Koh Lanta and Koh Phi Phi, Thailand – March 2015

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Maya Beach, Koh Phi Phi Leh

Yippee – Geoff remembered to pack his driving license this weekend so, in addition to the fabulous beaches, we also got to enjoy the grimiest rental car in Thailand and to share the winding, narrow, hilly roads with mopeds driven by kamikaze women in black burkhas, their black abayas flapping wildly in the wind around them!

Photo’s are here or you can just click on the photograph above.

Sun, turquoise sea, flour-soft white sand and Thai curries …. we just couldn’t leave South East Asia without saying a quick goodbye to the Krabi province.

This time we headed to the slightly more remote island of Koh Lanta reputed to be “old Thailand”… not quite as touristy as Railay, slightly more gentrified and (allegedly) with some of Thailand’s best beaches. Certainly, it took longer to get there ;-). The usual quick hopper flight, followed by an hour crossing southern Krabi province through the countryside to a rickety bamboo boat dock in the middle of nowhere. We crossed the hot, swampy coastal waterway by ancient speedboat and spent the final half hour being hurled about in what would pass in any other country for a sun-shaded cattle truck. We were chucked in the back of it with our bags and trundled and bounced from the port town of Saladan to the southwestern coast. For $250 for the round-trip transfer from and back to the airport I was hoping for a little more luxury …silly me 😉 :-).

Expecting to sit in the sun and spit-roast and, more importantly, not move a single muscle unnecessarily for the entire weekend, we decided to splash out a little on The Houben, a thoroughly european, contemporary boutique hotel – the closest thing we have come to home since we left Florida 3 months ago. And we COULD very well have sat in the infinity edge pool overlooking the glistening sea and been happily plied with cocktails, Thai curries and crepes with Belgian chocolate sauce and ice cream… but we didn’t… because we just find it almost impossible to sit still for more than 15 minutes when there are so many other things to do and see ;-).

Having spotted the not insignificant number of bandaged limbs and scabby knees on far too many of the other tourists who were scooting around the island on mopeds we decided against joining the ranks of the injured and opted instead for one of the filthiest rental cars we have ever had to sit in.

This time (at least) Geoff had actually remembered to pack his driving license since the debacle in Tasmania ;-), but in true Thai laissez-faire style nobody bothered to ask to see it – typical ;-). Apparently, because it is still height of season we were told that they don’t have time to clean the cars properly before turning them over to the next poor client. Clearly they must have been swamped with bookings for quite some time as we found a previous unlucky driver’s receipt in the glove box dated 1st October 2010 ;-). I have never seen sand stuck in lumps to the roof over the driver’s head before, nor quite so many ingrained sandy footprints on the backseat of a car but …what the hell… there are far more disturbing sights in Southeast Asia than a few misplaced sandy footprints ;-).

Not wanting to delay enjoyment of our battered lime green Nissan runabout for a second, we hopped in it and covered most of the southern part of the island (the only bit we were interested in seeing) in about an hour and a half – including Lanta Old Town which had some attractive stilted houses, cute wooden shops and cafes and a distinct odor of sewage. This came as little surprise after Geoff spotted a fully plumbed in open-air toilet at the back of a shack which emptied straight down into the marshy tidal area below the deck… presumably the tide hadn’t quite washed everything out to sea…

Across the island we saw the usual combination of rustic Thai architectural charm… bamboo and wooden shacks… potted flowers and the ubiquitous incongruent piles of trash … lodged in the undergrowth … caught in tree limbs billowing in the breeze etc etc. By now you might think we would be oblivious to it all but – no – that would be difficult for a couple of OCD’ers like us. We have neither de-sensitized nor become oblivious, but we have come to a more worldly acceptance that this is just how it is here. It is far better to look past it, endeavor not to trip over any of it or wedge a toe into a rusty coke can than let it impact our enjoyment of the myriad other benefits of the country.

Still, all it takes is a bit of community pride in the environment, some (obviously extensive) general re-education and a government or localized trash collection system to deal with it… hopefully before Thailand sinks into the sea.

We had been told not to miss the attractive sea gypsy village, Sang-ga-u, at the southernmost point of the island on our brief exploration. We drove past it 3 times before we found the narrow side track leading down to the fishermen’s stilted huts… with hindsight we probably should have given up our attempt to locate it on the second pass ;-). But we persevered and were greeted with even more abandoned trash – literally ankle deep in parts but with the interesting addition that every tree was decorated as if for Christmas (unintentionally, in case anyone is confused) – adorned with plastic bags, broken lumps of polystyrene, lengths of old rope, discarded crisp packets and endless water bottles…

How they make a living fishing anything edible out of the local surrounding waters defeats me! As we wandered past one stilted hut we saw plastic bags being unceremoniously dropped from a window above fluttering down to the rocks below… delightful… Where on earth would you even start with tidying this lot up??!!

That was quite enough sightseeing of the Koh Lanta highlights for one day, so we returned to the “posh” side of the island to check out the secluded bays and beaches and tried desperately to ignore the (at least less numerous) old broken flip-flops and scattered water bottles in the undergrowth and instead chose to enjoy the lovely warm waters of the Andaman Sea. The beaches here are very rocky, the sand is much darker and the water not quite as calm as in the Railay area of Krabi which made for some interesting stubbed toe moments ;-). Nothing a few cocktails watching the sun set from the hotel pool or from a hilltop bar (washed down with a delicious Thai curry on the beach with our toes in the sand) couldn’t mend, of course :-).

However tranquil and blessedly undeveloped the beaches are on south-western Lanta (which I don’t deny)… and however picturesque… they just aren’t my kind of “perfect” beach… so poor Geoff was dragged out of bed far earlier than he anticipated for a Sunday morning speedboat ride out to the Phi Phi islands :-). The peace of the morning had already been somewhat shattered in any event by the 5am call to prayer from the local mosque which was loud enough to wake the dead, so no need to linger in bed after that ;-). We probably shouldn’t have been too surprised by the early morning alarm calls as the island is predominantly moslem – obviously very tolerant moslem by the number of thonged foreign butts and bikini tops which are paraded about on the streets in front of the eyes of the locals who barely bat an eyelid. It is certainly the first predominantly moslem place we have been where women in burkhas zip about on mopeds – it is a breed destined to die out however as they exhibited absolutely no driving skills whatsoever and had no regard for life nor limb – their own or anyone else’s.

It has been 20 odd years since we last stood on Maya Beach (of “The Beach” movie fame) on Phi Phi Leh. It is just as beautiful as ever although I am relieved we got an early start because by 11am it was deluged with boats, bikinis and life-jacketed tourists… so we were relieved to wave a fond farewell and head out to Monkey Point for some better than average snorkeling… then off again at speed to Bamboo Beach – equally as fabulous as Maya but without the surrounding towering limestone karsts. Frankly, Bamboo Beach was exactly the sort of beach we wanted to spend the day on… white sand, crystal clear turquoise water etc etc… Bliss :-).

All was going so well until the boat trip moved on mid-afternoon and the driver decided to make an unscheduled stop at Monkey Beach… a tiny strip of sand surrounded by sky high limestone karsts. We were greeted by about a dozen scruffy looking voracious monkeys waiting eagerly on the sand for the boat staff to feed them crisps and give them cans of coke to drink – apparently for the entertainment of the other tourists who thought it was all hysterically funny while Geoff and I, and one or 2 of the others, looked on in abject horror :-(. Thankfully, it was all over in 10 minutes before we hoisted anchor and moved on…

Things didn’t improve much, however, when they dropped us at Phi Phi Don for the longest hour of our lives – to go shopping – our least favorite activity on a hot sunny day… or any day really… ;-).

We would have far preferred lolling about in the Andaman Sea working on our sunburn but instead we got to wander about the market stalls amongst the cheap Chinese imported t-shirts and the roughest looking bunch of tattoo decorated 20 somethings – mostly from Russia and the Baltic states it seemed… all of whom were staggering around bleary eyed as they recovered from the previous nights debauchery ;-). Tragically, it seems that in the last 20 years things have gone somewhat downhill on Phi Phi Don. Now more renowned as a drink and drugs fueled party destination than the area of outstanding natural beauty which it always was. We couldn’t wait to get off the island as quickly as possible and obliterate it from our memories so that it didn’t spoil an otherwise almost entirely wonderful day ;-).

Phi Phi Don was devastated by the 2004 tsunami which was horrendous. But it seems that more long-lasting devastation has been caused by the ghastly, hastily re-constructed hotels and bars and the expansive building site in the centre of the island – all of which is entirely unsympathetic to the natural beauty of the surrounding islands. This is a tragedy. Perhaps even worse is the human devastation to an otherwise gorgeous part of the world caused by the particular demands of the traveling clientele… Needs must, of course, when it comes to making ends meet for the local Thai people but, frankly, wild horses couldn’t drag us back there :-(.

Thank goodness the Thai government had the foresight to designate Maya Beach and Phi Phi Leh as a National Park area. It is one of the few places we have visited in Thailand which is devoid of trash – a miracle given the number of visitors. Perhaps if we had ventured more into the interior we might have found it all piled up in the middle like an Egyptian pyramid – but we didn’t… so we are holding on to our good memories instead :-).

So… our view of Thailand remains largely unchanged since it’s reprieve in January when we visited Railay and Phra Nang :-). It is a beautiful country with, in parts, too much rapid overdevelopment to cater for the boom in tourism and, worse, too much tolerance and encouragement of the “wrong kind” of tourism. All, it seems, at very apparent cost to the culture and the natural environment.

In spite of this, we still absolutely love Thailand, but rather fear that if we leave it another 20 years before we re-visit the Phi Phi islands and the Krabi coast that it will all have imploded under the ever-increasing weight of discarded plastic bottles and coke cans :-(. I do hope not because there are a large number of, as yet, undiscovered islands with crystal clear turquoise waters and floury white sand beaches which we would really love to sail around before it’s all too late!! :-).

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