Koh Phi Phi, Thailand’s faded party paradise

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.

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Pinch me, I’m in paradise
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You can’t visit Phuket market without sampling a pick ‘n’ mix bag of fried insects!

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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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The views from the top are still spectacular
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Feeding the locals
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Artist at work in his studio on Phi Phi

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An (almost) untouched paradise: the gorgeous Gili islands

I have been wedged between my boyfriend and a sweaty stranger, my bare thighs sticking uncomfortably to a plastic seat, for almost 3 hours. The window nearest to me stubbornly refuses to open more than a crack and the colour of most of the passengers faces combined with the relentless rocking of the stiflingly hot boat explains the pervasive smell of vomit. A wooden dock comes into view finally, and the overloaded boat slows down to moor beside it; exquisite turquoise water lapping at its sides. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief before the captain calls out, ‘Lombok.’ Around half the passengers scramble to the exit, leaping from the side of the boat into the cool, clear water, bags in tow as the rest of us groan in our seats, reluctantly moving over as a new load of passengers embark. Apparently this is not a direct service to Gili Trawangan island I grumble to my boyfriend reminds me of that classic paradise found, paradise lost movie The Beach. Remember the beach was a bloody faff to get to, but it was worth it in the end he points out. I decide not to mention that most of the characters in that movie ended up dead.

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Aerial view of the Gilis: Air, Meno & Trawangan

Another sweaty hour later the boat finally docks at Trawangan. As we walk up the jetty and onto the island I forget all  about the hellish journey that seems to have brought us to another world in another time. Colourful horse-drawn carts, or cidomo, trundle down dirt tracks, carting tourists and supplies past open store fronts and beach bars, passing under decorative umbrellas suspended overhead. There are no proper roads on the island and so no motorised vehicles. It’s a relief from the chaotic mess of taxis and motorbikes back on the mainland in Kuta, however we soon realise Gili T has a madness all its own. We dodge cyclists and jump out of the way of the horses, their drivers incessantly honking their little plastic horns. But as we venture away from this bustling drop-off point the crowds disperse and the ‘road’ becomes practically empty save a few locals.

We discover our hostel tucked down a dusty side road, the Woodstock home stay, where we check into a wooden bungalow nestled in greenery by a shady pool. This place is a peaceful haven, away from the bustle of the harbour, run by a super chilled German lady and a handful of friendly locals. Each bungalow is named after a classic band or singer:  Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix or in our case, The Who. We try a plate of delicious mie goreng (Indonesian fried rice) and fresh watermelon shakes as we sit by the pool, petting the resident cats.

The quickest way to get around the island is by bike, with the island only 3km long and 2km wide you can get from one side to the other in less than 20 minutes. The Woodstock home stay offers free bike hire and we head inland, over dusty tracks and scrubby, undeveloped patches of land. The locals eye us curiously as we pass. It seems that unlike other popular island hot spots, such as Koh Phi Phi which has been all but destroyed as a result of over-development, pollution and too many tourists, the Gili islands still remain relatively obscure and untouched, though sadly this is bound to change. For now the tourist scene is confined solely to the beaches on the edges of the island. But venture further inland and the heart of the island lies quiet and unexplored, reserved for the locals leading a simple life, unmoved by the steadily growing tourist presence and building sites cropping up around the tiny island.

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Making friends with some little locals
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A couple of dollars for a huge plate of food at the popular night market
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Local fisherman at the harbour

We have dinner at a beach restaurant, nestled on cushions in a little wooden hut. The restaurant is almost empty and we see only a few other tourists wandering around. Peaceful though it is, I am confused. Isn’t  Gili T supposed to be the party island of the 3? I wonder. This is high season, where is everyone? All becomes clear after dinner when we follow the road further around and find ourselves suddenly in the hustle and bustle of Trawangan’s main ‘strip’. Here, there are heaps more restaurants, bars, gelato stands and many a painted sign freely advertising ‘Bloody good magic mushrooms.’ It seems islanders have taken liberty with Bali’s strict drug laws. We decide to skip the shrooms and opt for the open air beach cinema instead. Tonights movie is, of course, The Beach. 

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Street to the moon anyone?

 

We wake early the next day (hard to sleep in with the island’s only mosque so close by, the reverberating call to prayer can be heard all over the island) and head off on a snorkeling trip. The clear, warm waters around the islands are perfect for spotting fish and turtles, just be careful if you opt for a lunchtime cocktail. Pretty wobbly legs after a Gili island ice tea, they don’t muck about with their measures! In the evening, it’s time to to see if Gili T deserves its title of party island. After a delicious plate of cheap eats at the night market we head straight to the infamous Sama Sama bar where we get talking to English Sam, who dreams of living a nomadic life in the Peruvian hills and Nora, his statuesque (6ft2), Californian girlfriend. After making the most of the ridiculously cheap cocktails the night passes in a blur of beer pong and pulsing music and we spend the next morning sweating out a pretty heavy hangover by the pool. But hey, there are worse places in the world to deal with a sore head! By the afternoon we have recovered enough to cycle over to the other side of the island where we perch on the famous Lombok Swing and watch a spectacular sunset over distant Mount Rinjani.

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The Lombok Sunset Swing (We had to queue up to get this shot!)
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Pina Coladas with a view over to Gili Meno

The next island on our itinerary is just a hop across the water. Gili Air is Gili Trawangan without the party, a favourite spot for couples. (Fun fact: ‘Air’ actually means ‘Water’ in Indonesian.) We check into the tranquil Toro Toro bungalows, tucked away down another little side road near the beach.(Of course, everywhere here is near the beach! Air is even smaller than Trawangan) This island is much quieter, sparsely scattered with tourists and here the roads are lined with seafood restaurants and beautiful hotels rather than bustling bars. The gorgeous white sand beaches are almost empty and the water is clear and unpolluted. Huge turtles swim lazily beside you in the shallows, only a few feet from the sand. Here, the locals go about their daily business, hauling their fishing boats out or loading building supplies onto the cidomo.

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Toro Toro Bungalows

This time we skip the bikes and explore the island on foot. It’s become second nature now to dodge the cyclists and horses charging down the tracks. We stumble across a cooking school and decide to try our hands at some Indonesian cuisine. We start with kelopon, sticky, coconut based desert balls which look like playdough (and kind of taste like it too.) We make delicious fried noodles, or nasi goreng, and a spicy peanut dipping sauce with crushed peanuts, palm sugar and chillies. So simple, but so tasty.
The days here are spent in typically indulgent island style, sunbathing, strolling around, taking lazy swims and eating everything we see; refreshing coconut gelato and the local specialty pepes ikan, spicy fish wrapped in banana leaf with fragrant rice.

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Gili Cooking Classes

On the last night we have dinner on the beach, the tables sat inches from the ocean, the surf lapping lazily around our ankles as we eat. One thing is certain, these idyllic islands were definitely worth the journey and I’d happily stay here another week, or a month, or maybe just build myself a little beach shack and live on island time forever! I’m sure I’m not the only one with the same idea though.. so word to the wise, check out the Gilis sooner rather than later. Something tells me this little patch of paradise won’t stay this way for long…

 

Travel Guide

Getting there: We booked through The Island hotel in Kuta, this included the bus to Padang Bai and the (very) slow taxi boat to the Gilis. Fast boats are available if you don’t mind spending a bit extra. Boats between the islands are quick, cheap and run often.

Where to stay:

  • Woodstock homestay, Gili Trawangan – super cheap, super chilled and in a great location. Definitely on my list of favourite hostels.
  • Toro Toro Bungalows, Gili Air (also confusingly known as Limitless hostel.) Good value, lovely bungalows, no pool but with the beach so close you won’t miss it!

What to do:

  • Anything that starts with an ‘S’: sunbathe, snorkel, shop, swim…!
  • Gili Cooking classes, from 275,000 Rupiah (about £14)
  • Eat at the night market
  • Watch a movie at the open air cinema next to Villa Ombok, for a couple of dollars you get a beanbag, free popcorn and drinks service
  • Take a photo on the famous Sunset Swing
  • Do yoga on the beach
  • Try a mushroom shake… (this one’s optional!)
  • Relax, you’re on island time!