When I was 5 years old my mother brought home a young Thai woman from the university in my mid-west suburban town. My mother headed a volunteer program for international students where local families helped the students decode the subtleties of living in the US, provided friendship and a helping hand when needed. This woman marked the first of dozens of foreign students who would pass through my early life, each making a valuable impression. The woman’s name was Ot and she was mysterious and exotic. Because she was the first, she remains the cornerstone of my memories of these wonderful students. She smelled different, looked different, ate weird things and I was fascinated by her. The existence of Ot in my life at such an impressionable age steered my path towards a life of seeking out the small corners of the world and it’s people. Today, more than forty years later, Ot has passed on, her children have children and I am still exploring the planet in search of the mysterious and the exotic. Thank you Ot.
So finally I have come to Ot’s land, Thailand. However, it’s not the Thailand I expected, the Thailand of my dreams. The fault is mostly mine, I chose to make my first foray into the “land of smiles” via the mass tourism capital of SE Asia, Phuket. It’s not how I usually travel and now I know why.
The impressions of course, are only mine but if you are a traveler who seeks out true cultural experiences in exotic countries and looks to find the deeper layers of the people in places you visit move on from south Thailand. Here is what I found.
As passionate scuba divers, Ridlon and I headed straight for the diving areas of the country which exist off the southern peninsula and the islands just north of Malaysia. I knew that Phuket was touristy and yes, we arrived in the height of the season AND during the Chinese New Year. But I was still not fully prepared for what I found.
Arrival with the Masses in Phuket
We arrived at the airport in Phuket as one of a line of planes hefting tourists from across the globe, many from Russia and Sweden and massive numbers of Chinese. Waiting in line for immigration took the better part of an hour. Outside the airport was the usual busy Asia style airport with throngs of people boasting resorts, adventures and package tours. Fortunately, we were whisked off by a friend of a friend, the owner of a local dive shop and 45 minutes later were tucked away in a guesthouse on a busy street on Karon Beach. Karon is located just south of the busiest party area of Phuket, Patong Beach. However, the only way I could tell we had reached a different section of town was because we went over Karon Hill, otherwise it all looked the same to me.
Noisy with tourist buses and scooters and lacking actual Thai people, it was not the Thailand of my dreams. I saw a couple of beautiful temples hidden behind 7-11’s and seafood restaurants. I felt sorry for the monks I saw going through the gates and wondered if they were able to find any peace within the walls that were no barrier against the barrage of traffic noise just outside.
I reminded myself this was my choice of locations and secretly wished I had begun my travels in the northern countryside among small villages and quiet rice fields and Thai people not disillusioned with tourism.
Headed to Phi Phi Island
It was decided that Phuket would be the hub of our operations and we would “spoke” from there. Our first spoke was to head to Phi Phi island to sample the scuba diving. Again, Phi Phi is known to be a big party island but I felt I could somehow find some peace and quiet and meet some local people who would remind me of my tranquil friend, Ot.
We climbed aboard the fast ferry for the two hour trip to Phi Phi. As I looked around, I realized we were surrounded by ferries headed to the island, each boat stuffed to the gills with tourists. There was no place to sit except on deck as more and more people jammed their way onto the boat. I knew for sure we had at least double the number of people as we had life jackets on board. I understand now why ferries in Asia sink.
We had booked a hotel on the far side of the island to have some quiet but on arrival we found that the fee to take the small boat around the island would be 5x what we were told and we would need to take this boat back and forth a few times each day. So we opted to find another hotel which was a lengthy process.
This was not the Thailand of my dreams.
As we finally settled into a hotel I became a bit depressed about it all. I had never seen such mass tourism, such indifference from local people and businesses, such “cattle boating” as it were. The streets of Phi Phi were dingy and smelled heavily of old fish and sewage. I couldn’t find the charm here. In fact, I couldn’t really find anything attractive. As I sat on the beach one afternoon, I envisioned the beach without the hundred tourist boats, without the hotels and without the tourists. That vision was beautiful. I could see how it all began.
If, at this point in reading this post, you are thinking of never visiting Thailand now, please rethink. I just know there are beautiful places and beautiful people in this country of smiles, they just don’t reside any longer in this area of Thailand. Unless you are a 20 year old, simply Hell bent on nothing but the party and the hook ups, give this area a miss.
Scuba Diving in Thailand
We headed out the next day for some diving. Again, I was flabbergasted by the crowds. The dive boats jockeyed for position at the dock loading up hundreds of divers, most of them on a “try diving” excursion where the burned out dive instructors pushed them around like a wheelbarrow under the water, teaching them nothing about diving or the underwater world. It was a dunk and go show.
We had been recommended to a particular dive shop and showing up as three professional divers, we were given a small boat with just seven divers and one divemaster for the three of us. But try as we might, we couldn’t avoid the umpteen other dive boats hovering at each site we visited.
During our surface interval in between the dives, we cruised by Maya Beach, the one made famous by Leonardo DiCapprio in the movie The Beach. There were literally 40 speedboats lined up on the beach with hundreds of people on it. The effect, I realized was not just on my psyche but also on the environment. In the search for paradise, it had been trampled.
This was not the Thailand of my dreams.
The diving itself was just okay and not really memorable but I was glad to have seen the area and we did two more days of diving actually including a couple of nice dive sites about an hour away from Phi Phi Island where the beginners could not get to.
The Similan Islands of Thailand
In our search for the best diving of Thailand, we headed north for our next spoke to the Similan Islands near the Burma border. Fifteen years ago, the Similans were a place that few divers had been and was difficult to get to…and the diving was purported to be spectacular.
Now, there are daily speedboat tours to the island to snorkel and dive. We took a live aboard dive boat and for four days we checked out the best the area had to offer. The hard corals are mainly dead and the fish life is very sparse. Only a handful of dive sites can now be considered decent and only one can be considered excellent. Unfortunately, this dive site, Richeiliu Rock, daily sees about seven dive boats dumping over 200 divers on this tiny spit of soft coral paradise in the Andaman sea. At this rate, it won’t last long.
Koh Lipe Island~ South Thailand
Our next spoke was the “quieter” island of Koh Lipe. Koh Lipe is not an easy island to access, requiring about eight hours of ferry rides to the southernmost part of Thailand in the Andaman Sea.
Our experience is that yes, it is quieter but only by comparison to Phi Phi. Lipe now boasts over 50 hotels draping three beaches. The charm that I’m sure was once here has gone.
This was not the Thailand of my dreams.
Again, in all honesty, my decision on locations to visit for my first adventure in Thailand was based on my passion for diving over a passion for visiting the cultural aspects of the country and in two short weeks I could not see it all. In the end, I was glad to have seen the diving and to add the knowledge of these dive areas to my repertoire. But I know now that there is no reason for me to come back to dive here. Another part of this fragile world’s ocean has become victim to overfishing, overuse, abuse and apathy. But that’s food for another post.
I hope to return to Thailand in the future to visit the Thailand of my dreams, the one that Ot knew and loved. I hope to see the small villages, the rice fields, the tranquil temples, the quiet monks, the graceful Thai dancers, the happy people that filled my head at a young age more than four decades ago.
I know it exists here somewhere. When I find it, I will let you know.