Southeast Asia is a truly awesome place to backpack. The accommodation is reasonably priced, the beer is cheap, the food is delicious and the people are nice. But as any backpacker will tell you, at some point, you need to go sit on a beach in Thailand. Other countries have beaches, but there is something about the Thai beaches that keeps drawing people in, year after year. Perhaps it's the abundance of scantily clad Russian tourists, who insist that Moscow winter is much worse than NYC. Maybe it's the massage parlor on every corner. Whatever it is, we succumbed to the urge and flew to Phuket after crossing the border from Vientiane.
Let me begin by saying we are spoiled. Very spoiled. Cashing in yet another "Whitney's parents family friends" card, we stayed with the Buttery family at their beautiful home in Kata. They were extremely welcoming and we ate spectacular food while basking in the pool. I can't tell you how awesome it is to sleep on a great mattress after two months of hard Asian beds.
Phuket is one of those places where it's hard to miss the spectacular sunset. Around 6pm, the tourists began to gather at the water's edge for the requisite photo. Some are more adventurous than others, with many of the Russians opting for a "mermaid" style pose. While that was a form of entertainment itself, it was hard not to be awed each day.
After three days during which we only left the house to stroll down to the beach, it was time to adventure out to the islands. Our friend Hannah was set to meet us for a long weekend, so we didn't want to adventure too far away from Phuket. We had heard wonderful things from friends about Koh Lipe, but it was a full day ferry ride away. We instead opted for Ko Phi Phi. Those of you who were avid Leonardo di Caprio fans may recognize Ko Phi Phi from the 90's hit, "The Beach" (which plays every night at a bar in town, obviously).
Ko Phi Phi was a pretty cool place. You definitely heard a few people grumbling "This place was so much cooler 20 years ago." But that is a refrain you hear constantly when traveling. It's annoying because a) most of the people who make that complaint were hardly alive 20 years ago and b) the same people complain about the lack of infrastructure that forces them to eat slightly sub-par pizza. You can't have it both ways and those who want true isolation should head to the Maldives and fork out a grand a night.
There are actually two islands, one that is inhabited and the other which is a marine park. The inhabited island has no motorized vehicles on it, which was a pleasant change from much of SE Asia. That didn't stop the bicycles from nearly running into you as they careened through the narrow streets, but at least without motors you knew that your chance of death/maiming was slightly decreased.
We arrived on the ferry, checked into our hotel and then went walking. The town is packed full of dive shops and after initially thinking we would do a snorkeling tour, we decided to splurge and go for the scuba trip. It's a dangerous game to be traveling to so many places because there is seductive logic in "Who knows if we'll ever come back here, so we HAVE to try it." The scuba trip was set for 730a the next morning, so as the chipper British girl who signed us up said "Try not to get too wasted... Probably stop drinking around midnight." We laughed but would soon find out that we were definitely the most sober people on the island.
Phi Phi (as all the "cool kids" call it) has a couple of beaches. There's the "party beach" (it probably has a real name, but no one knows it) and then there's Long Beach. After hearing that the party beach had poor water circulation and was a frequent sight for urination/copulation, we opted for Long Beach. It was a great decision. It was pretty empty and we were able to get that classic Thai island experience of swimming in azure water with glittering white sand at sunset. We savored the moment and then headed back to town in a "long tail", which is basically an over-sized canoe with an outboard motor likely taken from a 1970s era Soviet truck.
Since we only had one night on the island, we figured we had to check out the party beach, if nothing else, than to see the scene. It was hilarious. There were three clubs next to each other, each with names like Inferno or Chaos. The thumping electronic music from each seemed determined to drown the others out, resulting in an audible arms race that left much of the island as victims. The clubs are famous for their "fire shows" where a team of Thai guys sets jump ropes and hoops on fire and then entices drunk Australians/Brits on their gap year to leap through them. When your first instinct is, "Imagine the liability insurance premiums" you know you're too old for fire jumping. The one nod to safety seemed to be the "DIY buckets" which were pre-packaged buckets (similar to what 6-year olds carry sand in at the beach) that came with liquor, mixers and ice. After many well-documented cases of drink spiking at the Full Moon Party, it seems that things are gradually shifting. We opted to skip the buckets since we were supposed to be 12 meters underwater in less than 8 hours.
The next morning we headed out with Barracuda Dive Shop and our fearless guide JJ. Even though Whits and I had both dived before, it had been more than a decade for me, so we were in the introductory course. At first, I felt lame with a boat load of people going for their Open Water Certifications, but I appreciated the hand-holding (literally) once we were in the water. We did two dives, both around Ko Phi Phi Ley, the marine park.
Despite the nice weather, Whitney's seasickness reared its head again. For someone who loves the water, it is amazing how fast she falls asleep on boats.
Once we arrived at the marine park, we geared up. We had our oxygen meters and JJ told us that once one of us hit 50, the three of us would need to come back up to the surface. I asked what determined how fast someone used their oxygen and he said it was typically about how relaxed they were underwater. The competitor in me was determined to be more relaxed than Whitney. To very few peoples' surprise, I lost. On both dives, I consumed my oxygen faster than her, leading to the end of our dives. Apparently relaxation doesn't lend itself to competition. There's probably a lesson in there somewhere.
It was a really great experience and we saw some beautiful marine life. There were fish of every type, including barracudas and "Nemos" (clownfish seems to have been permanently replaced thanks to Pixar). We saw a huge sea turtle and even a big group of black tip sharks. They are not aggressive and it was such a treat to see them gracefully swim right by us. One particularly cool sight was a bunch of fish devouring a jellyfish. Sadly, I forgot to buy an underwater camera, so you'll just have to take my word for it.
On the boat, we also cruised by Maya Bay, which is actually where the "The Beach" was filmed. It was beautiful water but disgustingly crowded with speedboats on day tours from Phuket. I'm sure Leo would be horrified.
We got back to the main island and then jumped on the ferry to head back to Phuket. We were meeting Hannah that evening and preparing for the next stage of the journey.