Vern: A ferry whisked us out to Ko Phi Phi, a paradise island which is roughly hourglass shaped with twin bays (fine sand, turquoise sea) on either side. The 2004 tsunami hit the island hard when an immense wave washed across the slither of land between the beaches, taking thousands of casualties. Rebuilding and readying the island for the return of tourism was quick and haphazard, too quick for proper infrastructure actually, and unfortunately there were some shady dealings where developers bought up prime land for pennies off of destitute families. The result is a spaghetti of small roads up and down the island's spine, some of which lead to bewilderingly gorgeous beaches, others to resorts; up mountains; into banana plantations, and at least one into a smouldering trash heap.
The little lanes are chaotic, and despite no motor vehicles on the island, thousands of tourists push past each other headed in and out of tour agencies, print t-shirt stalls, tattoo parlours, restaurants, dive shops and guesthouses. The locals force their way through on bicycles, either ringing their little metal bells or just yelling, "beep beep" or "tring tring". And you'd better jump out of the way 'cause they just giggle when the handle bars ram into your back, or your toes are flattened under rubber.
Both accomodation and food are much pricier here than elsewhere in Thailand. We used the services of a pier-side agency to book our room (because they offered the value-add service of pushing our backpacks on a little cart through the sunburnt masses and up the hill to the guesthouse). At the agency's little shack, we'd narrowed it down to two guesthouses at an acceptable price and asked for the agent's advice. He strongly recommended one of the two and we went with that. Soon after we checked into our clean little abode (half way up to the tsunami gathering point which involved some sweating but could only be a good thing), we realised that the agent's family ran the place, and so his role down at the agency is a very convenient second job.
The beaches really are spectacular, but you have to be prepared to share because there are plenty of kids in the sandbox. We found a little patch on the flour fine sand and shared a ripe papaya, before taking several dips into the warm clear sea. The tide washed out, the sun shirked off and on the way back from the beach we booked a dive trip for the next morning. The warm evening streets were noisy and twinkling. Some couples perused paintings and sculptures, most perused restaurant menus, fat pink Russians were all lined up on plush chairs getting foot-massages and informal vendors had "buckets" lined up for sale and thus were lighting the fuse for a messy street party - a nightly knock off of the famous Ko Pha-Ngang full moon parties. A "bucket" is a Coke, a Red Bull, and a half-jack of rum, vodka or liquor mixed in, and consumed from, a little plastic beach bucket. While we tucked into noodles I wondered what had become of all the little plastic beach spades?! Our scuba diving trip started tragically. The outfit we'd booked with had cancelled the day's excursions because a member of staff had committed suicide overnight and thus the rest were grieving. That sure was a big glass of ice cold reality served up first thing in the morning, and left us a little shell shocked. Another operator squeezed us on though, and we rushed through equipment fittings and the other preliminaries before setting sail. The first dive site was off of Bhida Nok, a minute uninhabited island. It was a tough dive, and our little group was bashed around between two currents pushing us in opposite directions. In addition, Andrea was struggling with a BCD that was too big for her as they'd run out her size. Our divemaster, Kamz, a skinny heavily-tanned English northerner tried to make the best of the poor conditions - we spotted a tiny yellow box fish, a cleaner wrasse swimming right inside the gills of blue pufferfish, a black and white sea-snake and a Travelli jellyfish - but the dive was short, disappointing and exhausting.
All aboard and we sailed into Ao Maya Bay on the uninhabited Ko Phi Phi Leh island and anchored for lunch. The island is a national park, protected because the bird nests are sold and turned into soup and actually generate more money than tourism. The idyllic bay nestled in a horseshoe of limestone peaks was used in the film, The Beach, and today was covered with day-trippers - it looked more like a sweaty market than the tropical paradise of the movie.
After we'd eaten, the boat sailed round Phi Phi Leh while we kitted up into the dive gear, and then took a big stride out into the ocean and dropped slowly down into Phalong Bay. The conditions were much better (though visibility remained quite poor) and we drifted pleasantly over interesting rocks and unexciting patches of coral spying quietly on the colourful residents. Then things picked up big time! Divemaster Kamz banged her metal pointing-stick against her oxygen tank to get our attention, then closed one fist over the other and wiggled her thumbs which stuck out each side - the hand-sign for TURTLE! I got Andrea's attention and repeated the gesture and we both excitedly swam over to Kamz. Our hours underwater or snorkelling on the surface on this trip are adding up but until now, to Andrea's great disappointment, sea-turtles had eluded us.
But that was over! He was mesmerising. Neck stretched out, tail pointed straight and fins flapping in occasional bursts of energy, a lone green turtle eased across the deep dark ocean like a night-time trucker, still driving long after retirement age, on a deserted highway. His shell was decorated with polygons and his skin looked a thousand years young. Green turtles are notoriously evasive, but he either enjoyed his audience with their magnified eyes and streams of bubbles, or was too old to care that we'd joined his caravan. When he spotted coral or algae he liked, he paddled over to his snack and chomped away at it with prehistoric jaws. Amusingly though, he couldn't multitask so while he munched away at the coral his bum slowly floated up toward the surface until inertia got the best of him and he drifted away. At which point he'd have to level out and paddle back to his lunch - it was actually a lot like a scuba diver battling with buoyancy.
Suddenly, two black tipped reef sharks appeared a few metres away, crossing one in front of the other as if each one had completing swimming a circle around our dive party, and our turtle, in opposite directions! Oh no, this is going to be like Bambi's mother all over again! But they kept their distance (all our bubbles probably helped) and our turtle lives on.
However, while worrying about our reptilian companion I'd picked up a parasite. Probably not my first on the the road! A remora had taken a liking to me. It resembles a baby shark with pointy fins, grey colouring and a white belly but is long and thin as if a baker has rolled it into a baguette. The sneaky fish sidled up to me, staying close to my back and caught an easy ride in the vortex coming over my shoulder in the same way it does to sharks and other marine mammals. I whirled around to see it but it could move faster than me and I found my self spinning in a tornado, like a dog chasing it's tail, trying to get a good look at it. It is harmless, but clinged to me with vigour, until a few swipes at it with my depth guage sent it off to find a more appropriate host.
The turtle was a great sighting and turned a visit to a rather average dive site into a rather marvelous experience, and the boat passengers were in a fine mood as we sailed back to Phi Phi.
We visited the beach again in the late afternoon when the tide was way out and it was too shallow to swim. Instead we were captivated my the number of different creatures which come out of the soggy sand after the sea has pulled back: Crabs and sea snails, the exact colour of the sand, all headed in the same direction as if making their way to a convention and transparent slugs slithering ever so slowly out of pores in the sand so as not to attract the eye of the seagulls.
As the sun dropped toward the horizon, we headed up to the 'Pee Pee Viewpoint' (a little joke by the sign-writer) slash the tsunami gathering area, to get that shot of the twin bays on every postcard in town. Thunder rung ominously and to the east the sky had turned black and smudgy. "Perhaps, we should go back down," Andrea said, willing to skip sunset in order to stay dry, but as she finished that sentence, a tropical storm engulfed the hill and every tourist on it took refuge in the little store up there. At some point the sun must have set but we didn't see it. After about forty minutes the storm slowed and we all filed down the mountain in an ant-line and dispersed into restaurants and guesthouses once we'd reached town.
We'd intended to do some more island hopping on the other coast, but they were experiencing heavy rain and 3-metre high waves so instead we decided to head north to Bangkok. The next morning we found a travel agent to make the necessary bookings for us. The agent was a German expat and dealt with us in accented English, but we were most impressed when she picked up the phone and spoke to the bus company in fluent Thai. There did seem to be an issue though (and I worried that perhaps there was no availability) but she ended the call with a smile. "I will never again use a ticket booklet where all the numbers start with nine!" she exclaimed, frustrated. "In Thai, the words for 'glue' and 'nine' are very similar but for a different tonal inclination and I can't seem to get it right. But I ask you, why would I be saying 'it is ticket glue three one, glue three one'. Why?"