Sunday, February 17, 2008

Phuket and Ko Phi Phi

(PICTURE: Maya Bay, Phi Phi Ley)

Our first beach stop was Phuket, which is the most developed and largest of the many islands in southern Thailand. After some online research and serious guesswork, we chose a hotel called Chez Sabina in Kamala Beach, which turned out to be an excellent pick. The place was a four-story, narrow house about a five minute walk from the beach; our room was on the top floor, which meant we also had exclusive access to the roof and the lovely views that went with it. We also had a front balcony, back porch, kitchen, large bedroom and breakfast in the morning... all for about $40/ night! It was a great place to stay.

Kamala Beach was just what I'd imagined: turquoise water, white sand, palm trees... in other words, idyllic. However, scenic enjoyment was a bit crippled by all the middle-aged, overweight German tourists swarming the beach, most of whom felt to need to swim, sunbathe, and even jog topless. As gross as this was, it certainly provided multitudes of entertainment during those slow parts in my book! Anyway, the little town had tons of wonderful restaurants, which offered Thai food or Western dishes, as well as perfect sunset views. Scott and I also visited nearby Surin Beach, which was similar to Kamala except that it seemed to be the gathering point for Phuket's Italian tourists, most of whom were (relievingly) more attractive and less skimpily attired than the Germans!

After three days in Kamala Beach, we caught the ferry to Ko Phi Phi, just an hour and a half ride from Phuket. We purchased our tickets at the ferry terminal for about $30 apiece, not realizing they could be bought for half that price at any local travel agency. Although lodgings in Thailand are very cheap, the transportation system seems to be rigged so that tourists are forced to pay ridiculously high prices. For example, a 20-minute cab ride in Phuket cost about $20, almost twice the price of a night in most hotels.

Ko Phi Phi is made up of two islands: Phi Phi Don and Phi Phi Ley. Phi Phi Ley is unsettled, but has a few beaches only accessible by boat. We visited Ley on a day trip. Stops included Maya Bay (where The Beach was filmed) and several wonderful reefs swimming with fish just about 15 feet beneath the water. In between snorkling stops, we were shuttled around the island to enjoy the breathtaking views. I know that "breathtaking" is a cliche much over-used to describe scenery, but in this case the dazzlingly bright water against a backdrop of soaring green limestone cliffs literally did leave me short of breath.

Phi Phi Don, the second island, is home to a multitude of lodgings ranging from world-class resort to grubby bungalow. Other than the obvious reason of low finances, we chose to lounge on the less- developed side of the island which has about six separate, small and quiet beaches as well a very low-key atmosphere. Ao Toh Ko Bungalows, where we stayed, was a smattering about about 30 little bungalows, all of which were right on the sand and a few steps from the water. Although the accommodations were pretty basic (no flush toilet, no fan, electricity only at night, mosquito netting over the bed not quite effective), our porch featured a hammock and an excellent view. Not to mention the hut was $20/ night! It was fun "roughing it" for a few days. The staff- two American guys from Kansas and a Thai family- were friendly enough, and the bungalows' restaurant served up excellent Thai food to customers lounging at tables placed right on the sand.

Rantee Beach, arguably the best for snorkeling in Ko Phi Phi, was right next to our beach. One day, Scott and I rented a kayak and snorkel gear and paddled over there and to the next few beaches over. Each beach was different: some narrow and rocky with spectacular reefs in deep water just offshore; others sandy and wide with nothing but ankle deep water the color of a diamond as far out as you cared to walk.

We also hiked back into the jungle for about an hour to a scenic viewpoint right at the highest point of Ko Phi Phi, and then walked back down the other side to check out Ton Sai village and beach. Since there are no cars on the island, the only way to get around is by boat, foot, or fin. Although Ton Sai Beach was clearly once the most beautiful on the island, it is sadly succumbing to the drains of tourism. It's lined with sleazy bars and cheap hotels, and completely packed with trashy spring break types drinking imported beer and checking each other out. Kind of reminded me of Daytona Beach or Panama City... not the way I like to go to the beach. We definitely chose the right side of the island!

Anyway, we stayed at the Ao Toh Ko Bungalows for five wonderful days of swimming/ sunbathing/ hammock-lounging/ snorkeling. After that, we rode the ferry back to Phuket Town and visited a few more the beaches on Phuket before heading back to Bangkok and then Hong Kong. I have so many great memories from this vacation. Now I'm sitting here in my apartment in Zhanjiang, and I can close my eyes and see myself diving into that glittering turquoise water and swimming through a huge school of yellow and black striped fish. Or swinging in a hammock, looking at the stars. Waking up in the morning to the sound of the waves.

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