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Thai New Year on Ko Phi Phi

Written on: Thursday April 10th, 2008

A journal entry from: Around The World Without A Plane

Skipping Phuket and Krabi from Khao Lak I leapt fervently across the sea to the island of Ko Phi Phi, made famous as the location of the movie The Beach. I?d decided to base myself here for biggest festival of the year in Thailand, Songkhram, which happens to be the Thai New Year for the uninitiated. The Thais, along with many of the other South East Asian countries follow the lunar calendar, which is how I came to be dancing on a beach in the middle of April shouting ?Happy New Year? at anyone unfortunate enough to be in my vicinity. At some points it was, ?Happy 2552?, which the year over here now is.


Despite being one of the most beautiful beach resorts I?ve been to, with the limestone island formed through volcanic eruptions and erosion from the seas, it was Songkram that stole the show. I had met up with Tiah and Sophie again, whom I had met in Khao Sok National Park and we had in turn befriended another group of people preceding the New Year?s festivities. On the ferry over I had joined up with two guys from California, Rich and Lawrence; on a tour around all the beaches and islands near to Phi Phi, I had shared most of my day with Tanya from Austria, and on the same evening had met Rob from Oz and Janette from good old Brighton.


We weren?t too sure whether or not Songkhram was just a day festival here in Phi Phi or whether there were to be celebrations on the night prior to New Year?s Day as in Western society. It appeared that it was the Westerners that were to decide this, as when we walked in to Hippies Bar on the beachfront just before midnight chaos was breaking out.


Songkhram is renowned for its waterfights, with the biggest parties, water pistol battles and water bomb lobbing being had in Chiang Mai and on the Khao Sanh Road in Bangkok. But what with the ease of access to water on Phi Phi there was quite an onslaught commencing here that would continue well in to the next 24 hours. Down at the shoreline a hundred or so Westerners, mixed in with a Thai here and there were dousing each other with buckets of seawater that had previously held Samsong and Coke cocktails, rugby tackling each other in to the sea, or running madly up from the beach towards the bar area baring newly armed water pistols and spraying anyone in sight. In the lead up to Songkhram water pistols had been on sale in front of every shop in Phi Phi and not just tiny, crappy, little waterguns, but the Supersoaker types, with Ghostbuster backpacks if so necessary.


Janette wasted no time in grabbing me and pulling me intently down to the seafront, where the enraging battle was taking place. Within seconds I was drenched and immediately legged it back up the beach to where the others were trying to keep as dry as possible. I thankfully was thinking straight and realised I had my passport, wallet and digital camera in my pockets. I did not want to have to get my camera repaired for a second time, so I gave them all to Tiah to place safely and dryly in her bag, while I ran off back to the sea and nailed a flying tackle on the first person I laid eyes on. I came back about 15 minutes later, soaked to the bone, but armed to the teeth with buckets to find Tiah and Sophie, who had no intention of getting wet, also just as wet as I was. We had to get rid of the valuables. Janette hid her things under a tree somewhere while I went and dropped my stuff off in Tanya?s room which was just around the corner, before heading back to the all-night water party back at Hippies. Janette and I launched a major assault on anybody who was dry that came near the beach, making special preference for those that were dressed reasonably nice. We victimised one guy in particular, who looked so out of place, wearing proper trousers and a nice shirt. We hit him once with a volley of water-filled buckets then when no other obvious target appeared, bombarded him again, five times in total. He did however later get his revenge on me when Janette sold me out. Tiah and Sophie weren?t to escape either as I picked each one up in turn, and ran down to the sea before launching them like scud-missiles in to the swell. Tiah was relatively amused, but Sophie did not see so much of the funny side, especially as on the way down to the beach her favourite, sparkly flip-flops had fallen off, and despite all my attempts to find them afterwards had somehow managed to dig themselves in to the sand never to be found again.


The party continued well in to the next day, with Thais lining the streets with their Supersoakers, cooling passersby in the sweltering heat, and young children and women decorating pedestrians across their faces with a mixture of talcum powder, baby oil and water, giving the whole of Ko Phi Phi a tribal feel. I awoke in much need of some water of another kind, that which to drink, and a good fry-up to restore the depleted salt levels. I was getting neither though before I got my wallet and other possessions back from Tanya. It was late morning and Tanya said she would be down at Janette?s bungalow on the beach which is where I headed to first as it was closest to me. Janette was there and had been joined by Rob, but no sign of Tanya. In fact Rob had just come from Tanya?s place as he too was staying there, and said he went to look in on her but the cleaning lady was in the room, which here in Thailand means the guest has checked out. I had known Tanya less than 24 hours, but had trusted her with my wallet, with all my money and cash-cards in it, my camera and my passport, the three most important items in my travelling life, which I began to think could well be on E-bay already. The three of us went back to Tanya?s, and although she was still nowhere to be seen, the manager put my mind at ease when he told me she had not checked out after all. It still took me another hour or so to eventually track her down and get some breakfast, but it was New Year?s Day, I was soaked yet again, covered in talcum-powder and the sun was shining.


With Phi Phi?s attractions and popularity prices here are comparably higher than anywhere else I?d travelled in South East Asia, with even the most spartan of guesthouses charging 600 baht or ?10 a night, but I found and managed to haggle for a place with Rich and Lawrence, a gorgeous room in an exceedingly nice location for just 700 baht. The room was so nice none of us wanted to leave.


The other talking point was the actual ?Beach? itself, the one where Di Caprio and friends live in a little commune. We took a daytrip out to Maya Beach as it?s called, but as beautiful as it is it?s become an eyesore because of the thronging tourists that swarm around it like ADHD bees overdosing on honey. Where the sea laps at the beach sits numerous speedboats that have moored up there, but nobody sits on the beach or relaxes by floating on the light blue waters. Instead people there seem not to know what to do, they trot up and down the beach, as if trying to find something they?ve lost, or maybe attempting to tread on every granule of sand. I too didn?t know what to do. I stood there, thought what a nice area that?s been completely ruined by tourist overkill and after only two minutes of standing gazing astonishingly at the madding crowds turned around and went back to some snorkeling in one of the nearby bays.


I did a lot of snorkeling that day, more so than I?d ever done before, which resulted in me doubtlessly swimming further than I?d ever swum before. It wasn?t something I first thought about. If you?ve seen me swim you?ll know I?m not particularly adaptive to aquatic life. One of my old PE teachers once told me to stop pretending to drown and continue with the two warm-up lengths, when in fact I was displaying my finest front-crawl. Back in Phi Phi, it was at the point that I?d been swimming for maybe 4 minutes in pursuit of a Thai man who had questioned ?You want to see shark?? but leapt in to the water before I had chance to reply racing off with me naturally following close behind, that it suddenly dawned on me that I could not swim. I mean I can swim, but normally only for about 20 seconds, then I just flap and pray to God that the shallow end is close by. So here I am in the middle of the ocean (quite certain that I wasn?t going to come across the shallow end any time soon), chasing after some random Thai lunatic who wants to find sharks, now with the realisation that the boat that I was so safely aboard but 5 minutes ago has become quite small on the horizon. Under normal circumstances I would have drowned but there were far too many people around to embarrass myself like that so I decided to swim. Whether or not it was the fact I?d been spending so much time in the water recently that my body was evolving to include marine-like tendencies or that the added advantageous appendage of flippers was doing the trick I?m not sure. Either way I swam a fair bit that day and saw hundreds of brightly painted fish, and even a family of barracuda who admired my graceless swimming technique and appeared to want to race me to the beach. I won, but then I would, I had flippers on the size of Ian Thorpe?s feet.


From Kara on Apr 22nd, 2008

Great pics Si :) Nice to see you've been able to tour all the places from "the beach."