By Punam Mohandas
I have been hankering to visit Phi Phi for years. Ever since I first saw some great shots in a brochure 😉 Ever since I learnt a James Bond movie had been shot here (wow, no kidding?!) and now of course, there’s Leonardo’s ‘The Beach’. Ever since I first went to Phuket, which adjoins Phi Phi and which, back in its halcyon days, was a pretty amazing place to be in, not overrun by penny tourists and fake swamis (apparently!) and loads of other not-so-nice things that are making Phuket the next hotbed of sex (pun intended) and sin after Pattaya.
So anyway. I’m at Koh Lanta and my much yearned-after slice of Paradise is literally in sight; Phi Phi is just 45-minutes away by ferry and I plan to spend a couple of nights there after I’m done with Lanta. Intrigued by all my rhapsodising, my new friend Amel decides to give the island a try; since she doesn’t have much time as she’s headed to Bali next, she does a day trip to Phi Phi. I should have been warned when the returning wanderer flopped down on the beach next to me on what even the restaurant waitresses now recognise as ‘our’ patch J and regaled me with tales of snorkeling with monkeys or some such thing (lots of monkeys on, what else, Monkey Beach!) and a basic lunch spread at Maya Beach (scene of ‘the Beach’). I think she paid something like 950baht for this grand adventure. In her recap, the overriding impression is one of relief to be back.
Anyhow. I do my bit of haggling with the owner of the local ‘travel agency’, Khun Eat, which is a daily activity she’s grown to love 😉 and bargain a van/ferry combo ticket down to 450baht. Quite foolishly (as we shall soon see), I give up my absolutely comfortable room at Frank’s which is just a walk across from the beach, and climb aboard a songtaew* (they promised a minivan!) that’s to take me to Saladan pier for the Phi Phi ferry.
Hmm. Have to say nobody’s looking very excited or friendly on this ferry! I grab a prime spot in the sun and settle down – who wants to be in an airconditioned cabin for an extra 40baht, when you can sit on the deck like an urchin with your feet hanging over the rails and your hair blowing in your face J A serious backpacker won’t be caught dead in one of ‘em cabins!! Also in the spirit of a sbp, I haven’t made any hotel reservations and am determined to survive by my wits alone.
And so we sail into Phi Phi Don (this is the more popular island; Phi Phi Leh, where Maya Beach is, is quieter.) And a motley crew of touts greet us – very rude and aggressive (I’m told later by other tourists that these are more Malay than Thai, hence the rudeness). As soon as you’re off the boat, ‘officials’ demand you pay 20baht as a mandatory fee for keeping Phi Phi clean; the money ain’t much of course, but I object on principle. I shell over the 20 in poor grace and stomp off the pier.
Walking up this narrow, winding path I come to “two roads that diverged” not in a wood but into further paths and I can’t “take the one less travelled by” coz, quite simply, there ain’t any! Bloody hell, am I to be condemned to a frightful din on this trip when all I want to do is escape the madding crowds?! The place is simply teeming – I’m tripping over feet everywhere I go! It’s like the surplus population of the world has converged here and of course there has to be loud pulsating music like each day is just one big rave party. I must remember to ask my teenager some day about this fad for decibel bursting – right when I can get her to hear, of course! About the most irritating thing are these myriad pesky cyclists on these horse tracks (please see pix to know just how narrow the streets are) whose one goal in mind seems to be separating one of my elbows from the rest of me!
Right, first things first – I need to find a place for the night. I turn left into a street that looks like ‘Dhobi Ghat’ come live, with restaurant chairs spilling out on to the street, tiny tiny balconies hung with washing et al, people walking around with low-slung jeans or else torn kacchas – and that’s when my system receives its first big shock. After Koh Lanta, this place is obscenely expensive and the oxymoron is that it’s mainly backpackers who come here! Phi Phi deserves its own little slot on the ruddy Thai Stock Exchange; it’s got Phuket and Samui dead beat when it comes to moolah.
Well, faint heart never won fair lady – and nor is it gonna win me much of anything. I come fortified with hotel names Eat has thoughtfully supplied me and so I square my shoulders, lift my chin and set off on a trudge with my trusty trolley case, headed down the lane that leads right. The sea is to my right as well and very inviting it looks too. I get tempted and stop by a hotel facing it; they show me a basic room and ask for 1800baht. I’m still swanning it, so I walk on. There’s a tiny shop advertising travel brochures; on impulse I go in and ask if he knows where I can get rooms. Yes, he says, he has two, but one is occupied. He offers the other for a thousand, but the guy looks a bit sinister, so I walk on. And on. And on. Oh my Buddha. Did I have to attempt a marathon wearing flipflops and armed with a ‘ttache to boot? 🙁
Trust me, those guidebooks ain’t wrong; I stepped foot on Phi Phi at 3pm and it’s now close on 6.30 and I have covered the whole island! My search for the Holy Pillow has taken me to the other end where the locals live, where myriads of stinking alleys and suspicious looking puddles loom, where backpackers hang out at the ‘attractive’ rates of 400 per night! I come to an open structure teetering precariously on a drain, which is a “tattoo parlour.” There is this young American guy stoically getting a rather wimpy-looking tiger (if you ask me!) tattooed across his left front by the bamboo method. I pause to watch; with tears of pain in his eyes he asks me how it’s coming along. What can I say? Err, it’s coming, I say, it will look better when it’s complete I’m sure. Somehow this alarms rather than appeases him and he raises his head for a look and I beat a hasty retreat before the tattooist gets mad. Man. Imagine paying ten thousand baht at a place so obviously unhygienic, where the guy hasn’t heard so much of washing his hands, forget wearing gloves!
I pass a wobbly wooden structure where a Frenchwoman sits outside at a table; she hails me and asks if I want a room. I do indeed and she takes me for a look-see. Uh huh, I stutter, I’m so sorry, this isn’t what I was looking for. And what were you looking for, she snarls, what’s wrong with this room? (You know what they say – you can take the person out of France but you can’t take the French outta the person; well renowned for their ‘congeniality’!) Well, you see, the roof seems wooden and the walls appear bamboo mats and I’m frightfully scared of lizards, I say apologetically. Ha – you come to Thailand and you say you don’t want geckos! She contemptuously ushers me out and I’m on the road again.
I give in. So I go back to the sinister looking dude. Some inspired conversation later I learn the other guest is away for two weeks and mein herr bunks down in the office below. Uh huh. The road is a more inviting sight! Back to the sea-facing place. Dang it, the Russians have been here! That room has been snapped up and I’m gleefully informed by the receptionist that there are now rooms available at 2400baht WITHOUT a view or even a sniff of the sea – so who said there’s justice in this world?? I’m dangerously close to tears at this point and homesick for Lanta like Billy-O. I walk back to Dhobi Ghat and slap down 1500baht at K House – which is what I shoulda done three hours ago – for a room roughly as large as a fireplace, where I hit my head on the AC every time, where the loo has the showerhead over the potty so I’ve gotta make up my mind fast whether I want to take a leak or take a shower – decisions, decisions.
Now that that’s outta the way, I have a pizza at Pirates House which, true to its name, robs me blind by skimping on the cheese- say, what IS it about Thai pizzas and cheese?? I set off for a ramble along the only part of Phi Phi Don I haven’t covered yet, which is tourist shops, pubs, hawker food, more pubs, 7Elevens, more pubs. Hallelujah. I come to a travel agent and the kindly woman owner takes pity on my battle-weary visage. I’m almost blubbering as I book myself on the first ferry out of this hellhole back to Lanta! I did consider a day trip to Maya Beach but honestly, most Thai beaches are spectacular and one can’t possibly see them all during one holiday, besides, I really have had quite enough of Phi Phi.
Feeling considerably more cheered now I walk on, encounter the most horrifically large cockroach I’ve ever seen in my life, and walk right into Marge from the UK, who’s also transfixed and staring at this unexpected wildlife. Marge is in her fifties, travelling Asia to recover from a relationship gone wrong and can’t stand Phi Phi either. Since this is her last night here – and now mine too – and we have so many other bonding moments J we decide to go off for a quick drink as I want to sleep early and be up to explore Phi Phi beach before I leave.
Once back in my mousetrap, I shuffle in sideways into the loo to brush my teeth and then prepare to catch up on my beauty sleep…boy, after Lanta, when I can’t handle Phi Phi, how in Hades am I going to manage living in what passes for civilisation again? On this cheery thought L I close my eyes. I am awakened twice in the night by sozzled guests trying to insert their room keys into my door by mistake – and it ain’t even Christmas yet! Merde! I get out of bed and go yowl at the dude at Reception and he promptly promises me an armed guard or whatever; at any rate, the rest of the night passes peaceably.
I’m feeling pretty chipper come the morning, at the prospect of heading back to what feels like ‘home’ J With the night’s revelry and carousing mob still abed, Phi Phi is strangely quiet as the sun begins its steady sail up the horizon. I stop to munch a freshly flipped peanut butter and banana pancake at a streetside joint that advertises ‘breakfast.’ That done, I set off for a last meander down the street and to the beach. Pretty soon I realise I’ve gotten the wrong end of the stick coz this beach is littered with assorted debris and broken beer bottles. Tired of picking my feet up after myself, I head back the way I came, past Pirates House and down to the other end of the beach.
Ah, now this is more like it – the stuff those dratted brochures were made ofJ The sand is lovely and soft, the water aquamarine and the sky a bright, clear azure – if that wasn’t colour enough, I notice someone in a lime green shirt and at least five people walk by in bright pink shorts…what is this, national parakeet day?? And why didn’t anyone temme – pink’s my fave shade!
There’s a lovely sandbank kind of thing plonk in the middle of the water and the sea too gently laps around it. I sit there and brood on life a while, as is my wont J with the primary thought being where I can lay my hands on a pair of pink shorts from (alas and alack, not destined on this trip!)
The alarm clock in my head goes off and I return to the K, pick up my suitcase and skip along nimbly to the pier. By the way. That 20baht fee thing? That’s a doozy. Ain’t seen nothing resembling ‘clean’ in Phi Phi!
I get an absolutely prime tramp spot on the boat 😉 I wedge my flipflops under my butt to keep them from flying off, slather on the sunscreen, plug in my ipod and – I’m ready to sail. Oh, what bliss this is. I’ve spent exactly one night on Phi Phi and had one of my illusions royally shattered, but I’m ecstatic at the thought of heading back to Lanta. I head straight to the Lanta SeaFront Resort where I had stayed the first night; the lady falls on me like one would on a long-lost child and I whittle a 1,100 room down to 850 – WITH aircon! I dump my stuff and whistle as I walk down to ‘my’ patch of beach at Nature House, stopping for a natter with Frank who’s not so surprised to see me back; seeing as how I had spent the last three days content to loll around by the sea, he knew I wouldn’t enjoy the chaos of Phi Phi. Eat sees me pass by and makes loud, satisfactory noises of delight and I promise her a haggling treat in store for when I finally leave Lanta…Bee gives me a wide welcoming beam and rushes off to get my favourite lemon tipple…Roseanne and Bernd have come for a massage on the beach and are thrilled to see me and we make plans to meet up for dinner…Jonathan greets me with one of his sarcastic quips but I can tell he’s pleased I’m back 🙂
I feel I’m ‘home’ with ‘family’ and collapse gratefully on to Koh Lanta’s warm sands again. “Home is the sailor home from the sea…”
*a songtaew is one of ‘em open, tempo-like thingies with a metal roof and two (song) rows (taew) of seats at opposite ends. Popular mode of cheap transport in Thailand, much favoured by the locals and sbp’s.