In Search of the Perfect Beach Hut- Thailand '87 - Part 1
Updated: Jan 21, 2021
The jungle drums are beating With the tales from late last night ‘cause stories bear repeating For everyone’s delight You can hear ‘em on the coconut telegraph Can’t keep nothin’ under their hat Jimmy Buffett, Coconut Telegraph
Part 1: The Andaman Sea
Thailand: Siam, land of a million smiles, exotic temples, world's best street food, stunning beaches, a tropical paradise ruled by the "King of Swing."
In 1987, Thailand was a backpacker's paradise, its verdant islands supporting innovative beach hut entrepreneurs: basic shacks to splendid palaces, scattered amongst its two magnificent coastlines, the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand.
That era’s “yellow bible”, aka Lonely Planet’s “SouthEast Asia on the Cheap”, propagated an nascent tourism industry that would soon explode with travellers – but that was still off in the future.
We crossed the border from Malaysia to a deserted train station – the beginning or the end of the line in Thailand, depending on your point of view. We chatted up some fellow Canadians who were headed to the near-mythical island of Koh Samui. The station came to life as cars saddled up to the platform. We decided to travel 3rd class because we’d heard it was a comfortable and cheap. As if to confirm this, we were even assigned seats, our car was (relatively) clean, featuring a porter who swept the aisles.
Almost as soon as we made ourselves comfortable in our seats, a parade of hawkers trudged up and down the length of the train with huge platters of pork satay and other delicacies, shouting indecipherable sales pitches. Cold soft and hard drinks were proffered from enormous woven baskets lined with plastic, ice, including the notorious Mekong whiskey.
Rolling north, we ate and drank our fill, as we gazed out at the verdant landscape, which shifted from flat, shimmering rice paddies to angular green hills. Our train took us along the isthmus separating the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean.
Disembarking at Phatthalung, there was much confusion as we tried to locate the bus depot. We were trying to communicate with the locals by employing our extensive Bahasa playbook acquired in Malaysia and Indonesia. OOPS! The Thai language has absolutely nothing in common with Bahasa, so there we were, strangers in a strange land, incommunicado, despite eager Thais trying to help us.
And then, bingo! The breakthrough word: "Krabi", our next destination. We were immediately directed to a brightly coloured pick-up, larger than an average Indonesian bemo; we clambered aboard for the requisite quick tour of town to pick up passengers as we eventually made our way to the bus depot. Our eyes boggled at the stunning Buddhist temples we passed and we craned our necks to see young monks, novices as they are called, in their saffron sarongs, heading down the busy streets.
Soon we were aboard a second-class bus headed west toward Trang in Yala Province, lately in the news due to attacks by communist insurgents; a shaky amnesty had reportedly been negotiated. We nervously passed numerous roadblocks manned by Thai military, as we had heard some cautionary tales about farangs being robbed at gunpoint to finance the revolution. Fortunately for us, our bus wasn't stopped.
A ticket handler walked up and down the aisle of our bus shaking a long metal tube; a flap expelled tickets and coins, the coins inside jingling like cha-cha sticks in a mariachi band. The tickets were peeled off according to the passenger's destination. This fascinating form of transaction was to become a common sight in Thailand.
The bus station at Trang town doubled as a Chinese-style hotel and restaurant. Turns out we'd landed for the night, as buses to Krabi were done for the day (plus, it was considered too dangerous to travel after dark.) We dubbed it the “no-name hotel,” as we couldn’t decipher its Thai script.
We were taken to our room through the restaurant to the back and up a flight of stairs. Sixty baht ($3), clean sheets, working ceiling fan (Third World air-con), attached mandi with soap and towels, screens on the windows, cold, pure bottled water provided no extra charge!
After quickly dumping our gear, we headed down to the restaurant in the bus station lobby, hoping to rejuvenate ourselves a little from the 12-hour journey from Kota Bahru, Malaysia. We were ushered into the kitchen to examine what was cooking in the many huge pots, which was a good thing considering we couldn’t read the menu. Ample portions of fish, rice, chicken, veggies and hot sauces were set down on our table for 20bt ($1) each.
Despite the fish and chicken curries being “three-alarm-fire” hot, Elaine complained the food wasn’t spicy enough! She couldn't seem to get enough hot sauce to her liking from the small bowls filled with chillies set on the table.
After we'd had our fill and headed off to our comfy room for the night, she was up seven times: the ring of fire had struck.
Fortunately, this was the first time Elaine suffered the effects of the dreaded Asian belly, whereas I’d been already down for the count in Bali and Sumatra. She didn’t sleep very well of course, yet in the morning, she maintained she was ready handle the bus ride to Krabi.
"I just had to get whatever I'd eaten out!" she reported about her ordeal. "I could actually feel it moving through my digestive system. I think that's why my body was craving hot sauce at dinner, to help me get it out. I'm fine now!"
I think she was as anxious as I was to get to the beach. A real trooper!
Don’t Get Krabi
The journey to Krabi was without incident as we'd moved away from the insurgent zone; we drank in the enchanting scenery, becoming more and more excited about our destination. We imagined Krabi town to be right on the beach, so were surprised when we were deposited next to a river, with no sign of the coast.
We'd heard stories that the local waters were a favoured haunt for pirates and sea gypsies who sailed amongst the remote island and made their homes in secret caves.
In ‘87, a new gangster had arrived in town: paradise-seeking farangs who'd moved on after being ousted from Phuket, a former hippie hang-out overrun with high-class resorts and fat-cats. First came the hippies, and then, when news of what a "paradise" Krabi was, came the capitalists.
To reach Pai Pong Beach, which had first captured our imagination on a poster we'd spotted at the Swiss Hotel in Penang, Malaysia, we hopped aboard a SongThew to the beach. We rolled past immense limestone hills and cliffs, and were reminded of landscapes and figures sketched on those cheap Oriental bamboo calendars. As if to emphasize this, the driver pointed to a set of hills known as the reclining Buddha.
We came over a crest, and before us lay the magnificent Phra Nang Bay; we feasted our eyes on the pristine beach and the crystaline sea. This is what we’d been dreaming about!
As word hadn’t gotten out about how beautiful this place was yet, there was little in the way of development: a few bungalow operations were strung along the 10-mile main beach. These were set back from the road and some even had swimming pools; all overlooked stunning blue water, blinding white sandy beaches, fringed by graceful palm trees.
We clambored aboard a long-tail boat, and enjoyed a short ride around imposing limestone cliffs, sparing us a fairly steep hike over a promontory. Rounding the cape, the beach at Pai Pong caused our jaws to drop: in front of us lay a perfect moon-shaped bay, the jungle running up to imposing cliffs which were crowded behind the tiny resort. It looked like an impregnable bowl, with stunning rock outcroppings at the southern end of the bay, and we couldn't help but stare at the one that looked like a giant penis!
An open-aired bamboo hut was manned by congenial, eager staff, who carried our bags inside. Another group of those stereotypical dour Germans (they were everywhere!) sat in a corner, reading and ignoring our existence.
The daily rate was 70 baht plus 30 baht for all-u-could-eat dinner: the princely sum of $5. We were led to our bungalow, a comfortable straw hut at beach level, with nothing to impede our view save swaying coconut trees. Our primitive hut would soon serve two purposes: for sleeping and stowing our gear ... the rest of the time we were devoted to the beach or cafe.
After throwing our gear down, I decided to hang in the cafe, while Elaine had a nap to catch up after her rough night.
Then, we hit the beach. Sand the consistency of flour, the sea a combination of emerald green and turquoise blue shimmering in the noonday sun. When we ventured into the sea, we discovered we could walk on sand bottom for about 40 meters before the drop off. We learned there was excellent snorkelling at the south of the bay near the "giant penis", replete with coral reefs and small caves.
To our surprise and delight, well-met travellers Lou and Sue (encountered them in Jakarta, then traveled with this intrepid couple through Sumatra, Malaysia to Singapore) appeared out of the jungle. They had arrived here following their exploration of the Cameroon Highlands, which they had loved. They'd been expecting us for the past few days, and they immediately raved about how great the dinners were at Pai Pong; of course I began to salivate, despite it being only 1p.m.
A small international contingent had arrived here solely via the coconut telegraph; fortunately, we had secured the very last bungalow. A group who showed up after us were turned away; obviously, the word was spreading about this place. No surprise!
Due to the lack of running water or electricity, the resort blended into its environment, with minimum impact (except, of course, the garbage we farangs produced).
We soon updated our agenda: fun in the sun, relaxation, feasting on local delicacies, drinking copious quantities of local beer and hootch, burning the "sacred chalice".
First night, the food kept coming: spicy Thai salad, squid coconut soup, grilled fish, sweet and sour shrimp, spicy noodles, washed down with cold Singha beers, all topped off with coconut and pumpkin pudding. I faced up to the challenge of eating it all; Elaine just watched, wisely fasting for 24 hours to make sure the bug she'd picked up was completely out of her system.
Our hosts sheepishly mentioned this meal would cost 35 baht instead of the posted rate of 30 baht because of the added shrimp dish – an extra 25 cents! Damn, there went the budget!
First morning, we were greeted by an unexpected intruder. Awakened by the sound of squeaking and the pitter-patter of little feet along the straw hut's ceiling. Then, a form scurried across our mosquito net, rousing us out of a deep, peaceful slumber.
Elaine emitted a most impressive shriek as we were certain it had crawled into bed with us. We jumped out in a flash, then realized it was running around on the floor, so we jumped right back onto the mattress and huddled in the middle of the bed, wondering where it was hiding.
More pitter-patter, but no sign of the dirty little varmint. Elaine’s scream had likely sent it scurrying away. She'd woken the staff u, and when they came to see what the matter was, we demanded a new bungalow. They laughed when we told them a rat was racing about on our mosquito net.
“Oh, no wonder. You beside the garbage. Not rats you worry about around here,” said Louie the manager. “It’s giant snakes coming down from the jungle for the rats you worry about. They very poisonous!”
Somehow we didn't feel all that much better, despite his assurances.
Fortunately, the dour German contingent departed the next day, so we procured a much better bungalow, with an even more spectacular view of the beach. Comfortably ensconced in our new larger quarters, we didn’t have any other unwanted visitors. We'd had no idea our first hut was next to a garbage heap, an obvious meeting place for rats; we hadn't checked it's environs thoroughly as it was the last hut available, and we'd been so grateful to snag it.
At breakfast, the staff asked us if we were interested in touring the caves and nearby islands by private boat, 50 Baht each ($2.50). Seven of us pilled into a long-tail for what was to be a four-hour tour. First stop was a nearby beach, around the corner from the giant phallic outcropping, and Gift Bungalows, reachable only by boat.
We were ostensibly there to visit the caves, but found these unremarkable. The beach however, was even better than Pai Pong, a spit of pink sand, it was one of the most stunning beaches we’d ever seen. Thailand’s beaches were certainly living up to the hype. Unfortunately, without the cliffs behind the resort acting as a shelter like at Pai Pong, the wind whipped through the open canyon, and fine sand was getting into everything.
We hopped back into the long-tail boat and motored past numerous islands off the coast. Our pilot landed on one atoll, occupied by no more than a fishing hut and some nets, with cuttle fish drying in the blistering sun. We lounged on this sensual islet for a couple of hours, swimming in the lagoon and soaking up the rays of the sun. Suddenly, we agreed we’d taken too much sun, and were glad the boat was heading back to Pai Pong. Originally calm and flat, the sea became rather rough, and those sitting in the front received a good soaking, with one girl commenting that she was wetter from the boat ride than the swim!
The next day, a much-improved Elaine and I joined a group of farangs at the restaurant for a traveler’s information exchange: i.e,. the coconut telegram. In the era before faxes, the internet and social media, it was incumbent upon travellers to share first-hand accounts about exotic destinations and places to stay, bearing in mind the traveler’s credo: two travellers, three opinions. Our search for the perfect beach hut in Thailand was on!
We organized a beach party bonfire that night. I volunteered for the booze run into town, as I had to exchange traveler’s cheques (no ATMs!). The beach resort kept a running tab, so we really didn’t need cash, but booze was considerably cheaper in Krabi.
In town, I explored Krabi’s lively market, with its remarkable display of peppers. No small wonder the food was blazing hot! Southern Thais had much in common with the Malays. We later discovered many southern Thais were Muslim, decended from seafaring gypsies who'd sailed up the coast from the south hundreds of years ago.
I procured a selection of tropical fruit and bottles of SangSom: Thai sugar-cane rum, cheap and fiery. Mixed with coke (to ward off Bali Belly), or even better, lime juice, it made a refreshingly cool drink in the tropical heat.
After another multi-course feast at the beach bungalow restaurant, we joined Lou at the beach: he'd supervised the wood gatherers who'd amassed an enormous pile that they'd stacked into a teepee, with reserves for stoking the fire for hours if need be.
The little resort faced west, and we were treated to a “ten out of ten sunset” over the Andaman Sea. The moon, half full, slid out of the ocean to take over from the sun. As we were in such a deserted location without the light pollution of more developed areas, the night sky was stunning – billions of stars sparkling like diamonds, and underneath our feet, the white sand gleaming like fresh snow.
As the Kiwis and Aussies put it: “It was brilliant, mate!”
As the designated bartender, I rustled up some delicious Thai versioned Cuba Libras. They were a veritable hit. Around three a.m., well tuned from drink, we all ambled into the sea. To our amazement, the water was glowing with phosphorescent sparkles like submerged fireflies. What were they?
"Those are plankton, man," grinned one of the guys.
"Wow, psychedelic!" I replied. "I thought maybe I drank more than I thought!"
We remained submerged in the warm sea, chatting and laughing until the pink glow of sunrise poured over the cliffs and monkeys roared in the jungle behind us and we all headed to our respective bungalows for some blissful sleep.
Wake up. Swim. Repeat.
You would think we'd want to stay here forever, but after a few more days, we decided to pack it in before we became permanent fixtures at Pai Pong. There were so many beaches to explore! And we'd only just begin.
But would anything surpass PaiPong?
No Phone, no lights, no motorcar, not a single luxury, Like Robinson Crusoe, it’s primitive as could be.
6am - off to a very early start. Lou and Sue were headed for the east coast to Koh Phangan, but we decided to stay on the Andaman Coast. We had just enough time for a cup of piping hot coffee before we boarded a long-tail boat, which was probably a good thing. We remembered to sit at the back of the boat after our charter to the islands around Krabi, when the water had come crashing over the hull. We watched in awe as the sun rose over a grove of coconuts on the land behind us, turning everything a gorgeous rose colour. No doubt it was going to be another tropical scorcher.
After an hour on choppy seas, (good thing no food in our bellies), Phi Phi Island loomed large on the horizon. We swung around the cape into a perfect bay, the water multi-shades of blue and green, a stretch of white sand running along it for about three kms, and a string of beach huts nestled between the palm trees. Well, we had just discovered the new most beautiful beach we’d ever seen!
Beyond Long Beach (appropriately named), lay a series of smaller bays, fringed by a rock outcropping. A mass of palm trees splayed out until abruptly ended due to the outcropping of imposing limestone cliffs. Freshly painted blue, red and white fishing boats bobbed in the tiny harbour and across the bay sat Phi Phi Le, the island's uninhabited cousin. We felt like we were looking at Bora Bora in a National Geographic spread, not Thailand!
Phi Phi Le, renowned for its stunning coral lagoon and caves, was filled with swallows and bird nests, coveted for soup. According to Joe Cummings, who penned Lonely Planet’s first guide to Thailand:
“the nests are made of saliva which the birds secrete – the saliva hardens when exposed to the air. When cooked in broth, they soften and separate and look like bean thread. The Chinese value the expensive bird secretions highly, believing them to be a medicinal food that imparts vigour.”
Somehow we’d landed on a second slice of tropical paradise, that, while on the verge of being overrun by tourists, was ours to savour. A primitive beach hut industry was thriving, yet it took some doing to find a resort with vacancies, as the word was out on the coconut telegram among adventurous travellers that Phi Phi was an “unspoiled island.”
Call some place "paradise" ... then you can kiss it goodby.
On a map of the island (no Google Earth then of course), we realized the main harbour was shaped like an hourglass as it was a very narrow isthmus. At its narrowest point, the isthmus was only a stone's throw from one side of the sea to the other. Beach bungalows and a tiny fishing village were nestled into one side of its curve.
After trudging with our packs down Long Beach toward the tiny port, and finding every resort sold out; some were available at the east end at Long Beach, but there was a lack of water. Before we grew two despondent, we stumbled upon the Andaman Sea Resort. Here there were plenty of roomy huts were available and the water situation was fine. All the beach front huts were full but we found a simply furnished one with a double bed and mosquito net, a small table and concrete floor, that was only one row off the beach.
We immediately settled into our bungalow and I decided to check out the facilities. Who do I bump into but Emily, a fellow world traveler we’d met in Bali. Her husband Brad, a born salesman, seemed to make friends with everyone he met. They were a font of local knowledge, as they’d been wintering in SE Asia for several years. We'd enjoyed their company at Ubud and Candidasa Bali a few months previous.
A new routine was established: we would walk out our front door, cross a spit of sand and then plunge into the tropical waters ... definitely a pleasant, civilized way to begin the day! A small table was set up outside our door, and that's where we updated journals. After that little chore, we would head off with Brad, Emily, and other newfound friends to the fishing village for breakfast (the restaurant in our resort unfortunately had atrocious service).
The fishing village Ao Don Sai had been peaceful for centuries, and was reputedly a resting place for sea gypsies who plied these waters. As adventurous travellers found their way to the island, the word had spread along the coconut telegraph. Normally, when westerners arrive, development occurs at a slow pace, but the advent of cheap flights from Europe, and the popularity of nearby Phuket meant that Phi Phi was on the verge of a tourism explosion.
I’d seen this movie repeated many times throughout my travels, and noted how numerous places had changed with the passing of years: Negril, Jamaica; Isla Mujeres, Tulum, Mexico; Belize Islands, Santorini, Greece; parts of the coast of Turkey, among many others. On Phi Phi, the number of bungalows had quadrupled from the year before, according to old hands who’d been coming here for years.
In 1987, tourism on Phi Phi Island was entering “full speed ahead” stage. The stress on 700 natives who lived by the sea in their little village was obvious. Gaining a measurable amount of wealth from baht-wielding farangs, we noted televisions and VCRs in their primitive stilt houses.
TROUBLE IN PARADISE
The locals didn’t have a plan regarding garbage accumulating as an influx of farangs hit their shores; the stress on the island was apparent. Huge piles of the dreaded plastic water bottles and plastic bags were piling up in the middle of the village ... a mess we’d help create. The Third World was having difficulty comprehending that these things would never disintegrate, unlike their wrappings of coconut and banana leaves.
More distressing were the boatloads of day trippers from Phuket, (which had shifted from a low-key backpacker hangout to a high-end tourist destination); on average three to five hundred per day, invaded the island.
This lot were largely insensitive to native customs; the fishermen being Muslim were upset when bikini-clad women strolled through the village (although I’m sure some of the men didn’t mind, however!). Worse still, as westerners had discovered one of Phi Phi's sheltered bays, they would head there and immediately disrobe to nude sunbathe, which was extremely offensive to all Thais.
On this, we heard an amusing anecdote from one of locals.
A group of Germans had come to Phi Phi for nude sunbathing (during our travels in the 1980s, Germans had a dreadful reputation as insensitive travellers, much like the Russians currently). Despite frequent warnings from resort owners and local officials, they persisted with their hedonistic ritual. The locals arrested them, but instead of putting them in jail or fining them, they shipped them to a nearby deserted island for three days, providing an even more natural environment!
Life on Phi Phi was tied to fishing, the tiny port a flurry of activity as brightly painted boats tied up along the small pier. Shrimp, squid, shark, and other delicacies were standard menu fares. But then the seas turned rough, the fresh supply dried up.
The restaurant we frequented dubbed “Mama’s” didn’t have a menu. One walked to the back, looked in the cooler and Mama would work her magic. Price was negotiable, but, as discovered it was a good idea to bargain before hand, as costs doubled once dinner was consumed!
At the far end of the isthmus below the steep cliffs, we frequented a flash outfit called La Cabanas. Resembling a European cafe, the joint featured canopied umbrellas replete with branding from Heineken and Perrier. We gorged on banana splits and other ice creamed delights after downing a hearty meal at Mama’s.
Phi Phi Island was extremely photogenic. We were very careful not to offend the locals sensibilities by indiscriminately snapping photos of them. They were very interesting people, a gumbo of Arab, Indonesian, Chinese and Thai. The isolated, magical islands of Nicobar and Andaman were nearby; the locals likely had a few chromosomes from there as well.
In general, the locals were very friendly, reminiscent of Fijians. We noticed many of the men had taken to the drink, contrary to Muslim scripture. The kids, however, were becoming quite spoiled by tourists, and followed us, begging that we take a few photos of them in the hopes of a few sous.
At night, the tribe of us backpackers gathered, SamSong flowing freely, ganja passed. It was a world party; we were surprised to even make contact with Israelis. Thailand was one of the few countries in 1987 where they could travel without fear of censure. We found them to be a most amiable lot, friendly, and ready for a good time.
A humorous anecdote: a backpacker we met named David maintained a morbid fear of falling coconuts, not unfounded, as the isthmus was a coconut grove, some trees attaining heights of well over 100 ft. Over the course of any given day, we’d hear a distinct “thunk"– a coconut crashing to the ground. David froze with fear whenever this happened, as he was certain the next one was destined to land on his head.
“I am sure I am going to be killed by a coconut on this island,” he moaned.
His paranoia deepened the longer he stayed on the island, and the more cannabis he consumed; our friend was turning into a basket case. One day, in the mandi going about my business, I noted a giant hole in the ceiling. Apparently, a coconut had come crashing through the straw roof.
When I saw our friend while walking with Brad, a co-conspirator in elevating David’s level of paranoia, I told David someone had almost been killed while using the resort mandi.
“Yeah, he was squatting, taking a shit, when a coconut came crashing through the roof, almost pushing him down the mandi hole.”
“Impossible,” said David, eyes bulging at the prospect of being mutilated while performing his constitutional.
“It’s true,” confirmed Brad. “We saw the guy this morning, and he was in a state of shock.”
David ran to the mandi, returning as white as a ghost; the evidence was conclusive.
“I know I’m going to die on this island from a coconut,” he muttered as he walked away.
We tried to convince him it was only a joke. He preferred to believe the evidence, so we spent the rest of the day telling him the odds of being killed by a coconut were quite low, probably only a few tourists every year. No matter what we said, it only made matters worse, especially when I told him about poor old man we’d met in Taveuni, Fiji who had been permanently crippled by a falling coconut.
I probably shouldn’t have told David that story. The poor guy, things only got worse for him. One night, he climbed into his bed, and lay atop some type of insect or other critter, which stung him on his exposed posterior. At two in the morning, the entire compound was awakened by his ear-shattering scream.
I ran out to see what was happening and encountered David in an absolute state.
“I’m going to be dead in three hours,” he cried. “I just got stung on my ass by one of those deadly scorpions. It’s all over for me now. Look at it, I’m sure it is one of the deadly ones!”
We examined the squashed bug remains, which didn’t appear menacing, but then again, we wasn’t exactly expert on these matters. We tried to placate David, but this latest incident only added to his dread. Of course, he didn’t die, and the next day, we walked into the small village with him to congratulate him on surviving. However, whenever a coconut fell to the ground, Brad and I would look at each other, and then at David, and say “Boy, that was a close one!”
“Nothing to do, and all day to do it.”
During the full moon, the island was as bright as daylight; white sand gleaming. Out on the sea after dark, it was possible to distinguish various shades of blue. Phi Phi Le sat against the harbour as if a beckoning ghost, the effect surreal and fantastical. We really were living inside a dream.
We generally started the day the wakey bakey way: Thai ganja, putting us in a proper space for island living ... “living in three quarter time,” as Jimmy Buffett put it. We walked the beaches early and late in the day, as it quickly became too hot to be out at other times. (There are two seasons in Thailand: hot and hotter, and we had definitely entered the hotter phase.)
There were no cars or roads on Phi Phi, only sand paths hugging the shoreline and meandering off into the coconut groves. One morning, we managed to drag ourselves out of our lazy stupor before the big heat and climbed up the eastern “hourglass” hill, where we were afforded a spectacular vista of the narrow peninsula and island. The stunning cliffs falling into the sea next to La Cabanas, coupled with the unbelievable shades of sea blue, the fishing boats dashing to and from the harbour, Phi Phi Le in the distance, made for an absolutely breathtaking vista.
The strange thing about being in paradise: eventually, one begins to find fault. It wasn’t the fault in the weather; we didn’t see a cloud the entire time. The sea was perfect, even though the water became slightly cloudy once in a while and there were a couple of stones on the sea bottom. Our malaise ran deeper, and has been noted by numerous paradise seekers, westerners bemoaning Eden found… and then lost.
Pico Iyer (“Video Night in Kathmandu”: “As soon as a new last paradise has been found, so many people hurry to make claims on it that it becomes, almost instantly, a lost paradise. With crowds of strangers flocking together to escape the crowds, last year’s lotus land becomes this year’s tourist trap.”
We weren’t thrilled with the hordes of pink sunburned tourists who invaded the island everyday from Phuket. Realistically, we didn't have much room to criticize, as we were exploiting the locals, as well. The garbage became difficult to ignore, as it was strewn everywhere. Even more troubling, our resort ran out of running water; the owner had overbuilt to the tune of 42 bungalows, with more on the way (the island in the grips of beach bungalow fever).
We had to trudge to a well to pour buckets of water over our head in order to remove salt from our bodies if we wanted to become semi-clean. With so many farangs using the mandis without water they became absolutely disgusting. We would quickly duck into the jungle to do our business, but some farangs kept shitting in them; suffice it to say that travellers in foreign lands will behave in ways unimaginable at home).
We learned to ignore the lazy cleaning staff, who slept all day and had to be harassed to change the sheets once a week. Like many places we’d been, the island was on the road to ruin, or, as Iyer succinctly put it: “If it is the first secret conceit of every voyageur to imagine that he alone has found the world’s last paradise, it is the second to believe that the door has slammed shut right behind him.”
There was another, more pressing concern we could no longer ignore: the island’s minuscule restaurant infrastructure had run out of fresh food due to rough seas; the situation was growing tense. Mama’s restaurant only had a few remaining small mackerel, and not many veggies.
Thanks to Brad and Emily, we discovered the green papaya salad, Som Tom, hotter than a New Orleans baker in July. Watching the making of this salad was as fun as eating it. Green papaya was meticulously shaved off with highly-skilled knifework, placed in a mortar with dry shrimp paste, garlic, hot chillis, onions, peanuts, spices, fish sauce and lime juice, pounded together — absolutely addictive.
One night, while eating another in what had become a series of mundane dinners (other than the papaya salad), dulling our taste buds on copious quantities of SamSom rum and lime juice, Brad regaled us with ganja-fueled munchie fantasies: detailed descriptions of all manner of delectable treats unavailable on Phi Phi: chocolate and cheese cakes, jumbo prawns, steak, Italian salami and cheese – and so on.
I hit the wall when he mentioned cheeseburgers, the All-American delicacy made in these parts from Buffalo meat. We knew it was time for us to make a Phi Phi Island getaway, especially when Brad said all this and more was available on an island of such an incredible legend on the backpacker circuit, so renowned that we felt it had to be overrun, and had decided to give it a miss: Koh Samui.