05/13/2014 04:24 pm ET Updated Aug 26, 2014

You Down with Koh Phi Phi? Yeah You Know Me

Xavier Hoenner Photography via Getty Images

"You might want to come watch this," I said as I tended to a precarious balance along the upper edge of a long-tail boat. "This is going to be hilarious."

"Just fall in," said my professor, a blonde-haired Englishwoman whose speech sagged with a heavy north-English accent.

"What do I do with my legs?" I asked, eying my legs as if they were mere appendages whose sole purpose was to frustrate my attempts to learn to dive.

"Nothing. Just fall in."

I pressed my hands together, swirled my hips with the gentle rocking of the boat, and raised my arms straight above my head. I angled the tips of my fingers towards the water and began to let myself fall forward. It took less than half a second to realize that this attempt would be no better than the last, and that it was highly unlikely I would cross "learning to dive" off my childhood bucket list that day. I panicked; my feet flailed beneath me for a moment before making contact with the crystalline waters of Maya Bay.

Welcome to Thailand.

Maya Bay's claim to fame, of course, is that it served as the location for the film The Beach, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, a fact neither local nor tourist alike on Koh Phi Phi -- pronounced Koe Pee Pee -- neglects to mention. It costs 200 Baht -- about six U.S. dollars -- to set foot on the actual beach, a sum we thought exorbitant, especially considering that you can eat a full, filling dinner for 150 Baht. We told the driver of the boat we had hired to bring us to within about 50 meters of the shore so that we could ogle the beach and scenery from afar. Then came my impromptu diving lesson.

Along with me and the Englishwoman, a cruise ship singer who spends most of her time at sea, was a Dutch girl traveling through Southeast Asia before beginning university and my American friend who lives in Australia. Together we comprised something of a makeshift family. We were what remained after the Spaniard, the Canadian, and the Frenchman who had been a part of our family left us for various destinations the day before. Such is the nature of the social interactions that inhere in a life lived on the road.

During our first night on the island, the Frenchman burned his foot -- badly at that -- while attempting to drunkenly jump through a flaming hoop. Given the ease with which flaming objects -- including, also, jump ropes and limbo sticks -- mingle with buckets of alcohol mixed with amphetamine-laced energy drinks on Koh Phi Phi's main beach by night, it's hardly uncommon to see partygoers sporting spots of singed flesh alongside the other nicks, cuts, blisters, sores, rashes or bandaged-infirmities they invariably acquire.

We offered our French friend words of tacit encouragement, but each time I stole a glance of the brown and white wound atop his foot that occasionally wept tears of beaded blood, my stomach churned silently. The Frenchman, however, appeared unfazed. The wound was, in his mind, a spot of collateral damage cause by a mere inebriated indiscretion. He appeared to have moved on, even as the wound pruned, stung and bled as we swam the next day. Regardless of whether his nonchalance was practiced or genuine, he had the exact right attitude. As a traveller, you cannot let these sorts of things get to you; otherwise, your anxieties will feast on you.

We started off in our long-tail boat, which was piloted by a dark-skinned Thai man with long, greasy black hair that curled as it fell towards his shoulders. The shore narrowed to a distant white sliver, and soon became lost among the islands, which appeared as slumbering green giants along the horizon. We fell silent a while and let the laboring motor and soft, brackish breeze moving past our ears do the talking. We watched the boat throw off beads of water like clear diamonds as it cut a path through the silky blue Andaman Sea. The sea held a wealth of these diamonds; each blinked in the bright gold of the late-afternoon sun before gravity returned it to the blue below.

I moved to the front of the boat and struck up a conversation with the Canadian. He pulled his foot to his chest intermittently as he spoke and eyed a reddened bit of flesh between his toes that had previously held a blister. He told me about how he had been a bartender in Vancouver to save up money for his trip. He'd spend a few months backpacking through Southeast Asia, he explained, before returning to Vancouver to bartend again, save money again, and travel again.

There was something beautiful about the whole scheme, but what made it so beautiful, I suppose, was that it wasn't actually a scheme at all. It was as clear and as simple a blueprint as I had ever heard articulated for how to live and enjoy one's life as a twenty-three year-old with little in the way of responsibility to manage. Left unsaid between he and I was that the sting of sunburned skin against our unwashed clothes, a few large Chang beers, and another night watching the fire show on the beach was all we needed in order to feel that we were enjoying our lives. Indeed, even amongst the muddled talk of graduate school and economic malaise, we were enjoying our lives.

We arrived at a small, rocky island where a man bearing trappings of authority engaged us hastily. He mentioned something about a 200 Baht fee for using the beach. We chafed. The fee, we retorted, was unreasonable, but the man was implacable. We were never quite clear about what authority he wielded exactly, but he seemed plenty clear on that matter, and so we sped off to another beach in search of a place to snorkel.

After snorkeling, we headed to yet another island where we found a small, flooded cave into which you could climb and out of which you could swim. The rising tide forced us against the sharp, rocky innards of the structure at several points. After we returned to the boat, the Spaniard discovered that the cave had left him a couple of souvenirs: Two gashes on his calf spun a bright red web down his leg, toward his ankle, that arranged itself into dark, misshapen pools on the wooden planks below.

We returned to the main island a few hours later, and after a proper shower, we indulged in a meal of thick, creamy curries, rice, spring rolls and beer. After a brief nap, I rejoined our group for a spirited game of flip-cup with some Brits. From there, the edges of the night began to fray and unravel. The fiery accouterments of the night before reappeared: There was the dance floor fringed with fire; the flame-throwers that brightened your face with orange heat; the men who swung ropes that scattered sparks high into the air in long, freckled arcs.

In the shallow waters of the bay were four couples copulating in a rather colorful array of positions. They were fringed by a -- mostly male -- gaggle of onlookers. One of the couples disengaged; a man emerged who couldn't be bothered to obscure his manhood in the least as he made his way back towards the hundreds of inebriated partygoers moving their sunburned limbs to music that was at least ten years past its prime.

There was a certain madness to the whole affair, a madness that resided far below the topical madness in which this sort of debauchery typically inheres. It was distressing to think that the livelihoods of a number of the island's residents, many of who can scarcely afford amenities that the island's tourists take for granted, depend on this. Between the fire and the alcohol and the scenery, we expressed a bloated indifference to the whole affair. We took and we took and we took and, by taking, it was as though we had convinced ourselves that we were making their lives better -- that without us things would be much worse.

We were just tourists for whom Koh Phi Phi constituted but a strand of the broad, patterned textures of our lives, rich with possibility and opportunity. For the locals, Koh Phi Phi constitutes the entirety of their lives, and they remain there still, long after we left to graze the verdant pastures of our youth. This thought curled its slender fingers around my mind and wouldn't let it alone.

Koh Phi Phi was a cocktail of debauchery fringed by astonishing beauty and juxtaposed with barefooted, dark-skinned poverty. Then it came to me, the preeminent question of my existence: What am I in all of this?

I couldn't make it out. The lines intersected at too many junctions and huddled in small clusters that swayed in the glare of the humid heat. It was no matter; we had to leave. My American friend and I boarded a ferry for Koh Lanta, another island that's not far from Koh Phi Phi. We sat on the forward deck and dangled our feet over the edge of the boat as we listened to music and watched Koh Phi Phi collapse into a space no bigger than our fingernails.

We pulled into a bay minding a row of houses that stood tall above the water on thin, wooden legs that looked as though they might buckle if interrogated for any length of time. I unhooked my headphones from my ears and said to my friend, "I could ride ferries all day."

This post originally appeared on