At 7 o'clock this morning, I was collected by coach from the hotel and discovered that I was going to be spending the day in the company of a Swedish girl named Lisa who was having a free vacation on the account of the Travel Agency for whom she works. Tomorrow, she's off to inspect lots of local hotels for rats and builders and local Basil Fawlty types, but today she was having a free day on a beautiful island entirely at the expense of her company. Ever get the feeling you're in the wrong profession? The coach drove us out to a pier at the very tip of Phuket Island, from where a comfortable boat sped us out once more into the bay. Phi Phi is actually two islands in the Andaman Sea - Phi Phi Don and Phi Phi La, pronounced lay. While the larger of the two, Phi Phi Don, sports hotels, beach accommodation and everything for the lazy tan-seeking tourist in us all, Phi Phi La remains an exclusive island where the delicate eco-system is carefully watched over and no form of activity which may harm the coral reef in any way is permitted. Only SCUBA diving and snorkelling are tolerated on Phi Phi La, and if you wish to do either of these you are expected to charter your own boat in order to experience the legendary clear waters for yourself; tourist boats are not allowed anywhere near the beach or the coral reef. A sign on our boat warns of jail terms and heavy fines for anyone attempting to visit Phi Phi La without permission, or for even attempting to take a shell away with them. I have never seen the environment looked after so carefully, a little piece of my faith in mankind has just been restored (1). The tour boat does make a brief stop on the island on its way back to Phuket in the evening, but doesn't go anywhere near the reef or the beach. Instead, it moors up outside a deep cave on the far side where a rickety pier which doesn't look stong enough to hold the weight of a reasonably sized dog allows tourists to flock inside. This is where the locals go to ridiculous lengths involving tottering towers of metal, ladders and platforms, to cultivate and collect the nests of innocent birds who want nothing more than 5 minutes peace to raise a family. The nests are then used to produce Birds Nest Soup, which the Chinese (Who will eat just about anything, let's face it) consider a delicacy or a medical marvel or some such and will happily pay up to 2000 US Dollars for 2 Kilograms of. The birds, I should point out, are left alone until after the chicks hatch and leave the nest - but then Mr Moneybags is straight up there with his nest-grabbing equipment, and Mr and Mrs Bird come home one night to find the house gone.
About five minutes after our guide had finished telling us all this, we were rather surprised when the whole intricate construction of ladders and platforms came crashing down into the middle of the cave where we had all been standing a moment before. This, it would seem, fazed the various tour party guides for all of about 4 seconds, during which time they looked at each other as if to say "Happens all the time, that! Lost 4 tourists last week, you know!"
I had to show Lisa how to operate her camera in the darkness of the cave. Her company, in their wisdom, had provided her with one of the most new-fangled digital cameras available - covered in switches, and with a large LCD display which simply couldn't cope in the dark. Since her boss had bought it the day before she departed for Phuket in a sudden moment of generosity with the company's money, Lisa had had no time to study the instructions and had absolutely no idea how to operate it - so I ended up taking most of the shots for her. At least, when she gets back, they might suspect she did a little work rather than just topping up her tan on a tropical island! Our boat was one of those large clunky ones that generally end up being used as local ferries when they start to reach the end of their useful life, and it took just about long enough to get to Phi Phi Don for me to get interested in the movie they were projecting onto a screen at the front of the lounge before they took it off fifteen minutes from the end to announce we were arriving. "And that is why, inspector, we can clearly see that the murderer of Mrs Pantybottom could only have been… ZZZTTTTFFFFFZZZTTTTT Ladies and Gentlemen, we will shortly be arriving at Phi Phi Don. We do hope you've enjoyed the movie, even though you'll never know who did it." On the way, I was treated to the first hour and a bit of Sergeant Bilko with Steve Martin, and on the way back we had to sit through the goriest bits of Anaconda while Lisa sat next to me gasping and covering her eyes and gripping on to her chair for dear life. We saw neither of these films in their entirety, although in the case of Anaconda I can't say that was necessarily a bad thing... You can't get into the shallow waters of Phi Phi Don on the boat, so we all had to disembark out at sea and be taken in to the beach on a raft. Well, I say a raft - piece of floating wood with a couple of barrels underneath would be more accurate. On the return trip in the evening, as a bit of a nice touch, they took us back to the ferry via motorised Gondolas - each of which took only about 5 or 6 people. This would possibly have been a really romantic end to the day if the motor on our Gondola hadn't broken down half way across and we had to wait for half an hour while they got everybody else back on board the ferry so that they could lean over the side, laugh and point while somebody rowed out to get us! The major part of the day is spent on the island, with plenty of nothing much to do. You can lie on a deckchair, snorkel, or walk around dripping sweat on the perfect white sand all day. Lisa discovered that by standing waist deep in the sea with a bit of bread, she was suddenly surrounded by thousands of beautifully coloured fish, which was such an amazing experience that I really can't understand why they don't mention it in the guidebooks. The tourist company laid on a buffet style lunch on the beach, and pretty much just left us all alone to enjoy the day. This may, or may not, come as a pleasant surprise to anybody used to the usual British young person's beach holiday in which you are generally required to spend your time drinking 17 pints of lager and running round and round a pole until you throw up! Tonight, after we got back to the hotel, I went shopping with Lisa along the little marketplaces that pack the seafront. At the Andaman Craft Centre yesterday, which we visited on the way back to the hotel and I've just realised that I totally forgot to mention, I saw some pewter Salt and Pepper pots and place mats which I thought would make nice gifts, so I was really looking to see if they had the same things in the markets in Phuket. As in places such as Hong Kong, the order of the day really is bargaining - this is essential in order to get the right price as the stall holders will generally start out at a ridiculously inflated price in the expectation that you'll want to bargain them down to a lower price so you can go home and boast that you got something for the correct market price!You can read my full travel journals at www.offexploring.com/globalwanderer
(1) Well, it was restored for 5 minutes anyway. I discovered later that, according to an Australian newspaper, shortly after I had visited Phi Phi some nice men from Hollywood turned up and waved a very large amount of money to film "The Beach" with Leonardo De Caprio here. The arrangement required pulling up all the local trees, planting different ones to make the island look exactly as they wanted it (because the film, after all, was supposed to be set in Thailand and you wouldn't expect an island in Thailand to look like an island in Thailand, would you?), and then supposedly putting things back as they found them. Once again, the almighty dollar wins the day.