Koh Phi Phi
Was is really worth it to see the place where The Beach was filmed?
This is a true story.
The moment doom descended upon my body was when I asked my brother, John, if we were headed towards the black clouds on the horizon. He squinted into the distance, a quick wash of terror coloring his eyes.
“Yeah,” was all he said.
My entire body clenched. We were headed straight into Satan's gaping mouth, and no one was talking about it? No one else was panicking? I took a deep breath and nodded, sunglasses keeping the hot sun's ray out of my eyes. Should I be worried? Or at least ask the guides what they thought about the imminent change in weather?
"Okay,"I said, assuming they had it under control.
Fast forward to fifteen minutes later.
Nothing was under control.
“Please! Turn around!” John shouted to the tour guides as rain pummeled us like little daggers. One guide was driving the motorboat while the other squatted on its roof, holding on with one hand and cackling in Thai.
“No! We go Phi Phi island. We no go then everyone sad!” the cackling one responded with a hint of snark—I mean, I think it was snarky--the rain was deafening.
“No one will be sad!” John said, sounding desperate.
About twenty of us were holding on for dear life as wave after wave pounded the boat, rain hammering down on us like tiny shards of glass. I was clutching the railing so hard that my knuckles turned white and my biceps cramped, hoping that the boot wouldn’t tip over and send my passport and cellphone to the bottom of the Gulf of Thailand. I had tears in my eyes—my own as well as the ocean’s salty brine.
It was supposed to be a fun excursion to see the island where the film The Beach was filmed. It was supposed to be beautiful weather. I was supposed to get a sunburn, as usual, and enjoy the tropical climate. NOT be fearing for my life in the middle of some tropical storm on a tiny motor boat.
It was when the Dutch guy put on a life vest and told his hot Brazilian girlfriend in the thong-kini to do so as well that I really began to worry. John looked at me, eyes wide. Within three seconds we were all doing the same—strapping those foam chunks on to our bodies ravenously. The Swiss couple we’d met the day before at a bar was also donning theirs.
If I fall in, I can swim I kept thinking. I’m a good swimmer. I can stay afloat. Until a jellyfish stings me. Or a shark chomps my leg off.
The waves kept getting stronger and angrier. The ‘captain’ shut off the engine, and there we churned about in the middle of the open water. Usually I would get seasick, but the terror of the situation seemed to be overriding any other response to the jarring slams of wave.
“Hey! Why’s the engine off?” the Dutch guy yelled. His girlfriend was rolled into his arm, hair matted face soaked, mascara dripping from her eyes.
“We wait here!” the guide on the roof said, still smiling.
We wait here?! To be rescued? To die?
“This weather very normal!” Then she turned and laughed and said something in Thai. Probably about us fat, Western tourists believing whatever they said—all we cared about was seeing the sights and a $8 Thai massage. “We wait here. We go soon Phi Phi island.” More Thai. More laughs.
They were adamant about our need to see Phi Phi island, even if it killed us in the process.
“I heard two tourists died last week,” the Brazilian girl said above the torrent of rain.
“On one of these tours?” I asked.
A nod was her response.
Anxiety welled up in my throat. “John, what the fuck?” I wasn't blaming him, but it was his idea to go on this excursion. Okay, that's not fair. I wanted to go, too.
He shook his head. “PLEASE turn around!” he repeated.
At that moment, someone in the back of the boat leaned over and puked into the water. Another woman was weeping. The most shocking thing was that there were two little kids in tow, twins, not older than three, screaming bloody murder in their parents’ arms. (side note: why did they think this would be a suitable trip for three-year-olds?)
“Everything ok. This normal!” the guide repeated and roared with laughter, spouting more Thai words.
“It’s not fucking funny!” my brother yelled. But their laughter continued.
I held my breath as another wave sent us up and around, holding on so tight I thought I might become part of the boat. I would never be able to straighten my arm again, the elbow joint now locked eternally into this position.
This place was so strange. The previous day we'd taken a boat to a tiny island that had a cave full of dicks. Yes, DICKS! A cave full of dicks covered in Hawaiian leis and paint, and now we were in fear of being thrown into the foamy sea with all sorts of exotic, deadly fish to nibble on us... or paralyze us.
Random cave of dicks:
After a few minutes, the engine came back to life and we were moving. Apparently it was now safe? Apparently we could now continue? Yet the sky was black and angry as ever as we chugged along.
By some grace of God, our motorboat glided into a cove where the water was still, unmoving. Even the sun was shining. I don’t know how this was possible, honestly, it sounds made up, but I took a moment to release my fingers one-by-one from the railing and push wet strands of hair out of my eyes. I carefully straightened my arm, stiff as the Tin Man in Wizard of Oz and shook it out.
With a look around I noticed that everyone looked shell-shocked, traumatized and surprised to suddenly be in such a tranquil place. The cove was beautiful--turquoise water and rock walls adorned with shrubbery surrounded us. We were okay. We made it to safety and we should ride the storm out here. With shaking hands I pulled out my phone and took a picture as proof that, in these fleeting moments of utopia, the sun really had shone.
See? Sunny cove. No idea how.
“So are we just stayin’ here then?” the Dutch guy asked. “Waitin’ out the monsoon?”
“No monsoon. Little rain storm. We have go Phi Phi Island.”
“But it’s a real storm out there. Too dangerous,” the Dutchman turned to us, confidingly. “I have sailing experience.”
Wait, what? He had sailing experience and he was scared?
“No dangerous. Water very normal today.”
“I assure you, I’m a sailor, that water was dangerous.” He went on, “everyone in the boat is scared or sick. We can’t go back out there.”
“No. No. We have schedule. It very safe.”
"Yeah, safe," he scoffed under his breath and squeezed his girlfriend.
The guide then continued to ramble off a few facts about this cove and some famous bird’s nest (why was it famous?!) just outside of it, which we would pass when we left. Other boats exited and I knew our turn was coming soon, sadly. I savored the last moments of peace before we glided back out of the cove. Back into hell, I thought, stuffing my camera back into the ziplock bag and closing it, then wrapping it in a towel and zippering it into my backpack. I clamped my hand on to the railing again.
As promised, we left the cove to immediate storm weather (I still don’t know how this was possible!) And headed around a corner of jagged boulders to the location of The Beach. When the boat docked, everyone leapt out and onto the sand.
“I gotta go take a shit,” John said and disappeared.
I decided to take the opportunity to use the bathroom as well. But once I saw what that entailed I sprinted away. They’d never been cleaned. Never. Not since they were built in the 90’s. And there were actual logs of shit relaxing like sunbathers on the toilet seats, just chilling like that was their natural habitat. Toilet paper was wet and hanging from the ceiling like Spanish moss. So much nope. Verdict was in: I would hold my pee.
“You don’t want to know what I just saw,” I told John when he reappeared.
“Oh my God… same.”
Neither of us shared the horrors of the Phi Phi Island toilets.
We walked down a skinny dirt path to other areas where the film was shot, underwhelmed since our adrenaline had already topped out on the wild water. We took pictures at the touristy spot where Leo DiCaprio once swam, both forcing a smile with a dead look in the eyes, and then stood, shell-shocked and motionless for several minutes with 700 other tourists.
Authentic smiles all around.
So much joy.
This stop wasn’t the end of the adventure though.
Next on our tight schedule was snorkeling, of which I had no prior knowledge. We were instructed NOT to touch the ocean floor, as the storm had churned things up and some mean-ass poisonous fish and sea urchins may be swimming around. The boat was anchored near some boulders; it was shaking and bobbing and starting to make me feel seasick. I was no longer fearing for my life, so the balance mechanism of my inner ear apparently re-activated itself.
Without a word my brother jumped into the water. I followed suit, taking a snorkel and pretending to look around for fishies. I stood on a rock to avoid the feeling of being thrown around with the water. When I looked through the goggles I saw a red and white fish with fluttery fins. I also saw a spiky looking thing nearby. I decided I really probably shouldn’t stand on the rock with all these sea creatures riled up from the crashing waves.
“Oh my God, don’t look,” my brother said.
But it was too late. Two people were puking off the side of the boat into the area of the water we were snorkeling in. Their inner ears has also been re-activated. What were my choices? Stay in the vomit water or sit on the boat and vomit myself? I chose the former but I don’t know why.
Luckily, we were soon called back on to the boat and taken to shore, where I kissed the sandy earth. About thirty boats were anchored there. Apparently it was lunchtime. Yes, lunch time. There was a huge buffet of rice and chicken and vegetables. With downcast eyes everyone sat at their tables, not daring to approach the buffet.
One girl who wasn’t in our group sat down at our table, taking deep breaths.
“I stepped on a sea urchin,” she explained, holding on to her foot. A tear ran down her face. Someone, maybe her guide, brought a pair of tweezers.
Fuck this I thought and skedaddled. No way was I going to sit and watch that janky surgical procedure. I approached the buffet, nausea rolling up my throat and spooned a heap of rice onto my plate, which I then stared at for a long time.
“I’m not getting back on that boat,” John said after we’d stared long enough at the rice. “We’re taking a ferry back to Krabi. I’ll pay for it.”
“Okay.” I was too traumatized to think about anything else but not getting back on the motor boat. If it were up to me, I would just stay on this island for the rest of my life. I didn't need to ever get in a boat again.
Soon we found clean restrooms and were able to wash the salt from our eyes. We even had an hour of time to relax on the beach, which felt great because it was solid ground and not water. The sun even peeked out for a few moments.
The ferry cost about $16 but we didn’t care. We boarded and awaited the smooth ride back to Krabi.
But smooth was it not, dear readers.
I’ll leave it up to you to fill in how the ferry ride was by showing these pictures.
When we got off back in Krabi, it was a torrential downpour, falling in sheets and making the palm trees whip their hair back and forth. I have never seen rain like that before and may never see it again. A tuk-tuk drove us back to our hotel where we showered and were able to count our blessings.
Later, as we sat at a restaurant with the Swiss couple who's chosen to take the motorboat back to Krabi and were only mildly traumatized, I stared at a poster on the wall. It was the same red and white fish with its fluttery fins. It almost looked majestic blown up on the wall like that. Truly a beautiful creature. Like nothing else I'd ever seen.
“Hey,” I said and pointed. They all turned to look at the wall. “I saw that fish today when we were snorkeling.”
My brother’s head whipped to me. “No.”
“Yeah, I think I did when I was standing on that rock. It was pretty close to me.”
He ran a hand over his face. “Seriously? That’s a lion fish. Their stingers are highly venomous…”
“Oh?” I said and coolly sipped my cocktail. WHAT?! WHAT?!?!?!
“Yeah. If it had stung you, we would’ve had to go to the hospital. You got lucky.”
The Swiss couple laughed nervously and sipped their drinks as well.
“Yeah, can you imagine,” I said and faked a laugh.
I genuinely could not.