Has Palolem Beach lost its charm?
Tout: Hey bro! You want massage?
Me: Nah man, I’m good.
Tout: Bro! You want massage from a GIRL? *sketchy wink*
Me: Jesus. *shake my head and keep walking*
It was at this moment I realized that the Palolem Beach I used to know was gone.
Palolem Beach: the proverbial “crown jewel” of South Goa. A perfect half-circle beach cove lined with hundreds of overhanging lush green palm trees, beautiful rock formations flanking each end of the beach, and a stunning sunset that will silence even the chattiest of beach goers, Palolem deserves this title based on landscape alone. Yet Palolem used to possess something deeper: a unified community of trailblazing India backpackers, all there just to chill out, recharge, and trade stories. This was my first impression back in 2004, and remained so throughout frequent re-visits in 2008 and 2009.
And yet since then, something has fundamentally changed about this beautiful location. No longer can you just sit, relax, feel the cool India Ocean breeze and watch the hot waves crash against cows and dogs and people resting on the sandy shores. Because now it’s just completely overrun with overseas “package tourists” and native Indian weekend-goers alike, which begs the question: has Palolem Beach lost its charm?
Palolem 2004 to 2009: The Golden Years
I first visited to Palolem Beach in 2004, and it was stunning. The same thing would happen over and over again every time a new traveler walked onto the beach for the first time backpack gear and all: they just stop and stare at the impressive landscape and surroundings, no matter how heavy your stuff is or how much the hot sun is beating down. Promptly following this was a sense of “This was totally worth it!” thankfulness, since many would endure long journeys by bus, train, and taxi just to get there.
This was still the “old” South Goa, years before the growth of Indian domestic tourism and the opening of the new international airport terminal in Panjim, offering week-long holiday packages and direct flights from Moscow and London. The south was crawling with hippies, travelers and beach bums from all walks of the earth, visiting South Goa either to take a break for a few weeks from the India backpacking trail, or just to chill from the ridiculous party scene of North Goa. Groups of adventurous Europeans, North Americans, and Israelis came to soak in the unique hippie vibe that was South Goa. At this time, there were just a handful of restaurants and beach huts dotting the beach, and just handfuls of groups of people to match. I have to say, it was all pretty awesome.
I made subsequent trips to Palolem in 2008 and 2009 (being in Canada, I was lucky enough to have a job that would take me to India once a year, so naturally yours truly would tack on a few weeks of vacation on the beach while visiting, right?). On arrival, I noticed that there was a fair amount of development on Palolem this time. Previously empty swathes of beachfront property on the quieter north side of the beach were starting to fill up now with bigger beach huts, resorts, and yoga retreats. The busier south end saw new restaurants and bars being crammed into the already dense network of establishments along the beach.
But it was still good, in fact even better. Palolem now a little less sleepy, and there were more things to do. The sense of community was still there, with the usual groups of backpacking tourists stopping in for a few nights in Palolem to recharge before they headed off to Mumbai, Hampi, or Kerala. But now there was the added bonus of a few big parties every week, and more lively-but-still-cool beach front bars playing Cafe Del Mar and Buddah Bar music. They had even started “Silent Disco” parties in South Goa (the concept eventually being exported to the UK and such) which were a unique experience to partake in. All in all, even with the slight increase in development, Palolem was still pretty awesome.
palolem 2011: Same same, but DIFFERENT
Went to India again in 2011 (still had that cool job that took me to India), and decided to drop in to Palolem for a week to chill out after a hectic few months. I arrived to the beach and checked into my usual rickety thatched-roof hut, which was still there despite all of the new development surround it (many of the cute little wooden huts had been replaced by more expensive concrete structures). I then went to the usual restobar hangout. But this time something was off. The makeup of people were different. Instead of backpackers, you had quiet older Russian couples having beers in the shade, and just staring and judging in silence. Then there were groups of party goers decked in the latest beachwear and accessories like they’re heading off on a yacht for the day surrounded by tons of empty beer bottles, while pumping out cheesy dance music on Bluetooth speakers. The staff at the restaurant had changed too and wasn’t as friendly. They were more concerned about up-sizing my orders (“Sir, you sure you don’t want anything to drink?”), rather than maintaining a cool atmosphere.
I just shrugged this all off, and later went for a stroll down the beach. The beach itself was much busier this time. There were more families on the beach, and more older couples. And another curve ball: the domestic Indian economy, going gangbusters for the last few years, meant a surge in domestic tourism. The distant shores of Palolem were no exception to this phenomenon, as entire extended families were filling up quiet little beach-side restaurants and entire resorts. Then there were the groups of single guys just walking around and drinking and curiously staring at the foreigners.
So I’m nearly the end of this sobering beach walk, when a very sketchy looking local guy in his 40s stops me on the beach. Like many other touts asking if I need a room, or a taxi, or a fishing trip, or whatever, he stopped me. This time was a little different:
“Hey bro, you want massage?”
“Nah man, I’m good”.
“Bro, you want massage from a GIRL?” *sketchy grin and wink*
“Jesus.” *I shake my head and keep walking*
At this moment, I knew Palolem Beach was over. The next day, I checked out of my beach hut and grabbed a taxi to next-door Agonda beach.
Recent visit in 2016, simply out of CURIOSITY
While on my extended trip to India, I sit here and blog from a very chill river-side bar in Agonda beach. Palolem is just next door, and it’s been tugging at me for a few days now to check out Palolem simply out of curiosity to see what the latest vibe is there. Before I even decide to visit, my suspicions were confirmed by chats with my Agonda neighbours. All of the foreigners here shake their heads at the mere mention of Palolem, with comments like “Don’t bother mate…its totally commercial”, and “It’s all package tourists now bro…if you wanna have a few overpriced drinks then yeah go for it”. But I had to go check it out. Being a short 20min drive away, how could I not?
As I scootered into the vicinity of Palolem, it was just what I expected. More and more inland development of housing and restaurants, reaching well beyond the actual beach. Droves of pasty white neatly groomed tourists with a look that screamed “I just arrived in India and I’m here for a week!”, as they browsed through the overpriced shops of knock-off Indian jewelry, sculptures, carvings and such. This was followed by the droves of Indian tourists staring at the bikini-clad Europeans in shock and awe. As I drive up get to the main gate of the beach, while I am parking my scooter I get mauled by touts: Taxi? Taxi? Taxi?. I look at them condescendingly and dumbfounded as I stood next to my scooter, giving them a look of “Dude, do you not see me standing here next to my own scooter? What on earth makes you think I need an unsolicited taxi?” They clearly didn’t get it.
As for the beach: well it was the same scene as in 2011, but just even more populated and congested. While strolling down the beach, even as I even glanced at a group of huts from a distance I would get yelled at from afar: “Hey! You want room! Hey! Hey! Good price!” (I didn’t even acknowledge it). People are everywhere and in the ocean too, to the point where it’s hard to even pick a place to swim. There were still a handful of cool chill bars playing Cafe Del Mar-like electronic chill tunes. But they were outnumbered now by bars pumping out horrible Euro dance or Bollywood dance pop. I also noticed a fair amount of people with looks of disappointment or confusion on their faces walking down the beach, similarly trying to assess the ongoing chaos.
In short: I left Palolem after 30 minutes and went back to the quiet, relaxed, familiar scene of Agonda Beach, where I decided to write this post.
Palolem is still the Crown Jewel of a changing South Goa
I mean hey, despite all this, Palolem is still magnitudes cheaper than the beaches of Miami or South France or whatever. And the physical beach itself and the weather is fantastic. It also still has some cool little pockets if you look hard enough. So, would I recommend checking it out for an afternoon sunset while relaxing at cool beach at bars like “Cuba” or “Cafe del Mar”? For sure. Would I recommend staying there for a week? Totally not, and it really saddens me deeply to say it.