i can handle this
I began my Phi Phi experience the way I eventually advised everyone to. First, it's dinner at one of three tried and trusted restaurants. Large portions and cheap prices at Papaya, the give-your-tastebuds-a-break Italian alternative at Cosmos, or the dive shop discount at the restaurant across the road.
From there, it's off to Reggae Bar. There's nothing really reggae about it, other than its red, green and yellow sign. The music shifts between the same overplayed pop strains and a traditional tinny piece that stays in your head for days. But it's here that island-dwellers can watch the professionals go at it in good ol' fashioned Thai boxing. Or, to the tune of one free drink bucket, tourists can try it out themselves. It's usually not so much Muay Thai as cover your face and occasionally jab.
But every once in awhile, you get some guy or girl with built-up travel frustrations and the action intensifies.
After taking in your fair-share of amateur fisticuffs and free orange shots, you leave humming that godawful tinny tune and looking for the next hot spot. A short walk through the alley will get you a drink at Tiger Bar. I didn't spend much time there, but did what I could to encourage others to, out of support for the bar's amiable owner, Brownie. A Thai guy with a charming british accent and possible design jobs for me.
The final stop of the night is invariably one of the beach bars. There's no better way to remind yourself you're living it up on an island than to drink fruity cocktails on the beach, while watching a fire show and dancing the night away next to the sea.
It seemed like every traveler had the same idea and crowded the dance floors of Ibiza or Apache until the wee hours of each morning. On Phi Phi, every night is Saturday night and every day Sunday morning. You really have no choice but to participate and enjoy.
This is how I spent the first of my 15 days on the little island south of Phuket. Like so many of my other stops, I planned to be there for the weekend, but quickly found reasons to extend my stay. The number one reason (if I dare put anything before the beautiful, sunny beaches) was my hosts. Kyla and Daniel are a couchsurfing couple that originally contacted me. It did occur to me, on occasion, that it could be a little awkward to share the tight quarters of a one-bedroom bungalow with a couple.
But it just wasn't. Kyla was grateful for the company of another female and Daniel spent every waking hour at the dive shop where he worked. Moskito Diving was the hub of their lives on Phi Phi, and in turn, became one for me as well. The steady flow of Dive Master Trainees and passing couchsurfers provided an instant group of friends and a place to spend the rainy days. When day after day passed and they still hadn't grown sick of me, I surrendered my offer to find something new and relished the generosity of my longest CS hosts to date.
The second through 60th reasons for staying so long are those glorious, sunny beaches. The town has its fair share of strange smells and ramshackled lots, but everything relating to the water is straight out of a honeymoon package.
the market during a downpour
The strip of land squeezed between Loh Dalum and Ton Sai Bays holds a few thousand residents, rows of markets and eateries, and half of Sweden's 20-something population. Every business is geared towards tourists and every local holds a job based on tourism. It's a surreal piece of Eden that's located in Thailand but doesn't really represent it. Everyday at 10 and 4, boatloads of beautiful backpackers take over the streets. Restaurants fill up, the beaches crowd with sunbathers and the infinite supply of dive shops and massage parlors pine for new customers.
There are no roads on Phi Phi, just paved walking paths. Which also means no cars. Bicycles are the main mode of transportation for locals, and often without brakes. They fearlessly weave their way through inattentive tourists, offering up a verbal "beep beep!" when necessary.
everyone's second home
7-Eleven sits in the middle of town and serves as the grocery store and oversized icebox for temporary heat relief. (As it turns out, 7-11s are everywhere in Thailand, which is simultaneously convenient and sickening.) Big resorts eat up most of the waterfront property on both bays, while countless smaller guesthouses and bungalows fill the gaps in between. There are internet shops, used bookstores, travel agencies, and fruit shake/thai pancake carts on every corner. It became a daily ritual to get a fruit shake. After a week I could tell you where to get the thickest, cheapest, friendliest or tastiest one. My fondness for the fruit shake was bettered only by one other island delight : the donut. Everyday at a time you couldn't pinpoint, but rather had to just feel, the donut lady would roll around with her umbrellaed cart and unmistakable cry: "Donuts! 10 Baht, 10 Baht! Chocolate, vanilla, strawberry! Donuts!!" My ears perked up with the sound of her voice and my eyes began to twinkle.
erik and the lovely donut lady
The donut lady had once again made my day a little brighter. I miss her.
All of the island's beauty can be seen from a lofty viewpoint. A 25-minute hike up a steep stairway and tortuously ascending path rewards you with a National Geographic-worthy view of the dumbbell-shaped island and surrounding wall of jutting cliff towers. It's the perfect place to watch the sunset, if you don't mind sharing the moment with a dozen other like-minded tourists and hungry mosquitoes. This would have been the only safe spot on Phi Phi in 2004, when the tsunami devastated the island from both directions. The wave hit first at 10am on the Ton Sai side, and minutes later was echoed by a larger one in Loh Dalum. Phi Phi lost thousands of people and all of the businesses were flattened.
sunset at the viewpoint
The rebuilding process was fairly quick considering and the evidence of the tragic day is sparse. There's a daunting, well-marked evacuation path now that serves as a daily reminder, and every shop owner has a story to tell. The buildings and people would be in the same vulnerable position, were something so awful to happen again. I just hope experience gives them an advantage. If for no better reason than a selfish one that I now have faces to go with the geography.