The Phi Phi islands in Thailand
His eyes dart anxiously behind me, checking if anyone is watching us. “Promise not to use my name,” says the owner of a tourist stall in the heart of the busy labyrinth of alleyways on Phi Phi Don island, in the Andaman Sea in Thailand.
“If they find out I have been talking to you there will be problems — big problems.”
I confirm I’ll withhold his name. Reassured, he continues: “The Phi Phi Islands are being ruined. There are four or five families in charge who do not care for the islands. They just want to make money. They are building more and more hotels and guesthouses. It is getting too crowded.
“The sewage system can’t keep up and doesn’t work properly. Rubbish is dumped in empty lots. There are electricity blackouts. Coral reefs have been destroyed by ferries swirling up sand, and by tourists walking on them. It’s all getting way, way out of control.”
All is not well on the Phi Phi Don and Phi Phi Ley, two of the most picturesque islands in the whole of South-East Asia — so picture-postcard perfect that Phi Phi Ley, the smaller of the two and a marine reserve on which no building is allowed, was selected two years ago as the setting for the film of The Beach, the screen version of Alex Garland’s eponymous book.
Since then, tourists have flooded to see the islands, staying at the wide, and rapidly growing, selection of cheap digs on Phi Phi Don, a 15-minute boat ride north of Phi Phi Ley. During this period the atmosphere on the island has been totally transformed, say long-time locals, who seem bewildered at the pace of change.
“It used to be so quiet here. It was why I came. Now there are bars playing loud music until four and five in the morning,” bemoans another stall owner, also fearful of being named. She points out that Thai law states that such premises should close at 2am. But they don’t.”
The phenomenal success of Garland’s book and 20th Century Fox’s adaptation has had an enormous impact on the Phi Phis as well as other islands in the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand. Its theme – the search for the “perfect”, isolated, white sand beach – struck a resounding chord with gap-year travellers setting off to see the world around this time each year.
On the upper deck of the slow, chugging ferry from Phuket to Phi Phi Don, I can sense the excitement of the large group of twentysomethings about to get their first glimpse of the now world-famous islands.
More than a million people, a record, visited last year – prompting the head of the local police, overwhelmed by the sheer volume of travellers and the strain on the islands infrastructure, to suggest closing the Phi Phis for two years while municipal improvements were made.
“Everyone wants to find the ultimate beach”, says Merryn Alderidge, a 20-year-old student from Sydney, as Phi Phi Ley’s rugged outline takes shape in the distance. The film makes you want to come and see for yourself what it’s like. But it also makes you want to go and find your own ‘ultimate’ beach.”
She pauses, before turning philosophical. “Then again, like the film says: what exactly is a ‘perfect’ beach or holiday destination? What’s the definition?”
For Phi Phi Ley, where Leonardo DiCaprio et al did their turn (some locals now call it Phi Phi Leo), it is Maya Bay, where the beautiful beach and clear turquoise waters are almost entirely enclosed by dramatic volcanic rock cliffs draped in thick, dark green jungle foliage.
When my day-trip boat turns into the bay, however, we’re in for a shock. Fifteen boats have dropped anchor ahead of us and 100 or so holidaymakers are taking pictures on its sands. In the water, dozens of snorkel tubes poke upwards and flippers splash away as others follow the brightly coloured fish feeding on the bays coral reef.
“So much for peace and isolation”, says Kathyrn Orr, 22, from Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire, travelling with her friend Sarah on a nine-month backpacking tour. “But it is still really lovely here”, she adds.
It’s not so lovely on the beach itself. While our group snorkels, I kayak to the sands with Ko Pitisak, our guide, to find piles of rubbish left uncleared.
There are empty water bottles, long-lost flip-flops, old suncream tubes, pieces of scrap wood, empty diesel cans, a deflated football. It’s a complete mess, an issue I later raise with Manop Kongkhaoreap, head of the local council.
He tells me that the debris is cleared at the end of the rainy season in mid-October (I’m visiting just before then). Other locals, as usual not wishing to be named, say it is often like this.
“I wish they’d have bothered clearing the trash”, says Andrea Coppage, a 19-year-old student from Baltimore in the United States, sitting with her legs in the shallows.
Back on the boat, Ko hands out slices of bread for snorkellers to feed the fish. This is disruptive to a reef’s ecosystem, as it draws fish away from corals – so why is he doing it?
“It is not bad, as a lot of the coral is dead, he says simply”. Why is it dead? “Because there are so many tourists here”, he explains, with Alice-in-Wonderland-esque logic. “They step on the coral and touch it, and it dies. I tell them not to, but I can’t stop everyone.”
It’s a similar problem facing those overseeing the building of hotels, guesthouses, restaurants and bars on Thailand’s many, increasingly popular, tourist isles: how, when there’s money to be made, do you preach restraint?
On the mainland I meet one high-ranking tourist official – even he is afraid to be quoted by name – who is unsure of the answer: “Local people on Phi Phi, how can I say, have limited judgment. They are happy to let the developers do their thing. There is very little control.”
But Anupharp Thirarath, director of the southern office of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, says there are plans for Phuket and Crabi province officials to discuss ways of limiting the rapidly burgeoning development. “Closing down the island is just an idea,” he says. “Another is for the Government to buy all the land from the private owners. But these are just proposals – not anything that’s really likely to happen.
So, for the time being, the developers appear to have the green light as is only too clear on my visit. Past the new 7-11 grocery store at the end of Phi Phi Don’s pier, workers are hammering steel supports into the frames of two new hotels that stretch almost all the way across the thin strip of land between the two beaches making up Ao Ton Sai, the island’s main town.
Elsewhere, there are piles of breeze blocks in almost every empty site, waiting to be carted off for new buildings. I book into Jong’s Guesthouse, a five-minute walk from the pier (£11 a night with air conditioning and your very own cockroach), and discover it has been open nine months. “Business (is) very good”, says Supamon Siripat, the general manager.
Like other guesthouses it has several computers with internet connections but no flushing toilets. Along almost all Ton Sai’s alleyways there is the whiff of sewage.
A man running one of the main travel agencies near Jongs tells me that the islands still have “a huge amount to offer”. There are, he says, still many good coral-diving sites, quieter resorts away from Ao Ton Sai and better nightlife than on many islands. However, he too is critical of the growth created by The Beach.
“The local authorities are not doing enough. There is not enough control,” he says (yet again asking to remain anonymous), “and I believe that the central Government is also not doing enough. The Phi Phis have become a symbol of how tourism is not working.”
When I put this to the council leader Manop Kongkhaoreap, who runs a hotel and a supplies company in Ao Ton Sai, he deflects the point. “More tourism is good for local people,” he says. “It’s all good for business. Very good for business.”
It’s a mantra repeated over and over by those making the best living out of The Beach boom: “more tourists…more money…good business.”
But as the many anonymous voices of the Phi Phi islands are asking: will it still be good business when the jungle has been cut back to make way for all the higgledy-piggledy hotels and guesthouses in years to come?
The man running the travel agent is certain: “No. No it won’t. Not in the long run. It can’t be.” He pauses, and fixes my gaze – with a look I’ve become familiar with on the Phi Phis. “But please, sir, please do not use my name.”
First published in The Times, November 9 2002