Phi Phi Paradise lost

Nature couldn’t have designed a prettier island

Nature couldn’t have designed a prettier island

By Andrew Bond

Phi Phi island is a good example of how to screw up a beautiful island. Twice. For all its tragic loss, the Tsunami offered Phi Phi a clean slate, but it appears that developers and authorities are making the same spoiling mistakes all over again. If you’d like to see this world class natural attraction as you imagined it, a daytrip is best, but those coming to stay on the island will have their vision of paradise sorely shattered.

The gods of nature could scarcely have designed a lovelier island, with its butterfly shape incorporating two deep beach rimmed bays sandwiching a small isthmus covered in coconut palms. Either side of this looms stark karst cliffs and hills, so that visitors are afforded incredible views wherever they might be on the island. That was until the tourists began arriving in numbers.

Nowadays, as before the Tsunami, you might mistakenly think you’re on the Khao San road, backlanes of Patong or Koh Pha Ngan’s party-laden Haad Rin. True, you could be lying on a gorgeous beach or cooling off in aqua waters, but wander 100 meters from the water and you’ll discover the worst excesses of unplanned, low budget tourist development.

A warren of lanes supporting everything from dive shops to tailors forms the commercial centre of this island, all of it entirely rebuilt after the Tsunami. These have been paved and the businesses are respectable if a little at odds with the character of the island. At the Irish Bar you won’t go without catching the Six Nations rugby live, and one bookshop has set up a nice trendy bistro on its pavement. There is a steak house named after Hans Christian Andersen, and of course the obligatory 7-Eleven.

But wander away from this inevitable commercial area and the paved paths run out, giving way to dirt tracks, which might have been nice and natural except for the open drain and stench of sewerage. Blue conduit piping runs all over the place, unburied and accentuated by the lush flora all around it. And the bungalows are a ramshackle last minute thought, perched all over the steeper terrain of the island. Admittedly this is the ‘cheaper’ corner of the island, but scarcely a thought has been given to any sort of planning, services infrastructure or proper installation.

Thus it is with many of Thailand’s beauty spots that have had to step up to the plate and confront a burgeoning industry. With such rapid increase in tourist numbers (partly due to aggressive targets set annually by the Tourism Authority Thailand), development is often an impromptu rush of under capitalised, over eager locals or greedy land owners, spending as little as necessary to meet demand. And Phi Phi is a fine example.

Everything was washed away

Everything was washed away

I first visited Phi Phi two weeks before the Tsunami, a relatively late-comer to one of Thailand’s ‘must see spots’. By then more than 15 years of development had crowded onto the island and it was every bit as ruined as I imagined it would be. Fortunately, the sheer unique beauty of the place tends to mitigate the surprise of finding a backpacker ‘slum’.

I recall walking off the pier in Ton Sai bay and following the herding crowds down a narrow alleyway that lead through to the more popular Loh Dalam bay on the other side. It was only 100 meters, but felt like a gauntlet of tacky souvenir shops, internet cafes, cheap restaurants and convenience shops. Particularly, I recall underfoot a moist, dirty path that seemed to never receive any of the abundant sunlight that the Andaman sea is famous for. This was perhaps the epicentre of the island’s overdevelopment and poor planning, and I was relieved to discover it wasn’t all like this.

When I next visited, 15 months had passed since the great Tsunami and I knew what to expect, having seen aerial pictures of the destruction. None-the-less, I was taken aback by how pleasantly uncrowded and natural the island had become. Like a fresh wind, the Tsunami has washed away all the commercial excesses of the island, and in place of that awful alley was a simple sandy path lined only with tufts of grass, and around me I had a pleasing view of coconut palms and both bays. Part of the small village centre had been restored, but few of the resorts or restaurants that lined the beaches remained. It reminded me of one of those busy islands off Phuket where people come for the day then leave. Fairly busy but not spoilt.

This was in stark contrast to Patong beach on Phuket, where lots of money and livelihood was at stake. In time for the next season the entire area had been cleaned up and rebuilt, restoration budgets had been allocated and the waterfront improved with a pleasant walkway. But not here on Phi Phi, which was in another province altogether. Those who had relied on the island’s tourism to earn a living for more than decade where frustrated by a lack of clarity and direction in restoring the infrastructure. Dithering and indecision over allocating or amending construction rights had all but stalled any development. And no one could decide just how close these ought to be to the water line.

Part of the reason for this is that the island falls through a gap of authority and jurisdiction. Although under the geographical control of the Krabi provincial planning department, it’s actually designated as a national park and therefore administered by the National Parks Board. It’s also one of the few exceptions where commercial development is allowed, or has to be allowed (Koh Samet is another example). This board aren’t particularly competent at managing something on this scale, more used to collecting exorbitant entrance fees for various sites that aren’t always maintained satisfactorily. It’s not surprising then that they appear not to have a definitive plan, nor consider the environmental impact of the island. As often happens, while they ‘um’ and ‘ah’, the authorities turn a blind eye to temporary development so that the locals can get back to making money. And of course temporary arrangements are usually short on meaningful or responsible capital input or effort.

Development has crept back in an unplanned way

Development has crept back in an unplanned way

I visited for a third time in March 2008, more than three years after the Tsunami and this time during a busier time. I came on a daytrip but never went home. If I had, I would’ve experienced the Phi Phi archipelago as I should have; a boat trip to stunning Maya bay and snorkelling reefs all to ourselves. We would have been let off in Ton Sai bay and spent the afternoon on lovely Loh Dalam beach, perhaps been exposed a little to the commercial side of the island in search of camera batteries or a regular priced soft drink. Pictures would have been taken and then we would have left. Perhaps this is how everyone should experience the island. But when there is money to be made, there’s no stopping the opportunities here in Thailand.

As a travel writer I decided to stay the night and see for myself. The gauntlet alleyway was slowly creeping back, the little village area had expanded and was busy with backpackers, while those who wanted to avoid the riff-raff would have been holed up in the posh double-storey hotels I noticed at the western end of Loh Dalam bay. At the eastern end, the labyrinth of poorly arranged, cheap guesthouses and their smelly access lanes were as concentrated as ever, and still no planning or effort had been put into permanent infrastructure. Ironically, there is waste water treatment plant here which was installed by a Danish grant, complete with water hyacinth to hide the eyesore, but those that have built guesthouses nearby aren’t willing to invest in piping their sewerage to the plant therefore their sewage isn’t disposed of properly.

You can rent a deck chair on the beach for 100 baht, which is a steal in a world class beauty spot like this, but right behind you is a bunch of ramshackle bars, half collapsed buildings and construction rubbish on the ground. We’re talking prime real estate here and it looks like the backyard of a slum. Some have tried to make the island more respectable, but it certainly has a down-market appearance to it. The nicest resorts and most orderly looking section is actually Hin Khom beach, which is lined with respectable resorts and a semblance of organisation. Over on the far end of Loh Dalam someone was disposing of rubbish by burning (a favourite habit in Thailand) and an ugly pall of smoke spoilt an otherwise perfect view.

At the most central point in the island is the locals’ accommodation, a near slum of cheap housing and unhygienic noodle shops. One would have thought that this was a prime location that could fetch the administrators a handsome rent, while a proper village for full-time residents could have been developed in the area behind Hin Khom beach. But this is Phi Phi, where everything seems to be an impromptu unplanned mess that appears to have mutated and grown like weeds. A local dive operator quipped to me that it might have been better if some corrupt high ranking official had taken a kickback to let one greedy Bangkok developer take over the whole island and develop into an entirely private multi-resort complex that only the super rich could afford. That way it would have ended up with manicured gardens, proper pathways and aesthetically pleasing villas.

Phi Phi looks great from a boat or sitting on the beach gazing out to sea where it’s impossible for anyone to ruin it with insensitive development. It has potential to be a world class travel destination that can sustain both posh resorts and some properly developed bungalows. Admittedly, those who had businesses here were wiped out and had little support to get on their feet again, but with such a popular money spinner presented to them, you would think the authorities would have offered financial loans to help turn it back into a decent resort island. Wishful thinking here in Thailand.

Phi Phi, it seems, is a world famous area of natural beauty that is destined to be turned into a world famous mess, for the second time. Come on a daytrip, and you’ll not notice. Stay on the island and you’ll get an entirely different perspective. Come back a year later and you’ll be even more appalled.

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