My weakness is a good beach. I define good as having clean, clear water (preferably warm), soft sand to lie on, and a relaxed, uncrowded atmosphere. Koh Phi Phi Don, off the island of Phuket, seemed just the place for me to spend my one and only free day in Thailand.
Koh Phi Phi is billed as “paradise” by tour operators, praised by travelers in internet cafes, and dubbed “magical” and “idyllic” by local magazines. Accessible only by motorized boat or ferry taking well over an hour from the mainland, it seemed to fit my criteria. I arranged a full-day tour to get away from it all and enjoy some sunshine.
My day started with an early 7:30 a.m. pickup by an air-conditioned mini-bus, which took seven of us through the maze of Phuket on a forty-minute ride to the pier. Dodging motorcycles and delivery trucks, and creeping down narrow roads left most of us tense and silent, with only the occasional smattering of German or French coming from the rear seats. Arriving at the pier, all travelers were provided with self-sticking labels to designate our status as either a one-way, ferry-only passenger or a round-trip tour passenger, before being herded on to the boat. Being one of the first to arrive, I had my choice of seats. There were wicker chairs in the main air-conditioned cabin, tables below deck where the bar was located, bench seating in the stern, or floor seating up front. Wanting to spend the day outdoors, I chose a bench seat in the back and stowed my backpack underneath. A stream of passengers boarded and appeared to be quite an international crowd. There was a tour group from Japan, families from Israel and Germany, young singles from America, Australia, Sweden, and other points European. The tour and family groups, like me, were just day travelers, according to their stickers, while the younger, European crowd appeared to be headed to stay on the island.
Once we departed the dock and were cruising steadily toward Koh Phi Phi, I struck up a conversation with my benchmates from Australia, who were on a winter vacation. Andy, a rock lobster fisherman, had recently finished up the fishing season and had three months off. He and Caroline, a sheep shearer, had come from Patong on Phuket island, which they had hated and described as too commercialized and overcrowded. They were headed to Phi Phi on the advice of numerous people they had met. They had never been there, had no reservations, and little money to spend, but hoped to stay several weeks to warm up and relax. From the description of the island they had received, it was an isolated and affordable paradise. It made me wish I had more than one day to spend there.
Almost an hour and a half after leaving Phuket, we approached Koh Phi Phi Lay, the smaller, uninhabited sister island of our final destination, Koh Phi Phi Don. Part of the tour package promised us a visit to Maya Beach, where the Leonard DiCaprio film The Beach was shot, and a chance to see the famed swallow’s caves, a truly natural wonder that provides a constant harvest of bird’s nests for the exotic and expensive soup of the same name. Unfortunately, all we got was a quick in and out in the cove of Maya Beach, in fact so quick, that I could not get my camera out of my bag and ready in time to shoot any pictures. Looking forward to the caves, as we rounded the tip of the island, I was seriously disappointed as me motored by them, barely even slowing down. Hardly a tour! More like an afterthought on their part. At least I had my camera at the ready this time and managed to get a few shots off as we whizzed by.
Shortly after our whirlwind tour of Phi Phi Lay, we arrived on Phi Phi Don. The small bay hosted fishing and longtail boats bobbing off the beach, as well as scuba boats and ferries harnessed to the tiny pier. A high-end resort occupied the left side of the beach, with various scuba shops, restaurants, and convenience stores dotting the walking path to the pier. Docking on the larger island, we were given the option of staying on the boat and returning to the water closer to Phi Phi Lay to snorkel or to head over to the beach for an hour or so until lunch was served. Having had enough of the boat, I opted to disembark and spend some time on the island’s beaches. I needed to stretch out on a white, pristine beach and forget my disappointment of Phi Phi Lay.
Making my way down the dock, past the other tour and scuba boats, I found myself at the end not knowing where to go. To my left was a long but very narrow stretch of beach with the fishing and longtail boats anchored. Not the sort of beach used for sunbathing. To the right was the same thing, but the beach was fronted by shanties occupied by the island’s inhabitants. No one was catching rays in their front yards. Straight ahead was the “town.” This consisted of small, open storefronts and vendor stalls. The one beautiful stretch of beach called “Long Beach” on the map, was miles away—too far to walk and too little time to get there and back. Unsure of my other options, I hesitatingly ventured down a narrow, covered alley of stalls which did indeed lead me to a beach and lagoon, next to the restaurant that we would having lunch at.
The lagoon itself seemed idyllic at first glance. It was surrounded by steep verdant hills that were undeveloped (and undevelopable), there were longtail boats floating in the blue-green water, and trees lining the beach. The island appeared to suit my needs and would provide a nice place to lay my head. Not knowing whether to go right or left, I decided to go left, away from the restaurant. I picked my way along a three-foot beach, with the waves rolling over my feet, cooling me off. Trying to find a spot to relax, I kept trudging on, for a quarter-mile or so, but found that the tide was so high, that there was no beachfront to be had. Turning back, I hiked along until I reached my starting point. I scanned the beach ahead of me and found a cluster of beach chairs available. Settling down into one, I was approached and informed of a “fee” to use the chairs for the day. Paying an exorbitant sum by Thai standards, I settled into a chair, only to be soaked by a wave a moment later. At least I had the foresight to put my backpack up off the ground. Others were not so fortunate and their total belongings were soaked through. I guess the chair fee didn’t come with a warning about the tide—must be bad for business. Gradually, the water crept its way up the narrow beach, pushing us up higher. I tried to relax and read, but found I was spending most of my time keeping an eye on the water level and preparing for the next wave. Moving to the last row of chairs helped for a while, but we were thankful when lunch was ready, as there was no more room on the beach for sunbathing. I gathered up my things and walked up to meet the tour group, which was being herded into an open air dining room.
After everyone was seated, we attempted to listen to a brief spiel, which was completely unintelligble due to the lack of sound system, and received directions to the food tables. The lovely and delicious seafood buffet described in the tour brochure, however, was less than stellar and the seafood not very apparent. White rice, a vegetarian dish, and fried chicken accompanied the two seafood dishes, one of which appeared to be made from some sort of reconstituted type of seafood. The typical care taken by Thais in balancing their seasonings was clearly lacking—no sweet/sour/salty, no fiery peppers. Everything was bland, boring, and lacked any real flavor at all. And I was really concerned about the dried fish that had been brought back to life for the soup. I hadn’t learned about this in any of my cooking classes and had certainly never seen anything like it in a store here in Thailand or in the States. My sense of adventure was overtaken by caution on this particular occasion, and after having at least tasted everything, opted to stick to the rice and fruit in the interest of saving my stomach, particularly with a long boat ride ahead.
The announcement was made at the conclusion of lunch that we had until 2:30 to relax and sunbathe. Almost two hours and no beach to sunbathe on! What to do? Having already explored the left side of the lagoon, and the center of the lagoon, I set off for a walk down the right side, hoping to find the beauty of Koh Phi Phi that everyone raved about, and a suitable place to work on my tan. I walked past restaurants, bakeries, touts with kayaks and water bikes, bars, and one-room bungalows. The tide was just as high down at this end of the lagoon, so I settled in under a tree, in the shade, to read.
I wish I could say the immediate scenery was beautiful and breathtaking, but it was not. I found myself distracted from reading and trying to take it all in, wondering what went wrong, why my perception of this place was so different from everyone else’s, not to mention the tour operators’. It could be my age. Everywhere I looked I felt old. This island was a bastion of twenty-somethings who were tan, fit, tattooed, pierced, in itsy bitsy bikinis and Speedos. Maybe it was my origin. I could hear German, French, Dutch, even an Aussie accent, but no Americans within earshot. Maybe it was my penchant for pristine beaches. This beach was littered with bottles, cans, wrappers, garbage, and sea detritus of all kinds. Hardly a square foot without some sort of trash occupying the space. It could have been the lack of children—no happy toddlers playing in the surf, pre-teens splashing water at each other, or teens strutting their developing bodies. Maybe this was just a paradise for GenX? Cheap bungalows, cheap food, cheap beer. But how much time can you spend in your room, or a bar, or even a restaurant. This was an island, supposedly an island paradise. People were meant to be outside, to be enjoying the beaches.
Maybe I missed something. There must have been another part of the island that I didn’t know about and didn’t have time to explore. I could barely stand a day there, and people were coming for weeks. At least that is my hope. Such a remote island, lush and green, surrounded by beautiful water has to have more to offer than what I saw. All those brochures can’t be wrong. Or can they? Has this once remote island become the center of attention, leading to its downfall, overpopulation, and pollution? Is this indeed Paradise lost?
Next: Pampered on Phuket
About Susan Brady:
Susan Brady has filled various roles throughout her nine years with Travelers’ Tales, having been with the company since its inception. She is currently director of production, responsible for book and catalog production, scheduling, inventory, print buying, and general office management. When not slaving over books, she lives the life of a typical soccer mom in the suburbs with her husband, three children, two cats, and iguana. Before coming to Travelers’ Tales, she helped birth babies rather than books as the director of The Birth Place Resource Center.