Arriving at Haad Rin beach, Koh Phangan, I padded my way to the quieter end of the pretty 1km bay and propped myself against my backpack among a happy buzz of young sunbathers. A water-taxi man approached. His boat, tipped with multi-coloured good-luck adornments, bobbed calmly at the water's edge. I waved a 'No' and he smiled, nodded, and sat back on his stool, shaded by a palm.
Coming from muggy Bangkok, the blue skies surprised me. My own aqua-fresh tones contrasted with the deep bronze of the young crowd around me in their acid lemon bikinis and shorts. They frolicked in the sea, mingled outside bars, and swayed to happy trance, which played through huge speakers next to a makeshift football pitch. A slight breeze ruffled the corner flags and a Thai voice announced the names of the teams up next; one British, one Israeli. Earnest handshakes were exchanged before the barefoot play commenced.
Near me a dog ran between two men playing bat-and-ball. The ping and pong of their game almost synched with the track now playing from the speakers, a chill out mix of Rihanna's 'We Found Love'. The panting dog jumped and twisted with each rally but made no attempt to run forward when the ball hit the soft sand. As I absorbed the warmth of the sun and the relaxed fun of my surroundings, I empathised: Who wouldn't want this to last that bit longer?
In front of me the sea was framed by rocky outcrops covered in jungle green. Behind, several side streets ran perpendicular to the beach. A stall selling bright party clothes stood near another offering an impressive range of local produce.
At cookery school in Bangkok I had discovered ingredients such as galangal (so similar in appearance to ginger yet so different in taste), pea eggplant and beautifully fragrant Kaffir Lime Leaves. But most Thai produce remained alluringly mysterious to me. All I could assume was that it contributed to the array of dishes that had been making my trip so deliciously indulgent.
Closer to me, at a crossroads, a doll's-house-like shrine was adorned with an offering of yellow flowers and a cluster of dark pink eggs. Well-tended, it contrasted with what looked like deserted outlets around it. Fronted by a curious structure of metal bars and ropes, they brought to mind a rusting fun-fair with a wild west theme. Then, in the centre, I made out the words 'Full Moon Party.' I could almost smell the diesel burning along the ropes as I realised that these words would be lit up in flames that night. These outlets, far from abandoned, would serve food and drink to a pulsing nightscape of beaming partiers, revelling in their youth and in the beauty of the island.
Regretting that I was leaving before this fluorescent jamboree got started, I consoled myself by ordering a mixed juice at the nearest open bar. It arrived, cool and pale pink in a glass tankard. As I glugged it down in sweet, fresh gulps, I noticed something fall from the coconut matting above. A thumb-sized lizard looked at me from the table, bulbous eyes set over a comically wavy mouth, appearing almost to question my choice of travel book.
'Very poisonous' a skinny waiter interrupted my reverie, pointing at the lizard. Looking up I laughed nervously, unsure. I was aware from my time in Bangkok how much the Thais love to joke.
But he continued to show concern, frowning at the situation, hands on hips. Only when I began to edge back did he break his pretence. Smiling, he swiftly grasped the lizard between his palms to remove it from my table, prompting me to blurt, 'Don't kill it!"
He stopped and bowed to me, murmuring, 'I don't kill'. After carefully releasing the lizard, he returned to explain, with all the kindness and calmness of a Buddhist monk, 'Their life is my life.'
I left Haad Rin feeling at one with myself and the world.
Looking back now, following the deaths of several Brits on these islands, including on Haad Rin beach at New Year 2013, I'm relieved that I didn't meet trouble in paradise. But based on my own experience and those of other travellers I have spoken to, I'd wager that the greater likelihood for any visitor to these islands is meeting a host of people who make your heart feel lighter.
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