Tamara graduated from the University of Wisconsin last spring and headed east, first to Japan and then to Thailand. She had planned on a two-week stopover on the islands off Thailand's Surat Thani province. She's been here seven months.
Back home she was a sorority sister, a pre-med student. She dated a guy named Dave who still sends her e-mail about his first year at law school. To Tamara, 23, now stretched out on a beach on Ko Pha-Ngan island, those missives read like what they are: archival records of what has become, for her, a lost civilization. Torts. Civil procedure. What is he talking about? Dave would hardly recognize her now, with her navel ring, Balinese warrior tattoos and baggy Thai fisherman's pants. Tamara, this retiring, freckled brunette with a narrow body and tiny waist, this daddy's girl from La Jolla, Calif., roves the beach barebreasted in daylight and raves the night away at Full Moon parties or up at the Backyard trance club. She will tell you, seriously, that what is going on here is a whole new civilization. One in which those laws that Dave is studying just don't apply.
There are at least 2,000 kids like Tamara here on Ko Pha-Ngan island, a 20-sq.-mi., palm-fringed, mountainous speck off the eastern coast of Thailand. The beaches are pristine--white sand, yellow boulders, coral reefs and gently slapping waves. You can rent a bungalow for $5 a day. The boys and girls seem to be young, thin and beautiful. They convene from all over the globe: club kids from London, bar hostesses from Tokyo, English teachers from Taipei, tech refugees from Silicon Valley--all looking to partake of this new civilization on the island that has become synonymous with hedonistic decadence.
By the time Alex Garland used it as the setting for his 1997 novel about young travelers in Thailand searching for the garden of Eden, Ko Pha-Ngan was already a legend on the Asian traveling circuit. Garland's The Beach has taken on a talismanic quality here: waterlogged paperbacks pass from bungalow to bungalow. It is the founding myth of this place: you come looking for paradise.
What paradise offers, besides an idyllic setting, is a chance to remake yourself in far-off Asia, to become a more glamorous person than the one laboring in that cubicle in San Jose, Calif., or pouring drinks in that Surrey pub. "Elsewhere your time is spent playing a role--work, family, career. You don't push the boundaries spiritually and physically," says Backyard Dave, a deejay who became globally renowned through playing Ko Pha-Ngan rave parties. "Out here you can be who you really want to be."
Of course, it's easy to indulge this fantasy when you are footloose in a foreign land, living off savings or money from home in a country where a beer goes for 60[cents], without any of the reminders that you really should be doing something productive with your life.