The Ultimate Debate: Pristine and Simple or Developed and Profitable?

Phuket, Thailand from 2013. I hope they haven’t developed this pristine area in Rawai.


After reading this excellent post by Nomadic Matt:


I Still F*ing Hate Koh Phi Phi


I thought of the delicate balance countries and locals take when deciding whether or not to turn a pristine, tropical paradise into a mass tourism magnet.


Of course this is done with prime financial drivers. Cash in. Nothing wrong with cashing in but when you trade the pristine for piss poor polluted beaches and water, jaded locals and when a concrete jungle replaces the actual jungle, paradise is lost.


I recall reading many years ago how Bali added 200 new hotels yearly. This was years ago.


Each time Kelli and I visit Bali we note development sprinting forward. Ditto for Phuket.


Both islands are among the most famous on earth. How much is too much? Development-wise?


Only governments decide that. Genuinely, it is none of my business.


But as a tourist each island hopes to attract I have a simple request: slow the fuck down on the development guys! Or else, Bali becomes more New Jersey than mysterious Island of the Gods. Phuket becomes more Plainfield (my home town) than jewel of the Andaman Sea.


I get it. Everybody is entitled to a pay raise. Folks want to move from more modest huts or tin roof shacks in some cases to actual homes. This is why developing areas I’d like to see remain pristine is understandable. Some poor folks no longer need to be poor with throngs of tourists plowing through and travel bloggers giving max coverage to islands like Phuket and Bali.


But I recall sitting down to a delicious lunch with a Muslim family in Koh Lanta, Thailand. The family lived a modest life and were happy. Really happy. Grateful. At peace with a simple life. Kelli and I dropped off laundry at the house, and when picking it up we were invited inside for a meal and long chat about life on Lanta.


The family was not what one would consider poor but lived a simple life and loved how quiet, sleepy, largely undeveloped Koh Lanta was still a gem. A jewel.


The enterprising husband and wife worked hard and opened income streams to live a basic but still comfortable life.


Opportunities really do abound in any setting. But individuals either see opportunities or see loss anywhere on earth; including in these tropical paradises.


No need to destroy your island to get your daily bread.


But I also get why islands like Phi Phi do develop so radically and quickly; some greed and simply running with a movement and deciding that a place is going to serve mass tourists, with locals and government alike largely coming to an agreement.


I love my convenience. I cannot lie. Sure thing I motorbiked 25 minutes from one side of Lanta to the other just to hit the 7-11 for frozen vegetarian dinners and Thai snacks here and there. I also loved having deserted, postcard-worthy, stunning beaches to choose from on the southern end of the island, authentic Muslim markets in Old Town, 5 foot long monitor lizards sprinting through the jungle and jaw-dropping sunrises every day, while living in a house on stilts, overlooking the bay.


As a tourist, thinking greedily, pristine and simple works for me.


Locals can go with over-developed and profitable to rake in cash and to service mass tourism. Their call.


The only problem with the mass tourism bit is an island largely loses its:


  • culture
  • customs
  • identity


when pristine becomes largely man-made.


Then, Patong and Pattaya and Siem Reap and Kuta all become the same basic place with bars and restaurants and hotels and drunk tourists and loud tourists and throngs of visitors and few personal connections as jaded locals push tourists through town on a cattle call.


Make Your Decision


Bali still has quite a few pristine spots.


As does Phuket.


Ultimately, see these places with your own eyes. Do not take my word for it.


You may love Phi Phi but hate Koh Lanta. Different strokes for different folks.


But when you get down to it, the more over developed and urban a place becomes, the more one tourist spot mirrors the next one.


Pattaya melds into Patong and into Kuta in Bali. Ditto for Siem Reap. Same-same, as they say in Southeast Asia.


You may change flights or even time zones but make no mistake about it; you’ll be visiting the same basic place when hopping from one overdeveloped tourist spot to the next.