09/15/2009 - 09/25/2009 90 °F
Well, its begun. It really is amazing to have a trip like this that has stops and starts and ultimately a continuation, albeit in what feels like a whole new experience. I left Melbourne and travelled via Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Phuket, Thailand. The trip itself was unremarkable, with a five hour layover in KL and an arrival in Phuket around 1 pm after leaving Melbourne at midnight.
With New Zealand and my time with Jess occupying most of the summer months I really had little to know idea about Thailand and have henceforth mainly winged it since I got here which has its merits and its disadvantages. The first disadvantage was that I went from Phuket airport to Patong for two nights. In Patong you witness a scene that probably plays out in various spots around southeast asia. Touristy hotels, streets packed with dirty bars, prostitutes outnumbering regular Thai women....if Dante were alive, Patong would probably fall somewhere in his 8th ring of Hell. My Thai friends back home advised me against going here, but it is an easy spot to immerse yourself into traveling around the islands. I spent two relatively quiet nights in Patong before heading about 10 kilometers south to the beach town of Kata. Much nicer, more upscale tourism, but ultimately everywhere on Phuket gave me the overwhelming feeling that I did not belong there. Sex tourists, European families, and honeymooners vacation on Phuket. Backpackers do not, and while I got in some nice beach days and rented a motorbike for an adventurous driving day around the island, the five nights on Phuket were not really ideal.
I say that because from Phuket I took a ferry 40 kilometers to Koh Phi Phi island (said Koh Pee - Pee). To be honest I did not hear great things about Phi Phi either. As you have about two dozen options when it comes to islands in southern Thailand you can more or less pick your poison. Partiers head some places, nomads go elsewhere, families, reggae stoners, divers, rock climbers, --- each island has its own specific attraction and over all vibe. Phi Phi is kind of a mixed bag of options.....you have the beach parties that go till dawn, you have diving, and there were quite a few family type areas also. The island is very small, and easily walked in a few hours. No cars and only one town add to the feeling that you are away from things. I came for two nights and ended up staying a week.
I thus missed the opportunity to go into the Gulf of Thailand to Ko Phang Yang the infamous full moon party island and the nearby chiller island of Koh Tao. But my feeling on Phi Phi was that I had everything I needed and my desire to relax and not move every day simply meant that I was going to sacrifice a few islands. Phi Phi is a special place, but its that much more special in my opinion in the off season. We are presently in the height of Thailand's rainy season which runs from June to October with the rain increasing toward the end. Lots of people questioned why I was coming this time of year, and before arriving I adopted the fatalistic attitude of just hoping for the best and expecting the worst.
Now that I'm here you realize that the monsoons you expect are really non-existent. Of my twelve days in the islands we had 3 non-beachable days, and by that I mean occassional rain all day and or clouds all day as well. All other days I saw the sun and most of them were downright beach days. It is true that the sky is clouded this time of year and even our clearest days had some clouds drifting in and out and a generally overcast sky was the norm. The sun was out but you do not get those picture postcard crystal clear days which make the tropical bays shine turquoise. If the very good but not great weather was the downside, the upside is no crowds and prices 1/3 of what they are in high season. I found Phi Phi busy, and could tell that in high season what seemed busy now would pale in comparison to what happens in December when everyone comes here. The parties were a little less rampant with most everyone on the island spreading out early in the night before converging on one or two beach bars for the midnight - 4 am final hours. Isrealis were the most predominant nationality which was unexpected.
And lastly, I stayed extra long because I chose to do my scuba diving certification course on Phi Phi. As I mentioned earlier, the dive operators on Koh Tao issue more certifications than anywhere in the world. Seemingly most backpackers and tourists go there to learn how to scuba. The Phi Phi people sold me on the idea that their operations allow you to see more and almost everyone I talked to confirmed this. I wont get into the specifics of the four day course, but can say that it was a worthwhile experience. I am not as naturally comfortable in water as I am hiking in the mountains, I struggle with swimming and still can't dive into a pool! Scuba really has nothing to do with swimming or surface diving, its much more about learning safety skills under water and then just controlling your breathing and staying calm but alert. My instructor was a 40 something ex-pat from California and was great throughout the process. After my first day of training at about 15 feet underwater my ear was really messed up and I had trouble sleeping as the pressure really got to me. I was forced to take a day off before I went out for my first dives. You need to complete a fifty question test, four dives, reach 18 meters (55 approx feet), and perform about twenty skills to get certified. In the end it was'nt all that difficult. I really enjoyed diving and hope to continue building it as a hobby.
The biggest disappointment and first real mistake I made was with the diving company I chose. There are probably three dozen companies on Phi Phi, all promising the same thing and offering a fixed rate for the course. I was talked into doing the course on Phi Phi by a laid back guy at one of the lesser known shops, and ultimately went with one of the larger shops whose exterior facade just seemed more professional. Turns out, the week of my course, our companies main dive boat broke. Of the dive sites around Phi Phi, the most famous one is called Bida Nok. The promise of seeing harmless black tip reef sharks and leapord sharks is why people dive at Phi Phi. Well my terrible choice cost me the opportunity of going to this site because the company's secondary boat was too weak to navigate the channel. I gave the owner a mouthful and demanded a reduced rate, I got a free t-shirt and the unfortunate obligation to write negative reviews to Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, and other online information sources panning the company I chose.
After the course and after seven nights of constant socializing I was ready to leave the islands. I bought a plane ticket to Bangkok via Phuket for about 70 bucks the day before the flight. Check my next post for general thoughts on Thailand, and I'll summarize Bangkok shortly.