Someone once said you never really recapture the first level of enchantment you found with a place after the first few visits. That invariably things change, and that while you hope those changes mean local people see improvements in life, that for you, things are never the same again. If I look back on the places I’ve been, I think that’s true.
Dahab was a sleepy Bedouin village on the east coast of the Sinai Peninsula. It’s a prime spot. There’s a permanent onshore breeze blowing. Natural air-conditioning in a place that had no electricity, not back then. I was even told the name means “cool” though in Arabic it’s “gold”. The peninsula lies between the Suez Canal and forms the Gulf of Aqaba, part of the Red Sea. You can complete the aquatic trifecta swimming in the Med, the Dead, and the Red seas. In the mid-80s Sinai had just been handed back to Egypt by the Israelis, not that the Arabs that lived there cared much about that. They were just doing their own thing and didn’t consider themselves part of any political entity or subject to arbitrary borders imposed by outsiders.
The Bedouin had lived there for centuries. Their homes were rough breeze-block structures topped off with corrugated iron. They drove about in brand new brightly coloured Japanese pick-ups. Their kids played with whatever came to hand. Tourism was a few backpackers staying in rudimentary lodgings on the beach. There was no floor just sand, and the walls and roof were made from local materials gleaned from whatever came to hand. There was one “bar”, some music and no beer. The furniture was rudimentary. Food could be bought there or on the beach; things like tuna steak, freshly caught in the deep waters nearby.
Saudi Arabia was off the horizon. The bus stopped at Dahab on the way to Sharm el-Sheikh from the border at Eilat on the Israeli side. I spent the trip with a hand swollen tight by mosquito bites and dreaming of drinking anything cold. From the road, the coast revealed small coves with pristine beaches, then empty of sun worshippers. There were still burned out tanks left over from recent wars, and slit trenches following the ridge lines.
What couldn’t be won in battle was handed over in peace. The Israelis downed tools and walked out of Sharm el-Sheikh following the Camp David Peace accords and the demilitarization of the Sinai. You could see where work on paving the beachfront promenade had ceased. Facilities then were limited, and far from the resort it has become. Tents could be rented with fold-out beds. I can’t remember what passed for a bathroom. There was a bakery in a large shed you could park a truck in and they probably did. There was no counter or shopfront. Baked Arab bread was picked off pallets on the floor.
The rented tents were arranged in a semi-circle facing the sea, and occupied by a few types like me or UN staffers on a break. The facilities were bleak and everything baked white by the sun. The morning bus to Eilat could be delayed while bicycles were tied to the outside of the vehicle with ropes attached through the windows. There were dive shops operated by expats, and US soldiers sat around at night drinking and smoking.
The Bedouin had little interest in tourists. They owned the bar in Dahab. Sudanese worked out back. Someone recalled seeing them resealing drinking water bottles for sale filled from the local tap. The Bedouin’s real income was from hashish. Every month a caravan would ride up through the middle of the Sinai and meet a freighter inbound from Turkey. The Bedouin would take the whole shipment and on sell it to contacts in Cairo and elsewhere. Their business interests attracted envy from Egyptians.
One night against the backdrop of a blood red sky and music from someone’s ghetto blaster, I recall a Bedouin riding in from the desert for some supplies at Dahab. He stopped awhile before heading off into the sunset. If you’ve ever seen a camel walking, it seems to move about six different ways at once. Left and right, backwards and forwards. Up and down.
For the novice snorkelling at Dahab was spectacular and the closest to the sensation of flying as I’ll come. The shelf drops off dramatically just offshore, and you’re suspended in water with seemingly no bottom in sight. It just disappears into darkness. There was and is, the famous Blue Hole. It was the kind of place you could get trapped in as one Frenchman I met had been there for weeks, usually in some form of nirvana as it appears not all the caravan’s produce was exported.
Half a world away Koh Chang is Thailand’s second largest island. It’s almost as close to Cambodia as to Thailand. Today there are convenience stores, bars and multi-story hotels with more complexes on the way. There are seafood restaurants and beachfront bungalows for any price and sealed roads. Talk of an airport has been going on for years, even though the place is listed as a national park.
Back in the very early 90s you got there by fishing boat. Then, like now, the accommodation was all on the seaward side. Koh Chang had a few locals and some bamboo bungalows. There was no electricity or mains water. To move from beach to beach you got a boat or either walked along the coast or through the jungle on paths where they existed, beating the bush with sticks to frighten off snakes. Dope was plentiful and the place produced a wicked rice wine with the potency of a spirit in recycled whisky bottles complete with floating sediment of undefined origin, for about $1 a pop. There were entire beaches without a soul to be seen.
There were rough timetables for fishing boats but generally they turned up when they got there. When they did you could move to another beach or back to the mainland. The local wildlife hadn’t got used to people yet so large snakes often moved about within close proximity to and from the beach. At night the generators hummed. I can’t recall a fan in any room I stayed in so my tolerance for heat must’ve greater back then. You got a candle, a mosquito net and a mattress. Occasionally bungalows caught fire and had to be rebuilt.
We had a toilet block with concrete walls and floor, cold water and little natural light. During the day, it was suffocating heat and at night malarial in a blackout. Urban myth of deaths by falling coconuts from palm trees abounded. I was more worried by the domestic animals. One restaurant kept dogs. Hairless malnourished hounds. The sight of them was enough to put you off food. The harder the life is for people the harder still it is for animals. Here it’s tough all round. At one place, longer term guests had taken to one dog, regularly introducing it to the surf. As a result, its coat was in better shape, the fleas having drowned and the next intake yet to take hold. The others scratched themselves raw and bald.
The pace of life was slow. Before the advent of smart phones, people talked to each other. There was no internet, and no television on the island. I always thought you met some of the most interesting people when travelling. The trouble is you invariably never saw them again, so I guess the relationships seems more memorable and more intense, as you learned as much about someone in a few days as it took months or years elsewhere.
An Irish ex-professional cyclist told his doping stories from the professional tour. There were two Italian sisters, one a recovering junkie the other a professor and former student of Umberto Eco. She travelled with her books and gave Italian language lectures on the beach in a bikini. When two German gay guys commented she was disrespecting local culture in such skimpy clothing; she replied that at least her country “didn’t kill half of Europe.”
There was a tall, blond Dutchman the height of a basketballer and his Surinamese wife, a beauty with waist-length black curly hair but who walked, someone observed, “like an old woman”. His knowledge of hashish production was prodigious, as was his consumption. No matter how much he consumed he appeared to remain unaffected. He told me of farms in Morocco he’d visited, on land owned by the king growing vast amounts of the stuff, of distribution networks and sale volumes in the Netherlands. His knowledge seemed far more detailed than one would expect from a mere casual user. I thought his observation of life for locals on the island insightful however. He noted that while tourists spent their days lying about, the locals worked all day for barely 100THB harvesting pineapples. “Try doing that all in this heat, with the snakes.” Indeed.
Then there was Miles from Newcastle-upon-Tyne and his wife Lisa. He’d gone into the local NHSS office to get his dole and wound up working on the other side of the counter after applying for a job. Then he’d transferred south to near Guildford, stockbroker country, still working for the “social”. Their local pub had Phil Collins playing Sundays for fun, and Eric Clapton lived nearby. He said he’d seen Eric in a Ferrari with a “dark haired woman” driving down the motorway shortly before it was announced the guitarist had left his wife for said lady. Miles spent his time learning Italian with the bikini professor and had given up washing his hair. His wife sunbathed all day. I had met them in Krabi, on the other side of Thailand another much changed place, and said I was going to Koh Chang. Neither of us had been there so they followed. It was like meeting old friends though we barely knew each other.
And an English guy whose name I’ve forgotten. He’d been working in New Zealand and was ‘drifting’ through Asia. He was trying to bleach his hair with lemon juice. He was going teetotal explaining he was “all or nothing”. When I left the island, we caught the same boat. The boat was full and we sat on the roof. It pitched precariously in the swell. Back on the mainland I stayed in Trat the town of the province in eastern Thailand bordering Cambodia and the Cardamom Mountains. Pol Pot lived there in “Office 87” built for him by the Thai army. He got his piles treated in Bangkok. In 1940 the Vichy French forced a naval war and had sunk the Thai navy at the Battle of Koh Chang. There was fresh street food in the night markets. The trip to Bangkok was by public bus and subject to police checks. They were intrigued by the farang down the back of the bus. The countryside rolled by open windows as the hot air blasted in. Back then the locals still paid attention to you, but only just. It was changing fast.
I guess anyone going there now would find their own kind of special place, and if they were to go back in a decade, would find it much changed, probably for the worse. For me, that was my special time. I hope there will continue to be others.