Sunday, Jan 30th, 2000
Life section

OK, I don't have to be rich

Feeling At Home

At Koh Samui's Chaweng beach, this ageing hipster who once coveted luxury realises that one does not need to be rich to live well

I'M WRITING to you in a small tour agency shop on Chaweng beach in the Thai resort island of Koh Samui.

Like the many others that dot the 7-km-long beach which is, I suppose, your equivalent of Waikiki in Honolulu, it has a row of computer terminals against one wall, underneath colourful posters which advertise the many tours and diving trips it has on offer.

You can plonk down in front of one of the terminals, and, for 2 baht (9 Singapore cents) a minute, get to surf the Net or write your e-mail.

I was hoping to clear out of here in under 60 minutes, but since the last three paragraphs took more than 15 -- there is the distraction of people popping in and out and a cursor whose blinking I don't know how to stop -- it looks like I'm going to have to charge this to my credit card.

But it's not unpleasant here. It is well-lit, and there is air-conditioning. The glass shopfront allows in natural light, although there isn't too much of it now. It had rained in the morning and, with a couple of hours left before dusk, the sky is still overcast.

I had come in on a Bangkok Airways flight last night, and, this afternoon, had taken a quick tour round the island.

The short holiday here was a last-minute decision, inspired by the hit Thai movie, Nang Nak, which I watched on VCD at home a week ago.

The movie, with its lush rural setting, its sing-song language, and its theme of a love that refuses to die, stirred some forgotten longings. So here I am.

Chaweng is like Kuta in Bali, or Hikkaduwa in Sri Lanka -- backpacker beach belts which came into being when they were "discovered", unspoilt, by the first wave of Western backpackers in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

They are defined by the jumble of shops which sell tie-dye and batik clothes, restaurants which serve very good apple pies but passable local food and play loud rock music over bad speakers, and the throng of young people in their Birkenstock sandals who fancy themselves as travellers.

Tourists are those who can afford to stay in the more exclusive resorts.

I thought I had outgrown the appeal of such places of escape, but I feel right at home in Chaweng. I suppose I'm what my young colleague Clarissa Oon would call an ageing hipster.

That's the label she used in her review for a section of the audience at Siva Choy's gig last Monday. I was at the show, and what can I say, the label fits.

But if I am an ageing hipster, then let me not be a poor one. Please don't let me be like one of those genuine ageing hipsters I saw when I was on Lamai beach this afternoon, as I walked past a flophouse. I could imagine the rooms -- no air-conditioning, uncomfortable beds, communal bathrooms, and local girlfriends who had seen better times. Comfort is a state of mind, Graham Greene said. He even had a character, Queroy, in A Burnt-Out Case, declare: "I feel discomfort, therefore I am alive." But he was a converted Catholic with a penchant for penance.

I know I'm happier in a room with clean bed sheets, and where an air-conditioner hums reassuringly. And I would like to think that my days of guilty consumption are long behind me. I'm charging this to a credit card, am I not?

Yet there are some things I can learn from the master storyteller. As the writer Shirley Hazzard points out in her recently-released memoir, Greene On Capri, he was never owned by his money, the way most people, new to money, do, what with the luxury they keep acquiring. He used it instead to buy freedom. Up till his death, he lived like a lodger, even in his two apartments in France.

I have coveted luxury. I have longed for exquisite leather furniture in my home. I wish that when I travel, I would do so only on Business Class, where the stewardess addresses me by my surname and takes away my jacket dutifully.

I remember the humiliation in Economy on an SIA flight, when the stewardess said brightly, after I had tried to hand over my jacket: "Sorry, sir, we don't hang your jacket here. You can keep it in the compartment above your seat."

When I watched The Astronaut's Wife recently, for instance, I wasn't looking so much at the actress Charlize Theron as at the luxurious Manhattan apartment she finds herself in. Oh, how I longed for just such an apartment.

I bought both the original and the new The Thomas Crown Affair on VCD and DVD respectively, just to see how luxuriously the protagonist lives.

When I came to the part in the new version when Renee Russo said to Pierce Brosnan, "You know how to live well", I actually ached.

But out here, in Koh Samui, with the horizon in my face everywhere I look, I get more realistic. Yes, I don't want to be poor. But no, I don't have to be rich either.

Okay, I have to go. I'm going to nip down to this place at the end of the night, where ageing hipsters who refuse to grow old go to seek the love that refuses to die.

And yes, I can charge it to my card.

Archive 1

03/12/00 Nice work if you can get it

19/11/00 Simple emotions stalls paperless future

04/11/00 A club of pretencious class

21/10/00 Canby's passion for cinema

16/09/00 Clint still a draw at 70

09/09/00 The inspiring Keppel Men

09/07/00 Time and love wait for no man

25/06/00 Seizing opportunity in old-economy biz

11/06/00 Bad news to have more papers?

14/05/00 When my hostesses didn't show up...

30/04/00 Bellow's betrayal -- or act of friendship?

16/04/00 Alone, you don't get to grow up

02/04/00 New Economy

19/03/00 The Good Life

06/03/00 Time for creative destruction

20/02/00 Meet the new superhuman

30/01/00 OK, I don't have to be rich

16/01/00 An intimation of timelessness

02/01/00 Let's not forget to meet F2F