Thursday, 30 August 2018

KOH PHI PHI, Thailand. Trouble in Paradise?

Thailand’s Phi Phi islands (pronounced ‘PEE PEE’) have all the essential attributes of a stereotypical tropical Paradise -  crystal clear bathtub-warm waters, palm-fringed white sand beaches and technicolour coral reefs.  Vertical jungle-clad limestone cliffs soar dramatically skyward from the turquoise waters as colonies of macaques cling on for dear life.   I must admit, when I stepped off the ferry at Tonsai pier (the islands’ only portal to the outside world), it felt like I had died and gone to Heaven.  It was just like places I’d dreamed of all my life - I was in awe.

My time in Phi Phi was limited and I was eager to pack in as much sightseeing as possible, so as soon as I arrived I booked on to a full-day boat tour with a bunch of other travellers.  My relationship with the islands was in its honeymoon phase and my love for the place only grew.  I visited picture-perfect Maya Bay (the setting for Leonardo DiCaprio’s ‘The Beach’), went snorkelling with young reef sharks and explored the hidden nooks and crannies of Phi Phi’s spectacular coastline.  I witnessed some of the most awe-inspiring nature I’ve ever encountered and was in my element!

However, as the sun topples over the horizon and darkness descends over Phi Phi, the islands reveal a completely different face.  Hoards of tanked-up British, American and Australian twenty-something-year-olds emerge from hibernation, bound for the islands’ infamous booze-filled bars and clubs.  Local bylaws set partying limits at 2am, but in reality festivities rock on until dawn.  It’s like Ibiza on steroids. 

On a typical night out here, you’ll be served over-priced beers from a British waiter, before watching Aussies fight it out in a ‘Thai’ boxing ring, then grab American-style fast food on your walk back to the hostel (which in my case was also run by a European guy).  Don’t get me wrong, spirits here run high and I had a lot of fun, but it’s a far cry from the Thailand I’d grown to love so much on previous legs of this Asian adventure.  In fact, it didn’t really feel like Thailand at all.  Was it just my blistering sunburn pulling wool over my eyes or could there actually be trouble in Paradise?!

I strongly believe tourism brings with it great advantages when controlled responsibly.  It can bring life-improving wealth to local and national economies and promote open-mindedness.  And whilst this has certainly been the case in Phi Phi, it felt to me like the islands are becoming a victim of their own success.  Mass tourism seems to be stifling the local culture and destroying the stunning natural environments which made it so popular in the first place.
It would be short-sighted to write an article on the Phi Phi without acknowledging the tragic events of December 2004.  A magnitude 9.3 earthquake followed by a devastating series of huge tsunami waves left the islands in tatters.  It was a scene of utter devastation, with 70% of buildings destroyed beyond repair and an estimated 4,000 people dead on Phi Phi alone.  A touching memorial on Phi Phi Don commemorates the victims of the disaster.

It's remarkable to see the recovery the islands have made since that fateful day.  After years of reconstruction, there is barely a trace of the devastation which came before; buildings have sprung up from rubble, tourists have returned and islanders' lust for life is incredible.  Nowadays, thorough evacuation procedures are in place in all low-lying coastal areas and there are signs everywhere pointing to the nearest tsunami shelter.

I stayed in Phi Phi for a total of two and a half days, before returning to mainland Thailand to continue my adventure southward.  I had a lot of fun in Phi Phi – I saw spectacular landscapes and exotic wildlife, met some lovely people and had some wicked nights out.  But my feelings toward the place are bittersweet.  Tourism was once a lifeline here, bringing relative wealth to once poor communities (particularly following the tragic events of the tsunami), but that very lifeline itself is now destroying Phi Phi’s heart and soul.  And how long will the islands be able to sustain this destruction? 

Koh Phi Phi is a tropical paradise.  But if the way visitors treat the place does not change, I worry for the islands’ future.

Have you visited Phi Phi? I’d love to know your thoughts! Thanks for reading!

Elis Griffiths. x

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