We all knew about Koh Samui. At the beginning of every summer, the graduating seniors of the Chinese International School, all ninety-something of them, would toss their crimson caps in the air, collect their diplomas and jet off to the gem-shaped island on the Gulf of Thailand. They’d return a week later, dazed and euphoric, and entertain us underclassmen with stories of their week of decadence, stories that all began with, “So this one night, I was so smashed that I…” and ended with an anecdote involving an excursion to a lady boy bar or passing out at a crowded beach-wide fiesta or cows crossing the road at 3 a.m. The island was a carnival, a post-graduation Xanadu for hormone-pumped teenagers, the Mecca for all the spoilt under-18s of Southeast Asia. It was all very ridiculous if you thought about it. And yet, summer after graduation, finally a senior, deciding that I might as well make the pilgrimage, I found myself on a one-hour flight to Samui International Airport.
In Koh Samui, the day started when the sun went down. Started late afternoon, sitting in somebody’s room, cheeks flushed, grooves of earlobes glowing, passing around a bottle of Absolut bought for 200 baht at the roadside store next to the hotel. When the sun had finished its descent, we’d pile into a tuk tuk — an open-air truck covered with Tiger Beer stickers and psychedelic paint — and get off in the streets of Chaweng, the epicenter of Thai nightlife, an image cropped straight out of a guidebook entitled Navigating Koh Samui for the Young n’ Wild. Chaweng was exactly what I thought Koh Samui would be, a chaotic world of twinkling neon lights, bars crammed upon bars, and crude symphonies of Avicil and Flo Rida played on repeat. There were no rules here; you did whatever you pleased. Dinner consisted of freshly caught fish and crabs laid out on slabs of ice; we ate it al fresco and finished off the meal with a row of shots and plastic cups of Long Island iced tea. We smoked shisha in small alleyway bars and passed the smoke around in a circle. When we were bored, we paid a dollar to have little fish in glass tanks chew off the dead skin on the soles of our feet. We wandered into burlesque shows where dancers in silver-tassled, rhinestone bikinis lip-synched to Moulin Rouge, and we’d realize at the end of the performance that all the dancers were men. We drank tequila from plastic pails, danced in sweaty, open-air clubs where half the Koh Samui population congregated every night, and, when they shut down, we hailed tuk tuks and haggled over our rides back to the hotel.
When I woke up the next morning, the inside of my mouth coated with the whatever that was on the happy hour menu at Ark Bar the night before, the sunlight, as yellow and vibrant as my kid sister’s Crayolas, poured through the blinds. There was no transition into daytime; when you woke, the world was already ablaze. Other than that simple dichotomy of party at night and sleep throughout the day, there was never any sense of time and not once did I look at my watch or set an alarm. Mealtimes were entirely spontaneous — we ate when we were hungry. Sometimes, we’d return to the hotel at dawn as the sky embered and the rest of the world stirred in its sleep, and we’d eat breakfast before bed. Breakfasts were feasts — rice noodles made to order with your choice of vegetables or shrimp or chicken, yoghurt with mint and cilantro, morning glory cooked with shallots and dried shrimps. The fruit platters of hairy Rambutans, durians, fist-sized rose apples and freshly sliced papaya a shade of deep, vibrant vermillion that I’d never imagined anything edible could ever have, seemed to disobey the very laws of harvest and nature.
Days tumbled into each other — I cannot distinguish one from the other except for the rare occasions we felt adventurous and decided to go jet-skiing or visit the food market. Some of the guys would drive around on the island in their swim trunks on rented mopeds and come back with burns on their shins from falling off their bikes and skidding on the gravel. Otherwise, at daytime, the long stretch between waking up and sunset, we did nothing. A dozen of us would lie in the same bed, watching the ceiling fan whir, discussing the new Spiderman movie, reminiscing about Year 10 English class, talking about everything and nothing. Back in Hong Kong, Phil and I were acquaintances in the same homeroom. I said “hey what’s up” to him at 8:15 a.m. and then another cursory nod of greeting at 3:00 p.m. when school ended. And yet here I was, lying on the floorboards in my swimsuit, with an equally barely dressed friend curled up on my left and a bare-chested Phil snoozing on my right. There was something about the air in Koh Samui — lazy, humid, and rich with the scent of blooming hibiscus — that cultivated a sense of comfort, a transgressive kind of intimacy. Here, we were children again, thrown together in the same playpen, unhindered by the expected ‘hey how are you’s’ and ‘I’m fine’s’ and all the other rules of social decorum. The booze helped. All the time, you could hear it in the conversation and easy laughter — booze talk, booze words, tumbling freely out of our mouths like clumsy toddlers a few weeks after having learned to walk. And all the words that you’ve kept to yourself back home, thoughts that you’ve carefully concealed, little ugly things, hamsters with two heads, crudely cut gems — you could share them here.
I pictured in my head what Club Green Mango would look like in the day, the speakers silent, and the dance floor empty aside from the broken Singha bottles scattered on the ground. I wondered what they thought of us, the young workers who swept the floors of beer and grime with brooms of straw, the bartender who poured for us and then watched us down twenty shots of Smirnoffs like cups of water, the tuk tuk driver who collected our crumpled baht bills as we piled out of the van. I imagined the chef as he tossed all the ingredients into a wok, thin muscles on his left forearm shifting and contracting — what did he think of us as he rustled up our post-hangover meal to wash down the sins of the night? Did he know how fresh and delicious I thought his noodles were — how much I loved and still yearn for the sweetness of the fish sauce, the unexpected sour tang of the tamarind? Or the lady who came and cleaned up the room every day and changed our rumpled sheets. I wonder if she knew that yesterday when we sat on the bed together with our plastic cups and three bottles of vodka that for the first time in years, I felt like I did when I was seven and I took bubble baths with my brother after playing soccer in the garden. I wonder if she knew that in giving us free reign of her beaches, of her home, of her country, in giving us Koh Samui, she was doing an act of charity.
The morning we left Koh Samui, I had had an average of three hours of sleep and ten shots per night; my cheeks were sunburnt, my feet sore from dancing, and my liver, I imagined, had dried and shriveled like a prune. It was all kind of ridiculous if you thought about it. And yet, as I stood in line at the departure gate, I started to cry. Thick, hot tears that tumbled out and simply would not stop. I knew that once I stepped off the plane into the lofty, air-conditioned Hong Kong airport, with its Starbucks and mechanical luggage belts that worked with clock-like efficiency, that I’d returned to a world where some things you can only talk about with some people, and some things you just don’t, that tomorrow I’d wake up at dawn alone under the cool sheets of my single bed, that I’d have my muesli like I did every morning with a plate of sliced apples, skin pale and colorless and that Phil and I were just acquaintances again. I had graduated, and Koh Samui was over. And yet all I could think about was the man who passed us walking through Chaweng with an armful of groceries, on his way home to his wife and children. As we stumbled by him, arm in arm, belting the lyrics to “I Gotta Good Feeling,” was that pity that I saw in his eyes?