Thai Islands: Compromised paradise?

Posted on August 8, 2011

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It is necessary for me to first of all say that the two weeks I spent island-hopping in southern Thailand confirmed all of my previous suspicions about it. That firstly they are justly considered to have some of the greatest beaches in the world. And secondly that the influx of tourists is starting to turn the islands into something akin to a European beach resort. Though a point-by-point explanation of what I did on the islands would be pointless (I sat on the beach and drank beer, essentially), I hope to shed some light on what beachy Thailand is like for anyone planning on making the trip.

Nevertheless, the two weeks were amongst the most relaxing of my trip, something desperately needed by this point. The only difficulties proved to be the actual hopping between the islands itself, given the apparent incapacity of the Thais to organise anything. We experienced this immediately upon our entry to Thailand, as a comical screw-up at the docks resulted in fifty tourists having to change boat an hour after the scheduled departure time. We thus arrived on Ko Phi Phi late and sunburnt.

Ko Phi Phi seemed to me the most authentic of the islands I visited. Dirt roads linked two beautiful beaches with the hotels further up the hill (our lodging described itself as “tsunami-proof”). Though there were the inevitable flurry of vendors selling the same poor-quality items, the island had a more local and authentic feel to my later stops in Ko Samui and Ko Tao. As ever though, the true British tourist comes out at night, and after a dinner of green curry and seafood we hit the beach for cocktails while watching a fire show.

There is little to say about what actually went on during the day on the islands. The weather was warm, the beaches idealistic (though perhaps a little dirty) and the food on offer cheap and very palatable. In the evenings entertainment was mostly to be found based around cheap bucket deals and various forms of fun on the beach. With the fire shows and its more chilled vibe, Ko Phi Phi seemed a little less strenuous than the all-out attack on the senses that Ko Samui was. We spent our last day on a longtail boat snorkelling around various smaller islands.

After another long haul across to the other coast, we arrived on Ko Samui to find an altogether different atmosphere. Firstly the island is much, much bigger, to the point that it took us 45 minutes by tuk tuk to reach our hotel. Prices were higher too, and it was much less easy to find a decent deal in terms of accommodation. And though the beach was again easily accessible and picturesque, bordering it was a multi-kilometre long road of bars, restaurants, clubs, shops and beauty parlours. Bendidorm has come to Thailand.

Evening entertainment was excellent, however, with live cover bands frequenting most bars in our area. The range of food on offer was excellent (even if you are incessantly hassled to by both food and souvenirs on the beach) and the beach was slightly cleaner than on Ko Phi Phi. Yet it is impossible to escape the feeling that what was once a unspoilt paradise has now become tainted by the whims of the modern tourist. The only way to deal with it was to get drunk and try to sleep (impossible, by the way).

Ko Tao was somewhat of a halfway house between Phi Phi and Samui. More built up than the former, it somehow managed to retain some of its original charm in the face of the tourist onslaught, unlike the latter. Evening entertainment was lively but more sedate than Samui, and there was a much better selection of accommodation available for better prices. Waterfront restaurants provided excellent seafood (barracuda and red snapper were particularly excellent on all the islands) and then live music into the small hours. Just try and stay out of the way of the divers, who dive all day and then talk about diving all night.

Rested and a lot poorer than I thought I would be, I made the journey back to the mainland (by stomach-churning and potentially dangerous ferry) having enjoyed myself but unsure if even Ko Phi Phi and Ko Tao will be able to retain their own distinctive identities in the face of the tourist hoards.

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Posted in: Experience, Travel