I hopped off the speedboat and hefted my bags onto my shoulders. The sun was shining, the waves were dancing, and white clouds skirted quickly across the blue skies. As I walked away from the boat a single foreigner was coming up the pier. A woman in her mid to late 30’s who walked with a gentle grace, a lightness in her step, a warmth radiating from her. I was struck by how beautiful and serene she looked in that moment, a glow I hadn’t seen since finishing up ten days of silent meditation a year previously. She didn’t even glance at me as I walked by, instead, her eyes wandered across the horizon. I continued down the pier wondering if I could find whatever it was she had somewhere on this island.
A dozen locals laid about lazily barely glancing up as I walked by. The lack of the usual bombardment of offers for taxis and hostels was off-putting. Underneath the shade of a tree, a young man sat on on a motorcycle advertising vegan ice-cream. He was the first to actually speak to me and asked if I had a bungalow to stay at yet.
“Yeah, maybe I don’t know,” I muttered as I reached into my pocket pulling out a crumpled piece of paper with the scrawlings of the German who had revealed to me the secret of this island’s existence. I stumbled through the pronunciation “สวรรค์ลับ Bungalow’s?” The Thai looked at me quizzically as I attempted to pronounce it again “สวรรค์ลับ Bungalow’s?”
“สวรรค์ลับ! สวรรค์ลับ!? the Thai man excited repeated as he pulled an off-yellow laminated piece of paper from his cart with สวรรค์ลับ Bungalow’s printed boldly on it. It was exactly the place I was looking for! He explained that สวรรค์ลับ was his grandfather and that I could get a taxi from anyone there. “Just go all the way to the last bungalow on the left.” He said as he buzzed off down the road when he realized I was the only tourist arriving on the Island today so no use waiting around.
I walked slowly up the street to take a quick look at the town and it appeared to be nothing more than a corner market and hundreds of motorcycles and mopeds sitting outside of half a dozen rental shops.
From the dark recesses of one shop, a heard a voice shouting at me “Hello! Hello! and a woman shuffled quickly out of the darkness gesturing towards the bikes. “Rent a bike? Rent a bike?” she said, repeating everything twice. I asked her how much it would cost me and she thought quickly before telling me between 150 and 200 Baht but made sure to clarify that these cost well over 400 normally, “Very good price very good price.” That sounded alright to me but today wasn’t the day for renting a moped, I was just looking and maybe I would come back tomorrow. I then casually mentioned how I had just got done riding a scooter Bali for two weeks. “Oh, how much does it cost to rent in Bali,” she asked. A few seconds of silence followed, as I did the mental gymnastics of converting Indonesian Rupee into USD, USD into Thai Baht at the latest conversation rates and guessed probably about 150 Baht per day, but since I had ridden for two weeks so they gave me it for about 100 baht. “Oh, how long you stay on the Island?”
“Probably about two weeks. But anyways I have to go find a taxi to get to my Bungalow,” I replied with an exaggerated sigh. She offered to find me someone who would take me there and set off across the empty street looking into the darkened shops for someone to drive me. Each place she called into echoed in reply, the proprietors either gone or otherwise too busy sleeping to reply. Finally, she found a local fisherman sitting on the pier who will take me to สวรรค์ลับ Bungalows for 100 baht. I threw my hands in the air and shouted, “No way! For a 100 baht, I’ll just rent a moped.” I looked back at the woman seeing if she would take me up on the deal. She grabbed me by the arm and we walked back up to her shop. She looked at me and back at the mopeds and ushered me to a pristine white moped sitting near the back of the shop. I spent a few moments making a show of inspecting the dials, feeling the tire pressure, looking at the one tiny scratch on the front plate. The moped looked great!
“Okay, you take this one.” She said pulling me away from the bike and towards another one of the same model. “Same same!” This moped was streaked in mud, one of the mirrors hanging loosely off the side of the bike, and scratches of all kinds streaking across it. It sagged sadly into the ground, an old dog long past the days of its youth.
“Yeah” I muttered, “Same Same but different” She pulled it out onto the street, put the key in and turned it. The motor groaned and with a cough and a shudder, the moped sagged a little bit lower. Again she tried and again it let out a pathetic cough before settling in the dust. She assured me that it just needed some gas and she wandered up the street before returning with a piss yellow Aquafina bottle and poured it into the tank.
She reached her hand out towards me “35 baht for gas.” As it’s true in every part of over the world, you get what you pay for. I give her the 35 baht and an upfront 100 baht for the bike with her assurances that I can keep the bike as long as I like and just pay for it whenever I feel like it. Through the haggling and bargaining, we both had playful smiles on our face and I could tell she was enjoying the banter and game between us as much as I was. I hopped up on the scooter, the large backpack strapped to the back, the smaller more valuable bag tucked tightly between my feet I asked her the best way to get to สวรรค์ลับ Bungalows. She told me to go up the road and straight to the very end to the last bungalow on the left. “Careful, careful,” she said, gesturing at the cracked concrete sidewalk we were standing on, “Not all roads this good.” I thanked her and waved goodbye as I slowly accelerated away, my scooter sputtering and coughing. I had named my moped in Bali “The Beast” but this scooter was more deserving of “The Old Mule.” Powerfully but slowly it carried me and my luggage up the street and around the bend.
A few more equally deserted motorcycle shops and a cafe with a few Thai swinging lazily in hammocks was all that remained of the town before the road disappeared into the jungle. The thick trees were broken up often by bungalows and cafe’s, painted wooden signs swinging in the breeze, birds singing sweetly in high in the branches, and not a human soul in sight. I was a hundred feet past it when I realized I had passed through the major intersection of the island, nothing more than four sidewalks with not even a sign of indication. Up hills, and past farms I rode, the few Thai I saw lounging in the shade or puttering along on their own moped. The road occasionally gave into gravel and dirt but would turn back into smooth riding sidewalk soon enough. After awhile the bungalows stopped appearing roadside and instead arrow signs stood at the top of long dirt trails pointing towards the beach. Eventually, even these signs stopped appeared and the road faded into nothing but hard-packed dirt, rocks, and mud as it opened up into a clearing. A tiny house stood on the corner of the road, two black and brown dogs sleeping in the shade of a hammock rocking gently above them, one arm dangling lazily off the side.
Ahead of me, the dirt road rose sharply up a hill, turning into slick mud. “To the last bungalow on the left,” I thought as I headed up the hill, my motor whining while the rear wheel spun kicking up mud, looking for something to dig into. Slowly but surely I made my way all the way up the hill, wiping the sweat from my brow. Then the road steeped sharply and got a whole lot worse, but I had come this far already. Pulling tightly on both brakes I slid, skidded, and hopped my way down the hill, all the while thinking of Danny Boyle’s “The Beach” whose island was just a short boat ride from here. I skidded to a stop at the bottom of a hill a row of a dozen bungalows heading off into the jungle in front of me. A single sign swung from a tree with a creak, “Monkey Bar.”
Not wanting to call out and break the silence, I wandered around this seemingly abandoned bar and bungalow. I walked through areas of the beach that would be perfect for dancing in the moonlight during a late night party. I walked past a giant swing rocking under a large tree. A row of empty beach chairs stretched across the beach, a small sign advertising their rental at 50 Baht a piece. This couldn’t be the place I had heard about, the paradise I was looking for. I went to the beach and looked for a ship made of driftwood, the legendary Hippy Bar. Nope, nothing but jungle, this was definitely the wrong place. So, I headed all the way back up the trail, at times being forced to dismount and push the scooter up, step by slippery step.
I rolled back down the other side of the hill and back to the clearing with its cozy little house and the sleeping man. A woman stood in the doorway sweeping up dust and watching me with curiosity. I got off the Old Mule and approached her. “สวรรค์ลับ Bungalows?”
She pointed to the tiny road heading left past the house that headed towards the beach. When I had passed by before I hadn’t noticed the small signs resting in the shade of a tree, vines hanging across them. “We care for nature. Good for people good for monkeys” a smaller sigh still below it reading สวรรค์ลับ Bungalows. Another five minutes of slipping on mud banks and crashing through puddles and I finally rolled into สวรรค์ลับ Bungalows.When I had passed by before I hadn’t noticed the small signs resting in the shade of a tree, vines hanging across them. “We take care of nature. Good for people good for monkeys” a smaller sigh still below it reading สวรรค์ลับ Bungalows. Another five minutes of slipping on mud banks and crashing through puddles and I finally rolled into สวรรค์ลับ Bungalows.
Near where I parked my bike was a massive clearing with a few gardening plots. A raised bungalow sat nearby, herbs drying out in the sun above a giant black cauldron straight out of an old Disney film. To my left, a few bungalows sat nestled in the shade of the jungle. The hill sloped sharply towards the beach and I slid down one of the paths before making my way to what appeared to be the kitchen. One boy trimming tree branches motioned for me to sit assuring me that สวรรค์ลับ was getting back shortly. I rested on a bench and looked out across the half-finished deck and out towards the ocean and I felt a great sense of calm wash over me with the incoming breeze, I was finally here and it was even more beautiful than I had imagined.
I was lost in the ebb and flow of the waves when the silence was broken by a great shout, “Welcome to สวรรค์ลับ Paradise!” Coming down the path towards me was a jovial man his hands high in the air and a great big white smile piercing through his gray beard. As far as I could tell he was as young as forty, or as old as seventy, but one thing that was not in question was the strength and vigor embedded in his body. He was built like a working man, and he moved with strength and grace, that was before he slipped on the mud and tumbled down the path. I rushed towards him but he soon had hopped back on to his feet laughing at the misfortune of diminishing youth. His firm handshake turned into a warm embrace as I explained how I had heard all about this place from Rodney, the German who had lived here for over half a year. สวรรค์ลับ asked me which bungalow I wanted to stay in gesturing to the half a dozen dotted around his property.
“The last bungalow on the left.” After-all, that’s what I had been looking for all this time.
He took me by the shoulder and led me down the beach, Moaui, his two-year-old granddaughter, running about us as we talked. As we talked he stopped often to walk into the jungle and pick up some roots, grasses, or small berries. One was good for digestion, another for the heart, another just made an amazing tea. สวรรค์ลับ owned over 100 acres of land and was almost entirely self-sustained by the jungle. All the food a hundred people could eat grew from the woods, every building material washed ashore or was chopped down, everything he and his family needed to live long happy lives was there offered freely. He seemed to find joy and contentment in the simplest of things, but I sensed the great wit and intelligence that burned inside his roughed leather exterior. This was only extenuated when he guided me to Hippy Bar, another place I had heard so much about.
Hippy Bar was a massive wooden fortress made entirely out of driftwood. Beachside it projected out across the ocean as a massive ship beached in the sand. Surrounded by a wall the interior contained the bar itself as well as groups of small rooms with nothing more than a small bed, empty beer bottles, and the occasional tipped over easel. When we walked in it was dead quiet, only to be broken by a loud fit and hacking coming through a cloud of smoke rising from a swinging hammock. Though the haze emerged a man to be known as Santa Claus, earned by his long flowing white beard which he stroked gently when he was lost in though. Before he even introduced himself he asked if I knew about computer’s and quickly sent me behind the bar to get the sound system up and running so that this place would buzz with just a bit more life.
In the peak of the high season, I could imagine the amazing parties and moments that must have taken place here. In fact later that night I met Rinaldo and Lucky Luke, a pair of traveling Germans, and Luke had celebrated his birthday at this very bar a few years ago during a busier livelier time. The three of us sat alone on top the prow of the ship drinking lukewarm beers laughing into the quiet night as he talked of some of the characters he mad met, the lively music, fantastic dancing, and debauchery that he kind of sorta remembered from those nights. I wanted to see Hippy Bar when it was at its height, I wanted to have those half fogged over memories of dancing in the moonlight. But that was for another time, another adventure because this moment was perfect and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
That night as I lay in bed I was overwhelmed by the noise that surrounded me. Birds calling from every branch, insects chirping and screeching from the underbrush, and twigs and branches snapping as unknown forces crushed through them. My body instinctively jumped at each new sound coming from the jungle and I was alert and awake with adrenaline. Hours drifted by as I lay there surrounded by the purest sounds of Earth-like I had never heard before. So use I had become to the distant sound’s of car’s and airplanes, that to be without them or the sound of any human invention was unnerving. Giving up on being able to fall asleep easily, I let my mind wander and bask in everything I had seen and felt today. The island was astoundingly beautiful, it’s people welcoming and joyful, and I nearly had the entire island to myself. The island was everything I could have dreamed of when I first fell in love with travel. Over the next thirteen days, I would have to embrace my inner hippy, there was no avoiding it. These two weeks had the potential to be some of the best and most formative moments of my life. I made a solemn vow that not a second would go wasted on this island. That In each moment I would attempt to take a step closer to the unobtainable man I constantly strive to be. With a firm resolve in this matter, I drifted off into a deep dreamless sleep.