Applying World Understanding to Ko Phi Phi

First: my wife is good at this.

Second: One time when I’d had a few drinks and was out for Page’s birthday, I tipsily drew a line between people who appreciate the finer things about other cultures and those who don’t, and called it “World Understanding.” About ten seconds later, I realized it was the most pretentious thing I have ever said. So, to be clear, in this post (and in all future posts) I am the Supreme World Understander.

Third: what to say about Ko Phi Phi? After five days, no one thing stands out. It is tremendously beautiful. It feels fairly remote, though in truth there’s a fair amount of facilities. The central town area on the other side of the island (a orange-skinned, white-dreadlocked hell of desperate pheromones ice-blended with acute capitalism) is maybe six blocks in total size, and presumably has most things you need. But the town feels far away.

It is an island, and in the old sense: there’s no cars, no roads, and everything is via water taxi. In the area we were in, a more remote northern section of the island that’s unconnected to the rest, our stretch of beach had perhaps five little hotels, and maybe three or four shack-like local businesses, including a small outdoor restaurant and bar. The feeling is sea shanty, and in a nice way: casual, friendly, away from things. It reminded me of Isla Holbox.

The water (as Page has mentioned) is a bathtub.

It’s hot. I mean, really hot. The hottest I’ve ever experienced. And I’ve been in Hong Kong on what I was told was the hottest day of the year, and I grew up in a place that regularly hit 110 degrees F. It was so hot that if you stay in the shade on the beach, and you thoughtfully get in the water to cool down every 30 minutes, by 1 or 2 PM you still seriously consider, then wisely decide to go inside for an afternoon siesta / internet research sojourn. With all that said, though, I still enjoyed the heat. It was just mildly uncomfortable enough to make me constantly appreciate the fact that I was on vacation.

But all of this probably doesn’t do justice to how beautiful the area is. The water, sky, and horizon switch between light azure and emerald as the day goes on. The cedar smell of the teak longtail boats, with colorful flower garlands on the prow, pointing between top-heavy, surreal limestone karsts. It is nice, man.

Perhaps my favorite part of Ko Phi Phi was the remote beach of La Na Bay. Our helpful hotel-non-Thai-person-who-pointedly-makes-friends-with-you-because-this-is-a-high-service-sort-of-place told us there was a hidden cinderblock path along the ridge of the island, cutting through the jungle, that would let us walk to a beautiful secluded beach. The next day, we packed a day-satchel and dutifully checked it out. When we finally got there, we emerged on a huge, crescent bay, and there was not a soul there. The water was even stiller, even more bathtub-like than the other side of the island (how is this possible?), and we had a whole bay the size of a small city completely to ourselves. I floated in the middle of the water for a long time, my eyes fixed on the horizon between the two arms of the bay’s crescent, the water flat as a pale blue sheet. That was the first time on the trip that I felt madd relaxed.

How is Kevin?

Yeah, how is that guy?

Well. Today we put our stuff on some beach chairs that had some shade, and then went to put our swimsuits on. When we got back to the chairs, some other hotel guests, a young Russian couple, had moved our stuff over one place, and taken our shadier spot. OK, all’s fair in love and beach-chair turf war.

But THEN. Our minor displacement meant that when an attractive pair of Spanish ladies got to the beach, Kevin was an arm’s length away from them. And one of them in particular demonstrated not only crazy hourglass proportions and excellent maracas, but a passionate commitment to toplessness, in defiance of Thai law. At one point she even strolled topless down the beach toward the group of local boat operators, possibly to negotiate with them about a rental. But mostly she changed positions a lot and soaked up the sun.

So: Kevin is great. And, generally speaking, all seems right with the world. The Russians are our secret benefactors! My preference to lie around rather than pursue An Activity is revealed to be not laziness but thoughtful prescience! Viva Thailand!

Ko Phi Phi Phi Phi Phi

Ko Phi Phi is an island off the west coast of southern Thailand, and it is seemingly such an exemplar of tropical paradise that the guidebooks get a little resentful describing it. “Ko Phi Phi could win all the best-beach competitions, and knows it,” Lonely Planet says, rather cuttingly. Sold!

We decided to spend our first few days relaxing, in possibly undeserved recovery from the past month’s spring of planning and organizing. So, assorted planes to get to Phuket, long taxi ride to the ferry, 90-minute ferry ride to Ko Phi Phi, and a long-tail wooden boat to this hotel, called Zeavola, where we’ll spend five nights. Door to door the trip took maybe 28 hours, and when we made it to 9 p.m. local time on the night we arrived we high fived each other before crashing to the ground.

Now that we’re awake, the teeming equatorial-jungle fertility is just astonishing to sit in the middle of. Flowers just casually blooming everywhere, birdsong and cicada cacophony all the time, all colors of butterflies bumbling obliviously into our heads, a starfruit tree outside our door, snails with glossy shells and bodies as long as a Twix. On the beach, little translucent crabs pinwheel down the sand and into the water without any loss of momentum, and there’s the occasional huge jellyfish, like an opalescent cowpat.

Ko Phi Phi was especially hard-hit by the 2004 tsunami, so Lonely Planet’s jibes seem weirdly like a good sign of recovery. The island does appear to be doing well – not that we’ve ever been here before, but it’s doing enough tourist trade to seem pretty prosperous, while remaining fairly undeveloped and livable-seeming for locals. Yesterday we hiked through the jungle to a nearly deserted beach, and at one point a couple of local speedboat operators pulled into the bay and dropped anchor, and then climbed into some hammocks at the beach’s edge and just chilled out. (Chartering a speedboat is crazy expensive and also popular with tourists, so I think their relaxation was a sign of good work-life balance rather than underemployment, though it might also be both.)

For us, this place is pretty excellent. Our room is a big open-air hut on stilts, surrounded by hibiscus bushes. (There’s a glassed-in room with air conditioning for sleeping.) The water of the Andaman Sea is like a huge salty bathtub the color of an aquamarine. And we’re eating curry three meals a day.

Of course there are also tiny biting things: no-see-ums, sand fleas, flies, ants — and mosquitoes whose subtle stings occur without my noticing, but that leave behind nearly cystic red-and-white knots. I haven’t counted my bites, but I’d estimate the number at somewhere north of 50. The itching is sometimes so intense that it feels almost hallucinogenic. But these are basically uptown problems, like sand in one’s sunscreen.

A few days ago we went snorkeling off of some nearby uninhabited islands (Bamboo Island and the less promisingly named Mosquito Island), among schools of unfazed fish. To me it all looked awesomely ‘80s. The fish are all color coordinated in the style of Full House or The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air: electric pink and blue, turquoise and orange and cobalt, dark brown with perfectly round aqua and white dots. And the sharp, delicate black and white sea urchins look really graphic, like they could be jazzing up a power suit with huge shoulder pads.

There are also assorted five-pound mollusks, each of which seemed to resemble some unmentionable human orifice or other, except they’re purple or mauve or jade green. I’m not sure how these fit into my tropical ‘80s thesis, but I’m sure someone has a political joke that will help it all make sense. (Andy, are you reading this?)

Kevin loves snorkeling, whereas I more like tolerate it – I’m enthralled for ten minutes and then I realize I am not so much engaging in what I’m seeing as singing songs from the Little Mermaid in my head. To counteract this I sometimes describe the scene in my mind, as if to an absent friend. So I very much appreciate your submitting to all these adjectives. Wish you were here!

Six months. Two backpacks. Hit it.

Well, two backpacks that comprise detachable, zip-off day-packs – so, arguably four backpacks, but we’re choosing not to see things that way.

Regardless we’re off, with what will inevitably be too much stuff. At least —possibly in deference to some imagined admonitory Rick Steves figure — we capitulated to the travelers’ pants. You’ll be familiar with the type: For Kevin, gray ones that zip off at the knee to become shorts, and for me olive green ones that can be rolled up and buttoned into sort of Aladdin pants. (I know. Try and contain your sartorial envy.) I look forward to the moment when I notice a lump deep in the cargo pocket near my left knee and it turns out to be something forgotten and interesting, like a pork rind, or all my spare contact lenses.

We got lucky and all of our flights were safe, on-time and delivered us and our zillion-pound packs to the same place at the same time. (That being Phuket, Thailand.) Other extremely important travel observations: They are bewilderingly generous with the nacho toppings in the international terminal at LAX. You might spend a bunch of time researching the right camera to take on your six-month 'round-the-world trip and then have it develop a lens malfunction before you take a single picture. Sleeping pills are a great way to cope with a flight that your husband wisely did not tell you beforehand would be seventeen hours long. And Thai Airways 1) is very comfortable despite an astonishingly unrestful pink-and-purple cabin color scheme, and 2) has a signature “Thai Airways” eau de toilette available for spritz in the bathrooms. (Unusually for someone who always comes out of Sephora smelling like some weird thing, I abstained.)

While we’re here: You know what is a foolish practice that you should not indulge in? Hoarding and being stingy with your insect repellent out of anxiety that it will eventually run out. You should especially not indulge in this counterproductive activity if you find yourself in the tropical, jungly area near Phuket, Thailand. That said, if you do foolishly under-slather yourself, you can always try compensating by being really, really generous with the Fenistil anti-inflammatory that gel you buy for all your bug bites.

What's six months' worth of bug spray?

Getting ready for six months on the road means a lot of little packing debates. What will be valuable enough to us, and difficult enough to get in other countries, that it's worth adding to the load on our backs? Experienced travelers will say "almost nothing" -- the idea being that most things we'll want, we'll be able to find, and those things we can't find, it'll be good for us to learn to live without. "Too true!" I say to myself every day or so, blithely ignoring a lifetime's worth of fussy materialism. "Two t-shirts and a passport for me!"

Except. There are also experienced travelers who helpfully share the things they couldn't have lived without, or really wished they'd had. A sleeping-bag liner for when sheets are unavailable or suspicious-looking. A headlamp, not just handy when one goes camping, but also when there's a power outage. Dental floss. And for every person who says "Of course you can get dental floss where you're going," there's another who delicately explains that we shouldn't expect other cities to supply the Western comforts we're accustomed to and maybe we should quit imposing our dental expectations on the rest of the world.

And then there are edge cases. Like: Kevin and I each have really big feet. We are borderline flipper people, who have enough trouble finding shoes we like even in the consumer paradise of San Francisco. If this sounds to you like I'm asking permission to pack more shoes -- well, then, I concede that you have met me. But on one trip to Paris a couple of years ago I walked holes in the soles of one of my three pairs of shoes, and a few Parisian salesladies were so sadistically, orgasimically happy to tell me how unavailable my shoe size was in their lovely city that the next time I go to Paris I plan to wear hot pink Crocs just to spite them. Is it worth packing an extra pair of shoes -- even though they take up so much space -- in case our other ones fall apart?

Or, OK, here's another one. I use this special kind of contact lens solution that's basically hydrogen peroxide. It's a pain, but using it put an end to a year's worth of nasty eye infections, so I'm attached to it. It may not be easy or possible to find this stuff in the developing world. But carrying six months' worth of contact solution feels perilously close to packing six months' worth of meals.

Fortunately, the scarcity of time and space will solve this problem. We will run out of minutes in which to have these debates, and backpack space in which to wedge any hotly debated items. Until then, though, I'll be over here determining how many days a one-ounce bottle of DEET is likely to last us.