Monday, October 15, 2012

Phi-Phi: Is it Pee-Pee or Paradise?

Living and traveling in Southeast for over a year, the name Koh Phi Phi (or Phi Phi Island) came up enough times to make me realize I had to see what the hype was all about.

Phi Phi (pronounced Pee-Pee) was made famous by the backpacker book and movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio "The Beach".  Since then, hoards of tourists flock to get a piece of what once was the undiscovered paradise as described in the story, making it not-so undiscovered anymore.
Typical Phi Phi backpacker tales involve drunken escapades amongst an idyllic setting. While some claim Phi Phi has been ruined by the crowds, most travelers would agree that despite the hot commodity the island has become, it would be a crime to skip over such a paradise.

It took me a year to make it this far south, but finally, I had a peek for myself, and I don't regret it.

Usually, over-touristed places that resemble nothing authentic of the country or culture they're in are a sure turn-off for me. Phi Phi has become so overdeveloped that it's hard to imagine the quiet, serene island Leonardo once stepped foot on. Even in low season, the streets are flooded with young tourists ready to party.

Despite the busy streets, drunk tourists, the trash they leave behind, the poorly designed sewage system, the harassment of tourist agencies and restaurants vying for business - it seems like next to nothing could take away the incredible and pure beauty of this island. The clear, blue sea water was a hue unfamiliar to my eyes; the limestone rock formations in the backdrop feel like your in a painting and the uniquely SE Asian long-tail boats reminded you again just where you were.

Although there was next to nothing resembling the Thailand I've come to know and love, I imagine such eye candy to be heaven on Earth.

While it slightly pained me to pay obscene prices for just okay food and to meet Thai people who make their living taking advantage of foreigners - we weren't in Kansas (or Isaan) anymore. It's one of the most talked about SE Asian destinations for twenty-something travelers, and because of it resembles nothing remotely close to the "real" Thailand.

In order to have an enjoyable Phi Phi experience, it is necessary to accept the place and prices for what they are. And so, you must let loose, grab a bucket (or two) and join in the ruckus.

After only just a weekend on the party island, I found myself wondering what full-time life on Phi Phi was like. The island's entire economy is tourist-oriented and mainly run Muslim locals. When I did encounter the occasional Thai native, I tried to imagine how drastically different their lives are to their fellow Thais I lived among in Isaan. There is also the hoard of foreigners that love Phi Phi paradise so much that they refuse to say goodbye; they take up temporary jobs at diving schools or help out at a bar in exchange for free drinks. I could see how it'd be easy for some to get stuck in Phi Phi - it is not real life.
Poor little guy on "Monkey Island" surrounded by tourist
While I could have happily stayed longer, that place can do some damage to your wallet and liver. All in all, while undeniably overdeveloped and crowded, Phi Phi is not just a cup of pee-pee to skip over. The key to both survival and remembering the island fondly as a paradise is knowing just when to cut the cord and move on to reality.
The quieter, beautiful Long Beach

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