29 June 2009

Let's Just Be Castaways, K?

Maybe I have been watching too much Lost, but the last few months I have become consumed with the idea of finding the perfect beach and just sitting there for weeks doing absolutely nothing. True enough, on Lost they are rarely doing nothing, instead always marching from one Dharma Station to another, drawing guns and going off to find Jack or Locke or Kate, but my favourite part of the show is when they just sit on their perfect beach and make food and hang out. This is what I am trying to achieve.

The perfect beach is a terrible thing to be looking for if you are on a budget. There is always a downfall to the beaches that we can afford, and the idyllic unspoiled ones are often monopolized by one resort at prices that would be scary to us even if we had jobs. So here we are, trying to find a balance.

We want:
a) no partying – I do not want to see another soul pounding back a bucket for as long as I live
b)quiet – no vendors or touts on the beach
c)a beautiful beach – clean, white sand and clear blue water
d)nothing to do – yes you heard me. Other than snorkeling and maybe a sea kayak I want to do nothing.

This is what happens. It's low season, so there is a lot to choose from at cheap prices – and it is for a reason. In the low season it rains heavily for a few hours each day, and that rain dredges up all of the silt in the water, muddying the normally crystal clear waters. Islands that are normally stunning revert to messy mudpuddles. Guesthouses normally sparkling with life become graveyards and close completely. Far flung islands shut down for the season, and old standbys like Lanta, Jum and Lipe are off the table.

So it was with a ton of research and stress that we finally agreed on an island – Ko Phi Phi Don.

I know what you're thinking – Ko Phi Phi? The crowded and outrageously expensive playground for the elite and cliched alike eager to set foot where Leo did in the Beach? For V and S? I know – it seems counterintuitive, but after a lot of searching we found Ao Toh Koh Bungalows. This little guesthouse is on a small beach located on the sparsely inhabited Eastern side of the island, accessible only by longtail boat. In the low season it is practically a private resort, famed for snorkeling, seclusion and the 'Summer Camp” feel amongst its guests. We were eager and excited to see our choice.

We left Phuket (my definition of hell) and 2 hours later reached the Phi Phi pier where the long tail boat sent by the guesthouse was waiting. The 30 minute ride took us past breathtaking karsts, long strips of pure white sand and clusters of beautiful bungalows nestled in the jungle- we were both giddy. And then we approached some kitschy looking huts atop a rock cliff. “Hey – those look cool!” S said. I elbowed him sharply.
“Yeah, but look at that disgusting beach.”

Moments later I felt the boat shift and slow down slightly. My eyes narrowed and I swung my head at S. “It's our beach. You. You made this happen.” I hissed. The boat slowly made its way to shore, which I could now see was bordered by a thick crust of barnacled rocks, dead coral and slimy little tidal pools. The beach itself was pure white sand, soft and powdery, but in the cloudy drizzle the water looked grey. Disappointment clouded my vision, and I could barely wai (a bow with hands held together at the heart) in return when meeting the proprietress.

Our bungalow was basic and tidy, and though was a steal for Phi Phi (500 Baht) something so simple would go for less than 300 on most islands, most likely with a discount due to the fact that it faced a jumbled pile of junk behind the restaurant. In a state of mopeyness, I drank 2 beers and ate some fries, watched 2 episodes of Lost and went to sleep, dreaming of their perfect Island beach.

Laying in bed the next morning, something amazing happened. “Get up.” S whispered from the door. After a few minutes of eye rubbing confusion, I popped my contacts in and went to the door. Through the tall palms I could make out the beach – which didn't look anything like it had the day before. The tide had come in and covered all of the muddy rocks, leaving just a narrow swath of bright white sand with achingly jewel blue water lapping at the shore. The shining sun covered the entire beach with golden rays, and the hammocks that had seemed unsightly and ill-placed the day before were now incredibly inviting.

A smile that threatened to split my cheeks crossed my face.

“Yay!!!” I said to S. Plans to find a better beach were put on hold, as we both decided that the gross state of the beach in the evenings was worth the amazing beach during the day. The plans to do nothing commenced.


Today I went for a swim in the warm sparkling ocean, drank 2 fruit shakes (and am about to have a beer), wrote, read a British Marie-Claire and a Rough Guide to the Philippines, ate some eggs and noodles, played about 20 games of Connect 4 with S and held a little puppy, unfortunately named Pu-Pu (S has had a field day with the combination of Pu Pu and Phi Phi). There are more things to do - a few Scandanavians and Germans athletically swam, sea kayaked and snorkeled around us, achieving their efficient Nordic vacation goals while I acomplished my lazy Canadian ones. There are 3 other people staying here – but our beach is so beautiful and the snorkeling is so good that a few small tour groups anchored here for a few hours. The food is good, and fruitshakes are plenty.

Most importantly – there is nothing that we can walk to from here. This is it. It feels nice to have escaped the tyranny of choice.

This is good.

But (and I always seem to have a but) there are some downfalls. For a place that charges up to 2000 Baht (50 bucks CAD) in high season there sure are a lot of junk and garbage piles around. It is pretty hard for my eyes to find calm tranquility when a scan of my surroundings reveals tarped up debris and empty buckets laying around (I am a big proponent of empty, clean surfaces in my house and yard– if there is junk – hide it! Construct a fence or area to store it. Put your clutter in cupboards or a shed– don't make me look at it.) Also not nice is the requisite high-tide run-off pond, which sits moldering and smelly for the 20 hours a day that the tide is not high enough to fill it. One last complaint, before I sound like the wanker to end all wankers? The longtail boats that parade past this beach every 20 minutes or so really seem to disrupt the reef and are LOUD.

But back to the bright side, we did change bungalows today, to one of the ones perched high on the cliff that S first saw when we were putting by. It has a lot of character, lots of stonework and hobbit-y bits inside and the view is unbelievable. There are even palms and bushes that obstruct the yuckiness of the beach when the tide goes out. How did we get an oceanview bungalow for the same price as the one we had yesterday?
It, erm, has no flushing toilet (you have to scoop water down the bowl because it has no tank) and no bathroom sink.

And that is the rub, I guess. If you plan and hope and envision too much, no destination will ever live up to your dreams (except for Paris and the Maldives. Seriously. Go to Paris. And the Maldives.) Building sky high expectations is fine, but don't be devastated when they are crushed by something as stupid as some barnacles and a self-flush toilet. Travel is about give and take – unless you pay huge bucks for a 5 star tranquil Balinese spa resort you are going to have to relent on something. Here, it is a rocky evening beach, bats swooping around my head in the restaurant (I didn't mention that part, did I?) and some junk piles. In Borneo maybe it will be rats, in Boracay maybe agressive bracelet sellers. And after all of the good things the bad stuff, I guess, is okay. It has to be.

We have 20 more days of beach laziness before heading to Brunei and I think a good 7 days of that will be spent here on Ao Toh Koh, and then maybe we will head to Railay and a few more islands. Which means that we will be back to the grind of research and stress trying to choose them. But this time I think we will be a bit more willing to give and take. I learned my lesson. Nothing is perfect – but some things come a bathroom sink's width of being damn close.

The cast of Lost never knew they had it so easy......

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