Ko Phi Phi –> Bangkok

1 – 5 – 09

We were woken up in the middle of the night by rain pounding on our corregated metal roof (which is of somewhat questionable integrity).  I guess any form of extreme weather is a little scary when you’re staying on an island on which 2,000 people were killed by the tsunami (many of them tourists—sometimes nature isn’t discriminating).  There’s even a creepy shell of an abandoned resort just a few metres down the beach from us.

By comparison, getting a morning wake-up call from a troupe of monkeys was far more exciting.

– – – – –

Jackie and I left our bungalow in the morning and started trekking through the jungle up to the island’s main overlook.  While it was just a few kilometers, the path was entirely grown over.  I learned during our climb that geckos have a surprisingly loud call, given how small they are: I was convinced we were being stalked by dragons.

We reached the top, and I for one was not disappointed.  There are moments were nature strikes me as simply absurd.

Coming down off the mountain into the main village felt like going from Shangri-La to Sodom and Gomorrah.  There was a paved path on the other side of the overlook, though the steep climb cut out most of the island’s visitors.  Still, by the food of the trail, everything was dirty, shoddily built, and crowded.

I try not to be elitest about travelling.  Personally, I don’t see much point in traveling thouands of miles in order to get drunk with a bunch of Western college students (it’s easier done at home, the whole affair costs less, and I get to sleep in my own bed), but I don’t particularly begrudge those who do.  That said, Ko Phi Phi is absolutely disgusting.  Despite that every guidebook cautions about the conservatism of Thai culture, people are bathing topless and staggering around drunkenly by mid-day.  The beaches are crowded with people and trash.  The island is small enough that you can smell the overflowing landfill from just about anywhere.  It’s pretty much my own private hell.

It guess it does bother me that such phenomenal natural beauty is being so thoroughly shat-upon en masse.  Obviously, this isn’t entirely the responsibility of the European visitors, though I do feel as though the Thai residents probably see caring from the island as a lost cause and as such jump in on the degredation.  When the tsunami wiped the island clean, there was apparently a lot of hope that the rebuilding would take place more thoughtfully.  AAApparently the allure of profits has led to more of the same.

In summary, while Jackie wanted to wander around the village for the afternoon, I just wanted to flee.  We grabbed a water taxi and enjoyed a relaxing evening in relative quiet isolation.  Live and let live, I guess.

– – – – –

1 – 6 – 09

I am always disturbed by deference and unsolicited subservience shown to me simply because I am white.  I sensed it in Uganda when hungry farmers would save food—which we had bought for them to eat—for me, or here when an elderly woman wanted to give me her seat on the train.  Now that we’re in the “touristy” part of Thailand, it’s even more evident: everyone wants to “serve.”

I’m currently sitting in a coffee shop on Ko Phi Phi while Jackie submits some applications for next year.  The television is turned to the Asian version of CNBC; it’s business news, but with the Dow Jones as a footnote.  There’s a certain self-confidence to it that I appreciate, a sense that, while at the moment the East has to play the West’s game, eventually the situation will be reversed.  I imagine the days when Thais will defer to Americans are probably numbered.

– – – – –

One of my favorite things about travelling is moments where I feel like I manage to get “the deal.”  Jackie and I wanted to go snorkeling, but the options were overwhelming and substantively indistinguishable.  How many islands did we want to go to, three or four?  In what order would we like to visit them?  Do we want the “big longtail” or “small longtail” boat?  Is it important that our operator offers “fruit” in their advertisement?  Is “offering fruit” code for “not shitty?”  Wandering through Phi Phi village, we felt distinctly indecisive, until one restaurant owner came out and plugged the “P.P. Garden Home Tour.”  Generally, I’m skeptical of anyone aggressively selling me something (though I’m generally enough of a sucker to buy anyway), but I had a hunch that this guy was genuine.

It was wonderful when I turned out to be right.  Our tour was really fantastic: we snorkeled all over, (sort-of) avoided the crowds at Maya Bay (as in, the beach featured in The Beach, that bad movie with Leonardo DiCaprio that no one saw but everyone pretends to be really enthusiastic about once they’re on Ko Phi Phi and can go see it), and capped it all off with a gorgeous sunset.  Our guide was constantly explaining why his tour was better in little way—how he chose a superior route and took us to the key sites at the best times.  While I’m sure part of it was marketing (“tell your friends about P.P Garden Home Tours”), it was also cool how proud he was of his little operation.

– – – – –

The length of our tour left us in Phi Phi Village long past the point where our hotel’s ferry was still operating.  I felt a strong need to get out of the village before the debauchery got going in earnest, so we chartered a taxi for a somewhat exhorbitant price (even by Western standards).  Ultimately, though, it was worth every penny: once we were out on the water and away from the town, it was pitch dark (our boat didn’t have a light).  The stars were fabulous.

– – – – –

1 – 7 – 09

Woke up to a massive tropical storm.  The nearby islands were swallowed up by the clouds and fog, and by the time we made it to the hotel restaurant, we were drenched.  It used to be a running joke in our family that any time I went camping, rain would follow.  Many a scout backpacking trip was made miserable by this pattern, but unlike my ten-year-old self, though, I didn’t much mind.

The weather cleared up by afternoon, so Jackie and I rented a kayak and paddled north.  We were quickly rewarded by a troop of monkeys fishing for crabs at the water’s edge.  We drifted towards shore and sat watching them.  I figured they must have been pretty accustomed to humans, because for fifteen minutes we got to watch them and they ignored us.  At some point, though, something we did piqued their interest: the females and juveniles fled into the forest, and all the males came to the shore.  They just sat there, staring at us.  There was something intense and all-to-human about it, so we paddled on.

Around the bend there was an extremely posh resort.  I shouldn’t have been surprised, but since everything else man-made on Ko Phi Phi has been such utter trash, it came a bit out of the blue.  I know I come from the “class” of people who patronizes these sort of places, but I’m really glad our family vacations involved campgrounds and macaroni and cheese cooked on a Coleman stove.   We surreptitiously pulled up our kayak on the beach.  While my rebel side might have appreciated a confrontation with resort security, the seersucker bathing suit Jackie gave me meant that I didn’t exactly stand out.  We did go for a swim in their negative-edge pool, though, so I’ve preserved a bit of street cred.

Paddle just a bit further down-island and there was a shanty town perched on the rocks.  Presumably, it’s where the cooks, maids, and bartenders live.  Walkable from the resort, but situated as to be just out of sight.  Apparently a lot of the people who work on Phi Phi are “sea gypsies,” who were completely pulverized by the tsunami and have only more recently settled down.  I’m always sort of amazed these situations of extreme inequality can persist over time.  How do you wake up in a shanty and work all day in a cabana and not mug someone or swipe a laptop?  I suppose I could interpret this as a sign of the intrinsic goodness of humanity, or maybe just an indication that our perverse system of poverty and prosperity, weirdly, is actually stable.  The revolution most definitely is not imminent.

– – – – –

1 – 8 – 10

I realize that this is one of my favorite things to say over and over again, but wow you can get wireless everywhere these days (except in my house at Oxford—not just that we don’t have it, but it’s apparently NOT ALLOWED).  I imagine five years ago going on vacation with a laptop would be unthinkably pointless; now it’s obligatory.

I only mention this because, today, I gave in to the allure of checking facebook and logged on for the first time in a week.  And, of course, if you check facebook, you might as well check twitter, and punknews.org, and, that ultimate vacation-ruiner, e-mail.  Somewhere buried in my inbox was a message from my department, reminding me that I am presenting on my non-existent thesis topic in second week… which is about 15 days from now.

Maybe I should just improve my self-control, but it seems almost criminal that after two plane rides, three buses, and a boat, I should even have the option of internet.  Isn’t the point of desert islands that you are isolated and unreachable?

– – – – –

Our trip back from Ko Phi Phi took us through Bangkok, where I got a chance to experience one of the city’s notorious traffic jams.  Fortunately, though, our driver kept us entertained: upon getting in, he asked us where we were from, and, when we said “America,” he declared “Ah, you will like this” and put in (apparently) his America Mix.  For the next hour, we were regaled by truly godawful Thai/English disco/pop fusion (best line: “Rasputin, Rasputin, Russia’s greatest love machine”).

Ordinarily, low quality disco would have caused me to throw myself into traffic, but here, I appreciate it a bit more.  Life in Thailand has a soundtrack.  They blare music in buses (all night), taxis, restaurants, and just about every other public space conceivable.  I’m not sure they have a strong appreciate for subtlety or appreciate a monochromatic existence.  As a person who puts headphones on to walk down the hall to the bathroom, I can definitely appreciate it.

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