Ko Phi Phi: Paradise for Sale, While Supplies Last

by David on November 17, 2009


Best known as the site of Leonardo DiCaprio’s bizarre meltdown in Danny Boyle’s celebrated failure, The Beach, Ko Phi Phi is an island of uncanny natural beauty and now, an exceptionally ugly culture of overdevelopment. Other travelers told me not to come here on account of the overbearing crowds, and though I’m glad I did, I understand their reservations.

The Lonely Planet guidebook describes it with a phrase I’ve grown a little too fond of: “Heartbreakingly beautiful.”

Indeed it is profoundly beautiful, and heartbreaking in that such a perfect, perfect natural setting now bears the noise and weight of hundreds of businesses, piles of unprocessed garbage, and thousands of sweaty, wandering idiots just like me.

I’m well aware that I am myself a fundamental part of this same horrendous tourist machine. This familiar theme has run through almost all of my travels so far — that my paying to visit a place is precisely what robs it of much of the magic I came to see.

As an example, Chiang Mai’s grand and holy mountain-top temple, Doi Suthep, struck me as completely, unapologetically whored out to the public. Orange-robed monks patiently shoulder their way through crowds of photo-snapping tourists on their daily rounds. Visitors make mocking poses with ancient prayer bells and Buddha images. 5 baht to use the toilet.

I am not saying that Ko Phi Phi’s appeal has been completely undermined by the development here, not by a long shot. Until the last towering cliff is draped with condos, this island will remain a treasure to behold. When the boat rounds the corner to reveal the green and tan rocky spires that surround the town, everyone stops chatting and stands up. It is truly a stunning sight, provided you are gazing somewhere other than the overgrown tourist maze in the middle. The eyes wander elsewhere naturally.

Ao Lo Dalam, one of Phi Phi's "second rate" beaches

Ao Lo Dalam, one of Phi Phi's "second rate" beaches

I don’t mean to illustrate Ko Phi Phi as a tragedy, though its compromised condition is impossible to ignore. I took photos of one of the most beautiful beaches in the world today, though I had to shift the frame far enough to the right not to capture a garbage-strewn slope just to the south of it. It is nearly impossible to get a photo of the water anywhere without at least a few boats in the picture.

After a trying day (see below) I decided not to buy a ticket to see Maya Bay on sister island Phi Phi Leh, the fabled “perfect beach” in The Beach. My main reason was that the tour returns to town at sunset, by which time I would have to fork out 400-600 baht to hire a private taxi back to my beach, as walking through the jungle path would be impossible in the dark.

When I made the decision to opt out of seeing this world-class beach, I suddenly felt an unexpected relief. Ever since arriving on Phi Phi I had experienced a creeping sensation of ambivalence, like I relished being there but at the same time knew I was trespassing in some way, taking something that was not quite freely given.

I knew my hired boat would just be one of dozens of identical opportunist enterprises parked in the surf, and I would be one of hundreds of visitors. The exclusive crescent of perfect sand would be anything but exclusive and perfect, and I just don’t want to deal with the standard tourist sardine treatment in a place that is supposed to embody untouched, natural beauty.

The irony is that probably everybody here was attracted to Phi Phi by that vision of a pristine, immaculate beach, the elusive “out there and away from it all” destination that Leo’s character so desperately ached to behold. I ache for it too. The pristine beach in that vision, once real, is now fictitious. Perhaps if one really did have to swim two kilometres to get there, it wouldn’t be. But that would rule out a visit from me.

So Maya beach will remain a vision to me, and maybe I’m better off for it. I suppose what I’m looking for doesn’t exist anymore. To be a tad melodramatic, I’d sooner regret not going, than go there and witness its death for myself.

There is an upsetting contradiction that I suppose all but the most unthoughtful travelers encounter at one time or another. All over the world there are places of such profound beauty that we simply must see them, yet the commercial infrastructure that makes it possible for regular people to do so inevitably destroys or degrades them. “If only there were fewer people here,” I often think, before I realize how absurd it is to wish gems like Ko Phi Phi were too exclusive to accommodate the hordes of visitors who are on a modest budget, like me.

The Far East: To Koh Beach

Enough griping. I’m here, for better or worse, and Ko Phi Phi’s spectacular beauty does outshine all the misanthropic crap I’ve been dwelling on. My lodging is another modest bungalow on the remote east side of the H-shaped island. Perched a hundred feet up the mountainside, it’s larger than my shack on Lanta, but it has much less character, and it’s quite damp.

There is a considerable mosquito population in my open-air bathroom, but I come from a land where they reach plague-level concentrations, so I think they bother everyone else much more than me. A large animal (larger than a bird) was definitely on my roof for a time last night, and I learned today that monkeys often wake the guests by playing on top of the bungalows.

The beach below is small but much nicer than the one on Ko Lanta. Everywhere on Phi Phi the sand is almost as fine as flour, and To Koh beach is no exception. It isn’t as picturesque as the beach I saw today from the lookout point; it doesn’t have the trademark towering limestone karsts, but it does have a trait rare for Phi Phi: peace.

Ao To Kho, my front yard on Phi Phi

Ao To Kho, my front yard on Phi Phi

There is nothing here but the restaurant, the bungalows, and a tiny bar. There are no roads on Phi Phi island, transport is typically by boat. I have been told that it is possible to walk from our isolated beach to the town, via a pathway up through the jungle over the hill. I almost wish I hadn’t learned that.

Bad Day in Town

There are regular boats running between our beach and the town, so I casually jumped on the 9:30 one to go find a place to eat, buy some flip-flops, and get my internet stuff done (there are new Thailand pictures on my Facebook by the way.)

Stupid me, I didn’t ask what time the boat went back.

After a few hours in town, I peeked at the beach beside the pier, at which about fifty near-identical longtails are perpetually moored, and didn’t recognize any familiar faces. I quickly realized it would take either a miracle of timing or a long, hot stakeout in order to catch the proper boat back to my beach.

So I decided to walk, even though I hadn’t really asked anyone where exactly to go. I knew the island’s hilltop viewpoint was on the path, so I followed the signs to the foot of an irregular concrete staircase leading up into the jungle.

With my kettlebells having been 10,000 miles away for the last month, I should have known I’m not in good shape at all. The stairs were endless (150 metres, I would later find out) and by that time the cool morning had given way to a typical blazing Thai afternoon. I stopped frequently, positively gushing sweat from every part, and near the top I removed my soaked shirt and stuffed it in my bag.

When I arrived, I hobbled into the mildly crowded lookout area, nearly oblivious to the incredible view, and searched for a spot that offered the elusive combination of shade and breeze. It was a struggle finding either, with two piddly trees and the merciless, still air.

From Ko Phi Phi Don's viewpoint. Ko Phi Phi Leh sits on the horizon.

From Ko Phi Phi Don's viewpoint. Ko Phi Phi Leh sits on the horizon.

Finally, a bronze Italian couple finished their little photo shoot and vacated a spot in the shade. I stood there and sweated some more, before continuing on down the other side, presumably towards my end of the island.

Shortly thereafter the path forked five(!) ways, and the arrows on the signs did not match the directions of the paths. There were two possible paths that could have been right, so I took the more beaten of the two. After a few hundred yards, the signs stopped mentioning my beach, so I turned around and headed back to the intersection, beginning to entertain visions of heat exhaustion and cobras.

I followed the other path, which was quite overgrown, until it turned the corner into the blackest, most foreboding jungle I’ve ever seen in person. I was reasonably certain this was my path, but I’ve heard too many stories about snakes and venomous lizards in the past week — and I’m reading Heart of Darkness at the moment — to want to march my ailing body into that abyss. I turned around, went back to the viewpoint and commenced my descent of the deadly concrete staircase with legs that were now vibrating with exertion.

I arrived in town and swallowed a 600ml iced tea in one go, and continued on to the pier, still unsure how I could possibly get in the right boat at the right time. I grew impatient and decided to bite the bullet and hire a boat to myself. Four hundred baht later (my research told me I would not get a better price than this), I arrived back at the beach, had a perfectly cold shower and a beer. Considering the circumstances it felt like the best money I ever spent.

After today’s ordeal I’ve decided to spend tomorrow lazing around and indulging in a few low-cost pleasures. I’m going to get a massage (which can be had in Thailand for the price of an imported beer back home,) rent a snorkel and mask, and maybe a kayak. Come late afternoon I will drink a giant Chang beer and eat something I haven’t tried before. I don’t think I could screw that up.


Photos by David Cain


Delias Hozzlethorn. November 17, 2009 at 9:57 am

What’s your e-mail dave?

David November 18, 2009 at 4:22 am

davidcain7 AT gmail.com. Email me, I forgot yours too.

Lisis November 17, 2009 at 3:57 pm

“I don’t think I could screw that up.” (Famous last words!)

David, I am loving the photos… beautiful, even if you do have to work it a little to get a clean shot. I know exactly what you are describing here since the same thing has happened in Costa Rica. When I was growing up there, it was a jungly paradise with pristine beaches. Now there are condos, hotels and businesses in every pristine spot I remember from my youth. Kinda makes me sad to see that.

It’s one of the reasons I probably will never travel to the Taj Majal. I think I’d rather just pretend that it is always peaceful and isolated, like it looks in the brochures. Sometimes it’s best NOT to know the truth.

Either way, sounds like one hell of an adventure for you, so keep the pics and stories coming!

Nadia - Happy Lotus November 17, 2009 at 5:06 pm

Actually, at the Taj Mahal it is peaceful and isolated. It is utter silence when you are there. The town of Agra is like any other town but when you enter the gates to get to the Taj, it is a different world. So don’t strike out going to see the Taj! :)

And David, thank you for sharing the adventure. Sounds awesome…even though a bit of an ordeal which I can understand. I also love the pictures too. Looks heavenly!

David November 18, 2009 at 4:18 am

Hi Lisis,

When I was in Hollyhock, my meditation teacher (who has traveled a lot) told me that he felt the same before going to the Taj Mahal, after seeing so many other disappointingly exploited landmarks around the world. He said he shudders now at the idea of skipping it, and that it really is much more powerful in real life that a person could imagine. It is definitely on my list.

Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor) November 17, 2009 at 3:59 pm

I can’t believe you labeled your adventure an “ordeal”.

How fun, jungles, forests with Rodents of Unusual Size perhaps~ where was your water and hat!

By the way, snakes move ~:-) it’s when you stop that they fret you may eat them. Besides, who wears thongs (flip-flops) when they are exploring…!?
It’s those laces on the enclosed shoe that will secure your feet to scale a tree away from the lizards…nice hiking boots protects the ankle from possible trodden peeved snake.

Really~ you wouldn’t swim 2 kms for some time out…?

You have monkeys!!!

David November 18, 2009 at 4:22 am

I am not a strong swimmer! There’s nothing worse than swimming towards something and realizing that it isn’t getting any closer, yet the shore you left has gotten farther.

I never complained about the monkeys :)

Erin November 18, 2009 at 1:25 pm

A day may come in the future when you sit comfortably in an office, maybe even in a suit in a meeting with someone talking drivel without ceasing.

You now have a vivid, unique and spectacular memory of the smell of the place, the jungle feel, the steps, trembling leg muscles, the sweat, the ice tea. You will be able to revisit this unexpected side trip and you will smile. The speaker will think you were listening to every word.

David November 18, 2009 at 8:06 pm

Hi Erin, that’s so true. In the less exciting moments (sitting on a train/bus) I have already been revisiting some of the earlier parts of the trip. Many times on this trip (eating dinner in an ocean-view treehouse, crossing the huge marble balcony at Doi Suthep, having beers with travelers in Chiang Mai) I’ve stopped to realize how amazing this is and how this moment will never be more real than it is now. When I try to revisit them in my mind, I find they are already fading. I can still recall some of the detail and emotion of them, but what I do recall is a far cry from the real experience. All the more reason to pay attention to where I am. Before I know it I’ll be in New Zealand and all of Thailand will be a memory.

Kim Lianne November 25, 2009 at 12:40 pm

Hi David!
It’s been ‘heartbreakingly beautiful’ to visit your site, read some of your eloquent passages and to view these photos. Your face is missed and it will be too long before you’re back on my couch telling me stories in person but I’m so excited to see your adventures unfold! I have been telling friends about Thailand and sharing your pics so you never feel too far away.
All is well here–I have become an auntie again; Trevor’s new daughter Melodie Amber Rose has graced us with her tiny pink presence. Also, I have a tentative job as a floral designer at least over the holidays–hurray for employment. Boo is now reading (!) and has had her first grade 1 report card, which seems right on track… if only I could do something about that occasional gregarious classroom disruption. :-s
I hope your journey from ‘The Beach’ over to NZ (the land of the long white cloud) is a smooth transition. Looking forward to our next exchange.
*warmest hugs*
KL and Boo too

David November 29, 2009 at 5:43 am

Hello Auntie Kim. Always good to hear from you.

Such great news all around. Good news from home is one of the unexpected perks of traveling. As you know I have reached the land of the long white cloud, and will be sharing pictures soon. I took over a hundred shots of exotic flowers in Auckland’s winter garden alone. I’ll be in touch very soon.

Joy November 28, 2009 at 8:43 pm

Wow. I love reading of your adventures, and what a beautiful place to be having them! I thought my “backyard” was beautiful, but wow! I’m glad you chose not to visit “the Beach” since it didn’t feel right to you; and I’m equally glad you chose to rest and partake in activities that soothe you after such an ordeal of a day!

David November 29, 2009 at 5:47 am

I rationalize not seeing “The Beach” by ranting about exploitation and capitalism, but the truth is it was mostly a matter of inconvenience. The upside is that it is still the perfect beach in my imagination.

Two days ago I set foot on a beach I never could have imagined, here in New Zealand. The sand was like gold, and the best part is there was not another soul on it.

I’ll post pictures soon.

Angelika December 31, 2009 at 9:31 pm

… hm yet another inspiring read, thank you. ” … and thousands of sweaty, wandering idiots just like me.” that’s something I felt during my travels too. “5 baht to use the toilet.” guess Americans would have kind of flogged me using this word – I found Canada and Canadians to be amazing and have cherished memories of my travel and encounters there (in 1976). And you using the decimal system and celsius – priceless.
I truly enjoy all your pictures. “Travel even in your mind is broadening.”
Thank you for letting and making me mind-travel.

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