Paradise Lost?

Island Number 2: Koh Phi Phi


We get off the Koh Tao – Surat Thani night ferry and get tuk-tuk-ed away to a travel agency where we wait for a minivan to Krabi. I expect the main Raylei or Au Nang beaches to be pretty overrun, but we hope to find a beach further North, not too main-stream, where we can take it easy. While we wait we chat to another English chap we met on the tuk tuk on KohTao, and according to what he tells us, it sounds like Koh Phi Phi is the place we want to be: beautiful, remote, cheap and not too overrun. We scrap the idea of Krabi’s mainland beaches and are soon on the West coast, boarding a ferry to Phi Phi Don island.

The journey there is beautiful, the sea is blue, we see big fish jumping out of the water in the distance. Phi Phi itself looks spectacular as we approach it. Palm jungle topped cliffs, smooth yellow beaches; however minutes after we disembark and start our search for accommodation our hearts begin to sink: the place is like a termite mound, full of termites from Sweden, South Africa, England, Germany, Russia – it’s heaving! Most of the accommodation is full. The vast majority of budget accommodation (we have a look at just about every place in the backpacker area and a few in the town centre) is shabby, unclean, yet quite expensive (700THB+) and anything on the decent side of the scale sets you back 1500THB or more. The attitude of the guest house- and market stall owners is pushy and grumpy. Screw this for a holiday…

Aside from some luxury resorts scattered around the island (accessible by boat), saddled between the two rocky mounds there is one low-lying, inhabited strip of land, probably about 1km long, 100m wide, with a beach and bay on either side: Long beach on the South, Party beach on the North. Long beach is not too impressive but more quiet, although the entire bay is littered with boats. Party beach is beautiful but come 6PM you need ear muffs if you don’t want to damage your hearing. The music from these beach-front clubs is turned so loud that you cannot escape it. Even on the furthest opposite side of the strip where we stay, shielded by buildings and trees, we hear the booming through the night – like camping at Glastonbury festival.

We stay in the best location on the island as far as we’re concerned. It’s as far away from the commotion as you can get, behind the staff housing. A lady named Deng rents out a few bamboo bungalows there, clean and we get it at only 600THB per night (though we know prices went up to 800THB closer to Xmas). You do still hear the noise from Party Beach and the generator house is nearby, so you hear that running all night, but I think it’s the best you can get for the budget. Also Deng is really helpful and she lets us padlock our valuables in a rucksack and store it at her house for safekeeping during the day.

50 metres down the path at the beach front there’s a guy named Suleiman – he says he is Muslim but you’d be forgiven for thinking he’s perhaps Muslim-Rastafarian. He runs a little beach-bar-restaurant, very simple and away from it all. He originates from Phi Phi, from a fisherman family and he prepares set menus from the daily catch, authentic island style. Also he rents kayaks at a very reasonable rate (600THB/day), does fishing trips and is very helpful and accommodating.

We find what looks to us to be the most professional PADI dive centre (named Barakkuda) and enroll for our AOW (Advanced Open Water). We get new manuals and everything and they go about the knowledge reviews quite diligently. Our first day entails the deep- and navigation dives. Deep dive goes fine, we do some exercises at 30m and I find I am getting narc’ed at about 25m, which is quite an interesting experience. After that back to the boat for lunch (included) and off we go to the next dive site for the navigation dive. The navigation dive goes down the pan because we end up in a current which sweeps us way off course and we have to can the exercises and just treat it as a fun dive.

Back at the ranch, we arrange with the instructor to complete the exercises in shallow water in the afternoon as we’ve missed out and off we go to get some rest. At this point I start feeling really exhausted. I take a nap in the shade but don’t feel any better thereafter so we go back to the dive shop to tell the instructor we can’t do the afternoon and ask his advice about my condition. His response is to the effect, “if you’re not feeling itchy or numb you’re fine… so do you want to dive tomorrow?” If you talk to someone about lice your head will feel itchy thinking about it, and as I was examining myself it was pretty hard to tell, so I waited a bit longer, resting in our bungalow and soon I was vomiting like a fire hydrant. Off we go to the island hospital!

We’re obviously concerned about the possibility of decompression illness from the dives, but soon enough the doctor and nurse establish that I have a bacterial infection (I think from the chicken sandwich) and a fever of about 38 degrees, and I spend the rest of the night on a saline and antibiotic drip. This I have to repeat the next two days, followed by four days of tablets. A bit of a bummer, but it’s better than DCI (DeCompression Illness) and the nurse and doctor at the hospital are really excellent.

The dive instructor seemed a bit of a numpty because despite the symptoms I was describing, all he appeared to be interested in was whether we’d be diving the next day. The owner, at least, is professional enough to show some concern about my condition and gives us a discount on the dives we’ve done and sorts out the paperwork needed to let these count toward our certification, to be completed at another PADI centre at a later date. Choose your dive centres carefully kids!

Our best experience on Phi Phi is on our last two days: We arrange with a local boatsman named Ren to pick us up at 6AM and whisk us off to Phi Phi Leh island, the little one further to the South of Phi Phi Don.

It’s only beginning to dawn when we set off and we watch the sun rise over the sea on our way. At Phi Phi Leh, we are the first to arrive at Maya Bay (now famous for featuring in the movie The Beach).


This place is an absolute dream! Our boat runs ashore amongst dense schools of baby fish which we at first mistake for oil slick, but as you walk through them they separate like a blob around you. We spend an hour snorkeling there in crystal clear indigo waters, among beautiful reef fish and even a few back tip sharks. It is absolutely gorgeous!

If you don’t go really early in the morning though, the place is overrun by dozens of tour boats coming from Phuket and all over the place.

Ren also shows us a few other bays and lagoons around the island, where we swim some more and we return home around 10AM. (The whole thing costs us 1300THB).

We then pick up supplies and bait at the market and rent a kayak from Suleiman for a couple of days. He includes a cooler box and dry bag free of charge and gives us loads of advice about where we can go, camp and find food or help if we need it.

We set off paddling around the island, swimming and fishing. It’s great. Unfortunately I only catch one reef fish of edible size though.

At sunset we paddle to the deserted Lana Bay beach and set up our tent and a fire for cooking. Although we set up tent well away from the water, we later realize the tide is incoming and we have to move the thing further up-beach in the dark! Just what we need in our fatigued state!

We were exhausted, but the roasted vegetables and fish go down a treat, washed down with a couple of Leo beers. Then we sit on the beach for a while, no one else in sight, nothing to hear but jungle noises and the splashing up of the sea. Glowing green Phosphorus is visible in the waves and lays washed up on the white sand and glow worms flicker in the bushes and trees behind us. How romantic! Just too bad we’re so exhausted! 🙂

The next morning we get up early, I get the fire going and as we start cooking breakfast the first tour boats arrive. By the time food is ready, tourists are pouring off, setting up on the beach for their hour of paradise and everyone is surprised to see us there… two hobos with camping gear eating eggs and drinking hot coffee. 🙂

A funny thing is when we’re leaving Phi Phi, we notice that a few places are all decorated with Xmas tinsel and things, and for the first time we realize that it’s Christmas TOMORROW! and have to laugh at the fact that we completely by-passed the at-least-month’s worth of Xmas advertising that we’d have been surrounded by back home.

In conclusion, it must be said that the Phi Phi islands are without a doubt some of the most beautiful islands off Thailand and there are a fair few activities there (climbing, fishing, walking, diving, kayaking etc). If you’ve got an ample budget and are up for a few days of party with some interesting excursions in-between this is probably a good place to go. However if you’re looking to avoid large [drunken] crowds and want to enjoy a place of natural beauty and be able to get away from the fray, Phi Phi is not it – UNLESS maybe you have the budget to put yourself up in one of the secluded luxury resorts on the other sides of the island.