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

Santa in Sunnies: Christmas Day on the Beach

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It was the middle of the morning on Christmas Day and the sun was hot enough to burn.

The beach was crowded but the only Thais were the boat taxi men, calling out “boat-boat” from under their awning when anyone went near. The rest were Western backpackers in boardies, bikinis and Santa hats. They sprawled on the sand and frolicked in the waves and lined up the empty Singha beer bottles. One prattled about finding a turkey to roast, saying much the same thing a few dozen times, as if polishing a phrase for a piece he was writing. “Hey mate,” another shouted to every guy on the beach, “What’s your best ladyboy story?” As if everybody had several, and would happily share.

I grew tired of them and crossed the isthmus to the quieter, second best beach and sat on the sand near an empty bar where Errol Dunkley sang Ok Fred and Bob Marley was jamming. Longtail boats, moored in a line, nodded at the edge of the beach. A small yacht dropped its sails and slid into the harbour. The owner of a sports cruiser started its engines and revved them a few times, filling the air with a sound like a supercar underwater.

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I found a restaurant by chance when I cut through an alley where an old lady sat mending socks in a doorway and a skeletal man pumped air into the tyre of a rusty bike. The walls were jerry-built from reclaimed wood and the tables and chairs were cheap plastic things intended for a garden. But the eyes of the fish on ice in the doorway were inky black and their gills were cardinal red. There were none of the tacky Christmas songs I had heard from the restaurants I had passed in the middle of the village. It was, after all, just a regular Tuesday in Thailand.

A little silver tabby sat down beside me and let out a spare any change meow. I gave her a piece of grilled snapper, and then heard a different meow. It was a poor old red Persian with a sneeze and battle scars and one ear folded down. We agreed to share the fish three ways. They let me eat all the rice.

Merry Christmas all.

(c) Richard Senior 2014