We’ve all seen photos of the Thai islands. Perfectly manicured white sand fronted by traditional longtail boats floating atop glassy turquoise water, giant limestone cliffs in the distance. It’s the definition of paradise.
Strategically waiting to visit Thailand’s Andaman islands for the end of our trip around Asia, we’re looking forward to some serious relaxation, especially after our northern Thailand adventure. We wave goodbye to our Chiang Mai friends and take the two hour flight south to Krabi armed with pale skin and fantasies of living in a tiny beach bungalow for weeks on end.
A quick night in Krabi Town before we take a minibus (that boards a car ferry twice during the three hour drive) to the large island of Koh Lanta. We've read that Lanta offers the perfect combination of a small, relaxed beach town, beautiful long beaches and decent restaurants and bars for a "wild" 30-something night out. It sounds ideal.
We drive through a small, sleepy town before arriving at our hotel. Walking quietly past the new swimming pool, toward the coconut tree grove, we reach our bungalow. Instantly our Thailand beach fantasy is a reality. The bungalow has a thatched roof and sits on stilts, 12 feet off the ground. Not much help in the event of a tsunami, but enough shade for a hammock below. Throwing on our swimsuits, we carefully run (still paranoid about venomous snakes on the ground) through the coconut trees toward the beach.
The appropriately named Long Beach is one of Koh Lanta's crown jewels. It spans five kilometers and has all the ingredients of paradise: white sand, blue water and tall pine tree groves with small beach bars lining the forest’s edge. It’s Lanta’s most popular beach. However, when we reach the sand, we’re faced with a very different scene. We’re two of only about a dozen people on the 5 kilometer stretch of beach. Every one of the beach bars is closed and seemingly abandoned, the calm turquoise water is actually a tumultuous ocean and the sand is dotted all over with piles of trash. In that moment, we’re introduced to the reality of the Thai islands during low season.
One of the sisters who owns our hotel later explains that the trash on the beach isn’t cleaned up until the fall, when most of the tourists begin to arrive. Instead, plastic water bottles, styrofoam containers and food wrappers are pushed in and out of the ocean with every tide for months out of the year. In addition to the dirty beaches, many of the stores and restaurants in the small towns that line the coast are closed until the fall, greatly limiting the options for our challenging vegetarian and and peanut free diets. With an empathetic but ‘this is how it is’ look, she suggests that we visit again during the wintertime. A “much different experience,” she says. Uh, yea.
We spend the next three days embracing the quiet, going back and forth between the swimming pool and our cozy bungalow. But it’s still disappointing knowing that we’re getting the abandoned post zombie apocalypse-like version of Koh Lanta instead of the tropical paradise version we had envisioned. So, we pack our bags and head to Koh Phi Phi, one of the most popular islands in Thailand that is sure to include (open) restaurants and some sign of human civilization.
Phi Phi is much closer to our naive stereotype of a Thai island. Two bays on either side of the bow-tie shaped island result in calm, clear turquoise water. Longtail boats sputter in and out of the bay to nearby Phi Phi Le, made famous by the 2000 Leonardo DiCaprio movie “The Beach.” With no cars, Koh Phi Phi consists of narrow paths lined with tourist shops, massage parlors, (open!) restaurants, and bars. A lot of bars.
We park at the beach and take inventory of our fellow tourists. Most are western and under 30. Ah ha. It’s a (rather pricey version of a) backpacker scene. After traveling Southeast Asia for three months, we can spot this group of carefree and crazy nomads in a second. As the tide goes out and the sun casts a golden glow on the sand, we’re struck by the beauty of the scenery. Finally, paradise found. For a minute anyway.
With nightfall comes a raucous bar scene, perfectly executed for the backpacker clientele. Buckets of cocktails that include a soda, a whole bottle of cheap Thai whiskey or rum, and a red bull, emerge along the street’s edge. Bars with huge beer pong tables, bumping bass and Thai boxing rings replace the serene island vibe from just a few hours before. Baby monkeys (that we later learn are drugged) are dressed in doll clothes and used as props for tourist photos. A twenty-something girl squeals as the monkey sits on her head, clearly not thinking about what it is she’s supporting by paying for her new Facebook profile picture. It’s not our scene, but more so, not a strong representation of Thailand and Thai culture.
It finally starts to look like the rainy season as monsoon rains roll through the island every few hours for the next few days. With a hotel perched on the hillside, it’s spectacular to watch the storm clouds move in, sheets of rain hitting the windows as macaques scamper back into the jungle. On our last night, we join our backpacker friends at a bar and listen to a very talented acoustic band playing American covers, waking up the next day to the harsh reality that we’re not 22 anymore.
After a near-death ferry ride (more on that in our next blog post), we make it to the island of Phuket and Kata Beach. Phuket itself, is pretty terrible. Busy main roads shuffle tourists to and from overpriced restaurants, while young girls offer “massaaaage” from every corner. The beaches are beautiful, but the off-season waves are tumultuous and the weather is stormy, so we take some time for trip planning and work.
As we sit in our empty hotel, we draw the conclusion that “paradise” is always flawed in some way. How can it not be when it’s an ideal that we’ve developed in our minds. But the flaws of expectations are just half of the beauty of travel. For every disappointment, there are also a dozen unexpected, incredible discoveries.