Phi Phi Islands, Thailand: Beauty and a Bummer

Ko Phi Phi Don Island, Thailand From the hilltop above Phak Nam Bay. photos by Globe Trodden.
Ko Phi Phi Don Island, Thailand From the hilltop above Phak Nam Bay. photos by Globe Trodden.

Thailand’s Phi Phi Islands: Beauty and a Bummer

By Patrick Smith

Off the coast of southwestern Thailand, the Phi Phi Islands rise from the Andaman Sea like an apparition. Approaching by ferry from Phuket, the sight of them gives you the chills.

Clusters of baroque limestone towers soar out of the ocean, tall as skyscrapers, licked at their bases by Technicolor bays and webs of golden sand.

The karsts are so fantastically tall, verdant and sheer, as to be almost unbelievable. It’s a kind of Machu Picchu of the open sea — scenery so vertically preposterous as to have been rendered by a five-year-old with a green crayon. That child would be chided, of course, because no such place could really exist outside of someone’s jittery imagination, or maybe a Dreamworks studio.

But it does exist, and that’s the good part.

The bad part is the people. That such a stupefyingly beautiful place could be ruined by throngs of visitors is one of the great scandals of global travel. But so it is, just about. Hundreds of thousands of tourists — let me correct myself, hundreds of thousands of young and obnoxious tourists — come to this watery corner of Asia each year to behold the Phi Phi Islands.

And to drink, and to party, and to stay up till 4 a.m. listening to hip-hop music out at the beach, and to whoop and screech and holler and pass out naked in the sand and SLAM SLAM SLAM their hotel room doors.

The scene is a mix of long-haul backpackers and European package tourists on winter junkets — a kind of MTV Beach Party meets Lonely Planet. With all of the accessories. There is enough tattoo ink on Phi Phi to turn the Andaman Sea black; enough body piercings to set every airport metal detector in Southeast Asia ringing.

The largest of the Phi Phi islands is called Phi Phi Don. The main town on Don — indeed the only town — sits on a skinny isthmus slung between jagged green mountains, like the handle of a barbell. Their are no cars here, but still there’s plenty of gridlock — great, undulating clots of guys and girls in their 20s, slouching around in dreadlocks and camping shorts.

Tourist long boat on Phi Phi Don. photo by Globe Trodden.
Tourist long boat on Phi Phi Don. photo by Globe Trodden.

I have been to my share of hyper-touristy places, and to plenty of backpacker haunts. But I have never seen crowds so unbearable as this. In high season there are so many people it can be difficult to walk.

Then at night the noise starts.

And one of the things that amazes me is how miserable all of these kids seem. Not so much the guys as the girls, who wander around with fixed, glassy stares. It’s a look of both intensity and detachment, a sort of pained bewilderment, as if every girl on the island has suddenly been told she is pregnant with quadruplets.

Our stay in Don town is brief and excruciating, as it would be for anybody over the age of 24 and sober. On the second day we take a long-tail boat over to the “quiet” east side of the island. We rent a beachfront cabin in one of the secluded cottages that dot the island’s perimeter. It’s a lovely spot, swathed in tropical vegetation. Cozy, Thai-style bungalows overlook a private beach perfect for swimming and snorkeling. The surf is patterned with corals, a tricolor of turquoise — blue, bluer, bluest — marking off the depths.

But quiet? Not so much. It is both an older and a younger crowd. Which is to say a crowd of European families, most of them from Denmark and most of them toting two, three or even four small children. The bungalow directly across from ours contains what I initially take to be an animal in some horrible wrenching pain. Actually, it’s a pair of infants, who proceeded to shriek and howl long into the night.

(I am hoping somebody can explain the connection between Denmark and Thailand. That the Danes are all over Thailand isn’t so mysterious when you consider climate, but the reverse is true as well. I was in Denmark recently and kept seeing Thai people everywhere: sightseeing, working in shops, riding the subway. Sure enough, on Phi Phi, one of our waiters told us he had just returned from a year’s stay in Copenhagen.)

Beachfront bungalow at Relax Beach "resort" on the east side of Phi Phi Don. These rooms rent for about $50 a night. It's rustic -- no electricity or hot water -- but comfortable.
Beachfront bungalow at Relax Beach “resort” on the east side of Phi Phi Don. These rooms rent for about $50 a night. It’s rustic — no electricity or hot water — but comfortable.

Early the next morning we hire a long-tail for a ride over to Phi Phi Leh, Don’s neighbor and an island of such otherworldly splendor — towering red and green karsts interlaced with turquoise lagoons — that it can barely be described. A group of kids has been camping there, and we pass them on one of the trails. One of them, a young girl about 19 or 20, has fallen back from the others and is walking alone.

The trail is only a few feet wide, and I turn to let her pass. For what it matters, she is maybe the most beautiful girl I have ever seen in my life, with closely cropped, white-blond hair and a soft, wide face that appears to have been buffed out of ivory. But in her blue eyes, there is That Look again — the gaze of a shark. “Hi,” I say.

No response. She trudges around me without so much as a word or a glance, onward through the sand, burdened into silence by her quadruplets or whatever it is that has turned these kids into sullen little robots.

Phi Phi Leh’s main draw is the famous Maya Beach, an idyllic sandy crescent set amid jagged green hills. But the real highlight is a visit to the spectacular Pileh Lagoon — a fantastical keyhole bay surrounded by immense green cliffs. The trick is to get here as early as possible, before the tour boats from Don and Phuket start motoring in. The midday crowds on Maya, barely a quarter-mile wide, are hundreds strong. Pileh can feel like a Florida water park.

On the third afternoon we are on the ferry back to Phuket. The motors crank up and we feel like high-fiving. It’s like escape from Alcatraz. Funny how the excitement of traveling can sometimes work in reverse. Jubilation will have to wait, however, at least until we’re docked, because most of the island is coming with us. As it was on the way over, the vessel is jampacked with about 500 people and just as many backpacks.

Once underway people migrate toward the back, clustering like flies on the lower stern. I stake out a position against a railing on the topside deck, with a bird’s-eye view of this assembly. As people gather, the scene below can only be described as a circus — an elbow-to-elbow scrum of dudes and dudettes kitted out in the preposterous, inexplicable trappings of today’s young people.

Pileh lagoon, Phi Phi Islands, Thailand.
Pileh lagoon, Phi Phi Islands, Thailand.

As a guy who at age 19 wore a studded leather jacket and Levis spattered with house paint, it’d be brazen of me to ridicule any generation’s fashion trends, but how and when, exactly, did it become de rigueur for young white guys to strut around with the top 4 inches of their boxer shorts sticking out? Do girls somehow find this attractive? And I believe the time has come to begin the forced amputations of arms decorated by those “tribal” pattern shoulder tattoos. And so on and so forth: the dreads, the beads, the nostril rings.

But the real stars of this freak show are a slightly older, almost middle-aged British couple and their overweight son. The kid, who is maybe 9 or 10, is wearing a Red Bull baseball cap, Converse-style high-tops, a pink Lonsdale polo and aviator sunglasses. The father, lumbering and dopey-eyed, is decked out in a Yankees cap and a caustic yellow T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Suits Suck.”

His missus, though — a sun-blistered brunette hard at work on can after can of Chang lager — is the one I want to focus on. She is wearing something that, however offensive and impossible for me to understand, is mysteriously popular, as I keep seeing it on different women all over Phi Phi. The item in question is a sleeveless tee bearing the grainy image of a slutty-looking blonde. The blonde is affecting one of those fuck me/fuck you poses. She is topless and turned to profile. She is biting her lip and sticking her middle finger at the viewer.

I lost count of how many girls I saw sporting this obnoxious shirt. I don’t know who the blonde in the picture is, and neither do I want to, but I am dying to learn how it became acceptable for a tourist — or anybody else — to wear such a thing.

A substantial number of the passengers out on deck are smoking, and I am startled to see how many think nothing of flicking their butts into the water. This is true not only of the kids, but of the older passengers as well. Butts and litter too; I watch a Chinese guy flip his coffee cup into the Andaman. No surprise that the beaches on Phi Phi, stunning as they are, aren’t exactly litter-free.

When finally we hit the pier at Phuket, I am ready to kiss the ground.

Phuket, by the way, is perhaps the only place on earth more disappointing than Phi Phi, with 10 times the tourists and a tenth of the natural beauty. But that’s another story, and at any rate we won’t be sticking around. Air Asia will be airlifting us to freedom at 6:40 p.m. I realize that I actually miss Bangkok — sweaty, steam-cooked, traffic-snarled Bangkok — something I never would have imagined.

All those things they say about travel: They are true, I suppose, but there is the demoralizing side of travel as well — the side that drains away your strength and sucks away your faith in humanity. The side that makes you want to rush straight home and flush your passport down the toilet. It’s not just the middle-finger T-shirts. It’s the bigger things — a trickle-down dysfunction that, perhaps, is what makes those ugly shirts popular in the first place: the filth, the poverty, the greed and despair — the utter recklessness of it all.

Where to begin? Is there not something desperately wrong, for instance, in a world where everybody has a mobile telephone but nobody has clean drinking water?

On my final night in Bangkok, well past midnight, I am walking up Sukhumvit toward the Sheraton. Sukhumvit after dark is a poisonous kaleidoscope of flesh, fumes, noise and rubbish: the fluorescent-lit sidewalk stalls hawking crap of every conceivable size, color and shape; the sputtering buses and tuk-tuks; the countless winking whores; the lepers and limbless cripples begging for baht; the homeless toddlers curled against garbage pails. And the heat.

The Author at the swimming lagoon.
The Author at the swimming lagoon.

Up near Asok station, a tiny girl, perhaps 4 years old, is sitting on the ground next to an equally tiny puppy. Mind you it’s about 2 o’clock in the morning. Both are adorable. The girl is wearing a frilly green dress, and the puppy has a small pail in its mouth. It’s for photos. You take a picture of the girl and her dog, and you give her a few baht.

I bend down and touch the dog. He is docile but seems scared. He’s much too young, I think, to be trained this way, and I wonder if maybe the pail is in fact stapled into his mouth. I could find out, but I’m afraid to.

Continuing toward the hotel, I can’t stop thinking about the puppy. I resolve that I’m going to buy one of those tasty chicken kebabs from a street vendor and take it back to him. I am known to do such things, as I cannot stand the sight of neglected or abused animals. (Recall my story from Senegal about the injured hedgehog.)

But the food vendors all have shuttered for the night, and the next thing I know I’m flopped onto my bed with my sneakers still on.

I’m exhausted but I don’t get undressed. I am trying to come up with a plan to get some food to the dog. There has to be a way. Should I keep looking for a kebab? Bring him some Pringles from the minibar? Grab something at the 7-Eleven? And what is it, I wonder, that makes me so concerned for the welfare of the dog over the welfare of the tiny girl?

It’s all so depressing and fatiguing. And before I can decide what to do, I fall asleep.

patrick smithThis article originally appeared on Patrick Smith is an airline pilot, author, and air travel columnist. Patrick has visited more than 70 countries, and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston. Visit his website, Ask the Pilot.

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