Two weeks, two Thailands. Part 2: Phuket and Koh Phi Phi

Following our initial stint in Bangkok, we boarded an internal flight to Phuket. We would spend a week divided between Thailand’s largest island and one of the many others that are found in the Andaman Sea, Koh Phi Phi.

Our stay in Phuket began in frustrating fashion. The airport transfer should have taken about an hour. We opted to join a small minibus that would go to anywhere within three main beach areas; Patong, Karon and Kata. To our dismay our fellow occupants turned out to be some ignorant French people, an older couple who didn’t know the name of their hotel and another couple who thankfully possessed some common sense and more local knowledge than our driver. To cut a very long story short, we were the last ones to be dropped off. Three hours later.

Mountain view from the hotel in Karon

We ended up staying at two places in Karon due to availability and both were pretty decent little establishments. Mellow Space was a small new build with a great mountain view and more than comfortable furnishings and Baan Suay which had a small, but deep pool. Karon is in the middle of a small cluster of tourist focused beach towns. On our first night, after our long bus journey, we had a quick shower and on the instruction of our Brummie host we headed towards Kata for some dinner and a few quiet drinks. We had some unimpressive food and walked down to Kata Town. There was (what appeared to be at least) a Flinstones themed bar, some small quiet restaurants, a lot of Russians and some more small Soi’s littered with small bars with the usual accompanying Thai girls of the night, wailing “helloooooo” and “handsome mannn” at us. Not the best first impression.

Karon beach stretching into the distance

The next day we hit the beach. Pasty Korean winter skin was about to be exposed to the Thai sun, all bets on sunburn were off. To be fair, Karon beach is pretty decent. It’s long at 3km, has sun loungers and parasols for hire and it wasn’t entirely packed. It was busy, but not like Haeundae beach in Busan is like at its summer peak. We lounged around in the sun, swam, read books and listened to music. Getting home later I discovered some pretty unusual patterns on my back and chest where I had failed to apply sun tan lotion evenly. Thankfully, it was pretty mild and would eventually go brown rather than blister and peel off!

Bamboo...a touch of class, amongst a lot of dross

In the evening we went to the other end of the resort for dinner. We ate at a restaurant called Bamboo. This could arguably be regarded as the most upmarket eaterie in Karon. A liberal use of bamboo, mood lighting and fancy plate design complemented with some solid food made for a decent meal. After dinner we went to the beach market. Sam haggled for fake designer pants and we both bought some T-Shirts. there was even some room for some traditional Thai handicrafts amongst the knock-off goods. Later, we joined the Russians (seriously it was like a mini Moscow on the beach) in  a local bar where we enjoyed a Thai trio playing rocks greatest hits. The main singer was enthusiastic, the guitarist/back up singer got into it now and again and the drummer amused himself by wearily and constantly checking the traffic situation outside the window  from behind his drum set.

Because everybody wants to look like Mr. Bean...

Artist at work in Karon Market

Generic rock act for the Russian masses

The next day involved more of the same, although I wisely wore a T-shirt on the beach, that was until we decided to hit Patong. Patong is notorious, one travel website described it as Bangkok-on-Sea. Sam wanted a big night out and I was definitely not feeling averse to it. We declined an over-priced tuk-tuk (price fixing by the Phuket tuk-tuk mafia is widespread) and jumped in a more affordable taxi and headed to Patong. We ate some dodgy pizza and began our search for some decent nightlife. From our terrace seats at the pizza restaurant we spied Soi Bangla. This would be where our night would begin. Walking down Soi Bangla was comparable to walking down a road heading into a major football stadium. Almost shoulder to shoulder with the added obstacle of people trying to lure you into their go-go bars, beer bars (girl bars) etc… We went to Soi Tiger a kind of open air bar area, and had one beer before the constant deluge of girls wanting to play Connect 4 with us made it intolerable to stay. We then continued down Soi Bangla until Sam was collared by a dodgy looking Scouser (Sky Blue Fila polo shirt and Reebok classics, standard) he convinced us to come to a foreigner only bar. Despite my (natural) distrust for this man we followed him. My distrust was unfounded and he came up with the goods. So much so we even bumped into some people we knew from back in Busan, Jacques and Chris.  From that point on my memory was hazy but I do know we successfully found reasonably reputable establishments, another bar not to dissimilar to what you might find back in England and even a nightclub. At some point in the early hours I got separated and ended up getting a tuk-tuk back to the hotel safely. Despite my questionable memory, we did have a good night.

The next day didn’t involve the beach, I think it would have been too much. But I did have a swim in the pool and checked out the local temple and a market that had sprung up in it. We had a quiet night and some food before hitting our beds early as we had an early start and a boat ride to Koh Phi Phi the following day.

Derelict fishing trwalers at Phuket Town harbour

Our transfer to Phuket town was significantly swifter than our one from the airport and we boarded the boat to Koh Phi Phi in ample time. The boat ride was uneventful and I think I slept for most of it.  The initial impressions of Koh Phi Phi are immense.  We slipped through the strait between the two islands of Koh Phi Phi Don and Koh Phi Phi Ley,  observing steep limestone cliffs on both islands, eroded and undercut at sea level,  that seem to form impenetrable landmasses. As we circled Koh Phi Phi Don the limestone cliffs eventually gave way to an open bay and Tonsai harbour. As we exited the boat and paid our 20 baht island “entrance” fee we began the hunt for a guesthouse. We had a few in mind, but most were full or too costly and we ended up choosing Harmony House. If you ever go to Koh Phi Phi do not stay at Harmony House. Through indecision and laziness we ended up making a very poor choice. Harmony House we would later discover had sewer/drainage problems. There was not a pleasant smell to wake up to. In addition there were some slightly unsettling water marks on the walls. Despite the ‘luxurious’ lime green paint job and the pink floral tiling there remained a hint to the devastating tsunami of Boxing Day 2004. Harmony House, if not depressing, stinky and worn, is at least solid and a little further up than the, virtually sea level, town that separates the harbour on one side and beach on the other from the ocean. It was obvious from the tiling in the bedroom, no doubt over the watermarks the ocean left, and the bathroom door and frame, that this had been significantly flooded by the tsunami.

Better run fast for 700m

In the region of 2,000 people died in Koh Phi Phi or 1 in 5 of the estimated 10,000 inhabitants at that time. Those who survived were subject to broken bones, amputations and deep cuts from the significant amount of debris that the tsunami caused. The island has been rebuilt, but with little thought to avoiding similar fates or injuries were such a devastating event to occur again. The area between the beach and port has been rebuilt, poorly. Weak looking buildings and bungalows have risen from the ripped up ruins of 2004. Streets are narrow and framed with travel agencies, dive shops, bungalows, stores and markets.  The tsunami took away lives and dwellings, but Thailand’s insatiable and unmonitored lust for the tourists buck has created a monstrosity to surpass what was there before. After the tsunami a government official for the region suggested limiting tourism on the island, monitoring and regulating new businesses and their standards and tightening up laws and subjecting Koh Phi Phi to national park status. The clamor for cash however won over his protestations and the remaining locals got their way. I wouldn’t deny someone the right to make a living or improve their standard of living, but my trip to Thailand was increasingly making me feel disillusioned with the country.

Despite my rantings, Koh Phi Phi is nice. It still has a great deal of beauty and the deep, impenetrable (trust me I tried) forest that enswathes the limestone cliffs will probably ensure this remains. The beach was great and the views from the highpoint of the island and the sheltered bays are inspiring. Secluded beaches and caves litter the shores away from the tourist hub and the water is clear and warm.

The view from my Phi Phi bay adventure

The cliffs of Koh Phi Phi

Longtail boats lined up along the beach at Koh Phi Phi

Over our two days on Koh Phi Phi we ate good food, relaxed on the beach and partied on the beach. I even had a little time to adventure around the rocky headland and hike up to the highest point while Sam slept off another hangover. We met some good people in the bars and enjoyed some open-to-all Muay Thai. Apart from the odd suspicious looking massage place you could even enjoy a drink in a  bar without being harassed by a Thai girl. Tottenham even got a late equaliser against Manchester United to improve my night and subdue Sam’s!

Long tails in the harbour

Entering the Muay Thai ring

The real Muay Thai king

Beach party

A false image of tranquility at Koh Phi Phi

Looking down on Koh Phi Phi at sunset

We returned to Karon for one more night in a cheap, but not stinky guesthouse. The following morning we enjoyed a swift, if not hair raising journey back to Phuket airport courtesy of a silent but slightly crazy taxi driver (He took a short cut through a golf course, insulted a scooter driver with no teeth and drove directly under a water cannon that nearly broke the windscreen).

Phuket and Koh Phi Phi were not what I expected. They gave hints to paradise, and I am in no doubt that 10 or 15 years ago they were, but greedy, uncontrolled tourism has severely tainted it. I think back to my trip to Vietnam in 2011 and fear the worst for the places I visited. Will tourism destroy the places that I loved there? There were signs in Mui Ne that it had arguably already begun. The most difficult part of the problem, is that I am part of it. I desire cheap vacations in beautiful surroundings. I want liberal atmospheres, beach-side cocktails and clean water. But my desires are also the desires of many other people and collectively our desires are not sustainable. I wish I had an answer, but like Thailand I don’t.

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