Everybody warned us. If you want to travel to the alluring island of Ko Phi Phi Don in southern Thailand, pick your time of year and check the weather. "Pee-Pee," as it is sometimes spelled online or in brochures, is a tiny bow-tie shaped island just southeast of the more famous island of Phuket. Leonardo DiCaprio filmed The Beach on Phi Phi in 2000, and then the secret was out. Not even the devastating 2004 tsunami could not keep people away forever.
Wrapped tightly in the middle of the island is a confused and contradictory array of shops, restaurants, and assorted joints. Tour operators dish out tickets to everywhere and anything and can arrange accommodation for you there on the island or for your next port of call. Backpackers carom off the stalls in huddled clumps and clash against overdressed wealthier tourists who don't bother to bargain.
On both sides of the chaos lay the main reason tourists come here—the beaches. Either side of the island offers spectacular beauty. The beaches are couched between brilliantly sheer limestone formations that jut vertically from an azure sea and stand high and mighty, like castles.
I know the beaches are beautiful because I saw the photos on the internet. I even caught a glimpse outside our bungalow just before the monsoon arrived. Most web sites claim that the full wet season should not show up until July. But here in the first week of June, something has been dropping down on us in torrents; something has flooded the narrow, twisted lanes between Garlic Italian Restaurant and The Rock House night club. Something is obscuring our view of paradise. For want of a better term, let's call it a monsoon.
It's been four days, and we cannot remember when we were just annoyed and disappointed. Now we're pissed off. Consequently, my wife and I have been treading the narrow and shaky rope bridge of our marriage from hour to hour. Our thatched bungalow has become a twelve-foot-square lab for conjugal studies. All the scene needs now is a pair of white-coated researchers behind the wall with clipboards: "What do you think, Professor, should we apply more voltage—or just watch them slowly go crazy?" There is one ceiling fan (with a maddening scissor-like noise), two single beds (ironically), two chairs, two paperback books, a pack of cards, and no phone service or internet.
My wife has just claimed victory in yet another round of five-hundred rummy. The cards are limp and damp from overuse, near-100% humidity, and heavy-handed boredom. (I think she has cheated and was able to see through my wet translucent cards. I wisely say nothing.) My wife, smug with victory, returns to her courtroom paperback thriller we picked up for 150 baht during our last drenching dash into the centre of the village.
I have encouraged my wife, an otherwise speedy and voracious reader, to slow down her reading rate—because there is no way am I going out there again in this nightmare downpour. I tell her she's turning the pages too fast on her soggy, yellow-paged, pineapple-stained paperback. She lifts one particular finger from her book without looking at me. I'm hoping her book lasts until late September, when the monsoon season is supposed to end. We've been told more than once we are not leaving the island till there is a long enough lull in the floodgates.
As for me, the British spy novel I am reading is moving along very slowly indeed. I have taken up the frowned-upon grade school practice of sub-vocalization and sometimes--when my wife is in the bathroom--I re-read dialog out loud in the voice of Michael Caine. Later, I may act out a few scenes for my wife if she and I are still on speaking terms.
Now and then, I watch a blurred figure lunge past our misty windows. Fellow trapped globetrotters, these spectres appear to be pulled along by their umbrellas. Most of the tourists here are European, and most of the Europeans are German. What's the German word for monsoon? I wonder.
I'm generalizing, but it's easy to spot a European by the clouds of cigarette smoke hovering over them. Saturated figures regularly arrive like choo-choo trains to a place called The Bakery where earlier I watched a trio of Germans consume giant mugs of coffee, fat meat-laden baguettes, huge slices of Bavarian chocolate cake, and a total of nineteen cigarettes in one hour. (OK, I have time on my hands.)
The rain lets up a bit, so my wife and I venture out with our umbrellas and a glimmer of hope. We wade gingerly from shop to shop and search unsuccessfully for a copy of the Bangkok Post. News of the outside world is normally irrelevant on Phi Phi, but an English version of the paper can nibble away a couple of hours—and we need a weather update.
We slosh into a big Canadian guy who's with a Swedish couple we had met on Langkawi Island in Malaysia a few days earlier. They had sailed in earlier on his boat and recount excitedly about what fun they had been having until the monsoon hit. All three are smoking and soused with rain and the smell of fish. Their flurry of anecdotes stops abruptly, and they ask what we've been up to. I want to tell them that my wife blames me for booking this trip, and that she probably cheats at cards. My wife glares at me with her fake smile, but I know she's warning me. I'm thinking: You know, it wouldn't hurt to put a little make-up on once in a while--and try to do something with the hair. Anyway, we tell them we can't stand it any longer and that we plan to check out early and look for a boat back to the main island.
The burly leather-faced Canadian skipper tries to convince us that the weather will probably lighten up enough, though there would still be a "sea." Having a sea handy, I suggest, is probably a prerequisite when sailing. He ignores my quip and explains that waves will be high and choppy. We should all expect a rough ride from Phi Phi—my wife and I, grumbling our way back to Phuket on a slow ferry--and the fearless Canadian and the Swedes as they zig-zag the wind and ride the swells of the Indian Ocean with its fickle monsoon currents.
"Could be a stinker of a trip," the Canadian says. I glance back at my wife. Don't you dare say anything, says her face.
Chicago-born Michael Riordan has been a teacher, C.E.O., and writer. He taught in the U.S., Singapore, and China, where he was a professor of Writing, Western Culture and Film Studies. He was co-founder and C.E.O of Creative Action Now, a Singapore-based English Language educational consultancy, and he recently won first prize for nonfiction in the spring 2020 “Ageless Author” writing contest. Other work has can be found in Snapdragon Journal, 50Something (Australia), and currently online at Please See Me (pleaseseeme.com). He and his wife Mary, a speech pathologist, live in Arlington, Texas.