Mass tourism makes a whore out of any virgin island and budget airlines act as their pimps.
But of course nobody is to blame. It is the lure of money that leads most along this lucrative path.
“Oh, she was once so innocent, young and beautiful,” laments the greying travellers as the captain of our long wooden boat lines up to squeeze a parallel park between the 20-odd other boats parked in the cove, bookended by craggy limestone cliffs.
They had been amongst the adventurous few who had stumbled upon Thailand’s southern Phi Phi Island a couple of decades ago, before it had made it to Hollywood and the crowds wanted to sleep with her.
“It was paradise.”
This sounded familiar. The exact wording the guidebook had used when describing Phi Phi island became murky as I choked on the exhaust fumes spewing out of the boats motor, but I vaguely recall mentions of “pristine” and “paradise.”
“Leonardo killed Phi Phi,” declares the woman like a judge handing down a verdict.
She’s referring to Phi Phi’s rapid rise to fame after the 1999 cult film “The Beach” was shot here on its cove, starring Leonardo Dicaprio.
When arriving on Phi Phi island, you can’t help but lose your jaw somewhere between your legs as she is incredibly beautiful. It is a dramatic beauty, with her curvaceous limestone cliffs rising and falling into the turquoise blue waters of the Adaman ocean. This is why everybody loves her. One can sunbake on her coves, embraced by the grand backdrop of her limestone cliffs that envelope around them. She makes everybody feel special.
It was, however, when I climbed ashore and almost tripped over the girl whose bum had gobbled up her bikini bottoms while she held her best centrefold pose for a photo, that I realised something was terribly wrong. While there was no need to be alarmed about the girl- it seemed a fellow in dark sunglasses was staring intently as if trying to help her find the lost bikini - I was concerned for other reasons.
Koh Phi Phi is a cluster of six islands, but you will only hear about two of them- Phi Phi Don: the largest island, shaped like an hourglass, with resorts and guesthouses crowding the narrow section of it; and Phi Phi Ley: the smaller uninhabited island which Leo made famous by planting his footsteps in the sand of it’s largest cove- Maya Bay. Ever since, this bay has drawn thousands of tourists a day. Fortunately, unlike it’s big brother, Phi Phi Don, this island has resisted being colonised by tourists thanks to the profitable business of bird's nest soup. Yes, there is a highly profitable industry based on the island where nests of the island’s swift bird population are harvested to produce this delicacy, popular amongst the Chinese.
Now, I hate to wear the suit of self righteousness. It doesn’t suit me. The sleeves are too short and my credentials just don’t fill it out. However, the lingering smell of regurgitated pizza and vodka that a girl decide to relieve on my barefoot last night at one of Phi Phi’s beach bars (a story I’ll save till the end), has forced me to try it on.
While the sun kissed Bali’s and Phuket’s of this world make most people happy, they depress me. They remind me of where the environment sits on the food chain and that this is sadly even below pot-bellied, pasty white tourists in velcro sandals.
Phi Phi is naturally beautiful yet her beauty is being sold out. Budget airlines have revolutionised places like Phi Phi. It is now cheaper to catch a flight half way across the world to a tropical island of a developing exotic country than take the kids on a two hour road trip to Greenhill’s adventure park in Victor Harbor for a camel ride on the beach and an ice cream.
And where do the Thai’s fit into all of this? Well, they have welcomed it and who can blame them. They are a developing country making copious amounts of money out of it. Once upon a time the Thai government did considering the number of visitors to the island by raising the price of the resorts on the island, however this fell through. I assume they just didn’t want to deprive the migrating middle classes cramming into cheap flights everyday of Phi Phi, or themselves of the millions they make out of the place in tourism.
Like most of Thailand’s islands, Phi Phi was once populated mostly by a community of sea-faring gypsies who lived off of fish and coconuts. Now, over 1 million tourists occupy it every year and live off of buckets of booze ( vodka, whiskey, coke, redbull) overpriced restaurants, Thai massages and Irish bars.
Development has lost the plot on the island, especially since unregulated building exploded after the 2004 tsunami. Concrete is slapped in places it shouldn’t, most buildings look half built, yet half demolished, and the place seems constipated with rubbish with plastic drinking water bottles a plague. Figures suggest, over 10,000 visitors cram themselves onto the island a day in peak season. Phi Phi is not a big island, so, as you could imagine, the scene is similar to a Playboy convention in a 35 sq metre Sydney apartment.
The island’s village..... is more like a tourist’s cocoon. When in it, you could be anywhere on the globe.
People who come here behave differently than they would at home as they are here to escape who they are. This place gives them what they could never have back home – a bargain basement life in an adults playground of sex, booze and drugs.
Puppetours decided that in order for my obese rucksack to shed some weight, I was to leave hanging all of my underwear from the light fixtures of my guesthouse (in revenge for charging me for toilet paper) and leave behind sneakers, passed down by my uncle David. Little did they expect the battle royale awaiting them at airport the checkin counter.
My hands are clammy, face pale and my eyes can’t sit still as they race around the room like a drug dealer about to pass customs. I wonder if they have sniffer dogs to weed out those with overweight luggage before they get to the check-in desk like they do for drugs. Overweight rucksack or suitcase smugglers are an epidemic since cheap air travel became so popular. You see many of the poor buggers that have been caught all over airports, on the floor, on their knees emptying their bags, saying goodbye to things that will inevitably be lost to the Bermuda triangle of all things confiscated at airport security, or given up at check-in. I wonder if they hoard these abandoned possessions in giant store houses or take them home to their families to give to their kids- here son another pocket knife for you to play with.
Batman has the Joker, Harry Potter has Lord Valdemort, the traveller has airport check-in staff.
I’m next in line. She looks at me with an accusing eye as I swing it off my back and onto the scales. Anybody who has flown with cheap airlines knows this look. As the numbers click higher, our eyes shoot in squinted glances between the scales and each other as if we we’re in a Mexican standoff, both reaching for our holsters.
I am armed with excuses, charm I have convinced myself I possess and a well rehearsed puss-in-boots eye look; she is already reaching for the dreaded line - “I’m sorry sir, but your bag is overweight. You have the choice of paying an exorbitant extra baggage fee or leaving something behind.”
The condescending “sir” and the refrained conniving smirk that’s almost bursting from their lips- I am certain this gives them the same satisfaction an angler gets when hooking a fish. Especially as the announcement sets off the sighs, moans and abusive glares of those waiting behind in queue as you reach down to extract the sacrificial item that will be left behind from your bag.
The number on the scales stops and holds steady on exactly 15kg. The stewardess looks disappointed as I wipe the sweat from my brow, nod my head proudly to those behind in me in the line and revel in their silent applause. I am exactly on the baggage weight limit. She demands “next!” and flicks her head to the left like a cow shooing a fly, signalling for me to go through. I have won this baggage Mexican standoff. It was not a time for all smiles, however, as I walked through the security- undie-less and minus a beloved family heirloom- my uncle David’s smelly sneakers – a subtle guilt that right about now a guesthouse owner would be opening the door to one of his rooms to discover underwear hanging from its light fixtures.