Ko Phi Phi, destruction of a paradise

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I took a boat from Ao Nang to Ko Phi Phi. The ferry trip was a beautiful journey on its own: those sheer rocks of the Andaman Sea, standing in the ocean like fierce soldiers who proudly endured hard times.

These typically Asian rock formations actually overcome time itself. It makes me wonder what they were before, what they were part of. Could they be the last bricks of what was once an island? Could that be the ground on which old civilisations built their lives? What people had set foot on those grounds, and what would they feel about its transience?

I like to daydream about old cultures, but these limestone rock formations were probably not inhabited. They are actually the result of a turbulent geological history, where earthquakes, erosion, tectonic movements and volcanic activity played the main role. (Source)

Transience. It probably saved this landscape. It turned them into beautiful solid rocks that are impossible for mankind to access. And so they remain unreachable beauties to witness only from a distance. What happens when such beauty becomes accesible? Easy: just watch the case of the Phi Phi islands.

From far away they look like jewels: sea water like blue curaçao liquor, beaches of mesmerizing beauty, stretched out jungles rich of wildlife. Still, I was afraid of what I would find when coming closer to famous Ko Phi Phi.

Arriving at Tonsai pier, it was a chaotic coming and going of tourists with big and small suitcases, ferry transfers, taxiboats and people in line to pay the island taxes. More than 1000 visitors a day arrive on Ko Phi Phi, a number that leaves out all the tourists arriving directly onto the beach instead of going through the Tonsai pier.

The year 2000 has been the start of a fast process of development and overdevelopment. When did this got out of control?

First wave of destruction: The Beach

Ko Phi Phi is where the famous film The Beach was shot, about hiding away in an untouched tropical paradise. Funny enough, while the film bears a clear message about tourism and overdevelopment, the film actually helped to accelerate the process in Ko Phi Phi. After returning to a more developed island, Richard’s thoughts (played by Leonardo di Caprio) are: “[…]I just wanted to leave again. In one moment I understood more clearly than ever why we were so special, why we kept our secret. Because if we didn’t, sooner or later, it would turn into this. Cancers, parasites eating up the whole world.”

The filmmakers must have foreseen what subsequently would follow the movie. The map in the movie shows a different location, but the real location was easy to find within the credits.

Map of The Beach

The Phi Phi Islands are in fact an archipelago in the Andaman sea, and not anywhere near to Ko Samui and Ko Phangan. When the location scouts of the movie found these islands, it must have been truly like paradise. Before the movie was made it was still a secret among the most adventurous of travelers. It wasn’t nearly as easy (or cheap) to reach as it is now.

Maya Beach lies in a bay of Ko Phi Phi Lee, one of the inhabited islands of the Phi Phi islands. This is where the characters of The Beach thought to find absolute freedom. “Men and women with ideals” who wanted to break free from society. The movie explores the theme of mass tourism and loss of “the real thing” in an extremely clever way. It is extremely disappointing to learn that the filmmakers did not seem to share those same ideals.

Fox Studio’s managed to have official approval to film in Maya Bay, a national park (!) by the Royal Forestry Department, an institution that is supposed to protect the national parks of Thailand. On top of that, RFD approved Fox Studio’s request to apply some “temporary” changes to Maya Bay: removing 10 meters of dunes, removing original vegetation and planting 60 palm trees.

How could the RFD have succeeded in approving all of this? Speedboat heading to Maya BeachArticle 16 of the National Park Act stated that the act was designed “to protect and conserve existing natural resources such as plant species, forest products, animals, and including the landscape, forests and mountains, so that they remain in their original state, not to be destroyed or changed, for their continuing benefit of the state and the people both directly and indirectly.” Sneaky Article 19, however, states: “Provisions of Article 16 is not applicable to officials whose work is for the benefit of the protection and conservation of national parks or for educational purposes or for academic research or for the convenience of tourists and for shelter, or for providing safety or knowledge to the people

Easy game: RFD allows Fox Studio’s to change Maya Beach by recalling on the fact that it improves a tourist attraction, as defended in Article 16. Also, the movie would be a great way to promote Thailand’s beauty. In return, RFD received a considerate amount of money from Fox Studio’s to invest in several environmental projects. (Sources: here and here)

Second wave of destruction: mass tourism

Do I need to say more? Of course did Ko Phi Phi not need any promotion: her charm already did the work. After The Beach, Ko Phi Phi is faced with the film’s prophecy: the island attracts way more tourists than it can handle, especially the kind looking for the three S’s, sun, sand and sea.

Hiding away in a resort

Ko Phi Phi is adapting to this type of tourists and I was stunned to see how easy it was to fall in such pattern myself. I got to the resort that I booked by taxiboat, and I never left the resort until the third day. I almost felt like I was reliving The Beach myself, as the resort turned out to be a close community of the Thai and Birmese people who worked there, as well as an eccentric expat living in the resort since many years. He was able to describe Ko Phi Phi’s state in two words: “Game over”, the same words Leonardo Di Caprio pronounces at the end of The Beach. In fact, he avoided to leave the resort as much as possible. When I went out at night, I understood why.

A dark path laid out over the rocky cliffside of the island and tree roots stairways led me from one beach to the other, as I passed through one resort after the other. The expat had agreed to guide me and my friends to Tonsai village. “But I will bring you just until the edge. I can’t go further.” he said.

He left us just before the chaos. Straight ahead, then left, then right, and we were in the middle of it. Layers of music from different directions, buckets of cocktails and loud people who lost their articulation ability. It was a big reunion of western people partying like there was no tomorrow. The locals did not party along: they were working to keep the party going, standing behind the bars or offering people who really needed it a taxi boat. It looked like a strange type of segregation in which I did not feel comfortable at all.

Another thing that struck me was the trash. The famous buckets scattered everywhere, alcohol spilled on bar seats.Limestone rock formation If tourists come here to “get wasted”, they obviously won’t have any consideration of the waste they leave around. Ko Phi Phi in fact deals with a big problem of trash and the island tax has been introduced to preserve the environment. The tax is said to be going to a company that hauls a part of the daily 25 tonnes of trash the island produces (40 tonnes in high season), but voices say much of the money disappears in very different pockets. (source)

I can see the locals’ dilemma. A lady was selling souvenirs at a stand. A tall guy, American or European, walked by singing loudly and put an arm around her. “Hello! Everything good here?” The lady smiled at him as she awkwardly tried to get rid of his arm, saying: “You want buy?” He mumbled something and walked away. “What do you think of this? Do you like so many tourists?”, I asked her. She smiled with a look in her face as if she couldn’t say what she really was thinking. After all, a tourist was asking her these questions. Eventually she replied, “Yeah, it is good for business.”

It is true. Ko Phi Phi’s economy depends for a great deal on tourism.

Third wave of destruction: tsunami

Yes, the third wave of destruction was quite literally… the 6 meters high wave of the tsunami at one side of the island, and the 3 meters high wave at the other side, destroying thousands of lives in 2004. The natural tragedy would soon turn into an economic tragedy as well: besides the great grieve of loss of family members, the locals also had to cope with the destruction of their resorts and restaurants. Just when the tourists were needed mostly, they stayed away.

At this point we can ask ourselves: is it desirable for the Thai islands to entirely depend on tourism? If they depend on resorts more and more, it becomes a very unilateral economy. And it is also clear how tourism does not help the environment at all. In order to build resorts, a lot of trees are being cut without overthinking the consequences. A Thai woman who survived the tsunami states in an article“Trees saved our lives. Without them, I wouldn’t have lived. Those who died were those who could not hold on to trees,”

I think the answer could not be clearer than that.▪

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