Ko Phi-Phi: On Irony Island

Phi Phi Le

Phi-Phi was a quiet island of Muslim fishermen, until the travellers arrived.

There were only a few at first, but then their friends came and their friends’ friends and their friends’ friends’ younger brothers, who came with a bunch of people they had met on Samui, and a few crates of beer and a big bag of weed and some music. It is not quiet anymore.

Loh Dalum Beach is still beautiful, so long as you keep looking out to sea. Behind you, there is a line of bars with big sound systems and bigger neon signs. There is EDM at Slinky, dubstep at Stones and reggae at the Chillout Bar.

Sometime around nine, the DJ’s jerk up the volume and bare-chested performers run onto the stage and juggle with burning batons. One swings two burning balls connected by a chain around his torso and between his legs. Then two of them douse a rope in petrol, light it and swing it with increasing speed and invite volunteers to skip with it. Plenty try. Buckets make you do things like that.

When the sun starts to set, every guesthouse and restaurant on the way to the beach brings out a tray of plastic buckets like children use for sandcastles. Each contains a packet of straws, a quarter bottle of Sang Som whisky, a Coke and an energy drink. The idea is to tip all the drinks into the bucket and suck them up through the straw until you are hammered enough to skip with a burning rope.

The Coke and the energy drink keep you alert when, by rights, you should be asleep in a corner and you think you are fine and get another bucket and then it is sometime in the afternoon the next day.

Slinky has a stage on the beach so you can look out to sea as you dance. There is a dead tree in front of it with its trunk stripped, its branches lopped off and two slats of wood nailed to the top to make a platform just big enough to stand on.

Throughout the night, when I was there, travellers tried to climb to the top of the tree to dance on the platform in front of the crowd. A Scandinavian guy powered himself up in three fluid movements, an Irish guy got partway up then slithered to a giggling heap on the sand, and an English girl squeezed herself half onto the platform but could neither stand up nor climb down and stayed where she was, with her arms and legs waving uselessly like a beetle on its back.

It is all good fun and an essential stop on the Banana Pancake Trail; but when the effects of the buckets have finally worn off, you might start to imagine it from a local’s perspective. “It puts money in their economy,” some travellers shrug.

Yet there is disquiet back home if a Polish shop opens on the high street, and outrage if planning consent is given for a mosque. Professionally intolerant columnists write another 2,000 inflammatory words, and badly-spelled bigotry is circulated on Facebook. Meanwhile, in Thailand, the children and grandchildren of the angry people have taken a sleepy island and made it into a version of Ibiza.

It is Leonardo DiCaprio’s fault. The Beach was filmed on Ko Phi-Phi Le, even though it was set in the Lower Gulf Islands on the opposite coast. It is a fifth of the size of the main island, Phi-Phi Don, which itself is only five miles by two, and as stunningly beautiful as the book says it should be.

It is a bit less crowded than Times Square, and slightly more relaxing than the running of the bulls. Boats crowd into the tiny bay, dripping oil into the lovely cyan water. The roar of the motors echoes around the cliffs. Thousands of feet kick the pristine sand into a lunar landscape disaster. Tourists excited to be standing where DiCaprio stood let crisp packets drop and blow about the beach until they get stuck into crevices. They pose for their Facebook profile shots and a wave snatches up their Sprite bottles and bobs them out to sea.

In all the noise and confusion, irony slips by unnoticed.

© Richard Senior 2015

A Typical Ko Tao Day

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The beach is empty in the early morning, although the sun is hot enough to enjoy. Coconut palms stretch over the sand to the sea. Longtail boats are anchored in a line a little way out from the shore and, beyond them, more randomly, are the bigger dive boats. Fish writhe in the shallows. An eagle circles overhead. You claim your spot and open your book.

Sometime around ten, a guy wanders out from the dive school, barefoot and shirtless, cracks up a Marlboro and starts to set up for the day. He is a farang but he has been there long enough to synchronise to the local pace. He does everything casually, as if it is not really work. But then why should he rush? Why should anyone rush? He wades out to the boat, grabs the anchor chain and drags it ashore, then loads it with oxygen bottles.

The instructor arrives with a class of laughing students. They try on their masks and startle themselves when they experiment with the oxygen tap. They assemble in the boat and motor out of sight.

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You go back to your book and stay on the beach and colour evenly on each side. The divers come back around six in the evening, still laughing, and repair to loungers in front of the beach bars and balance bottles of Singha on the sand and fuss with Rizlas. The bars play muted dubstep or reggae until the sun has gone and they crank up the volume and the BPM’s and start the fire show.

You stay on the sideline with a bottle of Singha and watch as they set up a limbo pole, douse it in petrol and set it alight. The Thais from the bar, shirts off to show off their tattoos and six-packs, duck under it easily and invite the farangs to have a go. They start a raggedy, giggling line and lurch towards the burning pole and stagger and stumble under it, except one guy in Ray Bans at midnight who slides a cigarette into his mouth and pauses to light it on the pole as he slips underneath.

You’re crazy doing that,” you tell him. But he insists that he only smokes five a day.

© Richard Senior 2015