Perhaps not since Alex Garland’s The Beach has backpacker culture been so aptly captured, put on display and ruthlessly critiqued for all its ironic flaws. ‘In Sanskrit, Kanji, Aramaic and Chinese scripts, philosophies of life were printed with blue-green ink on white skin,’ notes Sayarer. ‘Phones and cameras, extended at the end of each grasping reach, captured it all so that everyone photographed everything and looked at nothing... every last message of these new prophets was all set to make it out to a satellite, ensuring that none upon the beach ever felt too far from home.’ Such tongue-in-cheek phrases leave the reader in no doubt of his personal perspective on this particular aspect of Western lifestyles, and its immature relationship with travel to ‘exotic’ overseas destinations such as Phuket, Thailand.
Through our author’s eyes, we witness Reinard, an undeniably well-meaning and enthusiastic Luxembourgian, pursue his ambition of sailing the ship Atlanta on a journey to capture on film the indigenous Moken, the ‘sea gypsies’ on the island of Surin, whose traditional lifestyle, like so many around the world, has clashed head-on with the 21st century. While most of the wanderlust-infused wealthy white people on the beaches of Phuket may believe themselves to be significantly far enough away from the modern world, happily indulging in the assumed privilege their passports grant them, Reinard believes they haven’t gone far enough. In his mind, far deeper insights lie 100 miles off shore, in the world of the Moken, where he argues true wisdom and meaning can be found.
Sayarer tackles several vast and complicated subjects in these 200 pages, focusing particularly on exploring the nature of imagination versus reality with regards to indigenous people and their relationship with a modern world full of digital cameras, petrol engines and alcohol. Where Sayarer sees predominantly poverty and deprivation on Surin (hence ‘another side of paradise’), Reinard sees only a romantic picture of innocence. No needling into his wider worldview appears capable of opening his eyes to a situation that may not, in reality, be quite as poetic as it appears in his preconceived imagination.
“There’s a striking lack of action, a vital and probably deliberate component of this pre-modern world to which we have collectively migrated”
Sayarer’s vivid descriptions and characterisations keep the reader gripped for chapter after chapter, but it’s noteworthy how much more this is based around his observations of his surroundings, and discussions with Reinard and his diverse entourage, than any actual unfolding narrative.
Instead, a focus on building characters is the great strength of this book. Deep conversations are recalled with such brilliantly descriptive details that it’s as if we too are aboard the ship, listening in on the often bizarre exchanges between people who would normally never have crossed paths. Top of that list is Laurie, the foul-mouthed old Australian sea captain, with his six children dotted around the world, and his fears of encroaching Sharia Law. From Jake, the quiet but open-minded cameraman from Berkshire, to Erik, the gentle giant hailing all the way from Alabama, to Nim, the Thai woman who, despite being half his age, has become Laurie’s loyal other half, it’s a motley crew of individuals who are somewhat inexplicably brought together under Reinard’s direction in pursuit of a goal of which he appears relentlessly driven, yet hauntingly vague.
The book’s engrossing nature is both testament to Sayarer’s high quality writing, and to the wider discussion about why anyone from the modern world would choose to travel thousands of miles to a poor, remote corner of the Andaman Sea. What purpose might someone such as Reinard seek to fulfil? ‘Reinard’s was just a naïve, warm-hearted desire to change the world through images,’ writes Sayarer, ‘as if it were still 1920 and the movie camera had just been invented.’ Changing the world may be a little out of reach on this occasion, but this enjoyable and engaging account of ambitious individuals having a go anyway is nevertheless a fascinating read, and will have you chewing over the issues raised long after you’ve reached the end.