Searching for Paradise in Phi Phi
I write from the comfort of my parent’s guest room in Tabley, Cheshire (as our house is turned upside down by builders), having slept intermittently for 9 hours. It took us a total of 29 hours to get from Phi Phi Islands in Thailand to Manchester Airport, but that journey wasn’t anywhere near as trying as our journey to Phi Phi from Bangkok, which I will write about today. It feels sad and strange to be concluding these travel blogs. I also don’t feel quite ready to wrap up our adventure, as I think that only now am I starting to appreciate the most important parts. Therefore, expect some sort of an Epilogue to our travels and doubtless many references back to it. I’m glad in a way that I’m not ready to let go yet otherwise what a waste of a month it would have been. Part of its purpose was to challenge the way we think about our day to day lives and redefine our reality and it seems to have certainly done that.
I’ll also be making a list of things I have learnt from this trip. One thing I learnt is that when I anticipate the challenge of a long journey (i.e. If I know to expect several hours on a plane, hours waiting and less than smooth automobiles, etc) I find I can get on with it and behave calmly. When I face unexpected challenges, especially the longer the journey goes on, my resources feel empty and I can’t cope. That is what happened on the road to Phi Phi.
To contextualize this story, this the final leg of our trip was booked and paid for in advance. It was planned with the intention of enabling us a chance to recuperate from the three weeks prior and have a mini holiday before returning to work. We don’t expect we will have another opportunity again for quite some time.
The Phi Phi Islands have the reputation of being one of the most idyllic and romantic places in the world. When we said we would need a little quiet, away from backpackers and too many tourists, our travel Booker didn’t hesitate to recommend the islands. I had been looking forward to this part (shamefully possibly more than the other parts, at first) from the very start of our trip.
We caught (what we fondly refer to all taxis in SE Asia as now) a ‘death cab’ at 6am to Bangkok airport on Tuesday 3rd November. The flight was straightforward and only 1.5hrs to Phuket. Our booking details specified an arrival time of “no later than 10am” in order to catch a 1.30pm ferry in good time. Therefore we expected a long drive to the harbour from the airport. We found our private transfer no problem but on asking how far it was to the harbour discovered it was only a 45minute trip. So why the fuss about arriving before 10am, we wondered. Our driver casually bundled us into his car then during the drive answered a call to a female and proceeded to flirt (turns out this sounds the same in any language) loudly and blatantly on the telephone for half the drive. On reaching the harbour he tipped us out onto the pavement and asked “got ticket?”, pointed vaguely in the direction of the harbou and before we could reply he’d driven off, leaving us to figure out ticketing and wait for 2.5 hours for our ferry.
The harbor was like a breeding ground for lost souls, either drunk or high. Teenage backpackers stumbled around with cans of beer in their hands and a local Thai man openly sold marijuana to his fellow countrymen. We were given a sticker to wear with the name of our hotel on, which made me feel like a slave being shipped off to the relevant part of a distant land. We boarded the ferry just after 1pm and at 1.40pm tourists were still clambering on. Thus began over 3 uncomfortable hours across choppy waters to our paradise island. Half way through this time I lost the will to live and starting quietly crying into James’s shoulder, wanting more than anything go home.
When we eventually disembarked from the small wooden boat (referred to as a long tail boat) that transferred us from ferry to land we comforted ourselves with the thought of a strong drink. But on glancing at the hotel menu we choked at the prices. Almost 4 times as much as we were paying for a beer and pad thai in Bangkok. We panicked at how we were going to afford to eat, never mind drink, for 3 days in this extravagantly expensive paradise. We wandered beyond our hotel resort to the local shop, where no items were priced so that the shop teller could make up a suitably extortionate cost for us westerners. We found a local café that was marginally cheaper than hotel food and ate for the first time in 15 hours.
That night I sat in the hotel lobby (the only place in the resort with wifi) to email my parents. The following morning my arms, neck, legs and feet were covered (COVERED) in mosquito bites. I was misery’s best friend.
But as my oh-so-wise father said, when the plan isn’t working, make a new plan. After all, we are Team Clempner. We asked the hotel where the nearest town was and how we could get there. They seemed reluctant to provide any helpful information that might result in us spending our money anywhere other than their resort! Eventually we determined that we could catch a long tail boat than took 45 minutes to the main pier (or backpacker’s hub). As the little wooden boat chugged out into the ocean I immediately felt my anxiety ease and my soul start to lift. I breathed in the magnificent palate of the aqua of the ocean against the deeper green of its darker depths, the pale baby blue of the sky, the grey blue of the sparsely littered clouds and the tropical green of the shrubbery on the islands.
Ton Sai Bay is south of the island of Kho Phi Phi Don. Our resort was situated at the north tip of the island, as it turns out (something I have literally JUST discovered) equidistant to a miniature island known as ‘Mosquito Island’….figures. Ton Sai is littered with locals selling boat trips, ex-pats selling diving trips and innumerable tattoo shops offering bamboo tattoos to green westerners. On this first trip we scouted out the tattoo scene and decided to return on our last day to ‘do the deed’. We then headed to a bar for a reasonably priced drink and then on to the local mini mart to buy as much booze as we could carry. Further evidence of the challenge of travel occasionally bringing out the worst in us.
Once we had calmed down and appeased ourselves with half a litre of cheap red wine, we realized that the cost of food at the resort wasn’t quite as despicable as we first thought and that we needn’t bankrupt ourselves to survive there for 3 days. I think we initially went into shock for multiple reasons; firstly due to sheer exhaustion, then because we’d come direct from Bangkok, the town of 60p pad thai and £1 beers, and lastly because of the weight of expectation we had pinned on our final destination. We needed so badly for this to be paradise because of how much money we had spent to be there, because of the reputation it upholds, because it was our last piece of freedom from the restraints of our western world. It was the end of our adventure and we needed it to be an extraordinary one.
But of course, it wasn’t/isn’t the end. Far from it, in fact. We have learnt a number of tough lessons over the course of this trip (which is what my ‘Epilogue’ blog will be dedicated to). The toughest, for me, was realizing uncomfortable truths about myself. For example, evidently I’m too dependent on alcohol to soothe, as I ought not to have needed to trek across the wily sea to buy a cheap 2 litre bottle of wine! I’ll save my other confessions for the next blog, but regardless of how selfish our initial reactions to the island were, I think there was some justification in our disappointment. The Phi Phi Islands are exquisite but they (like many of our other destinations) are riddled with the greed of tourism – money hungry locals for whom scamming a westerner of the remainder of their currency is just another working day, and tourists looking for their next shot of wanderlust, their next kick out of a dreamland that will help them to forget the responsibilities of the adult world. I didn’t find my paradise in Ko Phi Phi. Instead, mosquitos found and massacred me. I found myself longing for the bitter, crisp bite of the British Isles. I also found the strength to face our world and attempt to make the changes in it I found impossible to do a few months ago.
- You may be wondering whether we returned for those bamboos tattoos we were so determined about. We did indeed go to Ton Sai Bay on our last day with the soul purpose of getting new ink. We found what seemed to be a reasonable place, I showed them a picture of what I wanted and explained any changes, they told us to return in an hour when they would have mock ups of my design, then when we did return they told us another 30 minutes, by which time we were hot and bothered and rapidly losing enthusiasm for the idea, we then sat and waited for them to draw out our designs, re-size them, create a transfer, transfer onto our skin and just when we were ready to go under the bamboo needle they gave us the price… when we balked at the huge figure they cornered us into bartering. But although I am pro-permanent-ink, I am very anti getting inked in negative circumstances, with uncertainty and pressure. Therefore I swiftly played the ‘distressed wife’ card and frightened them enough to let us scamper off. More on this story when I list the things I learnt in South East Asia…
- The day after our nightmare journey, tantrums on arrival, and night of being eaten alive by mosquitos, having traipsed around Ton Sai feeling old and uncool against the reams of trendy backpackers and overall sufficiently fed up, we returned to our resort and swam in the warm sea. I looked up and saw a full rainbow spread over that immaculate palate of blues and greens. It felt like a promise that nothing is wasted. No amount of poor decisions, uncomfortable journeys, and unpalatable realizations about yourself…everything works together for good, if only you believe it and never stop searching for it.