Post Tsunami: Phi Phi revisited

Tourism has returned to a cleaner Phi Phi

Tourism has returned to a cleaner Phi Phi

By Andrew Bond

To understand just how brutally efficient the Tsunami was you had to have been to Phi Phi before it was flattened. And when I returned 18 months after December 26th I saw immediately the positive that can result in natural disasters. It may seem disrespectful to the dead and those who lost their livelihoods, but here was an example of the planet reclaiming its natural beauty back from a rampantly developing mankind.

The first time I visited Phi Phi island I was appalled. I should have been awed, afterall, here was an island of such perfect natural design that it seemed man himself had deliberately engineered it for our own leisure purposes. From far off you first see the towering karst that make up the ‘wings’ of this butterfly shaped island, so impossibly shaped that even hiking on them was out of the question, let alone development. And as we stepped off the ferry onto the lovely white sandy beach of Ton Sai bay, I marvelled at how cleverly nature had left a beautiful flat stretch in the middle for us to come and build resorts on, and they seemed pretty enough blending in with the coconut lined beach. From the aerial pictures I knew also that there was an equally pretty beach on the other side, just 500m away.

But that was where the beauty ended. To reach Lo Dalam bay on the other side, the crowds from the boat where funnelled into a bedlam of activity and rampant overdevelopment. Almost everyone simultaneously squeezed themselves into a narrow smelly lane that barely had proper drainage and was lined with a gauntlet of shops and services, offering everything from dive gear and swimwear to last minute convenience items and even internet for those who couldn’t bare to be out of touch on paradise. If we thought we were stepping onto paradise, it appeared to be a bad dream. Music blared from bars, trash from restaurants lay around and the lovely tropical sun of these parts failed to penetrate this poor sandy lane at all. This was the famously beautiful Phi Phi I had heard so much about.

It didn’t surprise me, it was afterall, just three weeks before the Tsunami when the peak season was reaching its zenith and everyone wanted a piece of Phi Phi, even just for a day. And everyone who came to Phi Phi, it seemed, wanted their creature comforts. The island was heaving and the locals were cashing in, eager to make the most of the season. I had long suspected this island’s popularity would have done this, and I wasn’t surprised. Fortunately we soon emerged at the other bay, which was equally beautiful. I guess we imagine tropical paradise to be a beach all to ourselves but the reality is there a five billion of us and more and more can afford holidays. A beautiful beach full of people enjoying themselves is still beautiful I guess.

Some things have changed for the better

Some things have changed for the better

Looking back then, it was unthinkable to imagine what would happen to all these happy crowds if a big wave welled up out of the oceans and wiped everyone out. With the exception of some steps running up to a view point to the North there was nowhere to run. Everyone, perhaps thousands or tens of thousands on that day if you count all the day–trippers, were all squashed onto a small flat area barely above sea level. Of course you don’t imagine such cataclysm in those circumstances. You notice all the great hotels that empty out straight onto the beach, the restaurants that are so close to the sea you can take dip while waiting for your order, and the numerous boats anchored offshore waiting for customers to ride their parasails and banana boats. You see all the contented Europeans sunning themselves on loungers meters from the soft lapping water, the fruit vendors innocently making a few bob and the relaxed lovers contently walking hand in hand along the soft white sand without a worry in the world.

That is all gone now. Everything is gone. Well, almost everything. This I discovered when I returned in May 2005 to see how rebuilding had gone. I write web travel guides and needed to know what the infrastructure was like. ‘What infrastructure?’ I found myself asking as I stepped off the same ferry at Ton Sai bay and went looking for that same disgusting lane that was so etched in my memory as my ‘idea’ of Phi Phi in the twenty–first century.

That ‘lane’ was no more. It was a path, a meandering sandy path with beach grass threatening its edges – the sort you take to a deserted beach that has nothing on it. I was flabbergasted. I stood there, halfway down its length and looked all about me. For the first time I realised I could see right through from one seafront to the other. I hadn’t noticed before because I was so gripped by the total lack of buildings, lack of anything really, save for a few surviving coconut palms. I even had difficulty placing ‘that lane’. Gone were the internet cafes, the 7–Eleven, the bikini boutique and the ‘fissst’ sound of diving regulators. Gone were all the people and shop keepers and tanned carefree holiday makers.

Nature had had its revenge. It had reclaimed the natural beauty of Phi Phi. It had shown mankind what this island should look like, the way it looked twenty years ago when few had seen its real identity. There were a few buildings, yes, and a small market area that did have the odd dive shop and internet cafe. The guesthouses were all tucked away nearer the high ground and one or two proper hotels had re–built. Those luckily enough to get a room in them would be enjoying an exclusive Phi Phi. I wandered through to Lo Dalam bay once more and there was an impromptu café under the big old Banyan tree that still stood at the end of the lane– where I had previously had an upmarket lunch.

Phi Phi retains its timeless beauty from on high

Phi Phi retains its timeless beauty from on high

Now it was grilled fresh seafood on a makeshift barbecue as I sat on little wooden stools. A few temporary backpacker style A–frames were erected further along the beach, and a few rustic bars played the usual Bob Marley classics. There were people on the beach, much fewer, carrying on as if nothing had happened and seemingly enjoying the less crowded Phi Phi. Certainly the mass of day–tripper boats where not found anchored off–shore but this was the low season.

Over on Phuket, from where I had come, the commercial opportunities were simply too lucrative to ignore. Mankind there had picked itself up and determinedly overcome nature’s wrath. Patong had been rebuilt, mature coconut stems had been imported and replanted –their foliage almost grown back, and the shops rebuilt and very much open for business. But here on Phi Phi little had happened.

Sure, all the ugly debris had been cleared away over the past 18 months, but the precious available space had not been snapped up and redeveloped. It was as if the locals had finally appreciated what they had done to this small part of mother earth and decided not to make the same folly twice. There are plenty who are disenfranchised from the Tsunami disaster on Phi Phi, and the local authorities have been dithering on just how to control redevelopment, which explains the lack of infrastructure. Perverted that it may seem for those who made a living here, I hope they continue to dither for ever and ever so that Phi Phi can remain like it was when I visited, for we wouldn’t want to wish for another Tsunami to ‘clean it up’.

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