This is a travel blog for desktop travelers and other ramblers who want to know the world just a little bit better.

Right now I am living in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala where I'll be settled for a while. Thanks for reading!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

To Phi Phi or not to Phi Phi

We finally pry ourselves away from the island Koh Lanta (click link) and head a bit further north to Krabi. Krabi has a few attractions, is near several popular tourist beaches and is a launching pad for going to Phi Phi Islands (pronounced P. P.).

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Koh Phi Phi consists of two islands situated in a national park, Phi Phi Don and Phi Phi Le. Only Phi Phi Don is inhabited. These islands became very famous and popular ever since they were used as the backdrop for the movie The Beach. The Beach is based on the book by Alex Garland - the backpackers‘ must-read of the late 1990‘s and early 2000‘s. It is about escaping the heavily beaten down tourist trail to find something truly unique. Maya Bay on Phi Phi Le serves as the film’s untouched paradise. However, in a splash of irony, by using this location, Hollywood has essentially created on Koh Phi Phi, Thailand the exact garish tourist destination from which the characters in the book (and film) are trying to extract themselves.

After the film’s release in 2000, tourism and subsequentially construction boomed. In 2004 the tsunami wiped out everything sadly killing 2,000 people in the process. The tsunami gave them the chance to start anew and create a true island paradise. But as usual money won out and from what people say Phi Phi Don is built up even much more than before the tsunami. I am waffling about whether we should sleep on the island or just do a tour from Krabi. From talking to travelers and doing internet research the over-built, over-priced Phi Phi party scene really does not sound like somewhere I want to stay at the moment. Regardless, I am curious and do want to see it (kind of like watching a Formula One crash or seeing a two-headed snake). So we decide to just do a one day tour to Phi Phi Islands.

Our Boat 
The tour consists of snorkeling, beach visits and sightseeing. Snorkeling for the day is okay, not great, not terrible. A lot of coral was broken in the tsunami and has yet to recover, and I do not think the legion of boats helps. There are many other tour boats today, but it is expected. The good news, strangely, is that a lot of people do not swim or are not comfortable in the sea. This is on our boat and all the other boats. Most people wear life jackets when snorkeling and do not stray far from their boat. Only a few of us venture out. At the second snorkel point in a nice lagoon Mika and I find a nice spot by the rocks all to ourselves with several larger fish species and a school of hundreds of anchovy sized small ones. Thanks Mom and Dad for giving me swim lessons as a kid!
Mika's underwater photography is improving. A Moorish Idol. 
The advertised highlight of the tour is a stop at the beach from The Beach. Maya Bay is a crescent-shaped white sand beach surrounded by limestone cliffs. It truly is spectacular. The beauty of the location makes it easy to look past the boats and people. It is too soon back on the boat. Tours always manage too much time at some places and not enough at others.

Longtail boats like these come from Phi Phi Don while larger speedboats arrive from Krabi and Phuket
Sightseeing on this tour is a bit silly. We are on a speedboat. The seats are low so to that we have to stand on the bench to have a view that is not through tinted Plexiglas. The most interesting sightseeing spot on the tour is Viking Cave. There are cave paintings some of which resemble a long Viking boat. We, however, do not get off the boat, nor are we even allowed to enter the cave if we could get off the boat. We cannot enter because it is monopolized by locals for the lucrative harvesting of swift nests. Swifts reside in the limestone caves and their nests are used to make bird’s nest soup - a Chinese delicacy. The nests are exported to China, Hong Kong and Singapore for big money. Our minuscule tourist dollars cannot compete with that. Our guide says she has never seen the cave drawings either, nor has she eaten bird’s nest soup. Our boat just slowly glides by the cave.

Viking Cave as seen from the boat.

A Blue Lagoon
Lunch (included) is at Tonsai Beach by the main pier of Phi Phi Don. The beach here is completely full of boats. I am not sure if swimming is possible, and I doubt anyone would want to either in the petrol filled waters. A quick walk through town past countless, scuba shops, restaurants, guesthouses, bars, and souvenir stalls all hustling for customers reassures me that I am glad to be leaving. . I am sure staying at Phi Phi Don could be quite fun if in the right frame of mind like on a shorter trip with a bigger budget. There are also other beaches on the island, some of which have walkout snorkeling and are probably lovely. Access though is not easy, and we are not the type of travelers who enjoy having to always use a water taxi or having to eat most meals at our hotel.

After one final snorkel point we race back at warp speed. We are flying over waves sometimes smacking down loudly and painfully at impact. Everyone looks at each other questioningly as to why the driver needs to torture us. A third of the passengers appear seasick. A big Australian guy at the front of the boat is yelling for him to slow down. A 3-year old Thai boy starts to cry.

We finally and happily come to a stop. Once safely on land I can process all that I have just seen. The tour and the islands obviously has their flaws, but we had plenty of time on the sand, in the water and we did see “The Beach”.

To read about my previous encounter with Leonardo DiCaprio in Japan click here.

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