There and back again, again

Trip Start Jul 2003
Trip End May 2005

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On On Hotel

Flag of Thailand  ,
Wednesday, December 8, 2004

Number 28 (7th December 2004 - 21st December 2004): There and back again, again

We arrived back in southern Thailand by train and headed across to the west coast to find Debbie. With its proximity to the Similan Islands, Khao Lak is a bit of a divers' paradise with live-aboard trips setting off for several days.

Stopping briefly in Phuket we checked into the infamous On On Hotel. Once a grand building, it served as the film set for Leonardo's bedroom in the film, 'The Beach'. We think they must have blown all the fees, assuming there were some, on a new set of towels and a small amount of paint. It has completely retained that feeling of being 'aesthetically seedy'. Phuket is a rugged island, and beautiful beaches here are seriously packed with row upon row of thousands of jet-skiing, banana-boating tourists.

Phi Phi Island is a short boat ride away, and we joined the thousands of others heading to this crowded paradise. Development on these islands has reached a scale which has to be seen to be believed. Every square inch of forest-cleared land has been built on, with the highest prices charged for its use. Some of the beaches are extremely picturesque, with clear blue water, white sands and some much damaged coral. The beach used in the film of the same name is reached by boat to a small, uninhabited nearby island, followed by a fairly magical swim through a hole in a rock. Apparently, 4 tonnes of rubbish was removed before filming, and the addition of a few extra palm trees has created an amazing place, if you can see past the thousands of other paradise-seekers. Phi Phi tempted us to stay for a beach Christmas, but instead a further boat took us to Krabi from where we shot straight down the coast to the unfortunately named Satun in a bid to stem the flow of cash.

Ko Tarutao National Marine Park has opened its doors to development, and some incredibly white beaches, lapped with clear jade waters with some good snorkelling were found on Ko Lipe. We actually saw a crab-eating macaque eating a crab. National park status has been removed from this particular island to assist forest clearance and development, and finding a lonely spot to pitch our tent on the beach was difficult (although possible). Resort development is in full swing. We were, however, once again tempted with a beach Christmas.

One more boat returned us to the mainland, before we hopped on a final Thai voyage to the Malaysian duty-free island of Langkawi, where the pricey accommodation is heavily compensated by the promise of some very cheap beer Wahoo!

To enlarge on some things we said last time (Number 26), we want to make it clear that we didn't arrive in Thailand expecting to be able to live like backpacking hippy travellers, Indian style. In Thailand, when a budget traveller is forced to spend so much on a room, he isn't the only one to lose out: he has little left for local beer and local food. We met and chatted to several locals, whose small restaurants and businesses are struggling against the onslaught of resorts where the customer rarely leaves. They would gladly have swapped all the resorts in their vicinity (there are just thousands) for crowds of hungry, chatty backpackers looking for basic rooms, cold beer and local food.

As experienced in Sri Lanka, Thai people initially seem to be very friendly but as soon as that hint of 'budget backpacker' is spotted, you become invisible and the next tourist is looked for. Everything in Thailand is about money. Although the religion is officially Buddhism, it is a very weak form with very few monks seen out and about when compared with the neighbouring countries of Laos and Burma. As we were told, 'Thailand people follow Buddhism, but above this they are Thai'. With the money the country has, a great deal of care is clearly taken of the ecology, until a business opportunity is seen as more beneficial. An area of national park is preserved for the tourists to look at, but the path between room and restaurant seems more cared for than the jungle, beach or coral beyond. And as soon as it becomes more profitable to have a resort or shrimp farm on
that piece of primary jungle/mangrove, in go the bulldozers. The 'newly discovered' island of Ko Tarutao has been laid out with concrete pathed plots, ready and awaiting construction options (Chinese companies seeming to be the highest bidders).

So if you come to Thailand, maybe the best bet is to take a package tour, show you have money and pay for everything in advance and speed up the rapidly accelerating route to implosion and death by tourism. Better still, here's another suggestion: wait until it's all over and supply has exceeded demand to such an extent that the tourist no longer desires to be crammed in at such a cost. Slowly the resorts will close and nature will creep in to reclaim. Small thatched villages will grow amongst the crumbling concrete elephants of the once great swimming pool resorts by the beach and, Angkor Wat style, the traveller will be able to wander through the once great resort ruins of old Thailand.

Daffy and the Clown Fish

[Very important note: this was obviously all written previous to the catastrophic events of the 26th December; following the Sumatran earthquake the west coast was hit by tsunami very badly, and pretty much everything we said about it is now history; as you can imagine from the news reports all of the places mentioned above have now been changed for ever]
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