Blame It on “The Beach”

Asia, Backpacking & Trekking, Lost Girls RTW Adventure, Planning, Thailand — By on March 11, 2007 at 11:06 pm

Long before there was a Sex in the City tour highlighting Carrie Bradshaw’s favorite cosmo-sipping spots and a DaVinci Code tour tracing Robert Langdon’s quest for the Holy Grail, backpackers were following the footsteps of their own unlikely hero-Leonardo DeCaprio-who stumbled upon a white sand utopia in the 1999 cult-classic The Beach.

In Alex Garland’s best selling novel of the same name, the mythical Beach lies in a protected marine reserve off Thailand’s east coast. But don’t tell that to the millions of travelers who storm the country’s west coast year. Ever since a Hollywood director filmed Leo jumping off a waterfall, beating up a shark, getting it on with a French girl, having a mental breakdown and nearly getting executed by drug dealers on the ruggedly beautiful island of Kho Phi Phi-that’s where Beach bums have been trying to recreate movie magic.

And so, perhaps swept up by the hype like everyone else, Jen, Beth and I found ourselves boarding a ferry boat bound for Phi Phi, praying we could find a dirt cheap hotel with a vacancy. From the rumors, the island (pronounced “pee-pee,”) had been sold out for months, so we didn’t have a prayer of spending our holidays there.

Another Lost Girl lesson: When everyone from burnout wannabe hippies to the anal-retentive reservation makers tell you that a place is “totally and completely sold out,” that’s usually when you’ll stumble upon an ideal room that someone bailed on at the last minute. Our ferry boat had barely bellied up to the pier when the girls and I leapt ashore, trying to outpace the other unprepared arrivals seeking shelter. We quickly found our crash pad at the Phi-Phi Don Chukit-a triple room that might not have had air-con, hot water or an ounce of charm, but did offer clean sheets, towels and daily maid service, all for the bargain price of just $13 per girl. Boo-yah.

By now we’d learned that Leonardo’s cinematic stomping grounds (known locally as Maya Beach) lie just a long-tailed boat ride away on uninhabited Kho Phi Phi Leh, but our goals were more shortsighted: After getting up so early and racing around to find a hotel, we just wanted to crash on a lounge chair-preferably in the vicinity of an all-male beach volleyball game.

Changing into bathing suits, tank tops and dousing ourselves liberally in SPF 30, we backtracked along the path towards “town” and stumbled upon a veritable backpacker nirvana. The walkway leading to the island’s second most popular stretch of sand was lined with cheap massage parlors, internet cafes with flat screen monitors, dive centers promising shark sightings, ticket agents with walls of low-low prices, all-you-can-eat restaurants, second-hand bookshops, double-decker bars with 2-for-1 drink specials, pharmacies advertising everything from pain relievers to “preg tests,” and an endless stream of gorgeous, lithe and perfectly bronzed 20-somethings.

In my non-OC-Laguna Beach-Real World-MTV Spring Break life, I’d never seen so many attractive people with six-pack abs clustered into the same small space. Guys accessorized their fuzz-free chests with beaded wooden necklaces and an assortment of tattoos they supposedly designed themselves. The girls observed a strict dress code of stretchy striped skirts, floaty beach tops, Reef sandals, cotton headbands, big hoop earrings and the kind of bug-eyed sunglasses that even Nicole Richey would acknowledge are out of style. As a group, they chain smoked packs of cigarettes bought at the island’s one and only 7-11, drank sand-pail sized containers of alcohol (known everywhere in Thailand as “buckets”), recovered from the previous night’s debauchery by downing mountainous stacks of banana pancakes and watching Borat, Casino Royal and Wedding Crashers at one of a half dozen outdoor cafes.

In short, exactly the sort of crowd Leonardo was trying to escape from when he went searching for The Beach.

After getting a little sidetracked by cheap (yet shockingly flattering) bikinis and sundresses, we finally made it the water to discover that there was, in fact, an all guy’s volleyball game in full swing. Beth, who’d played competitively in high school, wasted no time in jumping in; Jen and I grabbed chairs and started making plans for our first night on the town.

As it turned out, there wasn’t much to plan: No matter where the night began, almost everyone rolled down to Apache Bar–a multi-tiered, Indian-themed joint with a nightly fire-show–or Carlito’s–a huge, Swedish-run place with fairy lights, tons of chairs and tables on the sand, a big dance floor and great mix of reggae, house and old-school tunes. We initiated ourselves into the mindless mayhem of Kho Phi Phi by ordering our first round of buckets, Beth toasting to her long vacation and Jen and I toasting to unemployment. By the time we got to the bottom of our drinks, we’d magically made friends with half the people on the beach and were already planning on where to go tomorrow (not a tough choice, as I mentioned).

Hangovers not withstanding, our week on Phi Phi turned out to be just what the travel doctor ordered. We surrendered to the local mindset without a fight, shopping for stretchy dresses, watching pirated movies, eating stir-fry lunches and taking afternoon naps on the beach. We went out ‘til all hours at night and still managed to get up early the next morning to spot sharks, moray eels and scorpion fish on scuba diving excursions. We even broke down and watched The Beach, which I realized, was actually a pretty crappy movie with one really great thing going for it-the spectacular setting right outside our door.

Blame it on the buckets or hitting the six-month mark of this yearlong journey, but it became as clear as a vodka tonic that not every experience we have on this trip has to enhance our view of the world-sometimes, blurrier is actually better. I may not have grown intellectually during our week in Kho Phi Phi, but I did have two alcohol-inspired insights: Sometimes, taking a break from culture is the very thing you need to learn to appreciate it all over again. And occasionally, even travelers can use a vacation from their vacation.

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  • Desert Songbird says:

    Spectacular views, and a week of relaxation anyone could use, especially this weary suburban mom. Thanks for sharing the experience.

  • Darren Cronian says:

    Ok, I’m jealous!! That beach looks so inviting right now, after spending a week in minus 12 temps in Norway.