthy, but it had a mosquito bed net and I could deal with anything, just let me rest. I went and looked at the toilets--to find them infested with bugs, covered with shit, stinky and clogged, the most disgusting sight of my entire trip. No, I could not be sick here.

We returned to one of the upscale places. I would pay anything for a clean toilet today. Mitch and I shared a small, single room for $12. I locked myself inside for the rest of the day.

The next morning I felt fine. I met Chris and Mike, two Americans from California, at breakfast. They joined Mitch and me, and we rented kayaks to paddle around the cliffs, scout out the area.

I had seen nothing like the cliffs of Rei Ley beach before. They overhung the water, and then shot straight skyward, taller than they were wide. Brown, red, and black stained the rock in vertical stripes, from different minerals leaching out of the limestone. Jagged, rough stalactites dangled from the base of the cliffs, not smooth and damp like those you might find in a cave, but gnarled and black, like Bilbo Baggins' nightmare. Some of the monster buttes were on the shore, others islands to themselves, a kayaker's dream.

We paddled among private sailboats at anchor in different coves. We paddled an hour out to an island all by itself, and snorkeled among the coral. We nearly sunk on the return trip, paddling into the waves that now and then would flood our open cockpit. I longed for a more seaworthy vessel.

Back at the beach, we walked past naked Germans on the way to our bungalows.

Another day we hiked into a lagoon over a route that seemed more a rock-climb than a trail. At the base of a cliff at one end of the beach, we climbed straight up a muddy ravine, pulling ourselves hand over hand on old hemp ropes, stepping on tree roots like the rungs of ladders, until we reached an overlook perched above the saddle, several hundred feet up. Then, the trail went just as steep down the back side, into the shadows. We shimmied down a rock tunnel and eased ourselves over a precipice, feeling for footholds below. Down climbing is much harder and more dangerous than climbing up.

Half an hour later, we reached the bottom. We were in a natural cathedral. The limestone rose straight up three or four hundred feet on all sides, except for the ravine we had descended and another on the opposite side. A cave disappeared around a corner, an alcove, a passage to the crypts. And the floor was a green-blue pool, muddy at the edges. The whine of the longtails was absent. No birds sang down there. Voices of a couple climbing down behind us echoed throughout the chamber, but otherwise it was silent.

I had met the woman who came down behind us several weeks before, in Bangkok. She told me that the next beach over was much quieter, much cheaper, and filled with climbers. Some of them also dived. In spite of this being a very expensive place to get sick, the beauty and serenity of the limestone harbors a special strain of ILD. To spend your days exploring the cracks and caves, to snorkel and dive amidst the colors of the Indian Ocean, to sip on a fresh coconut lassi (a yogurt shake) in the heat of the day, can make even the most active, responsible traveler forget his budget, forget his home, forget his former life entirely.

We climbed out of the lagoon to where everything seemed to go at hyperspeed.

My new acquaintances were all leaving. They couldn't see what all the fuss was about. Rei Ley was too expensive and they hadn't forgotten their budget, even if I had. Mitch was going on to Ko Phi Phi, a resort island renowned for beautiful coves and great diving. Chris and Mike were returning to Krabi and going to Malaysia. I was going to move to the climbers' beach around the corner.

We went to lunch. And just then, fate stepped in to give me a vaccination. In an instant, I was released from the spell of the beaches, the seductive effects of Island Laziness Disease.

The waiter glowered at me. "You no pay me 60 baht," he said.

I glanced at Chris, who had watched me pay for breakfast several hours earlier. "Yes, I did, remember? I gave you 100 baht, and you brought back 30 baht, and so you had to bring back 10 baht more. Remember?" I sure did.

He looked confused. He pulled out his pad of paper and wrote "60" on it, then stabbed at it with his finger and said "60 baht. You pay me now."

I remained calm. "No, I already paid." In Thailand, to lose your temper is to lose face. The overriding rule is never raise your voice. Mai pen rai goes the Thai saying, "it can't be helped."

"Sixty baht! Sixty baht!" said the waiter, grabbing at my purse, firmly attached around my waist. He marched to the bar and picked up a yard-long two-by-four.

"I wonder what he's going to do with that," Mitch said to me.

"I don't know," I said, but I could feel the adrenaline pumping into my arteries, and my face beginning to flush. I remained reclined in my seat, consciously relaxed, but ready for action.

The waiter stalked back to me, thumping his hand with the two-by-four. He was thin, and several inches shorter than me. I figured my best defense would be to grab him and hold him close so he couldn't get much force into his swings. I watched the stick and waited.

He grabbed my arm, but the stick remained down. "Sixty baht! You pay me now!"

"I told you I paid already," I said, as evenly as I could.

Three other waiters converged on him and pulled him away. "We are so sorry," one of them said to me. "He is new here, and doesn't understand much English. . ."

The waiters left us and went on about their business. A while later, a manager came by and apologized again for the misunderstanding. But the spell was broken. Paradise was not perfect. Suddenly, everything turned ugly.

"I don't like this place," I told Mitch. "I can't believe I almost got in a fight over two dollars. I'm sick of seeing naked Germans and fat Americans, more tourists than locals, I'm sick of seeing people lounging around not doing anything, I'm sick of not doing anything myself. I only have two weeks left before my visa runs out, I'm going north, before I run out of time."

And so I left, without rock climbing, without scuba diving. That is how fate stepped in and saved me from Island Laziness Disease, inspiring me to resume my travels.