Paradise Found…and Lost (Ko Phi Phi, Thailand)

I was floating on my back in the middle of an enormous lagoon in total silence. The early morning sun crept over the cliffs and shone its first rays onto the beach and gently warmed the water. The lagoon was cloistered from the sea, surrounded on three sides by towering palisades that separated the ocean water from the jungle. On its northern side, the cliffs parted and the lagoon opened up into the ocean. To the south the cliffs gradually eroded into two parallel ridgelines that snaked across the island, forming a deep valley that spilled into a gorgeous white-sand beach and this beautiful lagoon.
Tranquilo. Paradise Found.
This was easily the most beautiful beach I have ever been to in my life, and Jay and I had it to ourselves.
Then I heard it. The sound of the sea gently lapping against my chest was overpowered by the distant din of a boat engine humming from beyond the cliffs. A Thai longboat emerged from between the cliffs and entered the lagoon. It was of the unique Thai style: long, narrow, flat-bottomed boats powered by a motor with a ten-foot long propeller swinging dangerously off the stern…and it was full of tourists. Within minutes a half dozen more boats and entered the lagoon and unloaded scores of passengers onto the beach…onto our beach!
But, alas, it was not our beach, it was Ko Phi Phi Leh National Marine Park. Jay and I had spent the previous night on the island, part of a select group of intrepid travelers who had swam five kilometers from her sister island and attempted to set up our own utopian paradise in the seclusion of the national park. How did they find us?!?!?
Um, no.
We were on Maya beach on the island used in the filming of The Beach, the adaptation of Alex Garland’s novel about backpackers searching for a private paradise…but we simply learned from the protagonists’ mistakes and decided to skip swimming to the island and just booked the overnight tour instead.
It was a great experience nevertheless – for an afternoon and a night we had the island to ourselves. We snorkeled with black-tip sharks and fed bananas to monkeys. Of course, I avoided any interaction with the primates – memories of my feud with the monkeys of India still burned in my mind, and I refused to concede even an inch to the monkey god Hanuman (refer to my India Diaries for the full story). In the afternoon we jumped off cliffs into the ocean, and as the sun set over the lagoon we sat around a campfire and took a moment to enjoy the beauty of youth.
But of course, this being Thailand, our overnight tour came with a free bucket of alcohol. Yes, that’s right, our overnight camping tour in the national park included a free party bucket of Thai rum, Red Bull and Coke (see Lunar Lunacy).
In a way, this entire experience of beaches, longboats, and buckets embodies so much of Southern Thailand. Let me explain.
Southern Thailand is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places on the planet. For three hundred miles it seems like paradise on earth. The Malaysian peninsula narrows and forms an isthmus that spits off hundreds of tiny islands, each with pure white sand, tropical jungles, blue seas, and abundant wildlife. It is repetitive to describe each beach I have been to. Many are perfect by most standards.
And here on the most beautiful of them all, Ko Phi Phi Leh, the beauty thinly cloaks the destruction of this pristine coastline.
The beautiful corals in the lagoon are dead from the daily traffic of scuba divers, snorkelers, and the locals who sell the coral as souvenirs.
The beach has shards of glass hidden in the sand, a consequence of the hundreds of visitors who day-trip here every day.
But the icing on the cake is the free bucket. Only in Thailand would a visitor to a national park get a free bucket of whiskey.
Furthermore, the tour company fought for (and won) the right to build a bar on the island…so once the free bucket runs out, campers can buy beers at extortionate prices.
Think of the equivalent in the US! Come bivouac in Yosemite and get a free shot of Jack Daniels! Tour Mount Rushmore and get a free PBR! Can you imagine Smoky the Bear allowing such chicanery in his backyard?
No, only in Thailand.
It seems like so much of what I have seen is like Cancun or Cabo San Lucas – party beaches covered in resorts and completely devoid of local culture. Jay and I have been struggling to find some culture in the midst of all this development, but it has proved harder than one would expect.
Maybe that is why we were at this beach: my self-described search for terra incognita. Everyone appears to be on a similar search, fuelled by the desire to get off the beaten track and forge one’s own trail. This is increasingly impossible to do and the search itself is inevitably detrimental – each new trail blazed gradually becomes more and more trodden. People constantly push further and further, paying boat drivers and guides more and more money to take them beyond the crowds.
Hmm…how does this revelation alter my philosophy on travel? Am I contributing to this problem by my presence here? Something to think about.
Aside from the beach bar and the day crowds, the island is remarkably beautiful…it is just her sister island that is frighteningly developed.
Four years ago, the Boxing Day Tsunami swept across the island and destroyed all the developments. Today, it would almost be impossible to know anything had happened. Hotels, massage parlors, restaurants and travel agencies pack the small pocket of development. Everything is brand-new and the local economy is in full swing.
Jay and I would be here for a few days, it was important to select our accommodation wisely. We ambled around until we found what looked like the safest option: a hotel built inside a giant ship. Perfect. We were staying in Noah’s Ark, ready to brave any deluge the sea could muster.
The town of Ko Phi Phi was a load of fun, though. Despite the lack of local culture, there were tons of other travelers to mingle with. Days were spent scuba diving and exploring the island, and at night young people flooded the streets and we roamed around the town with new friends, swapping travel stories and playing the guitar and harmonica into the early morning.

 

Maya Beach was not alone in offering a free bucket – it seems like every respectable establishment offers some kind of free bucket – buy one bucket, get another free! Fight your friend in the Muay Thai Boxing ring, get a free bucket! And my favorite¸ the “high class” bucket option: the chalice, served in a giant faux-gold goblet.
Nightlife aside, Jay and I have become rather charmed by the local Thai people all of whom parade around with perpetual smiles on their faces. It seems every action we make elicits a giggle from the Thai followed by an unexpected compliment.
But the quirkiest thing about the Thais is their manner of speech, especially that of the women. Sentences are dragged out and punctuated with laughter. A simple hello (Sa wai dei ka) stretches into Saaa wwaaaiiii deeeeiii kaaaaaa!!!!!! Walking past the ubiquitous massage parlors will earn you a Hey haaaaannddsome, wan massage?  Every morning we awoke to a donut monger who pushed her pastries through the streets smiling and yelling, Doooooonaaaaaatt, ten bhaaaattt! The positive attitude of the Thais is contagious.
Apparently so is their manner of speech. Jay has completely reverted to Pidgin English, and is using it indiscriminately: not only with Thais but with fellow travelers and even myself. Mark, you wan’ go to beeeeeach? By gads, I didn’t think I would lose him so soon into the journey! Haha…sorry Jay!
We spent more time here than we expected – four nights. But the beaches were amazing, the people were fun, and there was no shortage of diversions each night.
But as soon as I saw that first fishing boat roll into the lagoon, our illusion of paradise disappeared. This ephemeral Eden slipped through my fingers with each approaching sightseeing boat. Paradise Found, Paradise Lost. Searching here for terra incognita was fruitless. It was time to move farther south along the Adamant Coast, farther away from the resorts of Phuket and the free buckets of Ko Phi Phi.
We headed south, back towards the National Parks on the border with Malaysia.
Next stop: Ko Lanta.
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