We went for our pre-summer vacation to the tropical island of Phi Phi somewhere in the Andaman Sea between Krabi and Phuket (see the map below for a better orientation). Vietnam celebrates “Reunification” Day on April 30, marking the fall of Saigon in 1975, and International Labor Day on May 1. That means we in the embassy, who also observe local holidays, got a four-day weekend. Marjie and I chose to extend it through the end of the week, allowing us to get to Koh Phi Phi.
We went with some of our friends with the express purpose of diving. The last time I had been diving was in the Red Sea back in June 2005 when I hoped to find the sea filled with fish. Sadly, I didn’t and I hadn’t had an opportunity to dive since then. Marjie has also talked often about wanting to learn to dive, so going to Phi Phi right at the cusp of the low season where weather conditions conspire to limit visibility seemed like a no brainer.
We went with two of our friends, taking a stop in Bangkok on both ends of the Island experience. The last time I was in Bangkok, I was a backpacker, staying at The Atlanta Hotel down off Soi 2 Sukhumvit Rd. I used the Atlanta as my home base while I toured around S.E. Asia. I also dreamed about the next delicious meal I’d eat in their restaurant.
This time, we stayed elsewhere. We stayed at Aspen Suites, down off Soi 2 Sukhumvit Road … yes, just down the block from the Atlanta. This was Marjie’s first visit to the city, so she was excited. There was shopping to do and pad siew to eat. I was equally excited, though shopping was not my main motivator. The food was. Despite Hanoi’s proximity to Thailand, the food doesn’t cut the mustard. This is not to say Hanoi doesn’t have good food, that would be a lie because it does. Rather, I haven’t heard or tasted good Thai food in Hanoi. You can’t fool a native (our Thai friend) and unless you’re authentic, you can’t compete with the Thai restaurants in DC.
Luckily, our Bangkok-local friend and foodie, recommended Som Tum Nua at Siam Square. Her husband regularly gets sticky rice, bbq chicken, and some other dish I can’t remember. The restaurant serves the spicy food of Isaan in the northeast part of Thailand along the Lao border. After having read a few Timothy Hallinan and John Burdett novels, I had a new appreciation for Isaan and enjoyed every last bite of the dishes we ordered.
Marjie fell in love with the Gourmet Market in the Siam Paragon Mall, which is about a stone’s throw from Som Tum Nua. What did we love? Just that they sold half-and-half. Of all the things to miss while living in Vietnam, milk has been the toughest to adjust to. We both love our coffee laden with cream or half and half, neither of which is available here. Some looking to split hairs would say you can get cream here, but no one can argue that it tastes the same as home and that it’s so heavily fortified with stabilizers, preservatives, and transfatty acids, it’s not worth drinking. Yet, here in a Bangkok supermarket, we have half and half. We didn’t buy any, but knowing it was there was enough.
Koh Phi Phi
The trip to Phi Phi was an early morning (6am) flight followed by a taxi to an hour and a half long ferry. Talk about grueling. In contrast to Vietnam, though, the roads were not rutted and the poverty of the rural Krabi province didn’t seem quite as stark as the rural parts of Vietnam that I’ve seen. It’s an observation that makes sense when you go looking for per capita GDP numbers and find Thailand’s is about USD8k and Vietnam’s is about USD 2.5k.
On Phi Phi, we spent the first few hours looking for good food. We wound up at That Orange Place and had probably the best meal for the entire time we were on the island. Later that evening we sorted out our diving schedule with Aquanauts, a dive operation managed by a laid-back Dutchman and complimented by a great staff of divers who have been on the island and doing their dive thing for years. My buddy and I needed refreshers, while our wives need the full basic course.
Plans set, we began diving the next day. A refresher requires you to redemonstrate all your basic skills like fin pivots, buoyancy control and of course clearing your mask. I absolutely hate having water in my eyes, so the thought of taking my mask off underwater did not excite me at all. Ugh, but I did it with no need to repeat. In short order, my buddy and I were done and ready to enjoy the underwater world.
I was a little apprehensive about diving again, but after the first dive, I was ready to see some cool fish. My best diving experiences had been in Thailand and even the choppy, slightly murky waters of the low season did not disappoint us. We saw sting rays, sharks, a turtle eating a fish, and cuttlefish. Overall, exactly what I had hoped.
Back on the island, we chatted with the dive staff who have been around since the 2004 tsunami. I was in Bang Tao, on Phuket Island, shortly after the tsunami. I know it was hit pretty hard. The organization I was with eventually moved to Koh Phi Phi to help with rebuilding efforts, it had been hit much worse. In 2012, the infrastructure – buildings, bars, beach, shops – all appear to have been rebuilt. The people, however, still live with the trauma of the tsunami. Earlier in April or so, there was a tsunami warning. Our dive instructors said it was disheartening to see the Thai people freak out, showing that mentally they still live with the scars of the tsunami. All is not well on the island paradise.
Phi Phi is definitely a backpacker haven. There are bars with loud music. Not my scene. It never was and never will be. Luckily, where we stayed – Aryaburi Resort (a resort in name only) - was quiet. I think they simply added resort to their name so they could charge people who don’t know any better (i.e., us) more money without providing much. Breakfast was fine, but nothing special. I usually eat eggs. I get to do a lot of travel in Vietnam with work and I’m used to being able to explain what I want in Vietnamese. It was very strange to be in Thailand and not be able to explain in Thai. I felt a little vulnerable and very much the foreigner.
Overall, we had a great time. It was nice to have some activities, have some down time, and have some friends to share everything with.