Day 14: Islands

This feels like my last full day in Thailand. Tomorrow I fly back to Bangkok before an early morning flight to Bhutan. But there’s no time to think about that! I have stuff to do!

So I woke up nice and early for my trip to Ko Phi Phi (pronounced koh pee pee). Yay for another long day. I checked out and had a quick bite at breakfast, and then caught a taxi to the dock. Unlike in Bangkok where the taxis are well organized, well marked, and have meters, here you have none of that. A taxi is a car with a cardboard sign on it and you have to haggle your price. I get the driver down to 500 baht with no stops and away we go. God I hate Phuket. In Bangkok this same trip would cost maybe 150 baht and I would have a taxi number and a place to call if the guy does something lame. Instead I have to trust he wont just steal my bags. I keep my passport on me to be sure.

At the docks its the same deal, people trying to steer you to the ferry vendor they get their commission from. I find an English ex-pat and ask which is the best, he says Phi Phi Cruiser. I’m skeptical because I’ve met other Englishmen over here trying to sell me hookers or booze cruises, but they seem to have the nicest boats and the time table matches what was at the hotel’s pamphlet so I figure it’s legit. I buy my round trip with an open departure time on the return and I’m off.

The ride over for the most part was pretty calm and straight forward, and the ferry takes a loop around Ko Phi Phi Leh for pictures and some brief explanation. I get some decent photos from the bow. It’s a bit wet up there though and I’m thankful I have my lens cleaning clothes to get the salt off my filter. Surprisingly it’s so hot and humid compared to the air con cabin my lens’ element closes to the mirror fogs up, that’s never happened before!

Getting off the ferry and I’m immediately hearing the now familiar parrot calls of “where you going?!”. Err leave me be. But a guy asks me when I’m looking at a map if I have a room and to get him to go away I simply say yes, I have a reservation at The White. I don’t, but its the guest house I was recommended. He points on the map where it is and walks off. I’m surprised. You’re not going to try to sell me something? No tour? That’s a good sign. Walking down the main road I’m not sure where  I’m quite going and I’m asked if I need help by an English voice. I look up and a tall ginger man standing in a dive shop was addressing me. I say I think I’m fine and keep walking because I’m still skeptical and he asks if I need a free map. I decide it’s worth getting harassed a little if I can get a map. He hands me a black and white print out and circles the The White’s location on the map. Then wishes me good luck. Whoa, I’m already liking this place. As I leave he tells me he’s Luke and asks my name which I give him. I easily find my destination with the map and check in. The room seems fine, it’s as I had heard, all white inside. But clean and seems quiet. No room for rats in the walls when they’re made of concrete too. And yes that’s now something I look for when I see a room. No rats? Check. My only problem is that the shower is right next to the toilet with no divide. You shower and the toilet seat gets wet. But you know for $30 on a resort island it’s good enough for me.

Ko Phi Phi Don is the larger of the 2 Phi Phi sisters, it’s got a thin low isthmus like at Catalina along with a bustling but interesting little town called Tonsai. There are no cars or tuk tuks allowed on the island thank god, and even few motorcycles are allowed. Most other transport is handled by water taxis, these long boats you might imagine zipping up the river in Bangkok. All of the roads are brick or cobbled in the main bit of town. There aren’t really any main roads and the buildings are arranged in a backwards L-shape. The population is largely Islamic which when I found out perked my ears up. Roti? Mutaba? Please? The religious leaning of the island doesn’t just influence the cuisine here, but visitors are advised to wear shirts and for the women skirts when not at the beach to not offend. It classes things up a bit and I think maybe changes the starting attitude of visitors away from the crazy crap you see in other places where it’s seen as ok to be drunk, rude, and messy because you’re a tourist. That’s not to say there isn’t a night life, there is quite the night life, it’s just not so crass. There also seems to be much much much less pestering and hard selling, and if you decline what’s being suggested to you there are no under the breath curses or people calling you “crazy”. This is far more pleasant. What’s more, as I was explained to later, because the island is fairly low and small, most bad weather passes over it instead of hanging around like on Phuket. And boy is the weather nice. Big white fluffy clouds in patches with large swaths of blue sky. Excuse the colorful language, but I’m wondering what the fuck I was doing staying in Patong yesterday.

Now my next goal is to see what I can get done. I had read that The Adventure Club organizes hikes as I figure I don’t have time to snorkel today I look up their website and find their location (no surprise it’s not on the map from a competing dive center), but also find they offer an afternoon snorkeling tour around 2pm, perfect timing it’s just past noon. Arriving at their office or stall or whatever you wanna call it I’m told that the person who runs that tour is down with the flu and told I can go to pretty much any dive center and get a tour arranged for a bit more money. I also get some directions to the known good eats! I decide that since Luke was so personable and helpful without asking anything up front in return I’d give him a shot. Sure enough Luke was able to put me on an afternoon tour to Ko Phi Phi Leh that would have us visiting a harbor full of monkeys, see a swallows nest farm where they collect nests for birds nest soup, visit the bay where The Beach was shot, go snorkeling and kayaking, and finally watch the sun set between the two islands. I even had two options, a long boat for 250 baht, or the big boat for 500 baht. He recommended the big boat, and it was a good choice. I was first sold on the idea of being able to bring my SLR with me and leave it safely on the boat and is totally worth the $9 difference. I had just enough time to grab a quick bite and rush back to my guest house for my camera gear.

As it turns out this was the perfect thing for a rushed traveler like myself. I got to cram a whole lot into a short time, meet new people, and I had perfect weather. On the boat I saw a white guy sitting alone, everyone else seemed to be with a wife or girlfriend or their larger family. I figured it was another solo backpacker and struck up a conversation. His name was Chris and he was from the UK where he had just finished up his PhD in bio-informatics (a field I was quite curious about joining as an undergrad) and was going to do post-doc research at Cambridge. A nice guy and we hit it off.

At our first stop we were told they had a water proof box that we could put our cameras in which would then go into a water proof bag for double safety and be carried ashore by their dinghy. We had the option as well to swim ashore instead of riding to the dinghy. I left my glasses behind and dove in sending my camera in the box. We were a little behind when we arrived on shore but it was quite fun to swim the few hundred feet to shore in warm tropical waters. The bay was filled with other tourists snapping away at these monkeys come down from the cliffs lured by free pineapple. They’re so used to humans at this point they let you get quite close. Because I didn’t have my glasses I couldn’t tell if my problematic 28-135 lens was focusing correctly or not. I decided it best to just snap 3-4 shots for every one I want to make the lens failure rate per shot low enough. I actually like the shots that turned out, they’re of course in the gallery below. Oh humans, disrupting the ecosystem for our amusement.

From there we went on to Viking Cave, a settlement of sorts that goes to the highest bidder each season to collect parts of swallow birds nest to be sold for a shockingly high price in China to make Bird’s Nest Soup. We weren’t allowed in as it disrupts the birds. Only 2-4 people are allowed there, and they live on the island for 6 months collecting pieces of nests which are then rebuilt by the birds. I was less interested.

Next up was Maya Bay, the location for The Beach, a film I’ve never watched but feel the need to now. Getting there is a bit harry. There are some steps leading into the water with ropes coming off of it. We approach by dinghy, but the swell crashing against the rocks makes it a bit of a scramble and chaotic. The dinghy is heavy which makes it hard to control as well. I’m not convinced swimming wouldn’t be less dangerous because then you only have to worry about being smashed against the rocks, not also crushed by a boat. I quickly scramble my way up while others had more trouble. Once up and over you find yourself in a nice patch of sand. There is a ranger station here which is inhabited all year round and is the base of operations for rangers stationed to keep the island from being taken advantage of more than it is. No one lives on Ko Phi Phi Leh besides them. After a short walk we’re in this wonderful little bay. It would be quite protected if it’s mouth wasn’t oriented directly towards the trade winds. I’m told that normally during the high season there are hundreds of people here packing nearly every inch of the beach and water. I feel immensely lucky, I came during the low season and somewhat later in the day so there are maybe 30 people when we arrive including us, and 40 by the time we leave. There are even sections of the beach where there are no people at all and I’m able to capture some very striking photos. You couldn’t ask for more photographic scenery. I then put my camera away and took a dip. The slight swell was pleasant and the water very warm. I couldn’t be happier. Eventually it was time to go and me, Chris, and an Englishman living here but helping out for the day take a little stroll down a different path that leads back falling behind the main group. By the time we get to the rope ladder chaos there is another 2 or so longboat groups coming ashore swimming. Many of the women had no idea what the tour had in store and wore inappropriate swim suits for these kinds of waves so they’re freaking out even more than normal having to deal with the waves, rocks, plus clothing malfunctions. We try to get down to our dinghy but they realize they’re making things dangerous for those trying to come ashore and leave saying they’ll be back. The situation doesn’t improve so we fight our way through the people trying to get on the island and dive off into the water swimming to the dinghy a bit off shore. It’s exhilarating and kind of funny. I can’t help but chuckle that this would never be possible in the states. I’m told this little hole in the rock next to the ladder is how people used to get onshore. No thanks.

Next up is our last stop, a little bay too shallow for our big boat we lay anchor and unload kayaks and snorkel gear. I want to go snorkeling first since it’s been so long and I’d much rather be cut short kayaking. The reef is underwhelming though after I’ve been lucky to see. I should have expected as much judging from the dramatic geology of the islands, they’re clearly very new. The best snorkeling in my mind is pretty much always coral islands and atolls like Niue or Ahe. It was still fun though. It amazed me a bit how fast it all came back; how to dive and clear the snorkel, how to efficiently use fins, and just the general comfort level. I felt like a fish in water. Though the fish disagreed as they shied away from my nosy dives down to the bottom. I had my fill though after an hour and grabbed a kayak to have a poke around the harbor. The scenery is stunning. I take a moment to just lie back and look up at the rock walls surrounding me. Life is good.

On our way back to Tonsai we watch the sun set behind quickly growing clouds. It’s not as stunning as I had hoped but still very very pleasant. We’re fed some fried rice which is quite tasty and I get to try one of the crew member’s food prepared by his mother, it’s a sort of curried sardines and is quite spicy. I know though that now I can handle Thai spicy, it’s just not always as tasty that way. I end up sitting at the bow right over the pilot’s house and down from the seating area. I’m on cloud 9.

After that I ate and walked around town, but nothing nearly as cool as the day’s activities so I’ll end it here.  Oh but I did have a banana roti with nutella for desert. Mmmmmmmm.


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