Our first stop of Island hopping was Koh Phi Phi, a tourist packed destination, but still a place of uncanny world-class beaches in the Andaman Sea. Koh Phi Phi Don is the largest and most populated of the six islands in the Krabi Province, with Koh Phi Phi Lei just as famous but unpopulated at night because it is part of Koh Phi Phi National Park. The park was created after much controversy of environmental damage after the movie “The Beach” –made famous by a young Leo Dicaprio in 2000 was filmed here.
We arrived and checked into our guesthouse in Ton Sai Village, that we had booked form Bangkok. We learned that we were being charged 200baht ($7 a night) more because we had booked it ahead from a travel agency. I would learn from this trip to never book in advance in Thailand, as it is cheaper to just show up for accommodation. And also I would learn to always get the latest version of a travel guidebook as the 2009 edition said that there wasn’t enough accommodation on Koh Phi Phi and to make sure to book in advance.
After checking in and resting after the long bus haul from Bangkok (it had been close to 18 hours of travel at this point), we went to check out the beach. Ton Sai Bay’s beach is a great place to find cool restaurants and bars and the cheapest accommodation on the island, but the water smells like diesel and the beach is crowded. The next day we would find a much better place to soak up the sun on the beach, but for today we were too tired to walk across the island. We watched the sunset and then decided on Italian food for dinner. We would spend many evening dining at Cosmic, an Italian restaurant with charm, Wi-Fi and delicious gnocchi and pasta.
The next day we heard about a beach that had clearer water and nice sand on the other side of the island. So we hiked for about 45 minutes through private and resorts on a concrete path (I kept asking if we were going the right away and it was okay that we were in a private area, and they said the path was public) until we climbed our last hill and saw Long beach, and the white sand that was promised. We spent the whole day lying in the sun, reading, and playing in the warm water before heading back to Ton Sai Bay to watch the sunset. The islands have two main parts, with a narrow stretch of sand in the middle offering the accommodations, restaurants and resorts. On the other end are the viewpoint and the coastline that makes its way to Long beach and the other beaches farther away. In the middle of the island, on the pathways connecting it are really cute Elephant lampposts and large gardens.
That night we ran into the friends we made in Bangkok and they said to catch up with us on the beach later that night. We never did find them out at the beach bars that evening, but I did get pulled into a show that included a fire limbo. All of the beach bars have fire shows, with several highly skilled and entertaining fire spinners that think of new ones to create a show. One bar had fire jump-rope, another had their own professionals showing us there talents before dousing a limbo bar in
gas and lighting it on fire, and getting the performers to grab random people in the crowd to try going under the bar. I would have said no, but the guy that asked was so cute and I thought, hey, why not? It will be a once in a lifetime chance.
The next day, we had booked a tour to take us to Koh Phi Phi Lei. Our first stop was Monkey Bay, were cute little monkeys climbed down to a swing over the turquoise blue water to play before our long tail boat. It was so cute to see them swing from branch to swing set and then miss and fall in the ocean, and swim to the shoreline to try it again. After a few minutes of adoring the monkeys, we were off to Phi Phi Lei. As we neared the lush cliffs, the water brightened into a shocking hews of emerald green and turquoise, and swirls of vibrant cobalt blue indicated where reef resided below. This was our first snorkeling opportunity. With our masks and snorkels attached to our head, we jumped off the side of the long tail ladder and emerged ourselves in a world of wonder. Small fish swam by as we struggled with the strong current and waves crashing over our heads. The scene under the water was serene and calm, but above the service the current was strong and the powerboats going by were making it difficult to snorkel. After a short while, our guide decided to another location, but still the water was rough. We came around the point and discovered Maya Bay, a beach paradise so awe striking, if it weren’t for the line of speedboats from Phuket, and long tails side by side taking up the entire beach. It was high tide so barely any spots in the sand were free. Chinese families up and down the beach were taking photos splashing in the swim-zone or walking hand-in-hand in their matching swimwear. It was kind of amusing to just people watch. I could tell that this beach had become so popular after the famous book and movie “The Beach” was filmed here. After an hour, our long tail boat ventured to our next snorkeling spot back on Phi Phi Don, Shark Point. This is a place were one can see harmless black tip reef sharks. On this day, we unfortunately were not able to see them, but when I was ten years old I remembered swimming with them. This point was just off Long beach, and if wasn’t for the long tail boats going between the point and shore too fast, I would have snorkeled out here on another day. The next beach location was back on Phi Phi Lei. The beach was really big, and the swimming zone has lots of coral in it so you could snorkel. I was taking photos with my underwater camera and I must have got too close to where a fish laid her eggs cause she bit me in the ankle. I started laughing cause it tickled and ran out of the water. Once on shore I saw the fish made a bite mark (tiny, but still visible). Ridiculous! A fish bit me! When Kelsey went snorkeling and I was sitting on the beach watching our stuff, the weather turned suddenly. The summer balmy weather was gone, and a chilly breeze was replaced, lighting in the sky, and dark thunderclouds rolled in. Our boat driver told us to get in the boat and told us a storm was coming fast. He then asked if we could skip the sunset part of the tour and head home. With dark clouds rolling in the distance, we decided as a group to head back to Phi Phi Don. The rain started pouring and the water was choppy. We accepted the fate of our wet ride as the storm soaked us. As we approached one point it seemed clear to us that it would be vary rare that we didn’t capsize. The driver moved us to the back of the boat and we started pounding the waves. It stared to get really scary. Just as I thought we were going to flip, we moved around the point and were going with the swells instead of against them. We looked around the boat to see cared faces and drenched bodies. It was one hell of a ride!
As we got back to shore, a Thai local held his hand out to us to help us off the boat and asked if we were okay. He also said that we were one of the last small boats out there. We walked through town drenched and in our swimsuits as more rain poured over us. That’s when we ran into our Argentinian friends. They just asked, “What happened to you guys?” as they tried to keep us dry, with no luck under their umbrellas.
That night Pablo, Ruben, Kelsey and I went to dinner at Cosmic and then Ariel, and Damien at Reggae Bar, which offers Thai boxing nightly. Our friend Ruben, who practices Muay Thai, decided to fight that night. The show was amazing and I helped them as I filmed the martial arts and was the water girl. After the fight, everyone was pumped and ready for a night out at the beaches amazing parties. Vendors lined the street in between the restaurants and the beach bars selling buckets of alcohol, light up devices of every sort, and snacks in case you got hungry during the late night parties. The night involved lots of electronic music, fire spinners, bucket drinks, a friend posing with an interesting cement statue, splashing in the water at low tide and fun with all kinds of travelers from all over the world!
The next day our group of South American friends, which was joined by Mariela from Uruguay and Mark from the UK who is fluent in Spanish, headed out to Long Beach. With Kelsey and I leading the way, we took the others past beautiful shorelines, and craggy rocks. Once we arrived at the beach everyone was reading to play for hours in the water. The one thing we didn’t realize was that when the tide goes out the reef is exposed and cut up everyone’s feet, except for me (I managed to cut my hands when I was diving underwater instead). We all limped back to Ton Sai Village, were we slowly walked to enjoy the sunset and the view of Koh Phi Phi Lei. We bandaged our feet up and went out for another night of delicious food and dancing with our friends.
On our fifth day in Koh Phi Phi and what was supposed to be our last day on the island, Mark, Kelsey and I hiked our way up 186 meters above sea level to the viewpoint. From here we could get a breathtaking view of the entire island. The sand strip was surprisingly narrow that connected the two main beach fronts, and it was surprising to realize that 2000 to 3000 locals and tourists are living in this small area. At noon we went to see how our friends diving trip was. They said it was amazing and that they got to dive with turtles and stingrays. Maybe next time I will try a dive trip. In the afternoon, everyone was tired, so just Kelsey and I went to Long beach to soak up the sun.
That night was the evening of the Songkran festival. It is celebrated in Thailand as the traditional New Year’s Day from April 13th to 15th. The celebration marks the end of the dry season. It’s symbolic of the transference of water from the ocean to rice fields. Soon, the monsoon season will arrive with its flooding rains and yet still boiling temperatures. The water is meant as a symbol of washing all of the bad away and is sometimes filled with fragrant herbs when celebrated in the traditional manner. For locals and tourist alike its time for the biggest water fights in the world, and some like to get the party started early. We went down to the beach bars and started dancing, but we knew something was different. Many in the crowds had water guns and as the fire spinners put away their stuff everyone started firing water at each other. As we were unprepared for the early start on the holiday, we only had a small bucket, which we filled with water to get revenge on those squirting us in the faces with salt water. As I ventured down to the water to refill, I noticed some Thai kids playing. I said hi, and started talking to them. It was distraction I found out a few minutes later, as other kids sneaked up on me from behind aimed with buckets of water. As I was getting drenched from both directions a small kid (he had to be about seven) swam under the murky surface of the water, and grabbed my ankles and pulled from beneath making me face plant in the knee-deep water. The festival had officially started and I was ready to play.
Bad timing on our part, the next day we had decided on switching guesthouses. We figured most would still be sleeping the night before off, so we moved in the morning to our new guesthouse with our backpacks lined with trash bags and our pleads of “please, don’t get my computer wet”. We still got wet, but luckily, not my computer and mostly it was just our legs and arms. As we passed a walkway intersection we were greeted with a bucket of chalk, which they wiped, all over our faces, as a blessing for the New Year. After checking in we decided to stay in for the first part of the day. In the late afternoon we decided to try the streets. I thought I was being clever by getting my dress and hair wet in the shower, but it failed as I left the guesthouse and an older gentleman on the steps, took me in a headlock and put an icy cold hose down my back. After getting thoroughly soaked, he released me to walk down the cobblestone way, and get drenched by buckets of water from balconies, and get sprayed in the face by water guns. The throwing of water originated as a way to pay respect to people, by capturing the water after it had been poured over the Buddha statues for cleansing and then using this “blessed” water to give good fortune to elders and family by gently pouring it on the shoulder. In the islands it is a party were foreigners and Thais hang out and enjoy the silliness. We took shelter inside a restaurant were we could watch the crazy scene as we drank our Chang beer. We went home for a little while to dry off for a bit and rest.
In the evening we went back to Slinky’s Bar, which was the most popular club on the long strip of beach, lit up by fire, lasers, and strobe lights. The scene was a crazy, wet party with a makeshift dance floor with raised platforms acting as stages for partiers going crazy to songs blasting into the corners of the night. Everyone had water guns and was actively using them. No one was dry. The night was incredible. We fluttered from party to party-making inst-friends as we threw water, splashed people and danced until our legs ached. Early in the night our friend found a water gun just laying on the beach, so we ended up using it all night.
Taking turns we would decide whom to soak, which mainly meant we were turning on our friends. I would occasional grab an ice chunk from a drink and slide it down someone’s back if they squirted me in the face on purpose with salt water. It was all fun and games. In the 90-degree heat the water splashing around was a welcomed relief. We will always remember dancing the night away during Songkran festival on Phi Phi Island with our new found friends in the lights and techno beats.
The next day was still the festival, but it was much quieter and there was no water being thrown around. We had booked a half-day tour to swim with phosphorescence- the green lights you see in the water as planktonic forms, responding to mechanical stimulation when the water is disturbed by emitting brief bright light. Light emission may be seen in the wake of a large ship for some 20 miles, at Koh Phi Phi Lei with the guys; Pablo, Ruben, Ariel, and Damian. The boat was larger than a long tail with a bathroom and kitchen on board. The trip was so much better than our first time to Koh Phi Phi Lei. First we went to Viking Cave, were our tour guide that spoke English, unlike our first tour, explained about the history of the area. The limestone hills contain many caves, most having beautiful stalactites and stalagmites. According to local tales, fishermen and pirates use to live in the caves. Some of the caves in the Krabi Province are known to contain prehistoric rock-painting depicting humans, animals and geometrical shapes. The caves are also the main sources of nests of the Edible-nest Swiflet, used to create the Chinese bird’s nest soup. Months ago when we were walking around the bird’s nest of Hong Kong I never realized that it traced to the history in Thailand.
When we arrived near Maya Bay for snorkeling our guide told us that we could jump off the top deck of the boat. I was so nervous because I’m scared of jumping from anywhere, and the reef looked so close. The guide jumped in first and then Pablo jumped in. I stood on the edge of the boat for so long, but finally I decided, “I’ll jump!” It was such an exciting rush. If I had more time, I would have climbed back up and did it again. Once inside the water, I swam to the back of the boat to get my mask and snorkel. Coming around to the back I realized that the kids on the boat were feeding the fish. The water was swarming with fish that couldn’t tell if we were food too, so they kept nibbling. I swam away just far enough to take pictures of the chaos of snorkelers and hungry fish, without being tickled by the fish. The reef was amazing with so many different kinds of fish and sea urchins. The water was much calmer than the last time we were here so we could actually enjoy swimming and snorkeling underwater. My favorites when I was young were the angelfish, though now I know they are called the Moorish Idol. With narrow dish-like bodies, and striking bands of black, white and yellow, the fish is graceful beauty swimming by. In the 2003 Pixar film Finding Nemo, a Moorish idol named Gill was one of Nemo’s tank inhabitants.
Maya Bay was much less crowded since we arrived in the late afternoon. The tide was out and we had space to play and frolic in the sand and water. We got to see a heron fishing on the beach as the tiny waves rolled in. We saw swarms of little fish in the shallow water. After a few hours on the beach, we headed back out to our tour boat to wait for the sun to set and the dark night to show off the phosphorescence in the water. I caught snapshot after snapshot of paradise in the sunset with our travel buddies sharing and reveling in the magnificence of the moment.
We had a delicious seafood dinner on the boat. Once it was dark enough, the captain turned off the lights and told us to slide into the ocean water. It was amazing beneath the surface. Everywhere your body stirred turned into a magical ball of lights. Legs were transformed into glowing sticks swimming in the water; fingers were laced with lights.
We swam and swam, thinking to myself this would never get old. After a little while we climbed out and had a snack of watermelon before diving back into the water. Time after time, everyone jumped off the back deck to be engulfed in swarms of light. It was an amazing experience, and reminded me of my childhood in Alaska when we would flush the toilet that used saltwater and it would glow. I just wish the Alaskan waters had been this warm so
we could dive in and see the amazingness under the surface. All that mattered was being in that moment in the water, and life seemed pretty perfect! They called us backin and we head back to Phi Phi Don, with drinks to cheers our wonderful day. Then I looked over and saw the help (teenagers on board) also drinking with us. I guess it was Thai New Years and everyone joined in the fun.
After we arrived back at the island, we took a little siesta before regrouping and heading to Slinky Bar. We were dancing on the sand strip of the beach with all our new friends and along come the Thai children and teens on the boat. The young boys (one had to be 9-10 years old, the other was about 14) were dirty dancing with the foreign woman and their dad was giving them thumbs up signs and handing them more beer. It was a crazy sight to see. At one point, one of my friends had to step in and say I was taken, or the kid wouldn’t leave me alone. It was so bizarre. I guess it really is a different culture. At one point, enclosed within the humidity of the air and the mass that huddled around the stage, the clouds opened and released a torrential ten-minute downpour on our upturned faces. We threw our arms up, and joined in the ecstasy of the moment. The six of us wandered around in a chain, weaving in and out of a place so imaginative, so underground and foreign, yet so perfect.
The next morning was a sad day as we parted ways with our new friends, and said goodbye to the island that showed us its hidden coves and partying nights. But as I have heard once before, the fact that a small sadness such as this is spurred by happiness so great means that the trail you leave behind will be remembered.