Ko Phi Phi Reservoir Dogs
Reservoir Dogs is an excerpt from the book, Eye On The Road – The Beginning.
Reviews were mixed about Thailand’s most famous island. Ko Phi Phi was indeed a true tropical paradise which provided the pristine island setting for Leo Decaprio’s movie, The Beach. However, on December 26, 2005, the devastating 30 foot wave of the Tsunami, washed over the island which is only seven feet above sea level. Along the backpacking trail, travelers would emphatically tell us to go, or not to go. Ko Phi Phi polarized people. We, of course, needed to see for ourselves.
At Ko Phi Phi’s reconstructed pier, twenty locals were stationed awaiting our ferry’s arrival. They enthusiastically waved accommodation signs, “Cheap Room”, “Lonely Planet Recommended”, etc. Persistent hotel room peddlers would follow you for blocks, “You have room? I give you room”. The Full Moon Party had jaded us towards sales people. We insisted on being left alone.
To control the frenzy, Jesse and I developed a system: one stays and one goes. The person staying would guard the backpacks under a shady spot or in a cafe. The other person would go bargain for a room. This is the most efficient way to find rock bottom cheap accommodation.
It was my turn to stay behind with the backpacks. I sipped on a cold Fanta and chilled out. During the 30 minutes alone, I noticed Ko Phi Phi didn’t have the same volume of foot traffic as Ko Pha-Ngan. Nearly half the small merchant shops were closed. Debris and sand littered the pedestrian friendly streets. Ko Phi Phi felt like a ghost town.
Jesse returned triumphant. He had found a great spot. It was a small, centrally located, second floor apartment. Nightlife was near. An internet cafe sat on the ground floor. The rate was $12/day. But, if we stayed multiple nights, the landlord lady would take it down to $8/day. Deal!
After an hour, I fetched lunch. Jesse unpacked and attended to his emails. A street vendor cooked up some noodles nearby on the beach. As I waited for the food, I stuck up a conversation with a fisherman sanding down his small boat.
After pleasantries, I asked him where he was during the tsunami. If he had been there.
Fisherman: “No. My family die in Tsumani.”
During the Tsunami, the fisherman had been out to sea. Like he does everyday. More than a mile out to sea, the tidal wave was small. The fisherman didn’t even notice it. Yet, as he returned to shore, he started to see debris floating in the ocean. Bamboo bungalows and dead bodies bobbed in the bay. Something was terribly wrong.
What the fisherman discovered was horrifying. His family had been drowned in the Tsumani. All of them: wife, brother, mother, cousins, and his three children – ages 2, 5, and 7. Everyday he goes fishing, he said, but he doesn’t know why he comes back to shore. God should have taken his life.
The fisherman didn’t cry. He had no more tears to left. Life struggled to find meaning. He did the only thing he knew how to do, which was to fish.
I listened to his story in silence. There was nothing I could say. Jesse and I were living the easy life. We travel, partied, and tried to flirt with girls. Living through a tragedy of this scale was unfathomable. I couldn’t bring back the fisherman’s family. But I could get involved with the Ko Phi Phi cause.
That evening, we attended our first Ko Phi Phi relief meeting. Little was known about the grassroots effort on the backpacking trail. Jesse and I wanted to help out anyway we could.
30 to 40 international volunteers were in attendance that night. Citizens from Australia, England, Scotland, Canada, Singapore, France, Spain, Korea, and the US. Some of the volunteers were new arrivals, some had been there for months. The grassroots Project Save Ko Phi Phi had a great energy.
A commonly held belief amongst people on Ko Phi Phi was that that they were the victims of a conspiracy. International relief aid had been generously donated. Yet, little money was reaching Ko Phi Phi. 5 months after the Tsunami, Ko Phi Phi was still a mess, while the big time resort areas like Krabi and Phuket were back up and running in weeks. People had begun to wonder why.
The popular belief on the island was that well-connected special interests sought to take over Ko Phi Phi. To date, it had been a backpacker’s destination. The bohemian island was run by boutique operators. By cutting off the relief effort’s funds, you could starve out the small guys in Ko Phi Phi. Then prime real estate could be bought up on the cheap. Whether that was true or not is debatable. Yet, 8 out of 10 people at the bar that night held this particular belief.
The Save Ko Phi Phi rally cry galvanized the grassroots relief effort. People who intended to stay for days, stayed for months. Limited supplies were stretched. Manual labor was amassed. Everyone pitched in whatever they could. A dinner time meeting was held every night. It gave an opportunity for the various volunteers to communicate and coordinate. New blood to be assimilated into the cause. Most importantly, the nightly meetings at the bar built camaraderie. The resolve was motivating.
The relief effort was divided into committees: restoring retention walls, beach cleanup, helping the sea turtles, and rebuilding the reservoir. All the groups were given a chance to report their progress and petition for new volunteers. The reservoir builders were the last committee to speak that night. They called themselves the Reservoir Dogs. The grunts of the Ko Phi Phi’s grassroots relief effort.
During the Tsunami, the reservoir had collapsed. Fresh water was unable to freely move in and out which created a large pool of stagnant water. Stagnant water breeds disease carrying mosquitoes. If a tropical disease broke out on the island, Ko Phi Phi would be uninhabitable indefinitely. This looming epidemic could have been resolved in weeks. Specialized heavy duty equipment like backhoes and bulldozers from the international relief fund would have made quick work of the needed repairs. Yet, the international relief did not arrive. The manual labor of the rag-tag Reservoir Dogs took up the cause.
The leader of the Reservoir Dog’s was a fiery Scotsman. A stocky built 5’8 Gaelic with dark hair and a little red sprinkled in his beard stubble. Before he spoke, the other dogs gave him a loud, “Hooo Raaa!” grunt. The Scotch leader was light hearted, but honest, “We need more people. It doesn’t matter if you can lift 5 kilos or 50, we can find a job for you. Just don’t be a quitter!”. The Reservoir Dogs group’s give-it-hell attitude compelled Jesse and I. Fresh energy was required. We had that in droves. At the end of the evening, we signed up.
Working with the Reservoir Dogs wasn’t easy. The work day began at 8 am sharp. Early birds would get first pick of the limited supplies. Everyone else would have to rummage through left over mismatched gloves and rundown shovels. Anything and everything was put to work. Heavy digging pushed through the morning. The team broke for a 30 minute lunch – heavy on carbs and liquids. Then, back to the grind until the sun went down.
Most of the Reservoir Dogs were backpackers traveling through Southeast Asia. The majority (like Jesse and I) would sign up for a couple days, and extend longer because they felt inspired by the project. Others had heard Ko Phi Phi’s SOS call. They were frequent visitors or vacation home owners. They had a vested interested in preserving Ko Phi Phi as a bohemian destination. Diverse volunteer backgrounds made for interesting conversations.
I’m not going to lie, Jesse and I were semi-dedicated to the cause. We’d stroll in leisurely around 9-9:30am. After lunch, we’d sneak back to our apartment for a siesta. Some of the most dedicated of the volunteers conducted themselves like disciplined soldiers. Jesse and I – not so much.
Karma came around on our 65% commitment. One morning, a National Geographic film crew was documenting the progress of the relief effort. They were recording near the swampy ditch Jesse and I were excavating. Jesse felt the National Geographic lens focused on him. His work tempo and vigor increased. Sledge hammer swings became more frequent and forceful. At the end of a 10 swing barrage, he smoothly turned directly towards the camera and remarked, “It’s hard work… but someone has to do it!”. Jesse emphasized this remarks with rehearsed eye wink. Sometimes he could be a cheeseball.
The camera man rejoiced, “Ohhh…That’s good stuff! Thanks for the great shot!”. After the film crew moved on, Jesse stood still. He looked light headed and on the verge of fainting. I thought he was going to pass out.
Me: “You don’t look so hot.”
Jesse: “Ummmm… I gotta go.”
Jesse rapidly retreated to the apartment. He disappeared for more than an hour. Probably to pass out in our air conditioned room. Showing off in front of the cameras almost caused him to collapse. But, hey, it’s National Geographic. You would show off, too!