The Phi Phi islands consist of an archipelago of six naturally beautiful islands in the Andaman Sea, just a bit off the coast of the Krabi province in Thailand. Since it was made famous to the world by the movie “The Beach” in 2000, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, it has seen unceasing hordes of tourists every year. We joined the hordes as we were coming north from Koh Lanta and Koh Rok to see what the fuss was all about.
Koh Phi Phi Don
With beautifully round and curvy limestone mountains and a narrow strip of sand separating its wide bays, Koh Phi Phi Don (the biggest and only inhabited island) appeals to any beach-going, island-hopping tourist. We were certainly intrigued.
Within a few minutes of settling down in our room, we took a short, but steep and challenging walk up to the island’s viewpoint. Overlooking the entire west half of the island, we were rewarded with a view like nowhere else. The many boulders spread around the viewpoint provided perfect spots to rest from the hike up and to admire the view.
We saw Koh Phi Phi Don exactly as it was described – two large sections of land in the water joined by one narrow sandstrip threatening to be swallowed by two bays. The palm trees in the foreground and the hills in the background were all shades of green. The water around the island were various shades of blue, lightening as the sea shallowed. It couldn’t have been more naturally picturesque.
As you can imagine, most of the activity on the island takes place on the narrow strip of sand since the land is flat with long beaches on either side. While we were there, it felt like any other island village with sandy roads and short buildings. But up here at the viewpoint, we were reminded of the natural phenomenon that Koh Phi Phi Don is. The narrow strip of sand looked much smaller from the outside than it felt on the inside.
From seeing the island from far and above, we also saw it up close and personal. The “streets” were always lively and crowded, though notably more with tourists than locals.
A stroll on any of the beaches was also pleasant, though arguably better before the water recedes during low tide and the rocks protrude out of the sand.
For all of Koh Phi Phi’s natural beauty, there were some downsides. It was nothing like the untouched paradise of Koh Muk and Koh Kradan, as the island has been entirely geared towards tourists and party animals spending nights bathing in alcohol. Many clubs kept blasting songs to be heard anywhere on the island everyday until 4am. For those looking to join the party, Phi Phi must be a pleasurable blur. For us, we looked forward to exploring the surrounding islands through a day tour.
We thought we were prepared for the worst when it came to our day tour, since most reviews online weren’t great, but the tour still managed to underperform. To start off, the beginning of the tour was a mess with people being thrown around until the tour operators figured out the groups and directed us to the boat. The big longtail boat was overcrowded and the hard wood seat with low ceiling made for a very uncomfortable ride throughout the day. The fact that there were some loud and obnoxious people clearly hungover from the night before didn’t help either. We were determined to make the most of it.
The first stop was Shark Point, a rocky pinnacle some 200m away from Long Beach on Koh Phi Phi Don. Famous for the blackfin tip sharks that often swim around the area, I was extremely excited to swim with sharks!
Unfortunately, the experience was terrible and I didn’t end up seeing any sharks. Our boat anchored quite far from the pinnacle, since the area was already overcrowded. It was hard to swim the large area amidst strong currents since no fins were provided (even though it was included in the tour). Visibility was also no good due to the currents and high number of plankton in the water. Hopefully there will be many other opportunities to see sharks to come in our future tropical destinations!
Bamboo Island (Koh Phai)
Right after Shark Point, we headed to Bamboo Island that supposedly had a beautiful, to-die-for kind of beach. Upon arriving, the area was so crowded with other boats parked right on the beach that we took some time just to maneuver and find a spot for ours. Judging by the number of boats parked on the beach, I estimated that the 15m long beach had over 350 people on it!
We immediately headed towards the rocks in an attempt to find a more secluded and calmer place – thankfully we did! Our spot on the rocks just north of the beach was empty with clear waters and a nice view of Mosquito Island in the background. I even tried some snorkeling in the area, but there weren’t many corals or fish to be seen.
Mosquito Island (Koh Yung)
Next up was the nearby Mosquito Island, where we had more time to snorkel. Both Julie and I tried to explore the area, but the currents were so strong and there were so many waves that within a few minutes, we were pretty far away from the boat. Just the swim back took the entire time we had available at the site. It was exhausting.
Famous for the many monkeys on the beach (what else), Monkey Beach back on Koh Phi Phi Don was next in our itinerary. While the boat was still approaching, we already saw many monkeys running around on the sand. I’m always a bit concerned when wildlife is involved in tours like this, because that usually means they are being explored, possibly abused and definitely not living their natural lives anymore. I wasn’t wrong.
The monkeys seemed pretty aggressive and were constantly looking for food or drinks from tourists. It wasn’t long until I found out why. Some boat drivers, every now and then, blew a whistle calling the monkeys to them. In response, the monkeys sprinted to collect juice boxes that they immediately drank to the amusement of all the tourists crowded around. While I love seeing wildlife up close, things like this feel wrong. Some tourists took the example set by boat drivers as an indication to taunt the monkeys with food and drinks themselves. We even spotted one handing a bottle of beer to a monkey….
The monkeys were cute and all, but it was sad to see that there are people who treat animals this way, and even more discouraging that the locals promote this kind of behavior. We didn’t feel good about the fact that we were indirectly supporting this by coming on this tour.
Maya Bay on Koh Phi Phi Leh
Our most awaited stop of the day (and the main reason we took this tour) was Maya Bay on Koh Phi Phi Leh. The controversial set of the movie “The Beach,” Maya Bay is the reason why the Phi Phi islands became so famous worldwide and has become one of Thailand’s most visited destinations.
We passed by the many limestone mountains on the side of the island and suddenly it opened to the small bay. The view was gorgeous, with karst green mountains surrounded by the emerald blue waters of the bay. It looked surreal, like a painting.
Surprisingly, Maya Bay wasn’t as crowded as I thought it would be and we managed to get a whole section of the beach just for us to lie down and enjoy. We kept thinking how good it was that this beach and this island as a whole is a designated national park that is not allowed to be inhabited, because it could so easily turn into another Koh Phi Phi Don…
If the time spent on the beach was nice, the way back to the boat was a real challenge. During the hour we lounged around on the beach, the tide had gone down and the rocky bottom of the bay was exposed, making the walk back dangerous for the tourists and devastating for the few corals that were still alive. I was surprised that with the number of visitors received every year, the administrators of the national park still didn’t consider building a small wooden pier here. It would be safer for both tourists and wildlife, preventing millions of people from stepping on corals – no wonder most of the corals are dead.
Loh Samah Bay and Viking Cave
Further along Koh Phi Phi Leh, we stopped at Loh Samah Bay for some snorkeling. By this point on the tour, I was already tired of the many disappointments and decided to stay on the boat. Of course, the one time I stayed on the boat people spotted a lionfish! I was so upset I missed the opportunity to see this beautiful and exotic fish. Hopefully I will have other chances in the future.
Still on Koh Phi Phi Leh, the next stop was the Viking Cave, that supposedly had prehistoric paintings on its walls. Unfortunately, the cave was closed to visitors and we just passed by its entrance so tourists could take their pictures.
Phi Phi Sunset
Leaving Koh Phi Phi Leh, we paused enroute back to Koh Phi Phi Don to watch the sunset over the ocean. The sky turned orange and yellow on the edge of the horizon. The boat stopped for a while so we could soak it all in.
And so we thought our tour had finally come to an end, but of course, it was going to end on a bang. As we headed back to the harbour at Koh Phi Phi Don, our boat driver took a detour to help out another boat driver that was having issues with his engine. We didn’t think much of this until ironically, our engine stopped working. We were stuck in Tonsai Bay and had to have another boat tow us back by rope. It’s safe to say that everyone on the boat was happy the tour was over.
Phi Phi was undoubtedly naturally beautiful, but it was also as overrated as we expected it to be. Places like this make us question how we make decisions about where to go. Is it worth going where everyone else goes just because we’re afraid of missing out? Having been on the road now for more than half a year, we find ourselves pondering the power media has on travel and the subsequent effect it has on the local economy and environment. There’s a fine line between paradise and tourist trap and the Phi Phi islands were a great example of that.
For more pictures from the Phi Phi islands, please visit the gallery!