Koh Phi Phi – Don’t Go There

Ugh. Where to begin with Koh Phi Phi? Maybe 20 years ago: a curious man from Finland arrives on Phi Phi Don with his friend, finding just one restaurant that doubles up as a bar. He stays in a tree house, high up in a huge tree, with ants making trails across his room and only a candle for light after sunset. During the day, he swims naked on the beach because there is absolutely no one around to be offended by the sight of his bare flesh.

Our new year’s eve arrival at this National Park site was somewhat different. We hopped off a long-tail from one of the most calm, peaceful and beautiful Thai islands (which will not be named in relation to Phi Phi for safety reasons) and joined a crowd of a thousand tourists, all desperate to consume, to flog this dead community some more, to take selfies with their buckets of SangSom and their new ill judged tattoos.

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Once you become part of this sweaty, braying mob, there is little you can do to escape it. The restaurants, bars and shops are so crammed in that finding a quiet spot is a futile quest. Even hiding out in our shabby, bed bug infested bungalow offered no relief because we could still hear the tourist torrent rushing past.

One option is to head to the beach, but this is not so easy on this tiny island. Ton Sai beach is lined with longtails and serves mostly as a ferry port, so swimming from its golden sands is pretty perilous. On the other side of the thin strip of human habitation, there’s Lo Dallam beach. Aside from the name sounding like one of those floodlit sports shops from the 90’s, this beach serves as the main party scene and is therefore awful. During the day you’ll find some peace here, but the sand is full of glass from the night before, making swimming and a stroll on the sand too dangerous. By early evening, the various bars pumping out house music, and only house music because apparently there are no other genres of music suitable for parties, make this an awful place to watch the light fade over the beautiful limestone cliffs that frame the island. By night, the party goers eschew the pay-to-pee toilets and use the sea instead, so think twice before taking a midnight amble along the shore.

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We took a lengthy walk over to long beach and found this to be a reasonably nice spot to spend the afternoon. It’s still over crowded but this is a different crowd. Think well groomed Scandinavian families on holiday instead of lads in vests from Manchester on the pull, and you get the idea. Even so, there are far too many long-tails lining the shore and not enough shady spots. By Thai standards, it is not a great beach.

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We recommend hiking up to the various viewpoints from Long Beach, rather than from Ton Sai. You’ll avoid walking up hundreds of steps, teeming with hungover tourists, taking a free gentle hike up to the island’s ridge instead. On this mostly solitary amble, you’ll pass surprisingly friendly locals living in Tsunami Village, hastily erected after the 2004 disaster that struck the island, and become immersed in the lush rainforest that covers the highland. The actual viewpoints themselves are disappointing, offering views of an island that has been utterly destroyed by tourism, from spots that are themselves packed with lager swilling, selfie snapping tourists, but the hike was a high point for us.

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From the viewpoints, it’s obvious that Phi Phi has grown far too fast for its own good. Although much of the island’s infrastructure was destroyed by the tsunami, the money that flooded in its wake has evidently been used to build massive new hotels and resorts, alongside row upon row of bars, restaurants and tourist tat shops, instead of proper sewage facilities and safely habitable spaces. Whilst the central garden, irrigated purely by sewage runoff, is a step in the direction of sustainability, it stinks and we saw no one, apart from ourselves, wandering through it. More must be done to solve the sanitation crisis that everyone is just turning their noses from.

The result of all of this is an artificial town that smells worse than anywhere we’ve visited, and a constant risk of death by fire or cholera. If one of the shops were to catch fire, this would quickly spread throughout the whole town. We have no idea how the hordes of visitors, most of them drunk, would find their way to safety in the panic of the crowd. You’re probably not meant to think about this and just drink more cheap rum, but the reality of the situation is fairly alarming.

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It may be that the whole point of Phi Phi is to put yourself in danger and even in pain before you leave. We’re not just talking about hitting the jaeger bombs and battling a hangover later. Nope, we’re referring to Reggae Bar, a pub that boasts a full size muay Thai ring at its centre so that drunk tourists (mostly Brits, of course) can fight each other for a free bucket of booze. Fighting without any proper training is stupid and dangerous, but doing it drunk is really stupid and really dangerous. We saw 4 fights in the bleak half hour that we were in the bar, and while the bloodthirsty audience had a great time, we left feeling depressed, especially as they didn’t even play any reggae there.

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Sadly, the constant throb of greedy tourists has drained the island’s soul, creating an atmosphere of contempt from shopkeepers, hoteliers and restaurant staff. The massively inflated prices of everything, from food to accommodation, also suggest that the visitors are only tolerated because of their economic benefit. We felt unwelcome everywhere we went in town, and it’s easy to understand why when really we’re not any different from any one else visiting the island.

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Spending new year’s eve on Phi Phi was not one of our better ideas, in fact it may have be our worst decision on this trip. It made us question the reasons that we chose to travel in the first place, and whether this is such an honourable thing to be doing when the environmental consequences can be so obscene. These are questions we still haven’t answered, but we’re taking a much more measured approach to our journeying from now on. If it wasn’t for our excellent diving trip with Blue View Divers to Phi Phi Lae on our third day, we’d have nothing good to say about the whole trip. But swimming through an underwater cavern teeming with fish just about made up for the horrors we’d witnessed on the shore. When we inevitably return to Thailand, just like our friend from Finland, we will certainly not be heading back to Koh Phi Phi.


 

Going under water in Koh Lipe – Why you should learn to dive TODAY

Flic has been a qualified diver for about 12 years, whilst my biggest diving achievement is that I once free-dived so deep that it broke my Casio watch. This was probably because the watch was a dodgy fake, because I only went down about 2 metres. We’ve visited so many acclaimed dive spots on this trip (we may have mentioned Fiji) that it seemed about time I caught up.

This is how I found myself, just two days after being seriously ill with a mysterious Malaysian UTI, sat in a dive centre with a long haired Spaniard named Manu, learning about the effects of depth pressure on the air in our lungs. I’d embarked on my PADI Open Water course at the chilled out and comfortable Adang Sea Divers Eco Lodge, and, along with a cheery Swedish lady called Debbie, I’d be getting to grips with the basics of diving. PADI courses are often more expensive than SSI  qualifications, but they have a big lead in the diving industry and the qualifications are recognised worldwide.

The PADI course is made up of 5 theory units, which are then put in to practice in the water. A bit like learning to drive, but without the creepy driving instructor and largely ignored Highway Code. We spent a lot of time watching videos, and at the end of each unit we’d take a little test. The subjects ranged from the rules of diving – NEVER hold your breath because your lungs will explode, don’t be pregnant, always dive with a buddy etc. – to the super cool hand signals and how to take care of your kit.

With this out of the way, we took to the ocean to do a confined dive. Wading into the turquoise water of Koh Lipe, over the white sand and past the Thai longboats, we went down to about 2 meters. This was so safe that if there was any problem at all, we could simply stand up and be above the water. Here, we learned how to inflate and deflate our Buoyancy Control Device (BCD), a fancy waist coat that allows you to fine tune your buoyancy, came to terms with the fact that we could breathe underwater, and did some silly but useful things like pulling each other to safety. My biggest issue at this point was that I was just so buoyant. I kept on floating up to surface until I was weighed down with about 6 kilos of dive weights. That aside, things were going swimmingly.

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After a bit more theory and a good night’s sleep, it was time for us to head out for our first real dive. We clambered on to the traditional Thai longboat with all of our gear, and made our way out to sea. What would await us under the surface? Would I be able to control my buoyancy and stay under water? What would Flic, who was diving with us as part of her refresher course, look like under water? These were the questions floating through my mind as we moored up to the dive line.

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Deflating my BCD, I soon found out the answers. The under water world is weird. Everything sounds kind of strange as surface sounds swirl around you in great echoing reverberations. You shouldn’t be able to breathe down there, it’s just not right, and I don’t think I will ever get used to it. The increased pressure makes the air in your ears contract, doing crazy stuff to your ear drums. It’s easy to equalize, either by swallowing and moving your jaw from side to side, or holding your nose and breathing through it – my preferred method – but it still feels freaky.

At first we didn’t see many fish. We stopped at around 5 metres, kneeling on a sandy patch, watching out for stingrays and practising our technical skills. This included filling our masks with water and then clearing them by blowing air out of our noses, losing our regulators on purpose so we could find them again using a nifty trick and clearing our regulators. Slightly unsettling stuff over with, we continued descending.

I admit here that I didn’t see much at all on that first dive. I couldn’t control my buoyancy at all, so I spent most of the time clinging on to Manu with my face next to his crotch. Every time I breathed in, I’d ascend about a metre, and the opposite would happen when I breathed out. It was pretty disorientating, but the corals and fish I could see were beautiful, keeping me calm as I bobbed up and down erratically. I also got a glimpse Flic occasionally. She had the cool breezy air of a Frenchman smoking a cigarette, but also a strange bubbly beard as the bubbles from her regulator clung to her face. As I said, the under water world is weird.

We came back to shore with big smiles on our faces, elated by the experience of staying alive in a place where we should have perished. Everyone was talking about the fish they’d seen, and I kept quiet about the fact that I’d mostly seen the groin of my Spanish instructor.

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After a second dive that day, where I finally managed to control my buoyancy, I started to understand why people love to dive. It’s a whole new world to explore, and once you have the skills to keep steady down there, it’s wondrous from start to finish. I went to bed thinking of parrot fish and giant chimney corals, counting sea cucumbers instead of sheep.

The next day, I woke early to prepare my gear for the first dive. We headed out to a rocky island just off the coast of Koh Lipe and descended once again. We stopped at around 5 meters to go over some skills again, this time taking our masks off completely and replacing them – not a pleasant task. We followed this with sitting like Buddha under water, which seemed appropriate because I’m sure Buddha would have got a kick out of diving if he had the chance to try it out.

We drifted past a great wall of coral, teeming with marine activity. I began to feel completely at ease under water, as if I’d been born down there. I still breathed a little too deeply at times, still in awe of the fact that I could breathe, but I had the buoyancy well under control. Still, I was not yet Open Water qualified and the dive wasn’t all fish and fun. It ended with Debbie and I having to perform the CESA, which is terrifying. This is a Controlled Emergency Swimming Ascent, to be used if you somehow manage to run out of air completely during your dive. This meant that, from about 4 metres, we had to pretend we’d run out of air and swim to the surface, all the while breathing out and making an ‘aaahhh’ sound so our lungs didn’t burst. That’s right – if we got it wrong, our lungs would burst.

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CESA out of the way and lungs still functioning correctly, we headed back to shore for some lunch and to prepare for the last dive. It took little effort to persuade Flic to join me on the dive – I was keen to see that bubbly beard again, but also I wanted to share my first proper dive without any heart stopping exercises with her.

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We took the boat out to a now familiar dive spot, next to another rocky atoll just off the shore. We descended with ease, and I found I wasn’t really thinking about every little thing I was doing, and I could just take in everything going on around me and keep close by to Flic like a good diving buddy should. We saw some awesome corals, almost as tall as us, but best of all we saw a sizeable trigger fish tear off some coral in its jaw and swim off like a cowboy leaving town. That damn trigger fish cut such a silhouette that we paused in awe of its viscous vibes.

After ascending and heading back to Lipe, all I had left to do was sit my theory test. I’m not so proud to say that I got 7 answers out of 50 incorrect, but so did Manu when he took his Open Water test, as did Debbie. We went over the wrong answers and that was that, I was a qualified diver at last.

The most important lesson I learned through all of this?– if you feel even the slightest inkling to dive, book your PADI Open Water today. When I think back to all of the places I have been where I could have dived, but couldn’t because I hadn’t got round to learning, I feel a deep sense of shame. Not only had I missed out on amazing experiences for myself, I’d also prevented Flic from taking part too. So do it. Jump off a boat, deflate your BCD and be prepare to be amazed.

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