This small, crowded and exquisitely beautiful island on the south Andaman coast of Thailand is one of the most visited islands of the country, all thanks to a certain Di Caprio. The tsunami of 2004 nearly wiped out everything but things are back on track faster than ever. Most tourists come here for the typical 3 nights 4 days package, some even less. The small amount of time will mean that everyone is running around doing the same thing. So, to really enjoy your vacation you must be out-of-phase with the rest of the crowd. Here’s how…..
Don’t stay in Ao Dalum or Tonsai. That’s just asking for trouble, unless you are a gap-year or backpacker. Then, and only then, does it make sense. These are actually very nice beaches but you won’t see anything with all the long-tail boats around. And when they go away in the mornings, you’ll get the jet boats from Phuket doing their 3 hour tours of the island. Every restaurant will be full and every spot on the beach taken. No, to really find your peace, go either north to Haad Laem Thong, east to Haad Ran Tee, or to Long beach, just south of Tonsai. I prefer Long Beach. There are only 4 resorts there and that’s what makes it great. Of course the downside is that it has next to nothing in nightlife or restaurants (except for the ones inside these resorts). It’s also a 25 minute walk over a concrete track to town. Just carry a torch at night. One or two places in the middle require carefull crossing over in the dark but the walk is not really strenuous.
Personal items. For personal effect I would strongly recommend carrying a torch. This island has no streetlights, no roads and is a jungle all over. To go from one place to the other may require negotiating mangroves trees with twisted roots, and smashed-out gap-years who love to sing after having 4 buckets. The other things to carry are a strong bug spray (not just a mosquito spray, but the stronger variety), as everywhere you go you’ll find creepy crawlies. Carry as little luggage as possible. I know, this holds true for all vacations, but here on Phi Phi, with no motorised transport and only footpaths, you’ll go nuts dragging suitcases around, especially if you don’t have someone from your hotel to help you. I’ve seen people with hernias you won’t believe, which didn’t exist 3 days ago. Next to diving, my favourite past-time in Phi Phi is to sit with a beer in one of the pubs near the pier and watch tourists standing at the boat pier, lobster-red in the sun, sweating from every pore, with 300 lbs of god-knows-what as luggage, and desperately phoning their hotel to send some unlucky staff member to drag their stuff up the rocky paths. When the poor help arrives, he’s shitting bricks seeing what he is up against. When this is over, I wait for the departure of the afternoon ferry to Phuket where the same tourists are dropped off at the pier entry and told to carry their stuff up the boat. Most of the German and Swedish swear words I’ve learnt are from here. My luggage mantra is – if you can do without it for 2 days, you can do without it the entire vacation. But this doesn’t apply to your wife. (Ok fine, maybe it does, but don’t tell her that).
Walk up to the Phi Phi viewpoint. It’s a good 30-40 minute climb depending on your alcohol level from the previous night. Carry water and a little snack. The view of Dalum and Tonsai are fabulous. If possible, time it for the sunset hour. It’s a little tricky coming down but really worth the photos you get from up there.
Visit Maya Bay as early as possible in the morning. By 9.00 am there are already boats lining up and cluttering the beach. The regular tours will leave you very disappointed. It’s not their fault. There are sometimes above 30 boats anchored here with screaming tourists flinging water bottles around. The best way would be to hire a long tail (perhaps for the whole day which can include monkey beach and shark point for snorkelling) and be here at 8.00 am. The photos you’ll get of this pristine beach would be something that Leonardo di Caprio would have got the day after the shooting of The Beach was packed up.
Do an Island/Snorkeling tour. There are literally dozens of operator for these and every resort will hook you up with one. The trick here is simple – always go for the morning tours. The afternoon ones are for those whose hangovers are not settled till lunch. All the gap years and generally the younger crowd go for the afternoon tours as most have late nights. The morning ones will see those who want to enjoy the experience rather than just crossing it off their list. Most of these will include Bamboo and Mosquito islands (don’t look at me, I didn’t name them), Maya Bay (there’s really no snorkeling here, just dead coral), Phi Phi leh (excellent snorkeling with barracudas and groupers swimming about) etc. If you want photos of the sunset (sadly, very few places on phi phi offer sunsets) you will have to go with the afternoon tours, as they especially wait around in the open sea for the sun to sink. The 7 island snorkeling tour is perfect for this. For the more experiences ones, see if you can find a tour which includes the Shark point. It’s actually just off shore from Long beach and has lots of sightings of small leopard sharks swimming at the bottom. It’s possible to swim from the beach itself, but the long tails will cut your path. I much rather take my chances with the sharks than these boats.
Dive!! For all of phi phi’s beauty as an island, my main reason for coming here is usually the waters around. It’s one of the most abundant marine ecological systems in the world. Within an hour’s boat ride you’ll get to see everything from Black tips reef sharks to Manta rays. The coral reefs are over-abundant and support a wealth of fish, turtles and sharks. Most people I know don’t even go to phi phi for the beaches or bars (phuket offers something similar) but for scuba diving. Choose your operator wisely. There are the only ones between you and a good time. They can be quite predatorial while you walk past their shops but all of them have dive instructors who are well qualified and who know the dive spots intimately. I went with Barracuda diving and Phi Phi Scuba and found both good. They all offer pretty much the same prices, as competition is high. Some of the more popular dive-spots are Hin Daeng, Hin Muang, Ko Bidah and for night time diving try ko samah bay.
Bar hopping in the evening. The bars in Tonsai and Dalum have great fire-shows if they are on the beach, and some in the village have Muay Thai fights, like Reggae bar. There are even bars dedicated to English football fans. Inevitably all the partying will make you end up on the beach, whichever one is the closest. The beach bars like Carlitos and Ibiza are also great dance bars.
The quiet beaches. Try the northern beach of Haad Laem Thong or the eastern one on Haad Ran Tee. If you are looking for absolute seclusion, these are hard to beat. They are only accessible by long tails and have only in-house restaurants and practically no night scene, but that’s what you want right? They offer the chance to stay at phi phi and get a good night sleep from 10 pm. Everywhere else, it’s just wishful thinking.
Avoid the buckets. If you want to experiment, then go ahead by all means. But be warned, they are easily spiked and the Taurine/Caffeine content will make sure that you have bug eyes all through the following day. (I know someone who had a painfull 24 hours erection, but that’s just wishful thinking).In my case, I only remember having the first two; the rest went down real fast; like a paraglider with a canopy the size of a postage stamp. They wreck your system, but still good if you intend to party all night.