I still believe in paradise. But now at least I know it’s not some place you can look for. Because it’s not where you go. It’s how you feel for a moment in your life when you’re a part of something. And if you find that moment… it lasts forever. — The Beach
In retrospect, it’s a bit strange to recall that what inspired me to come to Thailand when I was nineteen was the cult classic Leonardo Dicaprio movie The Beach. I guess something about Richard’s search for tropical bliss and a place to belong inspired me. While I didn’t find a weird cult hidden on a secret island ruled by drug lords, I did find Banyan Bar (actually, in retrospect, the first bit doesn’t seem that far off.)
Those who have been following my story for a while probably already know that this dirty little bar on Koh Tao is about as real a home I’ve had since I pulled up roots in New York. One week ago today, our very own tropical Cheers served its last Tight Bastard — the bar’s 100B ubiquitous cocktail — and it’s hard not to feel like a major chapter in our lives is ending as a result.
Banyan Bar opened that same summer I moved to Koh Tao in 2011, and within a year one of my best friends had bought in along with the original two owners. I know from my first summer in Koh Tao in 2009 that technically, there was life before Banyan Bar. There was a little dive called Office Bar that we liked to frequent, and there were the dive school’s bars, and there was always the strip of dance spots along the beach.
But Banyan has always been so much more than a place to buy a drink, and it’s hard to imagine life on Koh Tao without it. In fact, many people can’t — plenty of my expat family are using the bar closing as push to close their chapters on Koh Tao as well, and move on to the next great adventure.
Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… The ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. — Steve Jobs (Good ‘ol Stevie was definitely not talking about Banyan customers when he said this, but it still applies.)
Banyan is, for better or for worse, a family. A big, weird, dysfunctional family in which literally everyone is the weird uncle who drinks too much — but a family nonetheless. A family in which over fifty members have had the same scripted tribute — BB — branded onto their ankles. Some of those tributes performed by my definitely non-tattoo-artist boyfriend, leaned over a pool table a few beers deep.
This January, for one final month of swinging from the rafters, dozens and dozens of degenerates flew across the world to return to Koh Tao to say goodbye and stage our own little debaucherous family reunion. It was such an insane month — if I wasn’t laughing my head off I was crying that it was all going to be over soon.
It’s almost impossible to imagine what my life would look like had Banyan never existed. I met my boyfriend Ian, the final Banyan Bar manager, while ordering a drink there three years ago (the second Banyan bartender I’ve had a multi-year relationship with, natch). My oldest friend in Thailand, Brian, is one of the owners. Earning my own plaque on the edge of the bar, covered in hand-carved placards dedicated to the inner circle, brought tears to my eyes and pride to my heart — I believe at the time I compared it to my university graduation. I’ve clocked more hours dancing around the stage, falling off the bar stools, having heart-to-hearts in the parking lots, giggling in the backroom and catching up with friends at the picnic tables here than I could ever begin to tally. I never had the biggest bar tabs and rarely it onto Banyan TV — footage from the cameras that were installed, as Brian described it, “for entertainment, not for safety” — but Banyan was still a second home.
Looking back, I see that every year Banyan existed, it became more important to me. I’ve chosen to do many things just a little differently in life, and when I go home to the US and see my friends hungrily take on the responsibilities of marriage, adulthood, and children, it always strikes me how firmly I’m not there yet — and maybe never will be. As I reach an age where it sometimes seems the world is passing me by in a different lane, Banyan has been a refuge where the simple pursuit of a good time is still considered a worthwhile way to spend your days, and sitting on a broken barstool watching the world go by an honorable endeavor. Some of the closest friendships of my life were forged over Joss shots with this group of misfits and rebels.
Banyan was a place where you could always find a familiar face and a cold drink, a place you could go and never be judged — though you were almost guaranteed to be roasted and heckled. It was a place where the annual Gravy Wrestling competition was treated with the gravity of the Super Bowl. A place where on quiet nights, when just the right combination of malleable bar staff were working, you could stage your own hostile takeover, switching the playlist to back-to-back Beyoncé and taking over bartending duties much to the amusement of your girlfriends. A place where day sessions occasionally involved invading the juice bar next door and scaring off kale-seeking customers while snorting bee pollen off the tables. A place that provided loving refuge to a revolving door of abandoned dogs on the island, dogs who became part of our little family too, despite the bar owners’ protestations. (“Free dogs, just take one” was one of my favorite infamous blackboard signs outside.)
A place where your night could be interrupted at any moment by an impromptu, full-bar performance of Bohemian Rhapsody, delivered with the passion and showmanship of Queen themselves. A place where fancy dress was always welcome, or if not, a simple cross-dressing clothes swap would do. A place with a line of t-shirts so offensive they could scarcely be worn outside the bar itself. A place where we threw birthday parties on the anniversaries of our friend’s messy alter egos emerging, celebrated with cakes festooned with cigarette candles. A place where mid-day nudity (of the male variety, typically) and rafter-swinging were so commonplace they were barely notable. A place where Halloween, St. Patrick’s Day, Oktoberfest, Thanksgiving and Christmas felt like the joy-filled holidays they deserve to be, even thousands of miles away from our families, because we’d formed a family of our own.
A place where, while tourists on our neighboring island gathered for the lunar Full Moon Party, Banyan hosted its own anarchist F#%k the Full Moon Party instead. A place where the epic day-after parties following a big night out, in which we dragged our shattered and sleep-deprived bodies back for one more round of ridiculousness, were often more fun and eventful than the night out itself. A place where you could feel free to forgo sensible in favor of silly. A place where you could always find a friend who’d drop any and everything the moment you needed them.
But above all, Banyan was a place where you could be a Banyan person. On Koh Tao, you’re often associated with the place you work or the place you dive. At Banyan, we were associated with the place we drank. I remember one morning when my girlfriends and I were laying around a pool, and we overheard a group of acquaintances walking by on the upper floor of a nearby building, trying to figure out who we were. “Oh,” they said, with a mix of fear, loathing, and I’d like to think, a touch of respect, “…it’s Banyan people.”
Nope, we weren’t the beautiful, polished people from the bars down on the beach — though I definitely love those people too and have spent a fair amount of my life trying to be one. But at Banyan, we were quite proudly the square pegs in the round holes.
I don’t always share this side of me here. I’ve spent a lot of energy in the last twenty-eight years trying to be the perfect daughter, the perfect sister, the perfect student, the perfect blogger, the perfect businesswoman, the perfect this or that. I loved that when I was on Koh Tao, I could have this thing just for me — raw, unpolished, impulsive, imperfect me.
I could just be a Banyan person.
It’s an emotional time on Koh Tao and plenty of tears have been shed driving by the dark, empty shell of Banyan this week. We had about a year of notice before the final closing, which really allowed us to savor the last round of every event, anniversary and random tradition we loved — and left us shells of humans in the process. While I felt a temporary sense of euphoria as my liver and other organs remembered what sleep and non-toxic substances felt like after the absolute insanity of closing month festivities, as that fades, a lot of us are starting to feel the ache of a Banyan-tree shaped hole in our hearts. And what’s left of mine is going to shatter as my Banyan family starts to fly away in search of their next crazy little island cults — the goodbyes have begun already.
“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,” warned a sign above the entrance to Banyan. It was always one of my favorites of the junkyard relics strewn around the bar. But, I noted for the first time as I walked out for the last time that final day — it was actually facing so that the warning came as you were walking back out into the real world.
It’s the end of an era. Banyan Bar has been a seven year crash course in fierce friendships, surviving bad decisions, growing up on your own schedule, and always writing your own rules. The Banyan family will live forever, but I will miss this bar, this weird and wonderful place that has meant so much to so many people, very deeply. But if what they say is true, that all good things come to an end, then this was inevitable — because Banyan has just been the damn best.
Cheers to the good old days — and knowing that’s exactly what they were while we were living them.
If I ever leave this world alive
I’ll thank for all the things you did in my life
If I ever leave this world alive
I’ll come back down and sit beside your
Wherever I am you’ll always be
More than just a memory
— a classic Banyan anthem by Flogging Molly
Holy crap this was an amazing article and it sounds like Banyan Bar was one heck of an amazing place and so much fun. Seriously, you did a fantastic job conveying that. I wish you luck on your journey to find more of those square peg people! (Or is it round peg people? Whatever lol)
Thanks Ijana <3 It's going to be wild to find out what's next...
Such a beautifully written article, Alex! It made me miss Koh Tao and my early twenties and the crazy, impulsive lifestyle I had then.
Also, I love this line so much – “Cheers to the good old days — and knowing that’s exactly what they were while we were living them.”
Aw, thank you Ashley! My friends and I actually kind of jokingly yell that each other sometimes as a weird pep talk: “Guess what babe, THESE ARE THE GOOD OLD DAYS! So suck it up!” I promise we only do that when tough love is required 😉
This is the most touching post – I almost can’t believe it’s about a bar, haha. My hangout from my time in Thailand also closed down a while ago, and I almost don’t want to return now without it.
I still can barely look at Banyan, which I have to drive by every day to get home! I can’t imagine what it will be like when another business opens there. Heartbreaking.
I never knew a story about a bar closing down could be so heart breaking! Treasure the memories, it sounds like an amazing ride!
They are so, so treasured Steph x
So sad. Have they decided where they are going?
No one is quite sure just yet! I think a lot will be decided in the coming months…
Oh my. This was such a lovely post. Maybe I’m just getting old and remembering all the fun, traveling times of my 20s, but I seriously nearly had tears in my eyes. It may be just a bar but it has been an important part of your life. Lovely writing.
Clearly this post should have come with a tissue warning. I’ve been tearing up all week writing it…
Didn’t know what to expect from this blog post, but certainly didn’t plan on reading it aloud, tearfully, to my boyfriend. So touching and relatable – you captured something so special. I’ve gotta say I’m jealous you had a place like this to spend your 20s. Cheers to many amazing times in your future! (And I wish we’d known about banyan when we visited Koh Tao last year!)
That’s a massive compliment, Brittany — thank you <3 Banyan was a bit of a local secret -- I hope you'll come back to Koh Tao regardless!
It’s ok to be sad. It’s harder and harder as you grow up to find people who let you just BE.
This comment reminded me of one of my favorite things about Banyan, actually, which I forgot to include in this post (there was SO MUCH to include in this post!) — the ages of my core group of friends there spans the decades! I always loved having serious friends at so many ages, it kind of eased a lot of my panic about getting older when I looked around and realized doing so didn’t HAVE to mean anything different from what I was doing right now, if I didn’t want it to.
I think I’m feeling nostalgic for a bar I never set foot in? Lol. Seriously regretting not going while on Koh Tao right now!
The end of an era is always so sad–big hugs as you make the transition. It’s funny how something so supposedly “small” can have such a big impact on the heart of a place, but it really can. <3
Haha, I love that I’ve infected people across the world with Banyan nostalgia! You made me smile today 🙂
What an ode to Banyan!! I’ve loved seeing it through your eyes over the years. I’m sad that it will be gone without having gotten to experience it myself. I hope all you Banyan people find a new haunt and start making memories (or times to forget 😉 ) at the new place but always keep this one tucked away in your heart.
Rika if there is one thing I know for sure without ever being able to test the theory, it is that you too would be a Banyan Person 🙂 Which I’m sure you know is an eternal compliment.
I think this is my favourite thing you’ve ever written…and I’ve been reading your blog since pretty much the beginning <3
Well you know how to warm a girl’s heart! I was worried this wasn’t “travel” enough. Glad I was wrong!
Wow…never thought this day would come. What an awesome article…I proposed to my girlfriend on the dirt floor on New Years Day 2015, she said yes and we are happily married now! Shame man!
Another happy couple born from Banyan 🙂 What a beautiful story to tell at a big anniversary party some day!
A fitting tribute. Love this.
Thanks Julia <3
Oh my heavens that was beautiful. Perfect. You will always be a Banyan girl
Must talk soon
Love & miss you
I will always be a Banyan girl <3 I miss you too! We need a catch up soon!
Saying goodbye to a favorite bar that holds so many memories is not a great feeling! I haven’t been to Kao Tao in years but I had a great time when I was there. Were you already living in Kao Tao in the summer of 2012?
I generally go back to the US for the summers, so I was in New York in the summer of 2012 after an amazing nine months on Koh Tao 🙂
Bye bye Banyan, thanks for the good times, good beer, good smoothies (and the Mozzie bites). ‘Don’t shed a tear that it is over, smile for the fact it happened’
There are a lot of tears and smiles all mixed in right now! Goodbyes are never easy…
Went to Koh Tao for no reason last year. Dumb luck made us stop at Banyan on our way to the hotel. I think we visited it again 10 times in 5 days. We couldn’t walk by without stopping in for a quick one (it was never one.) Just one of those places where you immediately felt comfortable and you never wanted to leave. Made some great friends drinking and talking shit on those busted bar stools and so sad we couldn’t make it back before the closing. RIP, you cunts.
Sounds like you had the perfect Banyan experience 🙂 And you’re right — it was NEVER just one!
Loved it, wish I’d written something now but I was always a migratory creature there and only full time for a brief period.
However I Stared at that Abandon’ sign for hours some days pondering and knew immediately that it was the right way round. Since 15 bars have been my refuge, almost any bar but the absolutely right bar is of a time, place and population. They’re hard to find and when you do you have to treasure and cosset them. Of the thousands of bars I’ve been in there are a tiny fraction which just feel right and you can sit in wishing you could capture the moment, the essence and bottle it. You can’t because it would destroy it but you wish you could. Banyan was one of that tiny fraction and why I travelled 9000 miles for the last nights. It’s a bad place out there and I loved my time in what I once called (lovingly) a ‘cornucopia of human failure’.
Banyan people were in the main special people, they didn’t care because they did actually care. Cheers Alex, that’s for distilling the memories.
Ah, Woody, you’re so generous of spirit as always x I do wish I could bottle Banyan but you’re right…
This post makes me sad for a bar I’ve never step foot in. What a great tribute, It was clearly a special place, truly the end of an era!
I love that you quoted the Flogging Molly song. It was something of an anthem with my friends in the ski village I used to live in.
Here’s to finding a new place place to feel like home but always cherishing the memories of Banyan!
You guys have left me so touched by this comments section! And yes, I’ll never be able to hear that song again without a little tear…
Alex, you summed up Banyan perfectly! I lived at the bar for 3 months in 2013 and it was one of the best times of my life. Made great friends and it really was a family. Thanks for the memories Banyan
Thanks Anthony… it was an honor to try to sum up such a place!
I had the pleasure of visiting Banyan two years ago while visiting my daughter. Even before arriving, I knew of the outrageousness and “Shannanigans” that may await us as I’d heard many interesting things. I was very curious. Perhaps it was because I was “Mom”, I was treated with great courtesy and the utmost kindness, yet still managed to go back to the villa very wobbly after a great evening of making new friends.
I spent some time taking pics of all the great hand drawn signs, and the “Abandon all hope” is one of my favourites . . . . That and what can and cannot be thrown into the toilet! Great place, fantastic people. Too bad I can’t visit again.
Such a beautiful tribute.
Thanks Jennifer — I’m sorry I didn’t meet you while you were here. For all the rough edges around Banyan, I think kindness and courtesy were secretly shown to many. A bunch of secret softies if you ask me…
What a beautiful ode to this bar! I have never been to Ko Tao and I have never been to this bar, but I do understand what you mean when you lament its closure and celebrate its existence!
Thanks, my dear. It was a hard goodbye to swallow.
Alex your post about a bar just made me cry! Beautifully written and I’m sorry for your home-base-loss. I’m sure this will eventually open up into something new and great as most endings do? (Some take a while tho)
Indeed, I know all kinds of doors are going to open for this crew! But goodbyes just don’t get easier…
Ok so at first I thought this was an ode to a human friend and choked up before I started reading. Then when I realised it was a bar, I was a little less sad. Then as I kept reading, I found myself choking up AGAIN and reflecting on those special chapters in my life that in retrospect, always had a shelf life but at the time, felt like they would last forever 🙁 I’ve never been to Ko Tao or Banyan but you’ve done a superb job of capturing the spirit of a place & time & that end-of-an-era feeling. Indeed all good things must come to an end but how lucky we are to be blessed with good things in the first place x
Beautiful comment as always, Becky. I’m so grateful for this era in my life, even if I wasn’t quite ready for it to be over yet.
But why did Banyan Bar close if it makes everyone upset? Where they forced or something? Why?
Their lease was up and the landlord would not renew it. Several surrounding businesses all lost their leases.
Booooooo, I didn’t realise Banyan had closed!!! I had my pre wedding there and wore Banyan t-shirts (gifted by Scottie!) the night of my real wedding……drunk, Banyan style obvs 😉
What a gorge post L x
Indeed, it was a sad day for all…
I only found my way to Banyan this past year but I had a blast there in both Feb and Dec. Camped out at the bar over Christmas as it pissed down rain and we gorged ourselves on the feast and tight bastards is something I will long remember….as well as the next morning seeing a few of the folks dragging themselves in haggard and sick for the next round!
Wish I had been able to spend more time there and that it would be around for my next round but sadly not.
Farewell to Banyan and everyone who loved ye!
Christmas at Banyan is — ah, was, heartbreak — always a special experience. Lucky us to have been able to experience it!