Tag Archives: thailand

Ko Phi Phi Disapphoints

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.

Ocean vista with water taxi

The Beach

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.

Dojo Bar

Every night at Dojo

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.

Chicks on the bar

The dude is the bartender

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.

Hard to not be a dick when you’re drinking these

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.

Slices of pizza

A little taste of home

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.

Sittin' on a boat on the bay

Sittin’ on a boat on the bay

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What is Thai Standard?

Almost every restroom I’ve visited in Thailand has had an unexpected feature: American Standard fixtures. American culture is all over the place, as expected, but this is where I’ve seen the word “American” the most. So I suspect that a typical Thai’s interaction with “American” is pissing on it. I’m happy for American Standard’s success, but I can help but be amused by the suggestion that the American standard is the capture and redirection of various types of effluent. Certainly, there’s a lot of crap being moved around in America—truckloads of consumer goods crap, books full of ideological crap, pipes overflowing with actual crap from all that crap food we eat too much of. I hope other countries interpret the ubiquity of American Standard fixtures as a tacit admission that, yes, we produce a lot of crap, and as a partial apology for it. But that’s the deal: you buy our crap, and we’ll let you piss on us!

Compare that to another national standard, say, Russia. Russian Standard is a vodka brand. Of course. My brother tells me it’s also a major bank. While Americans are producing and moving crap around the world, Russians are doing business and doing shots, at the same time. There’s a king-size movie-theater popcorn bucket full of truth-kernels in that metaphor.

I haven’t seen a Thai Standard brand, but after a week in the country, a few “standards” have stood out:

  1. Nobody wears sunglasses. In NYC, wearing sunglasses in public is almost de rigeur, and it’s less about keeping away pesky UV rays than putting some psychic distance between oneself and the surrounding crowd. I find riding the subway much more pleasant when you can look around without having to play eye contact games—if you can’t see my eyes you can’t see me. It was on the Skytrain, Bangkok’s new elevated rapid transit system, that I noticed the disparity. I got on with my shades on, as usual, but when I looked around I was startled to be peeking so deeply into people’s souls. When I got off, I noticed that nobody on the streets was wearing them either. I asked a Thai friend about it. She said that she save her shades for the beach.
  2. Tuk tuks are super fun, and their drivers will lie to you for money. As we approached the different parts of the Grand Palace, these guys would tell us that this one was closed now but would be open again in an hour, then offer to take us somewhere else in the meantime. We never took them up on it, politely insisting we wanted to go anyway, but the ubiquity of this trick was surprising. Must be a lot of novice travelers passing through. On the other hand though, being conned into a tuk tuk ride can’t be the worst thing. Flying down the streets of Bangkok in a open-air cart is a far more titillating than many of the tourist attractions (Soi Cowboy included), so meticulously groomed for foreign viewers.
    The fam in a tuk tuk

    In the driver’s seat of a tuk tuk

    Soi Cowboy, Bangkok

    Soi Cowboy

  3. Sukhumvit Road has more huge adjacent high-end shopping malls than I thought possible. Who goes there? How many people can shop here how much to support all these high-end brands? It’s like NYC’s 5th Ave, Madison Ave, Soho and Union Square curled up on themselves and side by side. They have huge food courts (where you can eat cleanly-prepped “street” food), movie theaters, direct walkways to Skytrain platforms, plazas for golf one even has an aquarium, the largest in the country). Some have attached hotel/condo/office towers. The only big breaks between them are the spots where the new malls are under construction. It’s crazy, but a good place to ease into a different culture—I was rarely more than a stone’s throw from a Starbucks. (Speaking of Starbucks, it’s more expensive here than in the states, very much a luxury purchase. I understand that this is the case in a lot of cities, in Asia and elsewhere, that exploded into the 21st century.)

    Sukhumvit Road, Bangkok

    Not many malls in this shot, but you can see it’s a helluva road

  4. Thais are extremely polite. One language guide I read said hello is not correctly pronounced without a smile. In most cases (in shops & restaurants), we observed you also need to place your palms together at heart’s center and bow slightly. Perhaps the effect of this is dulled by familiarity for the Thai, but for us westerners, it’s a joy to experience. Genuine smiles from strangers really lift the spirit.

So what is Thai Standard? So far I’d say it’s a tuk tuk ride to nice mall with a clear-eyed girl for a cup of coffee. And some mango sticky rice! Now that’s a brand I can get behind.

Garuda, symbol of Thailand

The Thai Standard logo?

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