I didn’t intent to write so much, but this particular blog has turned into something of an epic so I have decided to post it in two parts.
This is part 2.
We continued our journey around the Phi Phi archipelago and a few minutes later the boat glided smoothly into ‘monkey beach’. No prizes for guessing how this beach got its name. As we had arrived at high tide the beach itself was covered in sea so mercifully we stayed on the boat for this part of the excursion ( Its not that I don’t like beaches, I really do, but I had found out rather swiftly that getting on to the back of a very wibbly wobbly slippery boat is not one of my strong suits).
The captain skilfully manoeuvred his craft directly under some over hanging branches and as one of the crew who was perched precariously on the very front of deck retrieved a selection of fruit from his pockets the branches came alive with the movement of around 30 or 40 small creatures racing toward him. Our friendly guides had advised us early on to get to the front and I’m very grateful to them for that as the entire boat load of passengers, (excepting the Japanese family who were still cowering under their towels), rushed forward to get a ‘good spot’. Our spot was right next to the crewman who was handing out treats so we had a grand view of the monkeys skittering overhead using their expertise to skin and eat a rambutan fruit in around a second. Judging by the number of skins floating around the boat and the girth of some of the monkeys it had already been a busy day for them. Moo was captivated and almost fell overboard with excitement at the sight of so many monkeys at close range.
A few minutes later it really was time to fall overboard as we managed to find a ‘piece of sea with not so much bumpy bumpy’ and kitted out in our snorkel sets, flippers and life jackets we descended gracefully down the steps of the boat and barely caused a ripple as we entered the sea. OK ,well maybe ‘descended gracefully’ is not a strictly accurate description of my dismount, but it’s my blog and I get to decide how it happened, I just thank the lord no-one had a camera.
Moo and I floated around together for a few minutes pointing out the stunning marine wildlife, but she got a little over excited when ‘Nemo’ swam past and managed to dislodge her snorkel tube. It freaked her out a little and she wanted to get back on the boat immediately. While I understood I have to say I was a little disappointed that she could not be cajoled into another try as I had been really looking forward to this part of the day, but I accompanied her back to the boat and helped her onto deck. As I was attempting to get back on (for the second time) Molly was busy telling her favourite guide, ‘Beyonce’, what had happened, at which point he leaned over the edge and told me they would take Moo up front and give her a drink if I wanted to stay in a bit longer.
Always compliment your tour guides on their choice of hat.
I’m absolutely positive that there are many better places to snorkel in these parts and many more beautiful underwater landscapes to explore without the company of 5 or 6 other tour boats anchored in the vicinity each with their own payload of tourists out for a swim, but for a first-timer like me it was a magical and surreal adventure. There may well have been a dozen or so other swimmers in close proximity but as soon as my head was beneath the surface I could have been alone in the ocean.
My extensive knowledge of marine biology is mainly gleaned from Pixar movies so you will have to forgive my ignorance and I am sorry to say that I cannot put a name to vast majority of the fish I encountered, but suffice to say I felt like I had submerged myself on the set of a live action version of ‘Finding Nemo’. I had no idea how I would feel about snorkelling as it is not something I had ever done before, but I can say with certainty it is on my ‘to-do again’ list.
Back on deck Moo was having a fine time holding court up front and wowing the crowds by translating the requests of a French speaking couple to the guides. She comes in very handy at times.
As soon as all the swimmers were safely on board we sped of again for another round of sightseeing.
I received extra brownie points by listening attentively to the commentary and nodding in the right places while most people ignored the guide and chatted amongst themselves. He ended up standing next to us giving us a one-to one commentary as no-one else seemed to care. Whilst some of the information was slightly problematic to decipher, what I did catch was both fascinating and deeply moving.
When you are bobbing along snapping holiday pictures it is all too easy to forget the devastation that occurred here less than 6 years ago when the Indian Ocean tsunami struck on December 26th 2004. In the grand scheme of things Thailand was lucky compared to Indonesia but it is still estimated that over 8000 people died here. Entire communities wiped out in a matter of minutes as the giant waves covered the land and destroyed almost everything in their path.
The camp disco façade of ‘Beyonce’ was dropped for a few minutes as I saw the deep sadness in his eyes as he related a very personal account of that day and those who were lost to him whilst staring at the giant red cliffs whose faces had been torn by the sheer force of water.
‘Is not possible to forget but too hard to remember, yah.’
Any words I may have chosen, however sincerely intentioned, would have sounded shallow so instead I just took his hand as we glided onward for a while in contemplative silence.
‘But life she must go on and today is not for sadness’. The ‘tour guide’ took over once more and with his huge smile firmly back in place he shimmied across deck to comfort the still suffering Japanese family.
Thailand has recovered remarkably well and quickly, and it is hard to believe that just a few short years ago most of the buildings on the western coast were swept into the sea. The massive amount of rebuilding work is evident when you reach the Island of Phi Phi Don. Gone are the bamboo and coconut palm bungalows that were dotted along the beach replaced by grand (and expensive) hotels whose perimeter walls leave barely 2 or 3 metres width of beach. The traditional fishing boats have been mostly replaced with tour boats and as soon as you step ashore you are assaulted by the hoards of hawkers and traders selling the same items and snacks at double the price you would pay on Phuket island.
Usually the Phi Phi Don part of the tour consists of a shopping tour (being led around the specially constructed ‘tourist market’ and encouraged to spend spend spend) then to a local bar for a buffet lunch, thankfully by the time we arrived we were a little behind schedule and the sun had taken shelter behind forebodingly dark clouds and our guides decided that whoever wanted to go shopping could do so on their own and with a swift reminder of ‘You late back to boat we leave you, yah’ they were off for a sit down and bite to eat. The thought of trailing around another ‘same-same’ market left me cold so we left our shoes at the door and followed them in to lunch.
The meal that was provided was disappointing to say the least, any hint of local cuisine has been diluted by the need to cater for the mass tour crowds that descend upon the island in hourly shifts. The gloopy sickly ‘sweet and sour’ and the ‘American deep fried chicken’ were nothing like the food we have come to enjoy since we got here. We filled our plates with the least offensive looking fayre and were shown/herded to our table, which just so happened to be next to the guides. When I saw the waitress bringing them their lunch of jasmine rice and coconut milk soup I casually remarked that it looked much nicer than ours. They took pity on us and called us to their table, had a hurried conversation with the waitress and in moments our plates had been whisked away and we were presented with our very own bowls of soup and fragrant rice with steamed fish.
ALWAYS compliment your tour guides on their choice of hat.
By the time lunch was over the weather had well and truly broken and the noise of the rain on the wooden roof was almost deafening. A few of the tour group set off with grim determination toward the market desperate to purchase their souvenirs while most of the rest sat looking sullenly at the falling rain. Undaunted by the torrent Moo and I headed out to the beach and caused much amusement to the locals by running up and down to the sea playing tag, once you are wet through there’s not much point trying to keep dry.
When it came time to leave we went to retrieve our shoes from step at the front door, except the step by the front door was now covered with water. Due to the amount of rain that had just fallen the street outside was now doing a fair impersonation of a stream and our flip-flops were no where to be seen.
Oops. As we waded ankle deep in the freshly fallen rain Moo and I were in fits of giggles desperately hoping that by following the flow we would come upon our shoes. About 50 meters from the door we spotted one caught up in some grass and the hunt was on. When we had travelled around 200 meters we had found 7 shoes only 3 of which we could claim as our own and we met another couple who had been ‘shoe fishing’ and compared our catches. I was very happy I to be reunited with my missing flip flop, I only bought them the day before. One chap was not so lucky and spent the rest of the tour carrying 1 flip flop around with him. We briefly considered setting up a stall and bartering the remaining shoes in our possession, but time was running short and the thought of being left stranded on Phi Phi Don was enough to quell our entrepreneurial spirit. The leftover shoes were placed on the harbour wall awaiting their owners.
After lunch we went to Koh Mai Pai island which is normally the ‘sunbathing stop’, but the sun was resolutely refusing to co-operate with the tour schedule. We sat in our deckchairs in the rain refusing the really pushy beach side hawkers, (no I DON’T want the souvenir photo you took of me looking like a drowned rat getting off the boat thank you very much, even if it is in a frame that has seashells stuck to it), and then headed of for a quick snorkel, but the sight of an enormous jellyfish was enough for Moo to decide that snorkelling was very firmly off the agenda. We settled for a coffee and an ice cream instead but we picked the wrong spot to stop and enjoy them as some of our fellow tourists were having a proper whine about the weather. After 10 minutes I felt the urge to point out to them that if they did book their holiday in the rainy season, it was rather churlish to complain about the rain, and it least the rain here was warm. My comments didn’t seem to go down to well and I was most grateful to be rounded up back to the boat a few minutes later.
After that it was back on the boat for a 30 minute trip back to Phuket, And what a 30 minutes it was. When the captain of the boat puts on a crash helmet you know you are in for a rough ride. The rain was coming down as a solid wall of water and the waves were crashing over the front of the boat and flooding the deck area, life jackets were handed round and it wasn’t just the Japanese who were in need of more plastic bags. Despite my best efforts everything I had taken with me was utterly drenched (even all the stuff I had very carefully placed in zip lock bags managed to get wet), I feared for my camera, but thankfully after a night in a warm room all seemed well. But I think it may be the death knell for my trusty mobile phone. It hasn’t been the same since.
The storm abated after about 20 minutes and the last 10 minutes of the journey passed in relatively calm seas. As soon as the worst was over the guides attended to their duties and boosted morale in their inimitable style. I’m not sure a sing-and-dance-a-long to lady GaGa was everyone’s ideal, but we had a ball. When we got off the boat Moo and I were hugged like long lost relatives and had to wait with ‘Beyonce’ while ‘Shakira’ ran to get their cameras.
The air conditioned mini van ride back to the hotel was a rather chilly affair, not only because we were wet through, but we happened to be sharing the ride with the ‘Mai Pai weather whingers’ who seemed unable to find a single good thing to say about any part of the trip, and whilst I’ll admit to sharing their opinion of the overcrowding on the islands and the persistence of the beach vendors, I wouldn’t hear a word against our guides. Even the Japanese family who had spent almost the entire day studying the inside of various plastic containers had the grace to say thank-you. Luckily they got out of the van a lot sooner than we did.
I’m not really a big fan of organised tours, and I can’t honestly say I enjoyed the ‘dry land’ bits very much, far too many people and not nearly enough time to really appreciate the surroundings, but I have to say that all in all we had an amazing day that, for many reasons, will stay in my thoughts for a very long time.
And the guides really did wear very lovely hats, yah.