First things first, the ‘h’ in Thai romanization indicates aspiration on the ‘p’, so you pronounce it like “Ko Pee Pee”. This only strikes you as funny for half a day. Second things second, Ko Phi Phi is two islands, not one — Ko Phi Phi Don and Ko Phi Phi Leh. Leh, the smaller of the two is home to Maya Bay, made famous a dozen years ago by “The Beach”). As came Leo, so came the tourists, and as came the tourists, so went the charm.
If you’ve been to a crazy college party, especially if it was at one of a warmer schools, then you can understand the dominant experience here. Every evening, the sweaty mass of Western twenty-somethings roll themselves off the beaches where they spent the day, clean themselves up (maybe), put on their best tank top, and head out to the bars. Ground zero is Dojo. For the next few hours, they suck mixed drinks from toy sand buckets, blaze through cigarettes, and start rubbing up on things that look good. As people realize that midnight has passed, they return to the beach, where the drinking continues, the dancing gets dirty under cover of darkness, hormones rage, and everybody tries to hook up with everybody else. Meanwhile the boys (and many of the girls) are peeing in the ocean, and the bass from the beachfront club throbs in sync with the libidos, deep into the night, spoiling the otherworldly serenity that would otherwise prevail for a mile in every direction. This continues until chemicals (natural and un-) can no longer sustain the wasted bodies and they expire, on the beach, or in bed with a stranger, or alone with regrets. It’s a true bacchanalia, in the least elegant way.
I have nothing against bacchanalias, but even the Romans that invented them only they them five times a month. The Phi Phi revelers are on vacation though, and have nothing else to do the following day but the same thing again. More than a few have come for vacation and made it into a lifestyle. You can spot them, weary skin on young bones.
On our final night, my brother and joined in for the first act of the party. Tremendous fun. No impulse to rinse & repeat.
We had our least pleasant Thai service experience at the hotel. The restaurant’s waitstaff was barely trained and obviously never exposed to decent service. Neither they nor the rest of management camouflaged for an instant how uninterested they were in serving us or how little they cared for tourists in general. They never said “hello” or “good morning” in Thai or English, never confirmed or clarified our food orders, never even cracked a friendly smile. It was surreal, actually, and I left every encounter feeling very unwelcome. If I’m paying a decent amount and I’m on vacation, I don’t need obsequious or even professional service, but I really want to feel a part of a mutually beneficial transaction. Yes, I’m taking advantage of the purchasing power disparity between our countries; yes, I’ve gotten a good setup for a good price; yes, there’s an exploitative element to it; but if we do it right, we both come out ahead. I get to relax, and you get my money. But we both have to approach it right: I have to not be a dick, and you have to not act like you’d prefer I were elsewhere.
It’s easy to imagine why this might be the case. We parachute in and expect to be treated like princes, and with the amenities we’re adapted (addicted) to, things that are extremely difficult and expensive to provide on a poor, tiny, remote island, and are totally unnecessary for their own lives. Things like inexhaustible hot water, fast & ubiquitous WiFi, good coffee and other foreign foods. They do their best to hook us up, against the odds. There are limits to control, however, and the supply chains to the islands are long, fragile, and expensive. But we cut them no slack when the water is cold and its mineral content chokes the shower heads, or the internet is slow and doesn’t reach our room, or our ketchup & coffee aren’t Heinz & Starbucks. “Here I am!” we proclaim, “Where is my world?”
“You left it, remember? You’re really far from home.”
“Yes, but I thought it was coming with me. This is my vacation.”
“Yes, but this is our world. Yours isn’t possible here. That’s why it isn’t already here.”
“I have come for your beaches, not your lifestyle.”
“Ours is the lifestyle of these beaches…”
I’d hate us too.
My brother wandered past the end of Long Beach, a half-mile stretch of mid-level resorts, and happened upon a beach where some locals lived. The beach was messy with trash and marine detritus. Someone there is cleaning up those tourist beaches, but they don’t have the opportunity to enjoy it. We do, and we piss on them.
When the size of the tourism industry in a location exceeds a certain threshold relative to other economic activity, everything gets sucked into its gravity, and the natural soul of the place withers. You don’t go to Ko Phi Phi to experience Thai culture. You can’t — the debauchery has long since obliterated it. I guess some people like it that way. A lot of people keep coming.
I’ll move on.