After trekking through a rain forest, riding an elephant and sunning myself on a different beach daily, I imagined I knew what paradise looked like. That was until our ferry from Phuket came around a limestone outcropping in the Indian Ocean and I first sighted Phi Phi Island. Only the motors of long-tail boats in Tonsai Bay could be heard. With the sun reflecting off the turquoise water and palm trees swaying just beyond the sand, I stepped onto this tiny island that had been almost completely destroyed by the 2004 Tsunami and I wondered why it had taken me so long to get here (Phi Phi is actually six small islands south of Phuket. The main island, Phi Phi Don, can be reached by ferry or speedboat.).

phi-phi-LM-800I was eager to discover just how far removed this island was from my own noisy, stressful reality and booked myself into Phi Phi Banyan Villa, steps away from one of the island’s beaches.

Returning smiles from warm locals selling their wares along the path, I walked to Loh Dalum Bay in time for sunset and low tide. Bright dresses adorned mannequins beneath stalls; banana bunches hung above grapes in boxes waiting to be sold. One vendor lured me to his store where I purchased a pair of earrings. Umbrellas had already been closed, some visitors retreated to their chosen accommodations and I was left to collect seashells in solitude from the damp sand. Other tourists quietly made their way to restaurants along the sea for sunsets and seafood. It seemed that everyone was attempting to blend in with the peaceful surroundings, speaking softly and moving quietly.

Then the sun went down. After dark locals seemed to hurry home and leave the foreigners to play beneath the stars. There are plenty of restaurants and bars on Phi Phi where a traveler can put her feet up and sip from a bucket (at her own risk). I sat mesmerized as a fire dancer swirled fiery patterns around himself. Soon, I was dancing to reggae beats with the waves lapping at my feet and fire torches as my light. When the music got to be too much I walked a little way down the deserted beach and jumped onto a swing beneath a tree.

phi-phi-LM-800bWith only one full day to savor this part of the world I toured the other islands close by. As our boat anchored quite a way off shore, I felt like I had seen this bay before. Just then our tour guide hollered that this was Maya Bay, location of the film “The Beach.” I wished that there were fewer crowds but I understood what all the hype was about and why speedboats lined the shore to let their passengers off to explore the jungle beyond. Looking at the flat water, I gleefully jumped into the ocean, goggles and all to take advantage of the excellent visibility and to eyeball the brightly-colored fish. I soon discovered that my swimming ability might not stand the test to shore and I longed for a kayak and oars. Heaving and panting I tried to gracefully pull myself on to the beach where cameras clicked constantly and everyone sat facing my direction taking in the high cliffs on three sides.

Bamboo Island was next and, while others jumped into the aquamarine water, I awoke from a blur of seasickness and Bonine- induced-sleep. I had never seen water this color before, but my stomach told me it was not yet safe to move. Our guide banged loudly on the boats side, whistling in a strange manner proclaiming that dolphins would respond to his call. Sure enough they appeared right beside us, jumping playfully in and out of the water.

At Monkey Beach, I was wise enough to use a kayak and rested awhile on this deserted stretch of land watching monkeys stripping coconuts. Seawater had never felt so good on my skin. It was the temperature of bathwater and so clear that I could see the color of my toenail polish. It was hard to believe that this same Atlantic Ocean could be so brutally icy at home.

Much too soon it was time to head back to Phuket. I had not bargained for the huge storm and monstrous waves bashing the ferry on the way back. I popped a motion-sickness pill guaranteed to knock me out, closed my eyes and hoped I would never forget the beautiful dream that was Phi Phi Island.

Lauren-Manuel-bio-ITKT-300Born in the incredible city of Cape Town, Lauren has been camping, exploring and roaming South Africa since she could walk. It was South America that made her fall in love with travel and all its wonders and thereafter she has placed her feet on every continent except Antarctica (and probably never will). A dancer, baby surfer and occasional radio presenter, Lauren is passionate about people, the stage, life and God’s purpose for her. She longs for the day when she can be paid to travel and host a travel show! She always returns to home, realizing she lives in one of the world’s most diverse and beautiful cities.