Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Paradise in infrared: The Beach revisited...

Home of the Beach: Hollywood got there first…

Arriving at Phi Phi (pronounced as you would number onesies to a little child) is like arriving on the set of the biggest movie ever made with shooting starting the next day. The set is spectacular, sheer limestone cliffs rising on one side framing a bay that is speckled with boats of every shape and size, from giant cruise liners and perilously fast speedboats to hundreds of traditional Thai long-tailed boats criss-crossing the luminous lime green water, all only narrowly avoiding collision with each other. It all has the atmosphere of carnival, except on the pier they’re shouting, roll up, roll up, pay your twenty baht (about six euro) before they’ll allow you entrance.­­ These Thai pier workers are aggressive and unwelcoming as if they realize that regardless of how civil they are people will still be arriving here in droves. And that’s because Phi Phi Don is the jumping off point for the island of Phi Phi Lay, it’s beautiful sister island whose jagged outline rose out of the turquoise ocean for hundreds of feet as we approached, by now infamous home of the film starring Leonardo di Caprio, The Beach.

As we came ashore the sky flashed a quick but intense rain shower, a foretaste of the coming rainy season, but everything cleared off and dried up in no time. Met on the pier, to get to my hotel I was led through a Thai market which solidified my vaguely forming opinion that in Thailand things are not separated off into neat little packages: it is what it is – they don’t try to beautify what is ugly. Religion, for instance, isn’t something found in the separate location of a church, there are temples and shrines literally everywhere: in the middle of markets (Jesus wept), next door to government buildings and in the major functioning shrines and temples like Wat Pho in Bangkok (home of the fabulously relaxing Buddha) there is no conflict in the Thai mind between being open for the business of tourism and still functioning as a place of worship.

This applies to the realm of food as well, as for every beautiful smell of grilling meats and fondant spices you are likely to sniff in a Thai market there are an equal (if not greater?) number of malodorous stenches arising from the bowels of the earth that in the west could simply not go together. For someone trying to get over a six day bout of Montezuma’s (or the Thai equivalent) revenge, this was really overwhelming, the encroaching heat doesn’t help and soon you wish for the enclosure of your air-conditioned room.

But you can’t stay inside for long. The lure of the tropical Hollywood film set island calls. I thought of trying to avoid the crowds and enquired about renting a long-tailed boat (and driver!) and head out to Phi Phi Lay before sun up but the price as astronomical and so I decided to go with the rest of the ‘audience’ and do a regular snorkeling tour, for which I would valiantly trade a snorkel for my camera. So bright and early next morning I met with my tour group who were already bobbing about in a long-tail and we set off into the bay in the direction of Phi Phi Lay, along with, in various modes of vessel, the supporting cast of Ben Hur and Cleopatra combined.

The ride out there was extraordinary.

Armed with my already-ingested mega-dose of travel sickness pills I was feeling very nice as we tore through the aqua sea, limestone cliffs rising up around us like great sea creatures from journey to the center of the earth.  Once out of the bay the open sea quite intense, my twin concern being for my camera as huge splashes as the boat hit the oncoming waves threatened to soak it completely and also the little girl beside me who was with her father (I think they were Scandinavian) with nary a life jacket in sight. This casualness with child safety with which I have been having a particularly hard time since arriving in Thailand is not something I have witnessed much in the west, there being laws to say what you can and can’t do with children. In Thailand let’s say these laws are notable by their absence and children, babies are piled onto mopeds with both their parents and extended family, and of course any kind of helmets or protection is non-existent.

But here on the ocean I am soon distracted by the extraordinary beauty around me as we pull into the most amazing cove of crystalline water where the water is so clear it seems as if the boats are floating in air.  I am in photographer’s paradise once again.
I am now deeply entrenched in my Buddhist stance of accepting The Now and disassembling any expectations of what Hollywood has built up around the idea of the perfect beach that was captured in that film, the takings from which has probably added substantially to Thailand’s GNP. You remember the first time di Caprio comes out from the jungle onto that pristine beach, the white sand disappearing into the turquoise wash, the perfectly enclosing rim of giant limestone megaliths (surely that makes a lagoon?) strewn with jungle green abutting a perfectly sky-blue sky? When we arrived by boat into Maya bay it was like the day before the shoot with a technical crew of hundreds and a cast of thousands as audience.  People nevertheless did jump overboard and join the hundreds of other snorkelers.

Hopefully the pictures will speak for themselves…

Phi Phi Ley, Long-tailed boat view

Sailing to Paradise

One of the coves on Phi Phi Ley

The Beach, infrared

My legs on The Beach, Phi Phi Lay, Thailand

Long-tail boatman, Maya beaach, aka The Beach

The Dutch girls in the long-tailed boat, on the way to Phi Phi Lay, Thailand

Sheer cliffs of Phi Phi Lay, Thailand

After the swim
Maya Beach, aka 'The Beach', Phi Phi Lay, Thailand

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