My best friend of over 20 years was in Thailand for a Pharmacy study abroad program, thus sparking the entire idea of me going to Thailand before my exit from China. After her gruesome 30 day course involving lepers, TB, getting smacked in the face with a ping pong paddle and elephant “sanctuaries” that reminded her of concentration camps, she was in desperate need of some R&R on the beach–and that’s exactly what we got.
Krabi, Just Go There
In southern Thailand, there’s few places that have escaped the wrath of tourism–Krabi included. I thought that Krabi would be a quaint, little seaside town that housed a few hostels and maybe some 5 star hotels–but man, was I wrong. Krabi is completely saturated by the tourism industry, with shady bars at every corner, hostels on every street and people trying to flag you down with cheap tours to go island hopping every 5 minutes.
Granted, it was way better than Phuket, but if you’re looking for paradise away from the crowd–don’t stay here too long. I think for a solo traveler Krabi would be a great place to camp out for a while (opportunities to meet people almost anywhere you go, signing up for overflowing tourist boats to see different islands will help you encounter interesting travelers), but if you’re with a special someone trying to soak in the sights of Thailand, I think being on a tiny boat with 30 backpackers getting drunk and passin’ a joint around wouldn’t be your idea of ‘romantic.’
Anyway, enough of that. Onto the adventures.
Hali was traveling with a group of conservative Mormons for over 30 days, and let’s just say it showed by the time I met her. She was craving the drink like an Irishman cut off cold turkey from the Tullamore Dew. As soon as I met my best friend of 20 years in Thailand after a year of absence, instead of give a friendly hug with the usual greetings she shook me by the shoulders, looked me dead in the eyes and said:
“Mary. We’re getting a drink. NOW.”
So before I even knew what hit me, there was a huge can of Chang beer in my hand and we were drinking by the beach. After signing up for a 7 island tour for the next day, Hali lead me into the night where we drank like we were 21 again. Those pictures will not be posted here, or anywhere, so help me god.
So the next morning we wake up horrifically hungover and try to cure it with a hearty breakfast–after all, we had a 7 island tour to do.
I suggested some nourishing street food of hot as hell basil chicken rice, fried shrimp, and papaya salad that will melt your face off. I think this was one of the best meals I had in Thailand, and it was cooked on a motorcycle by a lady. Really. She set up her wok and everything on a motorbike. Hardcore.
After finishing one of the most delicious meals of my life, Hali and I chugged more water, popped back some ibuprofen, and hopped on the tour. We were about 27 on a fisherman’s boat made for 10, with only enough life jackets to save 5 people. But hey, that kind of stuff happens all the time when traveling… ahemdontdoit. After our easygoing, carefree captain rolled up a joint and smoked it (then offering it to everyone) he set the boat out to sea.
The last island was my favorite stop of the day. I don’t even know if this can be called an ‘island’ as it was literally the size of an office hallway and will probably be underwater within this century. Still, the beauty in its remote tranquility and untouched natural beauty moved me in a way nowhere else did. We ate a simple dinner, gazed at the sunset in silence and reflected. There’s something about the sea. It can wash up memories, it can inspire, and most of all it can wipe your conscious clean. When it’s you and the sea, you forget everything. Your mind is blank, and all you can hear are the waves.
Koh Phi Phi–is it worth it?
Hali, being a huge fan of the movie “The Beach”, was hellbent on going to Koh Phi Phi (which is where the movie was filmed). Some people told me to stay far away from the place, as it is now a fine specimen of tourism infestation at its finest. I was skeptical, but Hali was driven to go and I really had nothing to say in protest. It was Ko Phi Phi now or never.
My Italian friend summed up Koh Phi Phi best:
“Yeah it’s a tourist hellhole, but you just have to go. It’s paradise.”
I have to say that Koh Phi Phi was probably the most enjoyable beach part of my trip, since it’s not as crowded as Krabi and far more remote and peaceful than Phuket. Still, I must warn you: do not go to Koh Phi Phi on a budget. Hali and I budgeted the trip so that Koh Phi Phi was our ‘splurge,’ and thank god we did it that way. We split a 100 USD a night room for a nice hotel on “long beach” (the best beach on the island, as we heard from other travelers), which is that lovely beach in the photo up there. Turquoise, empty waters with crystal, white sand. No garbage. No nothing. Our hotel was called “Paradise Hotel” and, really, in terms of ‘beach’ I don’t think it’s going to get much better than that.
We paid a little extra to hire a private fisherman boat so that we could travel more freely and do more snorkeling in areas that we wanted to, as opposed to cramming on an overfilled tourist cruise ship that would give you 10 minutes to snorkel in 10 different locations. It was great to have the freedom to do whatever we want and explore the surrounding islands of Koh Phi Phi.
The Seventh Layer of Hell, aka Koh Phi Phi Town
Hali and I decided to hike into ‘town,’ since our hotel is literally closed off by jagged rocks on the beach to the south, and dense forestation to the north. We found a pathway that leads into the city (I was itching to see what else the island had), and after trekking through unbearably hot weather and crossing over beaches covered in rocks and garbage, we were alarmed when we arrived in the actual city of Koh Phi Phi itself (where the port is located). We were hit smack in the face with an overwhelming stench of raw sewage, rotten food and B.O.
I think Hali described Koh Phi Phi town the best with this sentence:
“I feel like I’m being punished. And this is my hell.”
It was a sad sight. This is what tourism can to do a place that is supposed to be “paradise.” One part of the island is like a dream come true, the other inland areas a wasteland of garbage and poverty. I’m sure that my “paradise hotel” is only paradise because of the suffering that goes on in the town itself.
While circling throughout the town we saw hostels that resembled whorehouses and hotels that were, most definitely, flea ridden and unsanitary. Staying in Koh Phi Phi town, while it was much, much cheaper, was far less spectacular. The closest beach was a 1.5 hour hike away (unless you wanted to pay an expensive longboat taxi to take you there), and the town itself is so cramped and crowded that I doubt anyone gets a peaceful night’s sleep (especially with all the young backpackers partying, I presume).
It was a very “real” part of Thailand I was able to see after I lifted the curtain of smiles and pretty Mai Tai cocktails–and it wasn’t just at Koh Phi Phi. This scene seemed to repeat itself no matter where I went in Thailand; Bangkok, Krabi, Phuket, Koh Phi Phi… hell, even the jungle. Thailand is losing itself in tourism, and it’s breaking my heart. I know that it is one of the many cogs that turns their economy, but good lord, something needs to be done.
Hali and I felt it when we were served food and drinks at every hotel on these southern resorts. They smile and use polite English with us, but there’s a very strong sense of dislike that is definitely present in their attitude toward us. I felt gratitude and contempt all rolled up into one, and it was a strange mixture.
My Thoughts on Thailand
I don’t know if it was the people, if it was the mood, the company, the setting, the locations, or even the timing–but Thailand was the first place I have traveled to where I felt little to no connection with the culture. It was bizarre. I was in one of the most beautiful places on Earth, yet I was so disconnected with it all. There were times when instead of feel like I was in Thailand, the sensation was more reminiscent to: Beautiful Beach A and Sandy White Cove B–it could have been anywhere. There wasn’t anything distinctively Thai about some of my experiences, and I felt like the locals in these areas were so accustomed to tourism that they were hesitant to let people in, or were already so well trained in the art of accommodating foreigners they, without knowing it, stopped trying to promote their culture entirely.
I thought that it was just me. I mean, due to my traveling company I was staying at nicer resorts than I would usually book and I was hitting the most touristic places in the entire country. However, when I met other travelers and started sharing my opinion about my disconnection with the culture, they all admitted to having the same feeling. “I thought it was just me,” one American remarked. “I feel relieved to hear you say that, because I have also realized the same thing. It’s like a big show is put up and nothing is real. I just want to be let in.”
This could be due to the fact that southern Thailand IS extremely touristic, thus the local culture is minimized in order to accomodate the throngs of incoming westerners. But then, I thought back to Bali, and that place is equally or even more tourist filled than Thailand, with probably more than 80% of its economy relying on the trips of white people to their small little island. Yet, while on Bali, I felt a deep and moving connection with the place that I wasn’t expecting in the slightest, and I felt the locals open up and share their history and past with me with not only passion, but pride.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Thailand, it was a trip I’ll never forget and I would love to go back and explore the north (I heard Chiang Mai is much better for experiencing real Thai culture). Still, I think the way in which Thailand handles its tourism is really killing the culture. Thailand is becoming a beach paradise–and nothing more.
As I said farewell to Hali at Phuket, I strapped on my backpack and headed to the bus stop. I was beach’d out, and I was ready for some jungle, Kuala Lumpur, and Singaporean cuisine.