Koh Phi Phi: Paradise Lost?

April 11, 2007

Written a few days earlier but because of difficult internet access, posting now.

Earlier in my travels, I read Alex Garland’s The Beach, a book that is required reading for backpackers making the rounds through Southeast Asia. The gist of the novel goes: young, adventurous backpacker happens upon a hidden beach paradise populated by other scruffy, pot-smoking travelers. In their zeal to protect their secret world, they end up destroying it.

In 2000, Leonardo Dicaprio starred in the movie version of The Beach, set here, in Ko Phi Phi. That movie put this little island, already famous amongst a certain group of travelers, on the mainstream map. To the backpackers who “discovered” this island twenty-or-so years ago, it became paradise lost.

Ko Phi Phi could have been appropriately be described as a paradise. Waters such a vibrant shade of seagreen, you’d think they were something out of a computer game. Tree-dappled cliffs skyrocketing into the sky. Blue skies interspersed with coconut palms.

But it’s hard to imagine the pristine world to where the first backpackers arrived. Greeting the visitor now are clunky resorts where palm groves should be, and dozens upon dozens of longtail boats, so many that they’ve rendered Tonsai unusable for beachgoers. The streets of Tonsai Village, aptly nicknamed “Tourist Village” are choked with internet cafes and shops selling the same sarong and fake shell necklaces as everywhere else in Thailand. Even on the beaches, the constant buzzsaw of the longtail engines afford no peace and you have to dodge shards of broken beer bottles on the sand

Both Lonely Planet and Travelfish and everyone else really write about Ko Phi Phi with biblical undertones. It is the Garden of Eden, post-Fall. A paradise ruined by the big resorts and souvenir shops. I always rolled my eyes at such descriptions. The irony is that it’s the backpackers who destroy the place first, but who sigh and shake their heads once the Thai-owned resorts start cashing in. As if we Westerners have never been guilty of putting up parking lots.

Then came the 2004 tsunami, which wiped it all out. The Lonely Planet writes about the disaster like the Old Testament writes about Noah’s Ark or Sodom and Gomorrah. And while God may have promised “Never again” and given us a rainbow as a reminder, the Thai government had different plans, to everyone’s consternation. Back again were the resorts and the souvenir shops. The tourists very soon followed and now, in April 2007, it seems everything is business as usual.

Even if I take issue with the melodramatic prose of Lonely Planet and Travelfish, I find that I can’t help share in their dismay. Sure, it’s only my first time here and I’ll never know what this place was like before mass-tourism hit it stronger than any tidal wave, but to me what’s sad is that I can’t see what all of the fuss is about. Meh, I think, it’s okay. But it’s no paradise. I feel like I never left South Beach. There’s no sense of awe. Or maybe my hopes were too high.

Anyway, tomorrow we leave for Koh Lanta, another backpacker “discovery,” now gentrified by swimming pools and 24-hour electricity. And so it goes. There are so many islands in the Andaman Sea, however, that the backpackers need not worry. They could discover one paradise per week and rest assured knowing that in ten year’s time, each island would have Amaris and Sheratons enough for all of the sun-hungry tourists who’d destroy the place in their wake.

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