Understanding Koh Phi Phi

That famous island
That famous island


Understand one thing: when Andy and I travel, we do it buffet style. And by that I mean that we don’t order one dish and stick to it. No, no, we pile many plates high and gorge ourselves on forkfuls of variety. We run through visits for 14-hour days, arrive at our lodgings late into the nights, tell each other we’ll relax the next day… and then somehow repeat the darn thing all over again.


We can’t go to just one spot.


So when it came time to fly to south Thailand, we didn’t throw all our money on one horse, so to speak, but we spread it around—a little Phuket, a little Khao Lak, and little Koh Phi Phi. We’ve got to see as much of it as possible, we said. Who knows if we’ll ever come back? We’ve got to see it all.


So we took on all we could, but Koh Phi Phi was the star of the trip, the glowing vortex of anticipation, the swollen bulls-eye of the vacation. And if you’ve ever seen a picture of this gem, you’ll know why: water clear enough to count fish 5 meters down and blue as a gas flame burning in an archangel’s kitchen; sand so fine it makes your toes go crazy craving more; and a set of jungled cliffs spearing straight up through the sky’s soft clouds. What more could any beach junky binge on?


Imagine dreaming of this island for years, lusting after its pristine beauty and flawless crafting, its swooning forest above and its coral architecture below. Imagine the flowers in the breezes and that jet blue sea behind that and your face kissed again and again by new glories each time you turn around. Imagine slaving deep, deep into midnight hours scouring lodgings and locations and reviews—and doing this so meticulously that you know its geography as well as the locals. Imagine your joy when you understand that this, this few days’ time in this most majestic location, will finally come to fruition and manifest itself before your eyes.


The blue, blue water we couldn't wait for
The blue, blue water we couldn’t wait for

Imagine now that this island, this dream, this scene is torn away from you by the bureaucratic red tape of a re-entry permit.


If you can understand this, then you’ll understand exactly what happened to my wife. She sweated over that island for hours upon hours. She loved it before she met it. She saw no flaw possible, no matter how many hints I read and mentioned that it was spiraling down into a new Patong. She obsessed over its natural beauty—perhaps rivaled elsewhere in the world, but surely not surpassed.


But our fiasco with a re-entry permit for Indonesia ripped that dream to shreds: the three days they scheduled to process the new permit—a world away in the dust and noise and grit of Bangkok—fell exactly on the days we’d dedicated to Phi Phi.


She was crushed, and she was angry. I thought one of us might not live through the week. I wasn’t sure which one it would be.


Who wouldn't want to visit that?
Who wouldn’t want to visit that?

But she’s a brave girl and the best wife on the planet, I have to say, and she resigned herself to the cruel fate dealt to her. She suffered through Bangkok tourism, and—lo and behold, there then shone forth upon us the blessed revelation of the re-entry permit completed a day and a half early! I rushed off to the embassy while she started throwing everything into our bags. In an hour we were packed, had the passports back in hand, and were Sky-Training back to the airport, giddy as squirrels on a twelve-pack of Mountain Dew.


The plane touched down in Phuket that night, and we hit the tourist-trap lobby with a game plan—book the best and most comprehensive one-day tour package of Phi Phi, for as little as any sane tour group will allow.


We’d pulled this stunt with James Bond Island, we’d lived on negotiated prices for most of the last year: we were sharp and we were ready for the tour sharks. At the end of the hour we strutted out of the tourist waylay station of the airport snickering and fist-bumping. We’d done it.


Sunset dinner on the Phuket beach. Early morning launch for Phi Phi. Just a one-day trip, but at least we would have one day in our dreamed-of paradise.


Andy scanned and re-scanned the tour program: memorizing times and locations and comparing them to the notes she’d made through the previous weeks. It wasn’t everything—it couldn’t possibly contain everything she’d planned—but if we played the cards right, we could make it work.

Enjoying the marina before taking off
Enjoying the marina before taking off

Here was the Marina in the morning: white boats, blue waters, and Russians. Swarms and scores and oodles of Russians. Russians in the plastic chairs gathering outside, Russians in the gift shop, Russians in the restroom. I started to get the impression we’d booked a flight to St. Petersburg. Is there a beach in Southeast Asia these guys aren’t flocking to?


“Listen up!” the guide was hollering and turning his hat around backwards, “We gonna go through some stuff first.” He was a muscular young guy with an oversized tattoo on each shoulder and a starter beer gut rounding out his belly. “First we gonna welcome you and—” it was the usual formalities, and he was the usual guide.


Young and confident, enough English from a few semesters in a community college somewhere in California, which he didn’t graduate for some vague reason, and now was, on the basis of his charisma and his English, leading a tour boat for an up-and-coming outfitter of daily Phi Phi trips. He adopted a Western name easy for us to pronounce—Roy—and took off on the safety and admin details. At his side was a young Russian translator; she took out her I-pod earbuds just long enough to hear Roy’s sentence and translate.


“And listen up to this, ‘cause it’s important. This,” and he held up a laminated photo of a hideous and mutilated foot, “is the thing that happen when you step on one of these.” And he held aloft a laminated photo of a black-spiked ball of fierceness. “It sea urchin, people. You step on these and it take a week—two week—get spines out.” He waited for the murmurs of the crowd to rise and fall. “You ticket include snorkel mask and snorkel tube, but no snorkel fins. If you want rent fins and protect you feet…” He didn’t need to go on, everyone was already knocking each other over to get to the front of the fin rental counter.


Oh, so it’s going to be one of those tours. I get it.


Snorkeling -- but the fins are extra
Snorkeling glory — but the fins are extra

A half hour later we were out in the open water, cruising to our dreamland. Seas were lazy, skies were blue, and the four outboard motors hummed like a supercharged blender in top gear. We were kicking up a thick rooster-tail of Andaman Sea behind us, spiking our bow skyward, and spinning on out to Phi Phi at a rate fit to satisfy an obsessed island-monger.


“OK,” Andy was running down the game plan, “We’re going to Maia Bay first—that’s our picture spot. When we get there, you get out of the boat first. Make sure I don’t get my dress wet yet, and we’ll pick the best photo spot before the others get there and get in our pics.”


I nodded; we’d been through this plan before.


“After we get the pics, then we can change and swim.” She smiled and patted my hand. “But I want to snorkel with you.”


I nodded again. None of this was new. Pictures first—at the most picturesque spot—while we’re dressed nice; then change and get wet and sandy.


Monkey Bay--another checkmark on the itinerary
Monkey Bay–another checkmark on the itinerary

So we sat back to enjoy the gentle rocking of the speedboat plowing through the long, low swells. And we counted the Russians. Roughly forty of the fifty aboard were speaking Russian to one another.


Roy was fuming. Seriously fuming. “Man. Why they stick me on the Russian boat? I ain’t gonna get no tips like this.”


Nor by flipping the schedule on us, Roy. As we neared the sheer cliff faces of the islands, everyone was out of their seat and crowding the open windows. Andy’s eyes were swimming in joy. She craned her neck and squeezed my hand.


Then she stopped.  Her eyes widened.  “This isn’t right,” she said.  “This is the wrong island.”  She rushed off to grab Roy.


“OK,” Roy started to explain to us, “We gonna snorkel first at Phi Phi Bay up at the main island. Then we gonna stop for lunch…”


Phi Phi Bay -- not too shabby
Phi Phi Bay — not too shabby

“Why?” Her mascara-lined eyes were volatile, her voice rising: “Why would you change the schedule now?”


He shrugged.  “Too crowded now.”


Andy stared lasers as he sauntered off to chat with the pilot.  I had to act quick.


Wrenching my mangled hand free of her grip, I rushed to the emergency box. Breaking the glass with the hammer, I grabbed the flare gun, fire extinguisher, tranquilizer darts, and tie-wraps. What ensued was a horrible battle on the speedboat to wonderland—flares and screams and spreading fire, shattered glass and sanity, wild surges of panic and adrenaline and so much scar tissue… it wasn’t pretty. Many bystanders lost their lives… or life jackets… or something.


In actuality, Andy was a surprisingly good sport about the change—eventually—and the snorkeling (in the fins we had to pay extra for) was as pristine and glorious as it ought to be. Fish were swarming, seas were clear far down to the floor and far out into the bay, and the sun sliced through the waves in bright yellow wrinkles of dancing light. It ended all too soon, but we were somehow already behind schedule for the lunch.


In the water--earlier than expected
In the water–earlier than expected

We sped through the buffet and tried to make it to Phi Phi overlook—another must-have on the list—but precious time was just too scanty. We settled for snapshots on that solitary beach of that island famed for so many perfect beaches, and were back griping on the boat in no time.


This wasn’t the understanding we’d had when we booked the tour.


We did get to see the other famous coves and inlets—at about 45 seconds each. Here’s how they went. The Russian guide would step to the front, rattle on and on about the history and the ecology, the global significance and the conservation efforts in place, interesting facets of bio-diversity and philosophical meta-physics, maybe quote some poetry and tell a couple jokes and spin some interesting trivia, do a couple magic tricks. When she finished, and the gathered suburbs of Moscow finished their pounding ovations and throwing roses, Roy would sulk to the front: “So this gonna be Viking Cave. We stay here a couple minutes.”


Thank you, Roy.


The coves and caves were probably awesome, judging by the screens of the enormous tablets the crowd in front of me was holding in the air.  Who was the idiot who decided an I-pad needed a camera?  Now we’re cursed with a generation of techies trying to memorialize events by holding up a poster to photograph a tiny monkey at a distance. I would have used the trusty flare-gun to coax a few more Russians overboard, but the pilot was already backing us out again. Plus I was out of flares.


“We’re leaving already?” Andy was borderline livid again.


“It’s probably not his fault, I said while hunting through another emergency kit. “There are so many of us on the bow, he probably thinks that he’s going further in, but just can’t see to be sure.” She glared; obviously not buying it, so I tried another. “Or maybe it’s a safety precaution—you know, this boat could nose-first into the bay if we don’t do something to distribute the weight more evenly.”


Our turn for a picture on the bow
Our turn for a picture on the bow

Or here’s the scene at the Monkey Cove.  The guidebook boasts a toothsome tourists on a yacht, hand-feeding plump bananas to the sleek crowd of monkeys.  Here’s how ours went: we slammed into the calm waters.  The help staff chucked a dozen bananas at the cliffs.  A few straggling monkeys came out of hiding to show up in wobbly, rushed snapshots.  Several bananas splashed to the water.  But we were already chugging out of the cove.


You get the picture: Too many stops; too little time.


Fastforward through a few more bays like that, and you’ll find us at Maia, the next-to-last paradise on the revised schedule. We checked our supplies and our gear. We ran through the list of pictures we needed. We elbowed our way to the exit ramp at the rear of the boat. This was it. This was Maia Bay–the centerpiece, the moment of glory, the make-or-break sequence of all those late nights googling paradise, of all those long phone calls and annoying customer reviews and high-stress tour-operator wrangling. This was it.


Towering cliffs surrounded a glimmering, turquoise eye of launches—from row boats to kayaks to half-sized yachts—and so many beach-loungers you could hardly find a free piece of sand. We gripped our camera and tripod, tightened out wet-sack of towels and swim gear. Pulses quickened. Outside sounds fell to a muffled growl.


We squeezed each other’s hands.


The engines cut.


This was it.


Have you ever seen the Normandy beach scenes of Saving Private Ryan—the headlong rush to shore amid a million screaming bullets and a hundred thousand obstacles and ten thousand splashing beach-stormers? Well, it went something like that—but without the machine guns and gore, or course. Or the explosions and death. Or the uniforms, or equipment… Or the selfless patriotism and humble sacrifice and bold determination…


You know what? It really wasn’t anything like Normandy all. It was just a couple of crazies making a mad, splashing dash to the beach, with a boatload of Russians wondering what the heck was going on.

Mission (sort of) accomplished
Mission (sort of) accomplished


We got there and started checking off the pics—landscape, check; portraits, check; couple, check; full-body portrait, check. We went on and on—our own private studio in the sand. Well, except that it wasn’t so private. We had to muscle a few dozen careless tourists out of the frame for every shot. Then our photo-gap would fill in again, and we had to go back to work clearing them out. It took grit and determination, angry looks and polite requests, creative angles and a lot of cropping. But in the end, the results were worth it—we successfully made Maia Bay seem like a secluded little glimpse of personal glory and peaceful bliss. What can I say? A picture is worth a thousand lies, if you train the lens correctly. We could be advertisers.


Despite the flopped schedule, and despite the costume swapping and the crowds and the rush between sites, Andy and I had the centerpiece gem of the Phi Phi dream: dazzling photos of Maia Bay. Well, at least dazzling by our amateur standards. High fives and knuckles and let’s go swimming.


Not so fast: Roy was already hollering to board up and head out.


Even so, we were all smiles in the whine and the whir of the speedboat. The Maia Bay visit wasn’t ideal, and it wasn’t as planned, but we got our taste. In fact, we got to sample most of both the Ko Phi Phi islands. We had tackled Maia Bay, and we had the photos to glory in ever after.


Making the scene seem calm
Making the scene seem calm

Relax. Change back to your sloppy beach-wear. Just one more stop remains on the schedule: Khai Island.


If you’ve never heard of Khai, you’re not alone. I think this tiny fleck of sand is unique to this tour company’s visits. But if you’re ever interested in how a mafia might run an island paradise, book a trip here. Take the following examples.


Protection Racket:

“Don’t leave your stuff on the boat,” Roy says, “we can’t guarantee it’ll be safe.” Strange, I respond—that’s not been an issue at any other stop…


“Don’t leave your stuff on the beach,” Roy adds, “it might get stolen.” Why are we stopping at an island full of pickpockets, I wonder.


“But if you rent a lounge chair,” Roy says, “they’ll watch out for it and make sure it’s OK. But if you don’t rent their chair…” Ahhh, now I get it—the protection racket. The we-won’t-steal-and-break-your-stuff-if-you-pay-us scheme.


Oh, and if you’re a couple, don’t plan on being safe with just one lounge chair.


But as an added bonus, the five dollar fee for the beach chair includes a bottle of beer.  Well, an empty bottle. In fact, a broken bottle.  Just enough to get your feet looking like Roy’s sea-urchin picture.  “So what do I choose,” Andy muttered, “mutilating my feet on the broken glass here in my chair, or in the sea-urchin infested waters?”


The Extortion Racket:

“You can snorkel,” Roy reminds us, “but they is tons of sea urchin. So rent your fin and protect your feet.” Yes, I mumble. I remember that one. What else do I need to pay for—I mean, know about?


The post-lunch pictures
The post-lunch pictures

The Exorbitant Bathroom Racket:

“I’m going to use the restroom before we snorkel,” Andy told me. Ten seconds later she was back. “I’ll hold it,” she said. “They want two dollars to use their hole in the sand.”


Maybe I’ve been spoiled being raised in the Midwest, where a public restroom is a human decency and a matter of fact. Be respectful and polite and clean, and of course you can use the facilities, and no one complains. That’s the Midwest. In big cities, you might need to make a purchase. Overseas, you have to hand someone cash to pee in their filthy bathroom.


Talk about an idea for a business—there will always be demand. And what parent wouldn’t be proud to boast of their kid’s entrepreneurialism. “Yes, my son owns his own business… Yes, that’s right. Makes hundreds of sales a day…. Very popular product… It’s a little plumbing concern down on the corner of…” you get the idea. Scoundrels making bank on your bladder.


I don’t like paying for peeing.


The Overpriced Drinks in a Stifling Environment Racket:

Talk about creating demand—the sun is sizzling and the sand baking and the tourists wilting. Everyone’s in agreement: better stay hydrated. Good thing the water is sold at New York City mark-up. Good thing that even Singapore can offer a cheaper drink. Good thing Khai island is here to empty your wallet before you reach the mainland again.


The Extended Stay on the Price Gouging Island Racket:

Of all the gorgeous inlets and bays and beaches we saw on that tour, one wasn’t rushed. Of all the glories of all the beauties of that day, we only had our fill on one. Of all the wonders in the majestic Andaman that tour shuffled us to, we only tired of one.


You guessed it: the mafiaso island of Khai. I guess you could say they made us a deal we couldn’t refuse.


Snorkeling -- where there is actually water, of course
Snorkeling — where there is actually water, of course

The tour pamphlet claims the schedules change with tides and weather. So when we stumbled upon Roy, we asked him about the scheduling, since the Khai Island low tide meant the coral was actually poking from the water, and where it wasn’t, it was scraping snorkelers’ bellies and knees raw—not to mention stabbing them with the thousands of urchins Roy himself had warned us against. He was lounging under the lean-to shack with the local racketeers, laughing loudly and often—probably at all the money they were greasing from the pockets of the boat tourists.


“No, no,” he grunted, hands clasped behind his backward baseball cap. “We stay here now. In high tide this island fine.”


I raised an eyebrow. “High tide? How long until that comes in?”


“Maybe midnight or so, I think.”


“But that—”


He just shrugged.


Why take us to the worst island at the worst moment and stay there for the most time? Why not realize that the low tide cripples Khai’s charm, and stop by in the morning instead? Why not lounge so long at the bay and the beaches the people prefer to see?


That’s obvious: it’s not in their territory.  And the low tide keeps people on the beach and buying drinks.  And, after scraping their skin raw and wrestling the million sea urchins, tourists decide that maybe they do indeed feel like paying to pee than trying to swim here.


But it didn’t matter—Roy had his money, he sold his tickets, he whipped us around on the promised tour (sort of). And now, now he and the crew just had to while away a couple more hours until the ride home.


The Russians didn’t seem to mind.


But then again, they hadn’t meticulously engineered a detailed itinerary over months of daydreams and research. It was just another day at just another beach for them.


Can I really complain about that?
Can I really complain about that?

In the end, though, how much can I really complain about Khai?—the beach is white and ringed with lapping waves. The coral is vivid and swimming with life: you can even bumble out there right on top of it–in your rented fins–to enjoy it. The horizon sports the mountains and the cliffs of the towering pillars of the bay. Stop being cheap and just pay off the island mafia. Blame the passport snafu and re-entry bureaucracy. Relax and have a coconut—wait.  How much is a coconut? OK. Just relax, then.


And we did—an island with time to enjoy it is a beautiful thing. A speedboat home on a happy stomach and oceans of sunshine is majestic. Nudges from a smiling wife are treasures in themselves, and despite rushing ourselves ragged and gnashing teeth at diabolic schedules, the charm of the tropic islands somehow soaked through our weak skin.


We understood that after only a few minutes.


We bagged Koh Phi Phi—no denying it. But it was more like rushing through the remnants of a buffet with only ten minutes until close.


It wasn’t enough. It wasn’t the best. It couldn’t be savored.


We did it, but understand this: We need to come back.

Until next time...
Until next time…



One thought on “Understanding Koh Phi Phi

  1. Sounds adventurous! Well I guess I prefer a similar condition for travelling; the ‘buffet’ style like you and yes it is the best way to spend vacation and making the most out of it. Keep rocking 🙂


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