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