Sunday, February 17, 2013

Return to Phi Phi Island

Every time I return to a place of happiness, I'm disappointed by how much things have changed. I don't know why I continue to pursue these threads of dreams, but there I was, fending off the touts as I tried to sort out my ticket from Phuket town to Phi Phi island, a place I'd not visited since 2003 (scant weeks before the tsunami struck). Where before there were only a couple of average size boats going to the island, now there were half a dozen ships departing the dock ... all at 8:30 in the morning, for some reason. The ships were tied to each other so some passengers had to walk across the deck of one craft to get to the other. Then we had to wait for the outermost ship to depart before our own vessel could cast off. Why not stagger the ships in fifteen minute intervals? I would have been very happy to leave at 7:00.

Despite the slightly staggered departures, the ships arrived at Phi Phi's wharf at slightly more staggered times as some cruised faster than others. Still, we had to wait for the earlier boats to unload before we could berth. After paying a 20฿ water tax, we pressed through a gang of hotel touts to get to the "downtown" of the island. The mob packed into that first intersection looked like a strange combination of Times Square New Years celebration mixed with refuges fleeing some great disaster. The vast majority of the backpack-laden travelers were Europeans in their late twenties, sporting the most casual of beachwear. 

Chinese New Year is a not a good time to visit Phuket Island. I had tried to get reservations at my favorite hotels, but they were booked solid. A travel agent got me a room in a complex that consisted of little huts clinging to the steep hillside. The price was nearly sixty bucks a night, but it sounded delightful. So, I paid in advance, something I have never done before ... or ever will again.

The hotel was a hike from the pier and I needed to get directions a few times. Phi Phi had changed so much I had no idea where I was as I maneuvered through a twisting warren of shops and restaurants. My "hotel" looked lovely, each little cabin with its own little balcony, perched on the steep hill. I ignored the fact there was a large stinky catch-basin right at the foot of that hill. I handed over my voucher and was led back down the hill and presented a room right across from that very pond. The room was only slightly larger than the bed. Had this been going for ten or fifteen a night, I might have accepted it, but for nearly sixty bucks, I expected a view at the very least. The hotel assured me they had no more rooms available and offered me a free cancellation  I ended up in a nearby guesthouse complex with a rather large room and a view of the little valley for only 1500฿ per night (about $45). I could have just as easily have obtained a quiet room for half that price, but I was too lazy to wander around with my bags.

New cottages are piled upon each other
Phi Phi has changed quite a bit since my last visit; the proof of that was in the shiploads of tourists arriving twice each day. They all had to sleep somewhere and beautiful guesthouses were crawling up the slopes like concrete creeper vines. The number of accommodations had easily quadrupled since the disaster and there were plenty more buildings under construction. I was concerned mostly about the infrastructure. How were they getting fresh water? How was the sewage and garbage being treated? Speaking of garbage, there was plenty of that to go around. Look over any wall and you'll see either a lovely hotel garden, a ramshackle local's habitation or a garbage heap. Get up into the hills and the gardens and walls go away; there are just shacks and midden piles. 

The hills and beaches are the most pleasant parts of the most densely inhabited part of the island. I refused to pay the extortion rates the local boat drivers demanded to visit other parts of Phi Phi and I was happy enough to explore on foot. By the look of the little shops, a vacationer will spend most of their time eating, drinking, SCUBA diving, dancing and getting tattoos—in that order. I wasn't planning to eat or drink much, but I was rather keen to dive. Having snorkeled here before, I knew the waters were beautiful. After surveying half a dozen of the seventeen(!) dive shops, I concluded that they all offer the same two dives, charge the same prices and leave at about the same time. I picked the one that left a bit earlier than the others.

All of my diving companions were completing some part of a SCUBA course. I was the only one doing a "fun dive." I took exception to this label and insisted they call it a dive, "If you call it a fun dive, it sounds like you're not serious." They said the other dives were for classes so my dive was for fun. "You mean people don't have fun in the courses?" They could not refute my brilliant logic and gave in ... at least when I was in earshot. 

As the only diver not taking a class, I had my own guide. I hoped this would enable us to explore different areas, but we just did standard dives going to the same places as the classes. The locations themselves were good, but nothing terribly exciting. The guides assured me that the habitat had not changed much as a result of the tsunami, so perhaps my memory of beautiful corals and shoals of colorful fish were slightly embellished by time.

Phi Phi consists of two islands. The second, uninhabited island, is famous for having a small bay with a small beach that inspired the movie "The Beach." On my first visit with on a snorkeling tour, we visited the beach alongside a couple of other boats. The place was rather nice. When our dive boat entered the bay this time, I was reminded again how much things have changed. There were at least a dozen medium to large size vessels anchored in the cove. The small sandy shoreline was crowded with scores of beached speedboats on one side and numerous long-tail boats on the other. That left only a quarter of the beach for tourists to ... well, "enjoy" doesn't seem like the right term. Experience? I can't help but wonder how many of them saw that movie and imagined a beautifully secluded beach where they might frolic in the surf unmolested. Reality might suck, but once upon a time, that beach really was secluded and frolicable. 
Tourists flood over the side of the boat to splash around in the deeps. 
Back on shore, I walked the north side of the beach. It's filled with groovy hot spots to sit and drink while watching the sun set behind the hill to the west. The food at such places is pretty mediocre, but you're paying for the view and the style, not the food. At night, they put on fire shows to entertain the patrons. Further along the shore, there are still fishermen going about their jobs and a few Thais have set up their own little out-of-the-way beer stations. That side of the island is the most affected by tides; it's barely knee deep at low tide so the boatmen can repair their craft.
Taxi boats, pulled up on the beach, awaiting tourists.

The island really should be called Kitty Kitty island for the startling number of friendly cats inhabiting the place. They lounge outside the shops and homes and welcome a scratch behind the ears. Dogs are not as common here as in the cities, oddly enough.

I decided to leave the island after two nights. I figured that the 9:00 boat trip would be the least crowded as so few of the party-goers would get up so early. I was very wrong. There was quite a mob at the docks, though not as crowded as I had experienced in my arrival.  There were only two boats going out. I realized then that theses two had remained on the island overnight and the great flotilla was only now leaving Phuket town. With our baggage piled up in the stern, we crowded aboard these two boats and cast off. Our boat stopped just at the edge of the harbor. Racing toward us was a long, slim ship. The crew gestured to us to get away from the side of the boat. Apparently we were going to hook up with this vessel. They transferred a few dozen bags and then passengers from a nearby island climbed aboard our already crowded boat.

Surely we'd be on our way now? No. Another high-speed boat was racing in from another island. Their bags were piled on the lower part of the stern and few score more travelers joined us. There was no room inside so the newcomers were at the mercy of the sun for the next two hours.

Hopefully, this will be my last trip to Phi Phi. I could not bear to see it get more crowded.