I Usually Prefer A Quiet Vacation

Ko Samui... then and now

My friend Roland has been in Laos for his summer vacation, but he decided to spend the last week of it on a remote, undeveloped Thai island, Ko Kut (Ko Kood), off the coast of Cambodia. There’s nothing going on there but uncontested relaxation. Yesterday, the power was out. Still, he and I are in contact everyday via text and e-mail. It reminded me of my first trip to a Thai island, Ko Samui, back in the 1990s when Ko Samui was undeveloped and there was no contact with the outside world. The genesis of that Ko Samui trip began a year earlier… in Meknès.

I had been going to Morocco pretty regularly since 1969 when I realized it was, in every way, the bridge between the West and the East— the sounds, the smells, the sights, the tastes, the spirituality, the way people relate to each other… I loved turning my friends on to the wonders of Morocco and one year not long after I had gone to work for Warner Brothers, as general manager of Sire Records, I talked one of my friends from Warners, Craig, to come there with me. At one point we were just driving around in the Fez region without any kind of itinerary or schedule. We saw a sign for Meknès, a city I had never gone to, and we decided to go take a look. I looked the town, one of the 5 imperial cities, up in a guide book and saw that the nicest hotel was a real classic from 1923, Hotel Transatlantique and we drove right there.

We checked in and as I was opening the door to my room, the phone was ringing. I assumed it was Craig calling from his room. But it wasn’t Craig. It was Seymour Stein, the president of Sire calling from New York. Two hours ago, we didn’t know we would be in this hotel or even in Meknès! So how did he find me! I never did find out but he must have had one of his assistants call every good hotel in the country looking for me. And what did he want? Apparently two of the guys in Depeche Mode were fighting with each other and he wanted me to scrap my vacation and fly up to London and “deal with it,”whatever that was supposed to translate to in the real world.

When I negotiated my contract with Warner Bros, Sire's parent company, I had insisted on an annual one month vacation and it was a big problem because no one in the company had anything like that and the business affairs people opposed it. I suggested that they check with our European affiliates and that they would find that all the company officers had exactly that and I finally wore them down and they agreed. I had been taking month-long vacations since the 70s, when I lived in Europe and adopted to some of their progressive ways. Anyway, I told Seymour to not call me again while I was on vacation and hung up the phone. (Depeche Mode survived.)

But when I was planning my next vacation, I wanted a place that had no phone serviced where he would not be able to annoy me. Today Ko Samui is an over-developed tourist trap for Asian honeymooners. But back then there were no hotels, no airport, no modern conveniences of any kind and… no phone service. It was quite the schlepp from Bangkok— train, taxi, boat. And then I had to find someone willing to rent me a room.

It was a wonderful relaxing vacation, except when a German visitor— you would get to know everyone in those kinds of places— went snorkeling and had a leg bitten off by a shark. Otherwise… what a great place! Which is exactly why it turned into a hellhole about a decade later. The best places always do; ultimately it's a function of greed. When I was there, everything was pretty much thatched. Now it’s filled with luxury resorts and private villas— and literally over two million visitors a year (up from just a few thousand in a good year). There was no airport; now there are 50 flights a day, all filled with tourists, mostly from Asian countries, but also some from Europe. They’re even thinking about building an 11 mile long bridge from the mainland.

Back to Morocco for a moment— and what I just said about all the great places turning into hellholes. Remember I said I had first gone to Morocco in 1969? I spent part of that time in a little known coastal town called Essaouira, off the beaten track and charming and slow-paced, you know, authentic. A bit further down the Atlantic coast was a for-tourists-only Potemkin village, Agadir. Nothing but tourists who flew in on charter jets from Germany, Holland and Scandinavia. But Essaouira was real. Was-- but that gets around and soon enough the town had an airport and busloads of day-trippers from Marrakech (and Agadir) and now more and more of the town has become dedicated to tawdry tourism. Another one bites the dust. Good news though: I found someplace else to go in Morocco… but even more off the beaten path and much more arduous to get to and… I’m not going to say where it is.

Antalya is southern Turkey is the same way-- so wonderful that it attracted so many visitors that the quality of the place changed and is a place better avoided. Kathmandu is also unvisitable now-- but for ecological reasons, breathable air being in short supply as a million more people crammed into a valley with limited space and where the burning carbon becomes trapped. No wonder billionaires want to fly to outer space!