The Cooler

Travel Stories: We romanticize the past and become nostalgic about our first time in a place. Karl Taro Greenfeld returns to Thailand -- to that place.

02.20.09 | 8:49 AM ET


We were stupid. And tired. Indifferent. Drunk, a little. And up for it. It is strange to think of it now, but we were at Bangkok Central Station, standing in a line—I don’t remember for what—with no actual idea of where we were going. I struck up a conversation with a French girl in a tank top and floppy hat and asked where she was headed. She mentioned an island, to the south. There was a sleeper train leaving in a just a few minutes. She pointed to the speck on the map in her guidebook (we didn’t even have a guidebook) and said, “is beautiful.”

Again, I don’t really remember why or how, but a few minutes later, my friends and I were on this train, clanging south, and when we woke up, we were at a dusty bus depot where we boarded a bus that took us to a ferry boat that was dangerously crowded but where we managed to find a square meter of space atop the pilot’s house, and we chugged into the Gulf of Siam and to this island.

At the ferry dock we hopped into the bed of a pick-up truck and then jumped off when the vehicle slowed down and walked a kilometer down a badly rutted dirt road and into paradise.

There were a half-dozen bungalows arranged around a thatch-roofed restaurant and a little rattan counter behind which a lovely, middle-aged woman sat smiling. Next to her was her husband, who usually worked in the kitchen, and their two little boys who had the run of the place. There was a glass-door cooler in one corner stocked with soda and beer. She gave us room keys in exchange for a preposterously small amount of money, and we tossed our bags into our little huts and went to the beach.

Our fellow guests were a couple of Japanese kids. A few Brits. A couple of hardy Swedes. In the next hut were three German girls, including a sexy brunette who said that back home, in Bremen or Dortmund or Dusseldorf or wherever she was from, she was training to be a baker. I spent the next few weeks in a desultory and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to seduce this future maker of bread. We were all young, undaunted by the long journey.

This was before there was an airport on this island, when you had to take a train, a bus and then a ferry to get there. They had yet to grow wary of us tourists, to see us as only wallets with human beings attached. They trusted us.

During the day, we swam and snorkled, climbed the huge rocks at one end of the beach or kicked around an old soccer ball. In the evening, as we would sit in the little restaurant, drinking beer and Mekong, playing chess or backgammon, the proprietress would watch us with a smile on her face, occasionally joining us for backgammon; she didn’t care for chess. Before turning in, she would leave a pad on the counter, on which we were to note down with a pencil that was tied by a string to the cooler handle our room numbers and any beer, soda or water we had taken during the night. The honor system. We didn’t abuse it. Not too much. And when visitors came by our restaurant from down the beach, we watched carefully to make sure that if they took drinks, they left a few baht on the counter.

We had to go. I now can’t remember or imagine why. But after a few weeks, we packed our duffels and hiked out to the main road and did a reverse version of the same journey down. We promised each other and ourselves that we would return.

A little more than a year later, I did. Alone. Flying into the new airport. I arrived back at the same bungalow complex, and found it expanded, the restaurant vast and now housed beneath a wooden roof, the whole resort swollen so that rows of bungalows now radiated outward in several layers, the complex grid of paths and alleys now reminded me of a giant Aztec calendar etched into the earth.

A swimming pool was being excavated just off the beach.

And all around me, in the bungalows that now had air conditioning units protruding from rear windows, were families, old folks, pallorous and slow-moving as they shuffled down their little trails to the beach.

I spent a day or two trying to convince myself that it hadn’t been that great a year or so ago and it hadn’t changed that much since. We romanticize the past, become nostalgic about our first time in a cool place. And look at this place. Still lovely. A beach made for brochures. Clear, blue water. White sand. Focus on the beauty.

But that evening, I was reading a magazine in the new restaurant, beneath the linoleum ceiling and realized that the pretty middle-aged lady no longer worked the night shift. In her stead were a gang of younger women, and when they turned in, they locked the kitchen and cooler doors tight.

Karl Taro Greenfeld is the author of four books, including Speed Tribes and Boy Alone: A Brother's Memoir, about his autistic brother Noah. His World Hum story Hope and Squalor at Chungking Mansion appeared in "The Best American Travel Writing 2008" anthology.

5 Comments for The Cooler

Roger 02.20.09 | 3:05 PM ET

Excellent story, Mr. Greenfeld. Short, subtle, and speaks volumes.

Pam Mandel 02.21.09 | 3:09 PM ET

I was struck by something - the “they trusted us” remark. Inversely true, probably, too, but not noted is that you trusted them, too, probably. Also, everything here is why I’ve not gone back to Ladakh. I’m too scared of what I’ll find.

This was a lovely read. Thank you.

Frank 02.23.09 | 8:11 AM ET

Great story!  Really nicely done.

Jenny 03.03.09 | 8:26 PM ET

Provocative article, Karl. Thanks. I know the island. I stayed there in 1984 (!!) for a month and a half with my husband and four year old daughter. We meant to stay a week. It was our “paradise” - and many years later after much world travel I have come to the conclusion that revisiting a place is not for me. The world is large, my time and funds are relatively meager and the adventure I had on my first visit was made more vivid by the memories of the particular time I was there, the people I met, the food I ate, the sights I saw….none of these can be replicated.

Tim 03.07.09 | 1:41 PM ET

Karl, I too have been to this island, in 1986 had a great time. I went back 5 or 6 times after, I know exactly what you mean about never being the same.

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