The Phi Phi islands are the things of screensaver lore. You see photos of them on the background of office computers and wonder if that place is even real or if it is some computer-generated pipe dream to soothe cubicle drones and let them believe that one day they will escape. I watched “The Beach” in high school because I liked the way Leo’s blonde tendrils fell ever so slightly in his eyes, but I was more captivated by the white sands, turquoise water, and lush jungle that he and his friends ran amok in. Thailand. Phi Phi Islands. These were foreign words to me then. I had no idea that, ten years later, I would end up living in Phuket; a mere two hour ferry ride from the Phi Phi islands.
Phuket is like a really shady, Thai-themed, amusement park. Everything is expensive, there’s lots of crowds, and by the time you leave, you’ll possibly have been robbed, hit by a moving vehicle, or had your childhood dreams ruined (no, those tigers are not on show by choice). The beaches are what make my life here worth living, but they paled in comparison with my friends vacation photos from Phi Phi. My friend, Anna, works on another campus and they had Friday off. I got this text while yelling at kids, on my campus, to not hit each other with chairs.
“Keri convinced me to go to the Phi Phi islands. Don’t hate me!”
Oh, I did hate her. But the hate subsided when I realized that I could grab the 8:30 am ferry on Saturday morning to join her and the other girls. IT WAS HAPPENING.
I bought tickets over the phone, from a woman named Tuk, and pick-up, plus a round-trip ferry was only 750 baht. This was an absolute steal, as tourists coming from the airport pay around 1,000 baht just getting to the dock. My ferry was like a dream. It had red, comfy seats. There was enough room that I could lay out on three of them and sleep and it was totally silent, as people snoozed or gazed out the windows. When I woke up, Mr. Bean was playing on the large tv screens. Pretty genius move, as ferry engines are annoyingly loud and Mr. Bean is enjoyed without any sound. We arrived at Phi Phi Don’s dock and I paid the 20 baht entrance fee (meant to protect the park, but naysayers say it pays drug dealers.) I met up with Anna, Lyndsey, and Keri at Pirate Bar, where I ate a tuna salad and quickly sipped a latte, so that we could get our things into the room and get out on a longtail boat, as this is the main thing to do on Phi Phi.
We made the mistake of not booking ahead of time and at 2pm, most of the tours were full or had already left. It is possible to go and get your own boat, by asking one of the boatmen at the pier (the cheapest option), but we only had three people, which wasn’t worth it to the boat owners. Luckily, we found a company that fit us onto a trip that would take us out around Monkey Beach, to a swimming lagoon, a snorkeling area, and Maya Beach, or as it is more commonly known, The Beach beach.
The longtail boats are stunning with the colorful material, beads, and flowers wrapped around the bow….until you see the stern. I had never seen the stern in photos, but hunkered on the back of a boat is a massive engine, dripping with wet, black oil. It looks like it was just stolen out of a monster truck. It coughs and hacks at the water quite unpleasantly, but if you look straight ahead, at the paradise around you, you may forget that it’s there.
Monkey Beach had no monkeys and so, we didn’t stop. Said our guide, but there were other boats stopped there, so many he was just feeling lazy. The swimming lagoon looked like an ad from a tour company. Beautiful, young, tanned people from all over the world basking in the sun and floating on water, so blue that it burned my eyes. The water was fine and I found that I could float very easily, probably due to a high saltiness. I stayed on my back, staring at the sky that was no match for the water, and felt the pure bliss wash over me.
We had to pay 400 baht extra to go to The Beach beach. This is an absurd amount, but I can say it was completely worth it. Although, keep in mind that I went at the start of high season. In a couple months, when more crowds swarm, it may not be as worth it. We definitely didn’t have the beach to ourselves, but the groups of tourists were chill, as most of us were spread out, taking selfies, splashing about in the water, or laying out on the sand that was so white that I could swear it was moon dust. Anna and I walked onto a jungle path and found ourselves alone. It is a rare and beautiful thing to be alone in Thailand. And so, we took really stupid videos of ourselves pretending to be in the movie The Beach.
Sitting in the sand, sipping from a Singha can, and watching the sun start to set, life sure felt surreal. After dreaming and wondering about these islands, I was here. Who could have known life would take me here? Back on the longtail boat, the sunset reflecting on the ocean was like melting gold mixing with silver waves. I felt like my soul was on fire and I mean that in a very, very good way.
Phi Phi is a place of great beauty and greatness, but underneath it all, it is a party island. We weaved through the labyrinth of tattoo shops, bucket stands, and cheap clothing shops. We went out to the beach, where fire shows mixed with strength contests, stripper poles, flashing lights, empty buckets with multi-colored straws, and neon paint. I enjoyed a pina colada bucket (made by a 14 year old boy with a magnificent rat tail) while dancing to pop music turned techno and mimicking the moves of a dude, who was clearly on drugs. A highlight of the evening was seeing a middle-aged man put on a wig and get the fuck down, while his beer-bellied friend gyrated behind him. Phi Phi is for everyone and anyone.
I ended the night by paying a Thai guy to paint my face with neon dots and flowers. It felt tribal and cool until I realized that it was far too intriguing for dudes who may have been tripping on acid. I had my face grabbed twice and had to actually push a guy away from me, who kept asking my name while trying to stroke my face. On a serious note, Phi Phi can be pretty crazy and I know two girls that got robbed and heard stories of another girl who was almost raped. I felt pretty safe when I was there, but I didn’t drink very much, stayed with my friends, and didn’t wander off alone down the dark beach, even though I really wanted to explore. Keep your wits about you and keep in mind that the booze buckets are made VERY strong. End of PSA.
The next morning, I sat on my fancy ferry looking out at the islands and thinking that that may have been the best 24 hours I’d spent anywhere. I’d love to go back for a longer time to see the bioluminescent plankton, enjoy Maya Beach some more, and finally see some Muy Thai fighting. Yet, if I never get the chance to go back again, I’ll always have The Beach and Leo’s bleach blonde bangs.