Blessed to be a witness

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Sunday, May 8th

I'm a-stranded in paradise
(Sorry about the title: couldn't resist)

Phi Phi really is staggeringly beautiful, all cliffs and white sand and jungle and turqouise sea. There are two islands to Phi Phi: the large one, Phi Phi Don ('big Phi Phi'), that we're staying on, and to the south, the uninhabited island of Phi Phi Leh (you guessed it: 'small Phi Phi'). The evidence of the tsunami on Phi Phi Don is all too visible. Phi Phi Don is dumbell- or butterfly-shaped, and the central spur of the island is really nothing more than a sandbank about fifty metres across, dotted with palm trees. The main island town of Ton Sai stands on the low ground abutting, and protruding onto, this connecting spur. During the tsunami, according to one of the guys working in the "resort" we're staying in, the wave hit on both sides of the island, and met in the middle, smacking together like two huge hands, completely submerging the sandbank and most of the town.

Phi Phi Leh behind all the rain

Our ferry took us, very early, to the island in about an hour and a half. There in Ton Sai were piles of rubbish heaped at the shoreline, and half the buildings that we could see were sagging, boarded up, or collapsed. Heaven knows where the large sums of money that Leonardo diCaprio raised and donated has gone: for Phi Phi was where The Beach was filmed, and diCaprio gave something like $10 million of his own money to assist in rebuilding. Phi Phi Leh, only a few hundred metres across, is tall, made of many limestone sugarloaves stuck together, and is partially ring-shaped. The interior of the island contains the stunning near-circular bay that was used in the movie.

After waiting, deluged by touts, for the promised hotel pickup, which never turned up, we took a longtail boat to the beach of Hat Yao, further south down the island. Ubiquitous throughout Thailand, longtails are thin fishing vessels with a large meaty car engine at the end that is used as an outboard, with a very long drive-shaft protruding from the engine into the water, with the propellor at the very end. I don't quite know the advantage of this arrangement, since it makes for a large turning circle (perhaps a safety featue, since they're a bit wobbly), other than it allows the boatmen to neogtiate very shallow water by lifting the propellor from the surface as required. The going rate was 50 baht each, but the driver gave us various excuses ("it's raining"... "er, the tsunami") and charged us double that. I generally expect to be ripped off when arriving anywhere new, and I have more sympathy in giving what is asked rather than bargaining, given what happened here, but it's still a little irritating.

Our hut at "Paradise Pearl Resort" fronts the beach and resounds to the sound of the crashing surf, which is a trifle unnerving. Indeed during a nap, M was haunted by tsunami-related nightmares. However, we are assured that Hat Yao was merely splashed by the waves, and indeed there's no evidence of destruction here, and the buildings look unrestored. From the balcony at the front of the hut we can occasionally see Phi Phi Leh, looming closely across the narrow strait, looking as stunning and exotic as it was in the movie. The beach is white, soft sand, the water azure, and the weather sucks.

May first marks the start of the low season due to rain, and for good reason. Other rainy seasons I've encountered in Asia usually mean short bursts of warm rain that beneficially relieve the heat of the day. On Phi Phi, however, it has meant a constant, near-24-hour downpour that occasionally increases to deluge level. The only advantage to this for me has been that it has reduced the temperature below 35C, and I can function normally. It has been so hot in Phuket that I have been melting. Every hot drink, meal, or gentle walk down the road has resulted in total saturation with sweat, running in rivulets down my face, sides, legs, and arms. I normally perspire a 'healthy' amount in this kind of heat, but so far it has been ridiculous. I have been drinking litre after litre of water, yet only needing to pee once a day. I don't know if it's the sickness I'm only just recovering from, or the antibiotics, or what, but it has been getting disgustingly out of control.

Anyway, as a result of the weather, the track to the town is impassable, and since with the rain comes high winds, the longtail boats won't dock at the beach. In other words, we're stuck here. And there's absolutely nothing to do, since the rain makes the jellyfish come to the shore, so swimming is out, and the beautiful views are obscured by the solid white wall of rain. The promised satellite internet connection is also broken, so I have no idea when I'll be able to pick up email, or post this to the site. This situation has also slightly messed with our plans - we were met at the pier by a South African guy who asked us if we were going to volunteer, and who told us to meet him and all the other volunteers at a certain bar, last night at 8pm. But since we were stranded, we couldn't make it, and nor it seems will we be able to make it tonight. Mind you, I'm not sure anyone would be able to work in this weather, either.

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