JAT, Ko Samui and Mass Tourism

Here’s an interesting comparison. The round trip airline ticket I bought to and from Bangkok a few months ago cost more or less the same in 2018 as it did back in 1988,  i.e. $700. The only difference was that in 1988, I flew with JAT Yugoslav Airlines via Belgrad – a flight which included a 24hr stopover and a double room with all meals at legendary, if somewhat dilapidated, Hotel Belgrade. I remember clearly how the service onboard the flight was surprisingly good and that the female flight attendants wore plain uniforms but had accessorized themselves with large, round earnings and noisy bracelets. About as diametrical to what dress codes dictated at airlines like, SAS or Lufthansa as you could get.

My brief stint in what is now Serbia was uneventful, aside from being shadowed at the airport by what I assumed were two government »handlers«. See, my visit took place during the last couple of years of  paranoid dictator Tito’s regime and less than four before the third Balkan Wars began. As a visitor holding a US passport – I didn’t become a Swedish citizen until 12 years later – I had to endure a tiring visa application process which involved buying some kind of stamps at one end of the airport’s dark and dim arrival hall and then proving the purchase at a completely different end of the building, where a military rep in full regalia looked suspiciously at me before finally stamping my passport and letting me into the country. Shortly thereafter, I sat on an old rickety airport bus, heading into Belgrad’s old town. On October 11, it’ll be 30 years ago since that happened.

I was heading to Ko Samui and Lamai Beach where a fellow I’d met at a nightclub in Gothenburg had offered me a full-time position as both »Artist” and »Guest Relations Manager« at his bungalow place on a paradise island in southern Thailand. My responsibilities included painting and illustrating signs and organizing activities for guests. In practice, this meant getting a volleyball game going each afternoon and making sure that there was a party or event once a week, or so.

Golden Sand Bungalows, as the place was called, had two rows with 22 bungalows on either side of the property with each row leading from the main dirt road (that passed through Lamai) and down to the beach. In between both rows was a small reception facing the road and a rather large restaurant area facing the beach. Down at the beach was a small bar.

I spent about 6 months working at Golden Sand’s together with a friend from Sweden, Magnus Ekström, who was also employed there, but primarily as an electrician. In exchange for our services, we were provided with a bungalow as well as food and drink. I vividly remember how this was a tremendously fun, carefree existens. During our stay, several friends from Sweden flew down to visit us on Lamai Beach.

To give those of you that may have visited Ko Samui in the last 10 or 20 years an idea of what it was like back then, I can begin by telling you that the only way to get there was via ferry from either Surat Thani, Ko Pha-ngan or Koh Tao. The airport hadn’t been built yet and if my memory serves me correctly, there may have only been a single hotel on the entire island. There were literally dozens upon dozens of bungalow places, though. Some were dirt cheap, like beach lined but bare-bones Bungalow Bills and White Sands, where you could stay for as little as 50 baht per night. Others, like Golden Sands, cost up to 200 baht per night, or roughly $8.

To say that the tourism industry has been booming since my very first visit to Southeast Asia, some thirty years ago, would be a momentous understatement. It’s not like I think of myself as a pioneer. From a backpacker’s perspective, Thailand was already a very popular destination. But things have certainly changed. I mean, the sheer volume of group holiday travelers has unquestionably exploded and it’s becoming harder and harder to experience anything worth experiencing without having to share with hundreds of others. Even if you do get up ridiculously early in the morning which was when I took the above shot at Angkor Wat here in Cambodia.

Once in a while, I’ll see a couple of backpackers and think to myself, and yes, with a huge dose of nostalgia, how great it was to have experienced traveling so independently and far removed from much of the tourism I see today.

I suppose I’m slowly turning into the curmudgeon I once promised never to become.