Blessed to be a witness

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Saturday, June 11th

Holiday in Holiday Inn

A few weeks ago we were told that the four star Holiday Inn Resort, on the northern tip of the island, was offering Hi Phi Phi volunteers a special price if they wanted to take a break there. Normally 3,200 baht (€64) minimum, we could stay for the princely sum of 450 baht (€9) per person. It sounded amazingly tempting, so the day before Friday, our day of rest, I called the resort up, and after an expected initial negative response from the reservations clerk, I got through to the Australian manager, who confirmed that the rate still stood.

We asked a couple of people if they were interested, and with barely two hours' notice, six of us agreed to go. We met at the pier and grabbed the free transport (a longtail boat), and set off for the land of luxury. As we rounded the tip of Ton Sai bay to begin the long journey northwards, we noticed some ominous clouds in the distance. About halfway up the length of the island, they came to fruition. Rain started to spot, and then to pelt, and then to blast down on us in the boat. We were under an awning that leaked, and had a tarpaulin with a hole in it. The two people at the front of the awning held up two umbrellas to try to box us off, but to little avail. We were soaked to the skin, and freezing cold. "I hate it when they do that," said Dion, one of the guys with us, pointing to the boat driver, who had just put on the boat's only lifejacket.

Visibility became almost zero. I could just about make out the outline of a looming cliff, but I surmised that the boatman should know what he was doing. All we could do was laugh hysterically, soaked to the bone. Finally a calm bay became visible through the torrents, and the boatman turned in with a thumbs-up. The bay was very shallow, so when the longtail grounded we had about a hundred metres to wade into the beach. As we started trudging away, out of the mist and rain we saw a silhouette, and there was the manager bearing umbrellas. "I think it's a bit late for that," someone said.

We approached the lobby where a woman washed our feet with warm, jasmine-scented water, and ice-cold towels were presented, as well as big warm fluffy towels. We were oriented: tennis courts, hilltop sunset bar, games room, pool, sauna, jaccuzzi, movie room, Thai cookery lessons, free snorkel hire. And then to our bungalows, which were divine. Spacious and beautifully presented, with subtle air conditioning - as opposed to the industrially noisy wind tunnel we currently enjoy - complimentary water and toiletries, and as we towelled ourselves warm again, a knock came at the door and a presentation tray of fruit was delivered.

Happy happy hour

The difficulty with being in a place like this on a budget is that while the accommodation is inexpensive, the other things aren't. Someone who can afford full whack to stay at the Holiday Inn isn't going to baulk at paying over the odds for everything else. I blanched when M ate the small packet of Pringles at the mini-bar and we found that it cost the same as two full meals in the Papaya restaurant in Ton Sai. Still, we dressed up posh and went for happy hour at the bar, which at least gave us half-price cocktails, and we'd got someone to buy us some duty-free chardonnay on their visa run, and by coincidence we bumped into her on the pier as we were leaving. Buckets of ice were free, so we chilled the wine, and Tina, an almost absurdly stereotypical 'gorgeous Swedish blonde' who works in Carlito's, had snaffled some rum and fruit juices from a now-departed regular, so she mixed up some cocktails and we had a lovely bungalow party into the wee hours.

The next day we ate a vast amount at the free breakfast buffet, then did nothing but lie by the pool, though I did provide some entertainment by trying out M's new poi (fire twirling chains) and whacking myself repeatedly in the genitals, the fifth and final whack being so well targetted and powerful that it dropped me and rendered me paralysed and dribbling on the ground by the pool in agony, just as a load of posh guests arrived. They stepped around me.

A very kind man

The manager of the Holiday Inn, who had come up with the discount after visiting Ton Sai and being impressed with the volunteer effort, spent a long time chatting with us. Being on the leeward side of the island as regards Indian Ocean currents, the resort was passed by the tsunami with minimal flooding; it manifested itself merely as an extraordinarily powerful rip-tide. Further up the beach there is a breach in the hills, and the wave from Loh Dalum Bay ripped over the island and killed twelve, but "apart from scaring the bejesus out of us", said the manager, there wasn't even a scratch recorded. Amazingly magnanimously of him, the hotel has retained all 132 staff, despite a fall in occupancy to zero, then a slow climb back to 10% - though last month was up to 20%, the best it's been all year. He appreciated our dilemma about eating and drinking in the resort, and even told us where we could go to eat cheaply - he had no objections to us doing this, nor bringing our own booze: he just wanted to reward the volunteers.

After a day of frying in the sun and steaming in the sauna at one point - my body being so adjusted now that the starting temperature in the sauna, of 30C, felt cool - we sadly said goodbye and got on the longtail, this time in the most beautiful weather, the manager waving goodbye to us from the beach, and gazed in awe at the jungled hills of Phi Phi, through which white doves and sea eagles flew. We are so going back there, probably next week, and probably with an even bigger crowd of people.

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