Friday, July 23
Phi Phi Islands, Thailand
Since there's a pretty good chance I'll never travel through all of Southeast Asia again, I knew that if I left this area without snorkeling, I would kick myself when I got home, because some of the world's most beautiful aquatic spots are to be found here. So, at the crack of 9:00 a.m., I boarded a big boat with 20 other tourists and embarked on a lovely all-day snorkeling trip around both islands--Koh Phi Phi Don and Koh Phi Phi Leh.
The first stop on the itinerary was really just a cruise-by to view Viking Cave, where men climb up dangerously high, rickety bamboo scaffolding to collect bird's nests for use in Chinese medicinal soup. Our first actual swim went down at Loh Samah Bay, where we snorkeled from the boat across a really picturesque lagoon full of bright fish, rocks and corral to a big crevice set within a gigantic cliff face. We climbed up and over steep wooden stairs and sharp, painful rocks, followed by a short walk through a jungle, then finally emerged into the larger Maya Bay, where a movie called The Beach starring Leonardo DiCaprio was filmed in the late 1990s. The success of that movie brought worldwide attention to both Phi Phi islands and, unfortunately, helped turn them from a low-key, rustic backpacker haunt into a major tourist mecca.
A mantle-crushing amount of humanity fresh off of large tourist boats filled every square yard of Maya Bay's curved beach, which is composed of silky white sand and crystalline turquoise water. This absurd spectacle made it appear as if some sort of event was going on, but no, it was nothing more than a huge dose of some good ol' down home tourism. I tried snorkeling, but there wasn't really anything to look at other than sand. One of the kids who worked on my boat swam everyone's cameras over in a waterproof bag, but I couldn't find him for a while. By the time I did and shot some photos in Maya Bay, the crowd had thinned out a little bit.
As I swam back to the boat in Loh Samah Bay, I felt a little water enter my snorkel tube, so I panicked and ripped it out of my mouth so I could breathe some air. Then I discovered that the tube was missing. I was bummed because it was a rental and I'd have to pay to replace it. I looked all around the area above and below the water, to no avail. A few minutes after I sat down on the boat, another guy walked up and announced he had found part of a snorkel. Yay! It was mine. That was such an odd and unlikely coincidence, especially because he said it had floated pretty far away.
Next up came the small but spectacular Monkey Beach, where spider monkeys with incredibly animated faces devoured watermelon from tourists. The sand on this beach was composed of a very fine, white powder that, when it was wet, felt like clay. The water was clear as a bell, and the most brilliant shade of turquoise you could ever want or expect. Too bad I forgot my camera on the boat. Damn it! I was bummed. The snorkeling at this spot was very nice, as well.
A quick stop by Shark Point came next with a half-hour snorkel among some really odd-looking fish, including a really long, narrow, pointy one. I never did see a shark, though. As I swam back by the boat, someone threw some crumbs of food into the water, which caused a feeding frenzy among a school of small, yellow and green fish. I swam right through the melÃ©e as thousands of them formed an intensely colorful cloud in front of and all around my body, filling me with joy.
The best spot came last today as we took a several-mile cruise out to Bamboo Island for a one-hour visit to another tropical dream. This reef offered the best snorkeling so far with incredible rainbow-hued fish and bizarre creatures that looked like squiggly mouths and lived half buried in rock. Whenever I put my hand near them, they closed up like a shop. All of these lifeforms glowed with such a brilliant tropical irridescence that it was hard to take my eyes off of them.