Chiang Mai, Thailand: Thii Ko Phi Phi (Part 1 of 2)


Bethany Castillo, an alumna of our Chiang Mai, Thailand program, and her first blog entry from her adventures abroad.

For most North Americans, for most Westerners in general, travel has come to be regarded as a right, not a privilege.  Chosen to go and live in Asia for a year, I was the precocious daughter for a working-class single mother, and I knew myself to be remarkably privileged.  But even privilege carries with it many layers of expectation and entitlement.  I now conceive of travel, and more particularly of living abroad, as responsibility, neither a right nor a privilege but a profoundly human act.  To slow down, to listen more carefully, to watch the surface until we glimpse what is underneath, to learn from people who know well what we do not know at all: these are choices, steps toward dismantling the barriers that separate not only nations and strangers, but neighbors, too.

-Karen Connelly, Dream of a Thousand Lives

These were the words ringing in my head as I sat on the docks, drenched in a layer of thick sweat, waiting two long hours for our ferry to arrive at the Port of Phuket.  I looked down at the closed book in my lap and the warm beer in my hand and began to question my place, my influence, my responsibilities that came with my decision to take a short vacation to the shores of Ko Phi Phi Don.  What are my real motives in taking this last minute trip to the islands? Should I have stayed in Chiang Mai for the weekend? Why am I really in Thailand? Why is my beer warm?

We arrived at the shores of Ko Phi Phi Don just before sundown.  With big smiles, wide eyes, and hearts pumping, we spent the first ten minutes walking in a haze as if we had arrived at Heaven’s doors. We were soon snapped back into reality as we found ourselves frantically squirming through the crowds of people down the narrow Phi Phi alleyways chasing after our “luggage taxi”, an older Thai gentlemen pulling five large suitcases on a two-wheeled metal cart, to our hostel.

The rest of the evening was spent on the shoreline with new friends as we sat comfortably in brightly colored beanbag cushions in the sand enjoying small sand buckets filled with iced adult beverages, mesmerized by the nightly fire show Ko Phi Phi is now recognized for.  We thoroughly enjoyed our night in the sand, competing against other world tourists in games of fire-lit limbo and jumprope while dancing and singing to the bar’s playlist of American pop music.

At some point throughout that night, after accidentally being smacked in the forehead by a poi ball engulfed in flames, I escaped the booming speakers and burning torches to dip my toes in the water and get a better view of the near full moon through the night’s clouds. While standing from the shoreline, I looked back at the crowds of tourists intermixed with the flying and twirling flames from the dancers.  I looked down the shoreline and noticed the same pattern; groups of people splattered with fire, highlighted by neon lights and disco balls.  It was this moment that took me back to Connelly’s words.  It was this moment that I felt my soul open to a new perspective.  It was this moment that I had an indescribable unsettling feeling sink deep into my chest. Something was terribly wrong.

The Next Day

I woke up around 7 AM the following morning and walked to the beach with two friends whom were flying back to the states later that evening.  Because we arrived to the island after the sun had set the night before, we were not truly aware of the surreal beauty we were surrounded by.  When we walked to the end of the alley and had our first real glimpse of the coastal view, our hearts and jaws dropped.  It may sound cliche, maybe it is, but all of the hundreds of photos we have seen of these islands online, in magazines, on billboards, did not compare to what they look like in real life.  Those photos do not capture the true shades of green that wrap the dark grey cliffs outlining the island.  Those photos do not capture the blinding reflection of the sun on the vivid blue ocean water.  Those photos do not capture the tangy scent of the salt water or the occasional wafts of curry and fried rice carried by the wind from the nearby vendors.  Those photos do not capture the feelings of the sand cradling your feet or the sting of your sweat carrying sunblock into your eyes.  Those photos do not capture the loneliness and serenity one feels in the early morning when they realize they are the only one standing on the beach.  Those photos also do not capture the empty water bottles riding the small onshore swells.  Those photos do not capture the trash bags floating in the crystal waters as if trying to disguise themselves as jellyfish.  Those photos do not capture the cracked beer bottles, the snapped sandals, the torn shirts, and the smashed neon colored sunglass frames that litter every square foot of the shoreline.  Those photos do not capture the handful of men dressed in black and yellow uniforms scanning the shore, collecting the littered items into trash bags.  Those photos do not capture the massive pile of exploding trash bags being taken away before the crowds of tourists begin arriving at the beach to enjoy their day of sun and sand.

I had been living in Thailand for nearly a month at this point and realized I have had very minimal contact with my family back home.  I decided I would take advantage of the free wifi at the bar we were at the night before, Woody, so I took a seat and decided to make a phone call home.  Being that this was one of my first calls home I had a lot to say.  Over the hour call I briefly talked about my perceptions of Thailand, the Thai people, and the overwhelming beauty of the island.  The conversation quickly turned into a discussion about the events from the previous night.  I explained the loud music, the crowds of tourists, the fire, the moon.  I talked about that sinking feeling in my chest that made my head spin. I talked about what I had observed earlier that morning, the empty beach covered in colorful plastics and broken glass.

“These people, from all corners of the world, come to this island to enjoy its beauty and warmth.  They sunbathe, they swim, they eat, they drink, they party, they scream, they laugh, they smile, and then they leave.  I am a tourist as well.  I am one of them.  I may not treat this land and its people with such disrespect, but in traveling here, I am contributing to this culture of ‘Enjoy and Destroy’. So, what do I do?  Do I come here and experience the culture and learn the disheartening truth behind the beauty while simultaneously contributing to the problem?  Or do I stay home, never really knowing what is happening on the other side of the globe? Right. Privilege. Responsibility.”

bethany-and-localAt some point during the phone call I ordered a drink from the bartender.  I’ve heard multiple times from both local and visiting people in Thailand that tipping is not necessary nor recommended, but when the bartender attempted to hand me my 20 Baht in change, I told him to keep it.  He looked confused and attempted to hand it back to me again when an older man sitting at a small desk near the rear of the bar spoke to him in Thai and the bartender then smiled at me and placed the bill in a drawer.  Around this time small numbers of tourists began arriving to the beach, so the bartender turned on the stereo and began playing some Beatles at a relatively loud volume.  The older man once again spoke to the bartender in Thai and the bartender turned the volume down significantly.  This action, seemingly insignificant at the time, gains importance later on.

My phone conversation continues to get more in depth as I consume my icy mojito and I freely confess my joys and qualms with my new experiences in the south of Thailand because I knew that none of the people sitting around me spoke English and therefore there was no need to censor my conversation. I would soon stand corrected.  When the sweat began to drip down my back, I decided it was time to end the phone call and take a dip in the ocean.

Do You Like The Beatles?

Before I left the bar I figured I could try practicing the small amount of Thai language I have learned, “Khun chop The Beatles may” (Do you like The Beatles?).  The bartender looked at me, confused.  I tried again, “Khun chop The Beatles may”.  He stood there staring at me with a blank face.  “Khun chop The Beatles may”.  On the third attempt, he scurried back to the stereo and turned it off.  I was embarrassed and quickly yelled, “No, no, no!” and gave him a thumbs up while charading the movement of turning a stereo knob to increase the volume.

That was when the older man at the desk laughed and spoke to me.  “He’s confused.  Many people here are named Chop.  So when you say, ‘khun chop’, he thinks you are calling him Chop.  Where are you from?”

“California, but I am currently studying at Chiang Mai University.”

He smiled, “Ah, University! Chiang Mai! We speak a little different in the South than the North.  That is why he is confused.” He pointed at my friend Tou, “The smaller one, is he with you?  I heard him talk, where is he from?”

“Tou? Yes, he is from Wisconsin, but he speaks Hmong.”

He nodded as if he approved of Tou’s heritage.

Continue reading: Part II — subscribe to our blog to receive the latest blog entry straight to your email!


Read Bethany’s blog to she what else she has to share about her time abroad; and be sure to watch some of her other video journals!