One of the things I liked less in Bangkok and Phuket was the locals’ attitude of focusing everything around the tourism industry. Thailand devotes a lot of money, energy and resources to the tourism industry, but often what they offer to foreigners is simply that, a tourist experience, rather than an authentic involvement with Thai culture and tradition.
This time, for once, I wasn’t traveling alone, and since my friend lives in London, she was in desperate need of some sun and beach time.
So we headed to Phuket, which is probably the most touristy area in the whole country.
I did know, and in fact, we thought about staying three days in Phuket, visiting the place apart from its beaches, and then heading to the Phi Phi Islands, Thailand, acclaimed for their “desert and peaceful” environment. We were already bracing ourselves for a full immersion in unspoiled nature.
It took me about ten minutes to understand that Phuket was not my ideal destination, but since we were there to enjoy the beach, I for once decided not to complain too much and enjoy as much as I could.
Truth be told, my mood was a little spoiled since the beginning of my stay in Phuket because of my journey from the capital. One of the feelings that most dominated my days in Bangkok was that I was there to spend, it doesn’t really matter I was enjoying myself, I was just expected to fork out cash exclusively due to my tourist status. Taxi drivers probably gave me the hardest time among all, most of them refusing to switch the meter on and asking abnormal fares by candidly letting me know “You can afford this price”.
When we went to book a night bus ticket to Phuket (not sure why we hadn’t even checked the flights, don’t ask, it’s still a mystery to both me and my friend), the travel agent presented us with different options, one with 55 seats, A/C but not much comfortable, one with 32 seats and one “VIP” with 22 seats, the most comfortable and also the most expensive. The agency consultant let us know that they were all fully booked, and only some places on the VIP bus with 22 seats were available. No problem, the journey was 12 hours, so we would have booked that one anyway.
However, as we found out at the bus station, even after paying for a VIP bus, we were booked for a non-VIP 55 seat bus, which presumably the price was three times less. I’m not sure whether the agency got confused, or the price was that one because we booked last minute or because it was towards Phuket, but this was the umpteenth fact that made me feel there was nothing I could do, despite all my being careful I was always going to be cheated.
As soon as we arrived in Phuket, we took a taxi to the hotel, and the price was set by the company that had a stall at the station itself: for a ten-minute run, we paid more or less the same amount we had paid in Bangkok from the airport to our hotel for an hour drive. We gave the address to the driver and once we reached the beginning of our road he started, visibly upset, shouting that we had given him the wrong street number.
I showed him the full address as shown on my booking receipt and he kept shouting that that was the street but the number was wrong. The conversation was taking on surreal terms such as “See?? This is the street but no hotel!” Exhausted from the bus trip, we suggested moving a bit further on the same road, since we were only at the very start, and right after about ten meters we spotted the sign of our hotel, fortunately, as I was starting to have the impression the driver was going to drop us right there in the middle of nowhere. Sorry, no tip this time.
Phuket hotel, The Great @ Patong, was smelly but very nice and new, the staff kind and helpful and literally ten minutes away from the nearest beach. Although we arrived around7,30am, we were allowed in the room, so this helped us recollect ourselves a bit before starting to explore the new city. We took a shower, and wore our bikini, I put on my new colorful sarong and we were off to the beach. Being from Sardinia and having a beach almost all to myself when I’m home doesn’t make me very excited to go sunbathing when I travel, I actually feel it’s a bit of a waste, but since I had accepted to devote some time of my Thailand trip to the beach, I resigned myself to it and brought my book with me.
When you think of Thailand, how do you picture its coastline? Sandy white beaches and crystal waters, right? Well, try again. I have been to tourist beaches before, but that looked a little too “used”.
Phuket Patong beach is sandy and white indeed, but clothed with chairs and populated with vendors selling anything from dresses to sun creams to wooden flutes.
As soon as we set foot on the beach, a young guy approached us and with very little introduction announced: “One chair 100 Baht, two chairs 200 Baht”. Fine, we took two chairs and relaxed for exactly 15 seconds. He then asked us if we wanted something to drink and when I enquired about the price of the coconut he told me it cost 120 Baht. I replied that it was too expensive, that in Bangkok for a coconut I paid 30-40 Baht, but he quickly dismissed me with a blunt “Then go and buy it by yourself”.
So I did actually, I went to the little stall nearby, the guy followed me and once there he said something in Thai to the girl at the stall and even before I had the time to ask for a coconut she was already replying “120 Baht”. I went back to my chair, without coconut, and bought my drink from one of the street vendors the beach is full with, who do ask for a higher price, but acceptably higher, not abnormal.
This was the not-so-promising start of my Phuket experience.
The thing is, I knew Phuket was touristy, and I went with a specific state of mind, but as soon as I got there I immediately sensed something was not quite right. Although the beach was rather clean, the water was not. The sky was a lovely blue, so the water was supposed to mirror that and shimmer in its azure hues, but no, the color was pretty much muddy gray, and the smell was of the fuel used by the myriad of boats and water scooters that were adding unpleasant noise pollution to the wanna-be peaceful atmosphere.
Near the beach, restaurants were all both expensive and quite low quality, meaning that we always ended up eating street food from the beach vendors. At night the street food scene was definitely more animated than in the daytime, with many different and tasty options, but the ambiance around was one of the worst I can recall from all my years of traveling. A mix of nationalities sporting all the most unpleasant stereotypes for which they are known, drunk people everywhere, old Westerners showing off their teenage local trophy as if there is anything to be proud of, gold diggers waiting for their catch, open markets selling very tacky Western-mocking merchandise, tourists extremely rude with locals and nothing even remotely reminding of local culture and traditions.
After a day and a half, we had enough of Phuket and started thinking about spending the rest of the holiday, a bit more than a week, in the Phi Phi Islands, presumably the unspoiled paradise we were longing for.
We went to book the boat ticket for the following morning and the travel agent looked a bit puzzled when we said we had booked our hotel in Phi Phi Don (the main island) for five days. Probably he sensed we had no idea what we would have found, especially after, out of frustration, I asked him “Is this Thailand or did I get the wrong plane ticket?? Where is Thailand?? I want to see Thailand!” Visibly troubled, he whispered, “I know, I know, maybe try Bangkok?”
Anyhow, at the moment of our departure from Phuket we were still convinced we were leaving the worst example of Thailand’s tourism industry. This illusion was short-lived, as in less than three hours we reached Phi Phi Don. My initial shock prevented me from forming an opinion, realizing what the hell I was doing there, or even complaining, which is pretty unusual for me.
The best definition I could come up with for Phi Phi Don was of a terrestrial paradise turned into a trash bin.
From dusk till dawn, the most disrespectful tourists I have ever seen, flocking in hundreds if not thousands every day from Phuket and Krabi, abuse this otherwise tranquil corner of the planet by throwing rubbish on the beach, renting polluting old boats and consequently dumping further rubbish, mainly consisting of bottles of beer, directly into the sea.
Obviously, the fact that so many tourists have access to such a small island every day is more a responsibility of local administration and government, rather than of tourists themselves, but seeing such a fragile environment at the mercy of so many careless individuals was utterly disturbing. As if this wasn’t enough, restaurants and nightclubs lined up along the small beach had the direct result of causing this stretch of white sand to be filled with empty bottles and cans every morning.
Phi Phi Don does have some houses where locals live, but nevertheless, it gave me the impression to be a very recent settlement, where people moved just intending to exploit nature for the sake of money and tourism.
I immediately regretted having naively booked for five days, and it took me less than no time to decide to cancel the last three days at my hotel, Marine House, even with the obligation of paying a cancellation fee.
The hotel didn’t really help make the stay more pleasant, either. The most expensive accommodation we have booked in Thailand, it was by far the worst one. The window-less room welcomed us with a storm of mosquitos and a smell of damp walls. After our first shower, we had the final surprise: it was not connected to any drain pipe so after every shower the whole bathroom (tiny, for that matter) was completely flooded.
Locals here don’t meet the typical Thai stereotype of a kind and smiley people, quite the opposite, they are often rude, impatient and unwilling to help. If you ask for information don’t really expect an answer unless you want to buy whatever “cianfrusaglia” they are selling, and even in case you actually want to buy, make it quick, as sellers unlikely wish to waste their time with you. After we decided to leave, we stopped at one of the many stalls operating also as travel agents as it was showing the sign of the service from Phi Phi to Phuket airport.
I asked the visibly uninterested guy how the service worked and what was the timetable and after telling me “every day at 9 am”, he made it short by asking immediately “You want to book?”. “Well,” I said, “ first we need to see if we can cancel the hotel and leave tomorrow or the day after.” I didn’t even finish my sentence he had already turned his back on me and carried on watching a movie in his shop. I couldn’t believe he was actually being so rude so I waited a couple of seconds thinking that maybe he was checking something but no, he was really watching a movie.
I told him, as nicely as I could give the situation, “Excuse me, where are you on the map?” He understood I was asking where was the bay we would leave from and, clearly upset for having interrupted his movie, he banged his fingers on my map somewhere in the middle of the Ocean. He obviously left me no choice other than walk away and book my trip with another agency where someone would actually talk to me.
The restaurant experience hasn’t been much better, as both times I went to order vegetable fried noodles, possibly the most common meal in Thailand, the waiter was already telling me a blunt “No, we don’t have”, even before I had finished asking.
Although I obviously didn’t appreciate feeling so unwelcome, to be completely honest, sometimes I did understand the locals’ behavior. The tourists who go to Phuket and Phi Phi islands are the worst ones ever. One day my friend went on a boat trip around the other islands and heard an American barely teenage girl approaching the owner of the boat, who probably wasn’t very confident in English, with an unacceptable: “Can you f***ing speak English?” In a proprietorial and unpleasant way, it didn’t occur to her that she was the foreign one, and with such an attitude it would be better for everyone if she stayed home.
Walking the narrow alleys of this once unspoiled island now turned into a giant leisure park, and looking at the messy cluster of makeshift shops, restaurants, hotels and travel agencies, I could share the feelings of a Buddhist monk, the only one I saw in this place of perdition, wandering Phi Phi Don streets and looking around in disapproval and dismay. “What’s happened to humanity?” I’m sure he was wondering.
My last day in Phi Phi Don I treated myself to a morning on the beach, started early so the usual beach brigades were still sleeping and recovering from the hangover of the night before. In this peace before the storm, I enjoyed the routine of a little crab, seemingly inhabiting the beach, that kept coming out of its refuge in the sand, making some sidewalk then quickly going back in every time it sensed danger, be it a dog, a bird or a person. This crab was so swift in hiding under the sand at the first noise that I almost identified myself with it, somehow feeling sorry for invading its hometown and being part of the aliens who violate its paradise on a daily basis.
I blame it on the local government for allowing such hordes of people to be so disrespectful towards their environment, it looked like Thais either didn’t care or didn’t realize how much damage this type of tourism is causing. I understand they make a living out of it, but do they really think that destroying this fragile ecosystem will do good for the future of their industry? Do they think this will last forever? Do they know that once the paradise, with its landscape and views, is ruined tourists won’t arrive anymore?
A sentiment of frustration was a constant feature of my stay in Southern Thailand, I was heartbroken to see how ancient Siam had developed, and when I was on the boat to Phuket and then on the airport-bound bus, I felt I was running away from a place that made me feel guilty for other people’s bad behavior.