Fake Plastic Trees
It was like that opening scene from Forrest Gump. A white plastic bag fluttering by. Turning over on itself. Somersaulting. The only difference. This one was underwater. Part of a parade of juice bottles, styrofoam food containers and foil packages caught in the current.
We’d boarded our catamaran, Shana, a few days earlier and sailed out of Phuket into the Andaman Sea. Being on the water allows us to escape the resort types, get closer to local people, culture and untouched landscapes. But it seemed Thailand might be a bit of a challenge. Island fishing grounds, once largely off the grid, now draw thousands of selfie loving day trippers looking to capture perfect moments on pristine beaches.
The traffic was steady from sun up to down. Longboats. Dive rigs. Ferries. All passing within feet of our overnight anchorage to take clients beyond the bounds of the buffet line. They clogged every bay. Jockeying for position. People disembarked. Put their toes in the sand and explored. Taking pictures. Leaving footprints. And maybe a few other things.
We’d been plucking bits of garbage from the ocean for days. It was accumulating. Probably half a bag in the bottom of our dinghy by the time we hit Phi Phi Don. A hundred feet down the coast, the tour boats swarmed a group of monkeys sunning themselves on the rocks. Here, there was just one. He sat at the waters edge, watching us.
When we pulled the dinghy on shore he approached. Slowly at first. Gaining confidence as we retreated. They’re conditioned to humans and the colourful things we usually have with us. A day earlier, we’d seen one steal a Tonka truck from an unsuspecting child – and then dad’s sunglasses when he reached for it. This dude wasted no time jumping into the boat to check things out. We’d left our flip flops and a tube of sunscreen inside, but he was focussed only on the small white bag partially covered by our single oar. He dragged it out, opened the top and began unpacking its contents.
The dismay on his face was obvious. Thinking he’d lucked into edible treats, he was less than thrilled to discover it was only the remnants of them. Litter. And as he pilfered our boat, we walked across his beach collecting more of the same. In amongst the rocks at the base of the cliff, the high tide mark, we found Pepsi bottles, bits of glass, disposable cups and more. We left the island with a full garbage bag. The black kind we all use at home.
It’s been nineteen years since Leonardo Dicaprio emerged from the trees to discover a pristine strip of sand, The Beach. Today there are warning flags. No boats. No swimming permitted. Human waste, both organic and man made, have forced the closure of Maya Bay. I know. We went there. Drifting just outside the ropes. And we weren’t the only ones. In fact, tourism is up. More than 2.5 million people last year.
You can’t experience it. Can’t walk across it. So, why come? It was obvious. They come for the picture – the gram. Trust me, the irony isn’t lost. I snapped a few myself. I’ll eventually post them. I captured what I saw, experienced. But, I wasn’t there to craft an idyllic moment.
Social media is changing the way the we travel. People are drawn to what they see on the feeds of friends and influencers. They’re booking flights, hunting down the locations and pulling out their selfie sticks. It’s not about the place, it’s about the illusion. Fake plastic trees. And it wears me out.
Thailand is beautiful. I can see why people make the journey. I just wish they’d see more, step beyond the top ten. There’s delight in the road less travelled. Rare finds. Stunning encounters. And, on occasion, disastrous outtakes. It’s why I travel, and the inspiration for this little blog. If life is like a box of chocolates, you’ve got to eat a few fruit creams to really appreciate the peanut butter.