Dateline: Patong, Phuket and Phi Phi Islands, Thailand-
Today was a busy day with the last of the organized touring of the trip. It was also the first day I felt like a tourist, being herded from one thing to the next. No private tour and guide, but rather joining in with people from all over the world for a trip to the Phi Phi Islands. The Phi Phi are a small archipelago, about thirty miles off the coast of Thailand. They are lovely and have starred in any number of films about exotic tropical destinations, especially the Leonardo diCaprio film, The Beach.
I was picked up by a rather surly minivan driver at 8 who seemed to want to be anywhere else but fighting traffic while rounding up the day’s bookings. (Our van ended up being me, a Hong Kong native, now a banker in Calgary, a couple from Adelaide, and a family from Kerala.) For an island roughly twice the size of Nantucket, it sure has a lot of traffic jams and the way the locals ride their scooters must keep the local trauma wards busy. Eventually we made our way to Phuket harbor and the Royal Marina where dozens of other minivans were also discharging their human cargo.
What at first seemed like pandemonium quickly became organized (they do this every darn day) and we were sorted into groups of about thirty depending on destination and options – we could be quickly identified by guides based on colored rubber wrist bands, slightly more dignified than cattle ear tags I suppose, and assigned to our boats. My group came under the supervision of an aging Thai Ladyboy named Mercy who really needed a caftan and cigarette holder to complement his outsize personality rather than his black uniform pants and polo. All aboard, throttle back, and bounding across the azure waters of the Andaman sea bound for the Phi Phi archipelago.
First stop was Bamboo Island, a small hill atop a coral reef with a lovely beach for swimming and snorkeling. The snorkeling wasn’t much here – too shallow but I did spot a clown fish hiding in an anemone and thought immediately of Finding Nemo. No blue parrot fish however, I guess Dory had gotten lost. Back on the boat and off to see a friendly family of macaques that live on the cliffs of the major island, Phi Phi Don. They were up to their usual antics including some cliff diving and swimming in the sea begging for treats. Then on to the town on Phi Phi Don for lunch. (An edible, but not fantastic buffet…)
Yesterday was the 14th anniversary of the Boxing Day tsunami which devastated this part of the world. In the little town of Phi Phi Don, which had no warning, 1400 out of the 3000 residents and 1500 visitors on the island that morning died. The town is on a sand spit between two limestone crags and was completely inundated. All of the physical scars have been repaired but every local over the age of 15 has tsunami stories. My current hotel is on high ground so I have no worries. My previous one was not, and I made sure when I checked in to spot the trail up the mountain behind the hotel just in case…
After lunch, over to the smaller uninhabited island of Phi Phi Lay for more snorkeling. (Much better this time as we were in deeper water and snorkeling from the boat rather than off a beach). Then one last beach stop for cocktails before returning to the dock, the frenzy of unloading, and finding the correct minivan for another rush hour trip across the island. By the time I got back to the hotel it was pushing 7 PM so I had a quick bite and decided to call it a day. Ten hours of sunshine and saltwater and snorkeling can take it out of you.
For whatever reason, today’s trip was bringing back Steve and my first major trip together. It was November of 1989. We had been together just over eight months. His mother had recently died and he decided we needed to get away together so he went down to a travel agent in downtown Sacramento for some ideas. (For you youngsters – this was before the web was invented and it was not possible for you to book your own plane ticket. There were these magical creatures called travel agents who had to do it for you.) He found a lovely Czech emigre, Yana Gould (with whom I am still friends) who came up with a ten day trip to Mexico. A week in Cancun and then four days in Mexico City.
Off we went. Neither of us had been to Mexico before. Cancun was still a relatively new resort town, not yet completely overrun by the cruise and spring break trade and we had a ball on the beach and did the requisite side trips to Chichen Itza and Tulum to see the Mayan ruins. Steve did not drink. He had been sober 17 years in AA when I met him and was 30 years sober when he died. He didn’t mind if I did (as long as I asked first) and while on that trip, he decided to find out what I was like drunk. One night, at dinner, he kept plying me with tequila slammers until I was way past three sheets to the wind. We decided to take a walk on the beach before bed and, while doing so, drunk Andy found a dead seagull and thought this was the most intriguing thing and decided to present it to Steve. Steve took one look at it, said something along the lines of get rid of it, so drunk Andy started to whirl it around by a wing in order to pitch it into the sea. Unfortunately, the wing separated from the rest of the bird, which fell plop on his feet and he was left standing there puzzled holding a bedraggled thing of feathers and sinew. Steve found this hysterically funny. (I was very drunk and remember next to nothing about this whole incident – I know the details as Steve delighted in recounting the story over the years…) Needless to say, I have learned my lesson about beach combing after having one… or two too many.
Unstructured day tomorrow with which to explore Patong Beach and environs.