Saturday, 17 December 2011

Days 101 to 104: Koh Phi Phi

Ten years ago, I travelled for around about four months with my good friend, Varwell, around Eastern Europe and a little of the Middle East. It was a formative experience, in which I learnt a lot about beer prices, how to ask for beers in various languages, how to drink beer with various different nationalities (mostly Australians), and once we even visited an art gallery. With Burness, going round south-east Asia so far, the experience has had many similarities, namely with the beers but also with the art galleries (we visited one, in Singapore). However, there is one massive difference not to be understated: Varwell was (and still is) obsessed with making puns; Burness has nothing in the way of a preoccupation with them whatsoever. Therefore, while Varwell was actually physically unable to visit fjords in Montenegro without making a "fjord escort" joke, even though he manfully held out for a whole day before making it, Burness and I have just spent four nights on the Thai island of Kho Phi Phi (pronounced, yes, "Ko-Pee-Pee") without even the notion of a "pee-pee" joke. Or a joke about "Sebastian Koh", which I'm sure Varwell would have managed after the third night.

Koh Phi Phi was, I'm happy to say, more enjoyable than Koh Tao, my previous Thai island. The weather was better, our accommodation was better sited, the island was much more scenic, and the experience was pretty relaxing. That's not to say I hugely liked the place, it being a beach-based resort with lots of tourists languishing on loungers and holidaying it the hell up, but taken for what it was, it was fine. It helped greatly that our accommodation was not in or particularly near the main town. We stayed at a place called the Phi Phi Hill Resort, a series of bungalows atop a hill, each one on stilts, and very peaceful. The area commanded a fantastic view of the curving arc that makes up the main island of Koh Phi Phi, and the restaurant was better priced than just about anywhere we went, and did excellent yoghurt shakes.

I got particularly excited about the yoghurt shakes

In the true spirit of the beach resort, daytimes were spent indolently, in my case mostly reading. I read "Rendezvous with Rama" by Arthur C. Clarke, "One Day" by David Nicholls, "Fever Pitch" by Nick Hornby, and "Sh*t My Dad Says" (asterisk not mine) by Justin Halpern. I had a little swim once or twice, and had a couple of short but sweaty walks, but otherwise took it easy. If I'd been in the holiday spirit, I might even have enjoyed myself.

On the last day, Burness, who is far more into active physical pursuits than me, persuaded me against all my better judgement, to go on a cliff-jumping and snorkelling tour. Even he regretted it. Packed on a small boat with about twenty other people, on the only day that had decided to be drizzly and overcast, our cliff-jumping and snorkelling turned out to be a random boat tour of the area. We stopped at "Monkey Beach" first, along with numerous other boats and tourists, to look at a lot of monkeys on a beach. Can't fault the name. Then after plenty of chugging, we went into a bay and were allowed to swim for ten minutes, taking care to avoid the swathes of empty bottles and rubbish that were drifting. Then, in what I guess was the highlight of the tour, we all went to visit Maya Beach, which in case you didn't know, was where the film "The Beach" was filmed.

Burness assures me otherwise, but I'd always assumed "The Beach" to be a fairly average film without much long-term resonance. I must be wrong, as it seems to be one of Koh Phi Phi's selling points. They don't mention, needless to say, that the film-makers more-or-less bribed the Thai government to use it, dug up large parts of the beach and ruined the ecosystem, and spent years in a lengthy court battle with environmentalists. As remote as the beach was in "The Beach", I can assure you it is not any more. At least, at least, two hundred people were there when we arrived, on many different boat tours, and a stall was set up selling over-priced drinks and snacks. Being the evident treat of our tour, we were given a whole hour there rather than the usual ten minutes. It was very boring.

Ten minutes of middling snorkelling then followed in a nearby location, and then the finale - the cliff-jumping. Only it seemed that the only people who had subscribed to the cliff-jumping were Burness and I. The remainder on the boat were to simply sit and watch. This seemed a little strange, and not a little uncomfortable, as if I was to freeze on top of the cliff and chicken-out like a little wimp, I would have an audience watching me. Two audiences, in fact, as another boat rocked up at the same time.

Happily, my time as a youth jumping off rocks into rivers put me in good stead for this experience. The cliff I'd to jump from was ten metres, which I can assure you is pretty high when you're standing there, looking down. But the trick is to not stand there and look down; you simply stop thinking and jump. And slightly stun yourself upon hitting the water - ten metres really is quite high, it seems. I managed the jump twice, as did Burness, although he was bitterly disappointed not to be allowed to try the higher, allegedly twenty-metre, jump on account of his uncharacteristic arm-flailing on his ten-metre jump.

Despite the weirdness of having an audience, the cliff-jumping was the one thing that redeemed what would otherwise have been a terrible tour. Because it was actually quite fun. Yes, for a moment, I had fun. No, I didn't express this with a "whoop" or anything. And I didn't subscribe to the type of fun favoured by the Thai tour guide on the boat, a dexterous and cheeky little chap, who was forcing everyone to drink shots of Thai whisky while leaping around like a hyperactive monkey. He was kind of funny but also utterly exasperating, especially for the poor fellow next to him who seemed to be the butt of all his slapstick jokes.

The two other things that stay in my mind from my four-day holiday paradise are mosquitoes, and dead Thai people. The mosquitoes, first of all, were the worst I have ever encountered. Sitting in any restaurant in the evening (and they were all outside) would begin a furious bout of scratching. One restaurant we had to leave before eating, as it was too unbearable. My feet were hit worst and are now bitten and blotchy, as though suffering from chicken pox. My arms, back and forehead tell a similar story; two nights I got hardly any sleep, as I woke repeatedly, scratching from unseen mosquitoes that would occasionally buzz into my ear, as if I need further pissing off.

The dead Thai people were still living in a physical sense, but their eyes betrayed their true state. The service on Koh Phi Phi was apathetic to say the least. On Koh Tao, I read "World War Z", a post-apocalyptic account of a zombie attack, and it was as though the zombies had begun to take grip in Koh Phi Phi. They expressed nothing in the way of life when shuffling over to take an order, and barely made more than a zombie groan in the way of speaking. At first I thought it was just our hotel, but it seems to be an island-wide trait. Years of dealing with holiday-making Westerners have taken their toll, I guess, but in a rare defence of the holidaymaker, I would stress the general clientele were pretty pleasant and civilised - this was not a rowdy resort of drunk tossers. The Thais just seemed affected by a malaise that made it clear they wanted to be anywhere else but there at that moment. It is perhaps the consistently worst service I've had on my travels so far.

Koh Phi Phi was, in summary, absolutely beautiful - something I've not really stressed here but would like to make it known - but not my kind of place. I'm just not a beach person, and though it was nice to relax and read, I'm looking forward to the return of some travels and culture. Happily, Burness has said that after two weeks and three islands of beaches, he now has it out of his system for the time-being. And so, I write on a bumpy overnight bus going back to Bangkok, where my final two Wonders before Christmas await, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, and the ruined city of Ayutthaya about two hours north. Normal service can resume: not a beach in sight, just lots of big, sometimes ruined, buildings.

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