We arrived in Phuket, greeted by a spectacular sunset. The next morning, as if a jealous sister, the sunrise challenged the beauty of the night before by donning her colors of pink and orange.
We’d risen early, excited for our excursion to Phang Nga Island, better known as James Bond Island, named for the movie, Man with the Golden Gun.
I’d seen photographs of pristine beaches, pearl-white sands washed by azure waves, and its signature towering pillar-rock in the bay. I couldn’t wait to experience the area.
My first hint that the area might not be what we see in magazines and movies came at the dock where we boarded a large boat with approximately 50 other people. It was only one of about ten other boats departing from the dock. As we left the bay, we were joined by various other watercraft—from Thai long boats to huge speed boats, all racing to Phang Nga Island.
I wondered just how pristine those beaches would be.
The trip to the island took approximately an hour, and during that time I enjoyed meeting fellow passengers from all over the world – United Arab Emirates, England, France, Spain, Italy and Australia. In fact, our little group of four was the only group from the United States.
At last, the jutting rock formations began to appear ahead of us. Breathtaking does not adequately describe the beautiful, almost prehistoric landscape.
But as we turned into the first bay, I was disappointed to see the area flooded with boats, humanity oozing off of each. Dozens and dozens of inflatable canoes battled (though I must say, it was quite a polite “battle”) to get through the tiny opening to a cave that led to a secluded—though not solitary—lagoon.
At times, my thoughts alternated between enjoying the magnificence and thinking about how to balance leaving nature alone versus allowing humanity to enjoy it. After all, while I cursed the invasion of what was once untouched and unspoiled, I was one of the invaders.
I don’t mean to complain and don’t wish to imply that I didn’t enjoy the excursion. But I do have to say that when we finally arrived at the actual beach where the Bond movie was filmed, I was disheartened that the beach was flooded with vendors selling their wares, desperately trying to gain the attention of passengers disembarking the exhaust-surrounded longboats. Once I escaped the diesel fumes, I was accosted by the smell of toilets from an overwhelmed public bathroom.
Like a beehive surrounded by a swarm of bees, the pillar-rock was swarmed by tourists, though with enough patience, we were able to get a couple of photographs that made it look like we were the only people on the island.
The next day, I looked forward to our excursion to Phi Phi Island. From what I’d heard from people who had visited it, the area was cleaner and more secluded than Phang Nga Island, due to its distance from the main island of Phuket. But again, as we boarded a huge speed board with twenty-five other passengers, and as many other speed boats raced out of the harbor with us, I wondered just how clean and secluded it could be.
For an hour, we bounced over waves at a speed fast enough I had to hold onto everything around me. The engine was so loud I could hardly hear what the guide attempted to tell us about the island where The Beach
, starring Leonardo DiCaprio was filmed.
I remembered how beautiful the landscapes in the movie had been, and imagined myself walking along soft, white beaches, listening to the sound of waves rushing to the shore as wind whispered through the palms.
But it was not to be.
We turned around a peninsula and the guide sighed. “Oh, I’m sorry,” he said. “Look. Too many boats and people. I suggest we skip this beach and spend more time snorkeling later.”
Though disappointed, I had to agree. With speed boats parked side-by-side and people swarming the beach like ants, it was far from the idyllic fantasy I’d had in my mind.
Once again, I wondered about the balance of nature versus tourism. How long can paradise remain paradise, once too many people have overrun it?
Still, I was awed by the color of the water all around us, with hues that ranged from deep blue to blue-green to light turquoise, so clear I could see the colorful fish swimming below the surface. I couldn’t wait to jump in to experience the world below.
Finally, the captain stopped the boat. We put on our snorkel gear and jumped in. The water was cool against my sunburned skin and I tasted the salt of the ocean. When at last, I dipped below the surface, I was greeted by a school of yellow and black striped fish and a soft clicking sound all around me. Every time I make the transition from the dry world to the ocean world, I am awed by the sudden peace and softness enfolding me.
But I couldn’t ignore the occasional plastic bag I found wrapped around the coral, or the destruction of the reef. It was clear that this was yet another area that had been overcome by humanity ravenous to experience unspoiled nature. Yet, in experiencing it, we are spoiling it.
At the end of the excursion, the speed boats raced each other–as well as the receding tide–back to the harbor. In fact, the boat that followed us ran aground in the shallow water and had to wait for almost an hour for the tide to rise enough to return.
At the end of an incredible, yet ambivalent day, I watched another spectacular sunset.
I couldn’t help comparing the sunrise and sunset to the life of Phuket itself. If tourism is like its sunrise, bringing much needed money to its economy, is it also on a path of exploiting itself to its detriment, drawing toward a sunset that will not be nearly as beautiful as those I enjoyed?