6 May, 2010
Phuket, Thailand

Ko Phi Phi is where they filmed “The Beach,” something local tour operators are quick to capitalise on. We arrived not long before noon, and in the short walk between the pier and our hostel I saw about fifty signs outside agencies telling us we could sleep on the beach where Leonardo di Caprio once walked. Whoop-de-doo. The main town of Ko Phi Phi is stacked with the usual hotels, dive shops, travel agencies, market stalls, hawkers and various other methods of separating Westerners from their money, but it has very narrow streets, high buildings and twisty alleyways, sort of like a medina, which was more pleasant than anywhere else we’ve been. It’s also built on a thin stretch of sand between two bays which is no higher than two metres, so it was absolutely devastated by the tsunami, with about three thousand deaths. There’s no signs of that anymore though, other than specially constructed tsunami shelters with wide stairways and flat roofs, and signs all over the island telling you how far away each one is.

After checking in and getting lunch, we rented a kayak to paddle to a bay less crowded, and hopefully do some snorkelling. Ko Phi Phi has a very dramatic landscape of huge limestone outcrops, rising up in sheer cliff faces from the water, with vegetation and foliage still somehow managing to cling to the sides. And, unlike Ko Lanta, the beaches are pure white sand, and the water a sparkling turquoise. From afar, it’s absolutely gorgeous.

 

Look a little closer and you see the rubbish cluttering up the beaches, and the layer of grime and chemical slicks from all the boat engines that clings to the island shoreline. You have to swim out maybe thirty or forty metres before you get to clear water. Even when we rounded the north-west point and found a secluded bay, this disgusting yellow-brown crap was floating on top of the water. Not to mention the enormous piles of empty water bottles, coke cans, styrofoam waste and general rubbish heaped up by the cliffs.

Nobody seems to give a fuck. This was paradise, once upon a time. Now it’s ruined.

We went for another half-decent snorkel. The location for it was impressive: huge limestone pinnacles rising straight up from the ocean floor. We swam through swarms of tropical fish, hovered above the regulator bubbles rising from some scuba divers below us, and enjoyed the company of a little remora fish (until the fucker bit us). The coral in this bay was doing its best to cling to life. A monkey came out onto one of the ledges on the cliff face above me, sat down with his legs crossed like a British gent reading a newspaper, and starting picking fleas out of his fur. It’s telling that the most interesting animal I saw on the dive wasn’t aquatic.

 

After that we paddled over to the southern half of the main bay, which is called “Monkey Beach” owing to the presence of a small troop of monkeys that like to pick through the rubbish there. Picture two or three monkeys sitting on a beach surrounded by a crowd of about twenty or thirty Westerners taking photos. Kayaking further south, back towards the main bay, we came across a number of snorkel tour boats, pulled up in the lee of the cliffs. I spotted one stupid bitch lugging a lump of coral she’d torn off back to her boat. This kind of ignorance boggles my mind, and the only reason I didn’t give her a piece of said boggled-mind was because I’m too polite, and I also thought it would be pretty weird to be reprimanded by some dude who just surfaces next to you wearing a mask and snorkel.

Maybe it’s naive to make a judgement based on three islands, but it seems to me that this is Thailand in a nutshell. They cover the islands in resorts and lodges and bars and resturants, swarm the place in longtail boats, destroy the native environment and don’t seem to care. I know tourism was Thailand’s ticket out of the third world, but if you don’t take care of your environment, it will be your ticket back in.

Or maybe not, since the tourists don’t seem to care either. After nightfall, we couldn’t walk down the street without getting flyers for bars and parties shoved in our faces. Europeans, Americans and Australians were walking around plastered, drinking in the streets, buying buckets of booze from roadside vendors. I don’t understand the appeal of this at all. Yes, alcohol is cheap, but not when you factor in the cost of the plane ticket to get you halfway around the world. Ko Phi Phi is Northbridge in the tropics.

We resolved to leave the next day.

Our room was right in the lobby of our hostel, and the top of the wall was open to it, so we were woken up at about 1 am by some loud British bitches, at 3 am by a thunderstorm and at 5.30 am by the hotel staff banging saucepans or some shit. We had breakfast, bought ferry tickets, sat around in the bookstore cafe and then got the fuck out of there… to Phuket.

The phrase “wretched hive of scum and villainy” gets thrown around a lot by anyone who’s ever seen Star Wars, but Phuket is more than qualified. Northbridge or Itaewon on their very worst nights can’t compare to this. Take everything I said about Ko Phi Phi, remove the nice landscape, replace about 80% of the backpackers with 50-65 year old men with Thai girls hanging off them, make virtually every establishment a sports bar, multiply the hawkers by 1000% and you have Phuket. This place is fucking gross, not in a squalor-and-poverty kind of way, but in a seedy kind of way. It’s the Westerners that make this place gross. Walking down one of the main street at night we were handed dozens of flyers for “ping-pong shows” (yes, that kind), go-go bars, ladyboy dancing, prostitutes, cheap DVDs, cheap laser pointers, cheap shit of all shapes and sizes. It’s certainly very lively, but in the same way that a cockroach infestation is lively. I can’t even begin to understand the kind of person this place appeals to. We will never share a milkshake.

Actually, a bunch of loud, middle-aged Australian tourists came into the restaurant where we were having an early dinner, and would not shut the fuck up with their horrendous, screeching accents. I never realised how bad it can sound and I pray to the heavens that it’s an east coast dialect. Chris and I get mistaken for Brits all the time, so maybe we’re in the clear. I was still lovingly thinking of my Irish passport the entire time, as we shovelled our food down our throats to get away from this braying group of pigs as soon as possible.

We’re pretty much ready to leave. The Andaman Islands were all we really had on our list for this country, and we actually had an estimate of two or three weeks for them. So much for that sixty-day visa. We’re going to at least give Cambodia a shot, and if we don’t like that we’ll probably bail on Vietnam and fly straight to southern China. Or, if we’re in a full-on “fuck this” mood, we’ll fly from Bangkok to LA. Only $800 on Skyscanner.

In any case our plane to Bangkok doesn’t leave until the day after tomorrow, so we’re stuck on this festering shithole for another day at least. Maybe we should explore around a bit. Maybe it’s just Patong Beach that’s seedy and gross, full of Thais with shark smiles who treat Westerners like walking ATMs, and full of Westerners who are happy to be treated that way. Although nothing I’ve yet seen in Thailand suggests I should give it the benefit of the doubt.

Oh, and Chris wrote something up for those of you who are rolling our eyes at how we’ve been reacting to things:

You are all painting it up as if we can’t hack the heat or the dirt or the transport or the people. It’s not that at all. Its that there are no redeemable qualities. The shit we are writing about are mere observations. We came to this part of the world to see beautiful beaches and snorkel with marine life we wouldn’t see otherwise. We are leaving this part of the world with a very different outcome. Most people seem to come here in groups to laze on the beach, get drunk with friends and shop. Because they come from countries like the UK, they are pleased with what they find and the island paradise party extravaganza environment. We have both grown up on the coast of our own paradise that we now realise we took for granted. We do not fit in this tourist-swamped, money whirlpool of a life. These last 9 days and the next few are going to continue to be unpleasant, not because of the dirt or the people or the transport or some more dirt, but because we are not here for the right reasons. We did not come here to shop and drink, or join a group that is happy to watch a handful of monkeys sit on a dirty stretch of sand and take photos. Nor are we here to walk through streets and be offered MASAAAAAGE’s every second of the way. What you must understand is that we are not after the beaten tourist track. We are after the untouched trail. The one that has no neon signs or salesmen. I don’t know if Mitch does, but I am more than willing to admit I was wrong to come here for the reasons I did.

I don’t think we were wrong to come here for the reasons we did, per se, but we were certainly lied to by travel sources that promised pristine coral and amazing wildlife. (What am I going to do with this fucking snorkel and mask in my pack for the rest of the trip? It cost $100, I’m loath to get rid of it.) I also don’t mind beaten trails and other tourists, provided those tourists are looking for the same kind of experience we are, and the beaten trail provides that. I do not want to come to what is essentially Bali, where people come to get drunk and sit on a beach and sit in a pool and buy cheap shit and then fly home back to their wage-slave life.

I’m not sure exactly what I do want, but it’s definitely not that.

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