The Andaman Islands:
Ko Phi Phi, Ko Lanta & Rai Leh Beach

In keeping with family tradition, I’ve never been much of a beach person. After all, my father was taught to swim by being unceremoniously dumped into the ocean by his grandfather, and I have yet to see my mother submerge her head below water in a swimming pool. I personally fell into the deep end of the pool when I was a kid, and I have long been afraid of water and boats.

Unlike many of the friends I’ve met on this trip, family vacations consisted of mountains to ski on or climb (my father) or ancient ruins and/or cities steeped in culture to explore (my mother). As a result, flying from Singapore to Phuket and then onto the Andaman Islands was a bit of a shock to the system; all this water – now what to DO with it?

It turns out there was no cause for concern. Adjusting to island life actually involves no adjustment at all. One merely has to sit down and wait until the beauty of the pristine beaches, spectacular sunsets and lush island vegetation seeps deep into your pores and – I believe it might be the result of mixing with the sunscreen ALSO in those pores – presto! A new way of living exists.

Ko Phi Phi

After a few nights in Phuket Town, far enough away from the touristy mess that is Karon Beach but close enough to take a day trip out to Kata Noi, Joanna (a lawyer from Liverpool, also a lefty, also looking 1/2 her age and also my height) and I took a boat out to Ko Phi Phi. With 6 islands nestled inside the Hadnopparattara-Koh Phi Phi National Park, Phi Phi is a wonder to behold. Think white sandy beaches, aquamarine water and lush forests. The islands are divided into Ko Phi Phi Don, where the main village is located, and Ko Phi Phi Leh, where the movie The Beach was filmed. You can take day trips out to Maya beach, Monkey beach and Ko Phi Phi Leh (as well as some of the smaller islands) and see their beauty from your snorkle goggles, but you can’t stay on anything but Ko Phi Phi Don. Of course, where there is a beautiful beach, there are tourists galore and despite being wholly decimated by the 2004 Tsunami, Phi Phi is once again a party paradise.. It must be noted, however, that while the basic infrastructure is back, there are plenty of ruined bungalows and new construction to remind you that almost everything (and everyone) was wiped away on December 26, 2004. The Tsunami Memorial garden was certainly sobering to walk through; I can’t imagine what it was like to stand on the viewpoint of the island and see meter-high waves crashing toward you.

Though we planned on spending a few days of beach time, Jared, Joanna and I – along with newfound friends Matt and Siobhan from Australia – ended up there eight days. We joked that the island air evaporated any incentive to actually do anything, and caught in the clutches of our laziness we developed a lovely routine. We would rouse ourselves in the late morning and hike through the forest to Viking beach, where we would spend the rest of the day sprawled on the sand or playing with the beach’s two golden retriever puppies. We would then hike back to our bungalows (Golden Hill Bungalows, about a 40 minute walk from Viking Beach) pre-mosquito feeding time (aka dusk) and shower, and then congregate outside the 7/11 at 8pm sharp for dinner. More often than not, we ended up at Papaya restaurant, where the massaman curry was spectacular. We would move from there to an outside bar in front of the 7/11 and then go to Tiger Bar for the midnight “free bucket run”** – I suppose they assume the drunker they get you, the more you will buy afterward? – and then to Rolling Stoned, where a cover band performed anything from Zepplin to Rage to Nirvana. Finally, we’d make our way to Apache beach bar and dance on the beach until the music wound down.

With hangovers aplenty, we finally dragged ourselves off the island to a less touristy destination: Ko Lanta.

** For those of you uninitiated to buckets, they are exactly as they sound: a plastic bucket full of alcohol and soda and red bull. Our weapon of choice was also the cheapest: a full mickey of Sangsom (Thai Whiskey), a bottle of red bull and a can of diet coke. Ugh.

1) Community bucket! Sadly, we usually had our own. My head still cringes at the memory of those hangovers.
2) Joanna and I share an afternoon cocktail on the beach. Life could be worse.

3) View from the Viewpoint atop Ko Phi Phi Don
4) Sunset on Viking Beach

Ko Lanta

After the debauchery of Ko Phi Phi, Ko Lanta was a welcome respite from all things bucket and a beautiful place to plant ourselves for a few days. Jared left to explore Rai Leh and Matt, Siobhan and I ended up renting motorbikes, spending our days winding our way through the island’s green rainforests and dirt roads. While a lot of tourists do make it to Ko Lanta, the size of the island and the absence of set “tourist area” means that they are absorbed a lot more gracefully. As a result, the locals are much more friendly than in Phi Phi. By the end of our week at the Riviera Resort (where we shared a triple room for the bargain basement price of 400 Baht or $12 for the room – $4 each), the staff came out to shake our hands goodbye and wish us luck. In contrast to the bustle of Phi Phi’s nightlife, our evenings on Ko Lanta consisted of a wander down the beach for dinner and some leisurely cocktails overlooking the sea.

We also chose Ko Lanta because of Loy Krathong. Everyone you meet in Thailand wants to know if you’ve been to one of the legendary full moon parties on Ko Pha Ngan and while they sound like a rowdier, drunker version of what we experienced on Ko Phi Phi, I wanted to spend the November full moon in proper celebration . Loy Krathong literally means “floating raft” and is held in the twelfth month of the Thai calendar. The “raft” or lantern is built on a banana tree truck and ornately decorated with banana leaves, flowers, candles and incense sticks. Tradition requires that you to bury a piece of your fingernail and a strand of your hair deep within the raft and – with the understanding that they represent the grudges, bitterness and anger from the year gone by – set the raft free into the waves. And so, under the full moon, I took my banana leaf lantern, lit the candle and made a wish and then set it free into the Andaman sea, alongside many others of its kind. We also
helped people launch a Khom Fai (a fire lantern) to celebrate the holiday.

Though we could have stayed on Ko Lanta for many more weeks, Matt, Siobhan and I packed up and headed by boat to Rai Leh, which our guidebook raved was “the most beautiful beach in Thailand.”

1) Me, Matt and our motorcycles (not pictured: Siobhan cracking up at how lopsided my helmet was).
2) Midget 1 & 2: Siobhan and I were the same height, and with Matt towering over us usually got some laughs walking around town.

3) Our poison of choice on Ko Lanta: Lemon juice and Vodka. We bought a bottle of vodka and ended up bringing it to the bars with us, buying only the mixers to go with it. In Thailand, you can do this (apparently). In Thailand, you can pretty much do anything….
4) View of the water from Old Lanta Town, built almost entirely on stilts.

5) Me and my Loy Krathong lantern before I set it free.
6) Releasing the Khom Fai proved more difficult in the gusting wind.

Rai Leh

With Jared firmly planted Ton Sai’s backpacker jungle to the north of Rai Leh, Matt, Siobhan and I wanted something a little closer to Rai Leh West and its gorgeous beaches. We opted for Rai Leh East, a cheaper alternative to the insanity of the West side’s resorts and spent our few days at the Diamond Cave Resort near Diamond Cave. While nowhere near as friendly or as pristine as Ko Lanta, Rai Leh was, in fact, beautiful. With huge karst rock formations jutting out toward the sky and clear, turquoise water, it was easy to see why tourists flocked to the island.

Unfortunately, the place has been overrun with them. Almost no locals live on the island itself and the prices remain sky high. The locals who work on Rai Leh’s beaches are surly and understandably wary of tourists and while it is a pretty postcard of a picture to look at, we spent most of the time saying “I miss Ko Lanta!”. Ton Sai, aka backpackerland, is a better bet to get away from the crowds, but it is still purely tourist-oriented, with most of its inhabitants there to enjoy the world-class rock climbing that Rai Leh has to offer. While we loved our time on the beach there, Matt, Siobhan and I all agreed that four days was plenty. After a tearful goodbye, I headed up to Bangkok and Matt and Siobhan made their way toward Malaysia and will eventually be home for xmas in Oz.

1 & 2) Rai Leh West’s famed karst rocks, rising out of the Andaman sea


3) Me on the beach, chasing mini crabs as they burrowed into the sand
4) Many drinks later, Siobahn does interpretive dance behind Jared, Matt and me.

* * *

I am currently in backpacker central in Bangkok, and managed to run into two girls from my time on Phi Phi – I suppose the world is small, but Thailand is smaller? Craig is joining me in Bangkok and we will likely head up to Chiang Mai and rent motorbikes to explore parts of Issan. There will likely be a lack of posting for the next few weeks as a result.

-Jodi