Thailand has always had a special place in my heart. For years I had dreamed of visiting this enchanting land of elephants, jungle fringed beaches and spicy noodles and when I finally did visit, it was my first taste of somewhere truly ‘exotic’. The first time I had ventured, completely alone, into the unknown. I was 22, fresh out of uni and keen to start teacher training. I knew I wanted to take a course in teaching English as a foreign language. I also knew I didn’t want to do that at home when there were so many CELTA courses on offer in countries all over the world.. Of course, I chose Thailand but instead of flying off to bustling Bangkok I chose a school in Phuket where, I reasoned, I could island hop and bum around on the beach on my days off.
This was one of the best decisions I’d ever made. Upon arriving in Phuket, I coincidentally connected with a French friend who was working on a nearby island. Ignoring my jetlag, we met up and immediately hired mopeds to explore historic Phuket Town and some nearby beaches. Sitting on the sand, watching the sun set with my first ice cold Chang and a bowl of something spicy and delicious I had a pinch me moment. Here I was, finally, in this beautiful, otherworldly country that had been on my wish list for so long. And I was here for 5 weeks.
My French friend assured me that the place to party in Phuket was Pattaya, an infamous party province. By this point I was ready to crash, my jet lag well and truly set in, but not wanting to miss a chance to party we took the mopeds along the winding coastal road to Pattaya. 10 hours later, after a blur of buckets, ladyboys and promises of ping pong shows, not to mention almost hammering a nail through my hand and a moped crash which involved a smashed set of front teeth (luckily not mine) I finally staggered into my hotel room and passed out. I had survived my first night. I managed to behave myself for the next month, settling for a couple of cold Changs in the evenings with my fellow trainees. But at the end of the course there was still a week left until Christmas and I was in no hurry to rush back home. And so, with my straight talking, Californian classmate Sara, we took a boat to the island on every backpackers itinerary, Koh Phi Phi.
Phi Phi was my ultimate destination of choice. I too wanted to follow in the footsteps of so many over-excited teenage girls and find the exact patch of sand where Leo DiCaprio had sat in The Beach. I wanted a piece of the paradise. I also wanted to party and had been informed that Phi Phi was the place to do it.
The island did not disappoint. From the moment I jumped out of the boat into the crystal clear water I was in love. The narrow streets were hectic, backpackers fresh off the boat hauling their luggage through throngs of people. A guy cycled past with a monkey dressed in a suit on his shoulder. Vendors called out to us, beckoning and smiling. I had never been anywhere like it. We spent the day exploring the island, taking in the lush scenery and lazing on the beach. A longboat trip took us to neighbouring Phi Phi Leh where I finally visited Maya Bay, snorkelled with turtles, fed wild monkeys, had a beach party in a private cove and swam with bioluminescent plankton. I was drunk on sensations (and a copious amount of cheap alcohol) and convinced that this island was paradise.
Pattaya had somewhat prepared me for the party scene of Phi Phi, but I hadn’t quite become hardened to the buckets. (Basically a small slug of energy drink mixed with an entire bottle of vodka in a bucket with a party straw.) And so it came to be that on my last night on the island we made our way to Slinky’s beach bar and from that point on the night became a blur. When I eventually sobered up enough to realise where I was, I found I was sitting waist deep in the sea with a South African guy talking about the meaning of life and watching the sun come up. I had a nasty gash on my foot. I had also lost my bag, (which I later found empty and discarded on the beach) and, undoubtedly, my dignity. I managed to drag myself up to our hilltop hostel where I found Sara asleep on a pool lounger. I had managed to lock us out and lose the keys. After breaking into our room we passed out and woke up with the worst hangovers known to man. I still don’t know what I got up to that night, and thats probably a good thing. But I was young and wild and if you can’t be stupid and irresponsible when you’re 22 then when can you? I’m still eternally thankful to Sarah for lending me money for a hotel room and cab to the airport the next day, not to mention some weird medicinal powder for my bloody, infected foot. And so I bid farewell to paradise and fly home for Christmas, dazed, hungover and with a doctor’s appointment for my foot (and probably my liver.)
4 years later, I come back to Koh Phi Phi. This time I am older, wiser and I’m not going anywhere near a bucket. I’m excited to show my boyfriend this crazy island eden where the waters are clear turquoise, the beaches beautiful, the people friendly and the nightlife wild. But the island is not as I remember it. Far from being an unspoilt backpacker’s haven, the beaches and streets are strewn with rubbish and evidence of last night’s debauchery. It is pouring with rain and the locals glare at us, not a hint of the famous Thai smile here. I locate the notorious Slinky’s beach bar which had been the starting point of our wild escapades, where I first saw a tattooed teenager walk a tightrope while juggling flaming batons, smoking a cigarette and drinking a beer simultaneously. The relentless rain has put a stop to the fire shows and the bar sits, dark and dingy, on the polluted beach. I realise that the island probably hasn’t changed that much at all, but that the younger me was seeing everything through rose tinted glasses, not to mention bucket goggles.
We leave the beach and hike up to the famous viewpoint, passing a sour faced woman at the bottom who snatches our proffered money as we pass. Giant, ugly hotel complexes have popped up around the island, large areas of bush bulldozed to make room for these monstrosities trying hard to ruin the once breathtaking views. I am confused and saddened. It seems Phi Phi really has lost its charm. Maybe, as many will tell you, it lost it decades ago. We don’t linger on the island, heading instead to Koh Lanta which, we are told, is still truly unspoilt. But as the boat speeds away from Phi Phi I still feel a familiar pang in my chest as I watch the island recede into the distance. It may not be what it once was, but the island will always remain special to me as my first taste of paradise, of reckless abandon and, when I’m old and grey, a reminder of what it felt like to be young, free and completely, wonderfully irresponsible.