W hether we know it or not, we’ve all seen Thailand’s Phi Phi island. It may have been on some random postcard, it may have been on some fleeting advertisement in the street, or it may have been on a friend’s bedroom wall. But one thing’s for sure: we’ve all gazed in awe at its pristine beaches and thought “I’d love to go there… someday.” To the lucky few who do get to see it up close, it offers some of the most dramatic landscapes, the clearest water, and some of the most colorful flora and fauna in the world. I visited the island in March of 2008, and it did not disappoint, for nature or for thrills.
My first steps onto the Phi Phi Don dock were somewhat disappointing. Tonsai Bay, usually crystal clear in pictures, was so full of long tails (local fishing boats that are used to transport tourists from place to place) that you couldn’t even see the water. Traffic in and out of the bay was so heavy that a thin oily film floated on the surface, and the smell of petrol filled the air. The tsunami had certainly not hurt tourism. The main beach, which had been heavily populated with palm trees before the disaster, was now completely flat with no vegetation. Developers were taking advantage of the change, busily erecting waterfront shacks on stretches of beach that were once reserved for palm groves. The town was abuzz with the clinging and clanging of building construction, much work remaining to be done before re-construction was complete. I was thankful that I had reserved a bungalow on the far side of the island, away from the tourists and the noise.
I hailed a long tail and got transported to the other side of the island, where my bungalow awaited. Upon arrival, I was immediately relieved. The resort was located in a valley surrounded by high-rising limestone cliffs, bordered by nothing but thick jungle. The bungalow was a bamboo shack with running water for a shower and a small light dangling from the ceiling. It would do. This was the Phi Phi I had been waiting for, displaying the lush, jagged topography of Southern Thailand, where the silence was disturbed only by the chirping of the birds and the whispering of the wind.
The following day I hiked to Tonsai Bay, traveling along a dirt path that connected one side of the island to the other. I was determined to rent a kayak and paddle across the channel dividing Phi Phi Don and Phi Phi Ley, the smaller island due south at about three or four miles distance. That was where “The Beach” was filmed. While the larger island was somewhat spoiled by excessive development, the other was completely untouched, being a national park. I heard stories about Phi Phi Ley — Monkey Beach, Maya Bay, the Viking Cave, all these treasures awaited me only a short distance from the shores of Tonsai bay. As soon as I made it through the jungle I ran straight over to the nearest kayak rental and had a talk with the owner. I arranged to rent the kayak for the afternoon, and he sent me on my way.
As I headed offshore, I was totally psyched. So psyched, in fact, that I forgot to check the sky. As I paddled along the peninsula that jutted out of Phi Phi Don towards the south, I carelessly admired the wild coastline and the little hidden coves that revealed themselves every now and then. I had no reservations about my little escapade, remembering the reassuring words of a Swedish tourist I’d met near Phuket who told me that he had paddled across the channel in about twenty minutes. But then I looked up, and saw dark clouds rolling in. It was now mid-March, approaching the beginning of the rainy season, and it was not uncommon to see violent storms rip across the sky in a matter of minutes, winds howling and torrents of rain cascading down from above. I didn’t want to believe it, though. I’d already paid for the boat, and I wasn’t going to miss out on the natural wonders awaiting me. So I forged ahead, hoping the storm would pass as quickly as I had seen happen so many times since the beginning of my trip. But it didn’t. As I approached the end of the peninsula and saw the open water of the channel stretching out before me, a sinking feeling crept into my stomach, and I began to have second thoughts. The waves were growing, the winds were beginning to pick up and I was paddling against the tide. Turning back was starting to sound like a good idea, but I simply couldn’t let myself. It would pass, I thought.
Just as I approached the end of the jutting cliff and was mentally preparing myself to begin the crossing, a gigantic ferry crossed my path, leaving a ten-foot wake behind it. I braced myself, being cornered between the ferry and the rocks, and as the kayak floated over the crest of the wave I felt my stomach leap into my throat like I was on a roller-coaster. The wave passed and I sat stunned, clutching my paddle in my trembling hands. When I had finally mustered up the courage to continue paddling, I began inching my way towards the two-mile stretch of open water. But a second ferry surged into view, cutting me off once again. Another wake roared by, leaving me even more frightened. While most people would probably have seen these as signs that this was a trip for another day, I shrugged off my fears and just kept paddling.
Now I entered the open channel. The storm showed no signs of letting up. In fact, just as I began praying for it to pass over me quickly, it started raining and the wind picked up. This really was not my day. Thick dark clouds loomed overhead, looking very foreboding. In retrospect, I don’t know why I persisted, aside from blind hope that somehow the sun would rip through the veil of clouds and bring me a beautiful, calm day in paradise.
The waves were much bigger out in the channel. The wind had churned up quite a swell, and I was paddling cross-current. Each stroke was becoming more and more exhausting, and before long the current had become so strong that I was paddling on one side only. Waves battered my boat, and every now and then a six or seven foot wave would threaten to flip me and I’d have to make a desperate sweep stroke to turn the nose of the boat into it. It was seconds before the current would push me back in the opposite direction, forcing me to wrestle with it just to go straight. I knew this was bad, not only because it made paddling twice as tiring but because I knew that if I didn’t paddle strong enough I might find myself drifting out into the Andaman sea, completely helpless. I had now been paddling as hard as I could for the past twenty minutes, and was about half-way across the channel. For the first time all day, a deep fear gripped me, and I started praying for God to get me out of this mess. Everywhere I looked the sea raged on mercilessly, leaving me no choice but to keep going. I could see Phi Phi Ley through the mist and the rain, but it wasn’t getting larger very fast.
I was beginning to lose hope when I suddenly caught a glimpse of a long tail on my right that seemed to be moving closer. Before long they were along side me, calling out to me through the howling wind. “Do you need help?” yelled a voice. “Yes!” I answered, concealing my joy out of embarrassment.
I pulled up along the side of the long tail, threw my gear onto the deck, stood up on my kayak and jumped into the other boat. Two European men, one older and the other in his thirties, helped me heave the rental onto the deck. We lodged it in between the seats and the bow, and I sat down next to them and their wives, sighing with relief.
As it turned out, these were German tourists who had rented a long tail for the day and headed over to Phi Phi from Koh Lanta, an island fifteen miles south-east of where we were. As they’d approached the island in the storm, they’d seen me struggling to make it across the channel and decided to see if I needed a hand. I thanked them for saving my life. “Yes, this is very dangerous what you were doing, no?” asked the older lady. I told her about my unreliable Swedish friend and his account of his own crossing, which had motivated me to embark on my own cross-channel expedition.
We finished crossing the channel, introducing ourselves to each other, and they told me about their program for the day. They were planning to make a trip around Phi Phi Ley, making short stops at each of the well-known spots. They offered to take me along with them, and then to drop me off at the main island when they had completed their circumnavigation. I thanked them again.
As we approached the rocky shores of Phi Phi Ley, I realized how lucky I was to have been picked up. Waves were crashing against the rocks relentlessly; any kayak would have probably been smashed into them and its occupant would have had to abandon ship. I knew I would never have made it safely if I hadn’t received any help. The driver, a local Thai man, steered the boat into a small pass between two steep cliffs which opened out into one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen in my life. It was a little lagoon, almost completely enclosed by limestone cliffs with twisted trees growing out of their faces. The water was a dark turquoise and you could see the flourishing coral just a few feet beneath the surface.
As we slowly chugged into the lagoon I couldn’t believe how calm the water was. The cliffs surrounding us provided shelter from the raging seas just beyond them, seeming to conceal their hidden treasure from the glaring eyes of the outside world. It was like drifting into a paradisaical dream. There were a couple of other boats floating around inside, but we basically had the place to ourselves. The two men helped me get back in the kayak so I could paddle around the lagoon and get a closer look at the little nooks and crannies it was hiding. As I settled myself into the seat, a feeling of complete serenity came over me. Just minutes before I had been panic-stricken and helpless, praying for my safety. Now here I was, completely protected, floating over beds of coral in crystal clear water right out of a movie. I paddled from one end of the lagoon to the other, letting the boat drift into the little coves where long tails couldn’t go. Here, I sat in silence, my paddle stretched across my lap as I gazed at the little colorful birds playing amongst the branches above me.
Soon, my companions were ready to leave, and we all climbed back into the long tail. They helped me pull the boat back onto the deck, and we continued to travel around the island. We made a few short stops along the way, passing by the Viking Cave, snorkeling along the shores of Monkey Beach, and taking a brief look at Maya Bay, the famous “Beach,” which was unimpressive in the gloomy light of the storm. We carried on, crossing the channel and arriving just in time for me to return the rental. They helped me unload the boat, and I asked them how much I owed them. They shook their heads and waved their hands, saying they wouldn’t accept any money, but I insisted. They stubbornly refused, so I thanked them once more for saving my life, and went on my way, navigating through the forest of long tails that were lined up along the beach. I beached my boat and dragged it triumphantly up shore as though everything had gone as smooth as silk. I think the owner was relieved to see me safe, though he didn’t say anything. Neither did I. As I walked away, I couldn’t help but feel relief at the sight of solid ground beneath my feet. “That was a close one,” I thought, waving goodbye to my German friends as their long tail chugged out of sight.