I decided to come back to Thailand after my visa expired in Indonesia, mainly since my cousin Sveta was visiting from Russia and I thought it would be cool to meet up so far from both our countries and show her around Ko Lipe (where I’d already been). I conveniently forgot two little words that make all the difference in southern Thailand: high. season.
Actually, the major tourist destinations in Thailand divide the year up into as many as five different “seasons” – here’s an example. Late December into early January is considered peak season, meaning both prices and numbers of tourists are several times low season rates. My first two trips to the south of Thailand were in low season – June and September. Both times I found there to be quite enough tourists and remember thinking, if this is low season, I don’t want to see what high season is like. Well, now I’ve seen it… Never again.
Before moving on to some of the highlights of the past three weeks (despite the season, there have been several!) here are some general impressions of the places I’ve visited this time.
When I visited Ko Lipe at the end of November, it was almost too empty. Walking down “Walking Street” you were bombarded by endless cries of “Massage! You want massaaaage?” and hosts inviting you to dine at their empty restaurants. So I figured a few more people wouldn’t hurt.
Well, the island was full this time – apparently not as crowded as it had been on New Year’s, but I had to walk along the beach with my stuff after discovering the place I stayed last time (that doesn’t take reservations and has 30+ bungalows) was full. Most of the other accommodations were full or had a room available but only for one night, and I had to tell them exactly how long I wanted to stay so they could take other reservations after me. Frustrating. (I ended up moving back to my favorite place when they had space the next day.)
I wouldn’t say Ko Lipe felt overly crowded (it was still easy to find quiet stretches of beach and businesses were only crowded at peak times), but the type of people visiting Lipe in high season are almost entirely couples and families and short term visitors rather than travelers/backpackers, making it a hard place to meet new people. There were also a huge proportion of Russians. Apparently the Russian invasion is a recent phenomenon in Thailand, possibly related to changes in visa laws. All I know is that in the past three weeks, I’ve heard enough Russian that if I was blind and didn’t know better, I would think I was on the shores of the Black Sea rather than the Andaman.
So, while it was great to hang out with Sveta and her friends, after another six days on Lipe I was tired of feeling like a total anomaly as a solo traveler and got on a speedboat to Phi Phi (as the lone solo traveler…) knowing it would be a change.
Ko Phi Phi
I ended up having a good time on Phi Phi, but when I first arrived part of me wished I hadn’t come. As much as I craved some sort of “backpacker scene” after touristy Lipe, Phi Phi is pure chaos. Unrecognizable four and a half years after my first visit (which was in low season and before the island had fully recovered from the tsunami). The bars/businesses are all in different places, the town is about five times the size and there are even more times the number of people. While there were tons of Russians on Lipe, there were tons of, well, everyone on Phi Phi – Russians, Israelis, Swedes, Italians, Brits… only Americans seem smart enough to avoid the place these days.
The narrow streets are packed with pedestrians, with locals zooming around on bicycles and other locals wheeling tourists’ luggage around on metal carts, screeching “beep beep beep” every five seconds if they don’t have a bell. The beach I don’t remember hosting bars at all last time now becomes a mini Vegas/full moon party every single night, with mostly mediocre fire shows (compared to before), horrible blasting pop remixes (who decided Adele’s “Someone Like You” should be a dance song?) and an average age of 20. The music can be heard from almost anywhere in the main part of the island.
It’s almost fitting that my first experience back on Phi Phi was to finally arrive at the place I thought I had booked online (the one I’d stayed at last time for a fraction of the price) only to realize that there are now two different resorts with “viewpoint” in the name. I then had to walk back past a sewage treatment plant to an empty reservoir and up a bunch of steps to get to the right place. After a couple of nights there, when I spontaneously decided to stay one more, I had to switch rooms to one without air conditioning or hot water – for over $50 a night. It’s like they’re doing you a favor by having rooms available at all…
So I originally wanted to book a liveaboard diving trip to the Similan islands, but all the trips with Wicked Diving were fully booked and I decided I wanted to do a trip with them specifically. They did have space on a special trip to go lake diving at Khao Sok National Park, a place I always meant to visit. So I found myself passing through Khao Lak not to do the typical nearby dives but just as a stopping point before Khao Sok. I hung out a few days afterward to do some snorkeling and see what I was missing (I found it to be fine, but not spectacular, and the Similans to be much more touristed and accessible than I had imagined when I first heard about them).
Khao Lak itself is also overrun by Russians, although Swedes may still outnumber them here. It is full of resorts and the people who like to stay at those resorts (sometimes for weeks at a time). Unlike Lipe or Phi Phi, the beach isn’t much to behold, yet the resorts have sliced up the real estate so that a simple walk along the beach will have you trespassing on private guest-only property with no obvious way back to the main road. The food here is also some of the priciest and worst I’ve had in Thailand, catering too much to all the foreigners.
So, is that too much complaining about paradise? The past three weeks haven’t been all bad – far from it – but I’ll save the highlights for another post.