Our three hour ferry ride landed us on a dock overrun with people getting off the ferry, people waiting to board the ferry and local guides waiting to lead people to their hotels (there are no cars on the island, you walk or bike everywhere) or sell people stuff.
After pushing through the crowds, we saw a man with a sign for our hotel, another budget hotel with a private room and bath a 15 minute walk from the dock.
Ko Phi Phi was hit very very hard by the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2008, with almost the entire island overrun by a massive wave. Many people died (locals and tourists) and much rebuilding took place in the years since. You can search on YouTube to see tourist videos of the wave crashing in, it is horrifying.
This is an island of amazing beauty, with back to back half moon bays, rolling hills and stark cliffs. It was in a cove near Ko Phi Phi that Leonardo DiCaprio washed ashore in the movie “The Beach” (we visited this spot).
Unfortunately, Ko Phi Phi is a travel hub for young backpackers and partners. This wouldn’t normally be a problem, but this fact combined with the Thai government’s obvious lack of care for the environment of the area means that the entire island is quickly degrading into an ecological disaster.
There is a lot of algae floating in the bays, tons of longboats waiting on and offshore to ferry tourists around (with idling motors), and a barely functional open sewer system that leaves an unpleasant aroma over the island at all hours (they are building a sewage treatment facility to address this). The smells were as bad as anything I smelled travelling through India, and here we were on a supposed tropical paradise island! The algae (or whatever it was) was gross enough that we didn’t swim very much at the beach.
The average age of people on the island was about 25, and it was clear that partying was the objective. We didn’t venture out to the beach at night, but it turns into a long string of parties once the sun goes down. During all hours you would see people walking around with little buckets (like the kind kids use to build sandcastles) filled with hard alcohol and mixers, drinking from them with thick straws. When you see someone with a “bucket” before lunch, you know they are in for trouble. We stuck to our fruit shakes for the most part.
Further inland, the same is true, as there are an abnormally large number of bars for such a small island, and the music is thumping at night. Luckily, our hotel was about 10 minutes walk from the craziness, and relatively quiet.
After a couple days we were itching to get away from the crowds and booked a snorkeling trip around the island, including a visit to Maya Beach, the famous one featured in the movie, “The Beach”. We didn’t see much fish (not surprised due tone number of boats at all the spots we stopped at), but the views of the island from afar were magnificent.
Arriving at “the Beach” was a hysterical sight. The entire stretch of sand was packed with boats (aside from a 100 meter section roped off for swimmers). It was beyond belief. Amazingly, despite the crowds it was still gorgeous and worth the trip. However, unless the Thai government steps in to control tourism and protect nature, the entire area is going to environmentally collapse. It may already be too late.
I want to be fair in my summary of Ko Phi Phi in saying that we did not not venture to beaches away from the main bay. We heard that taking a 10-20 minute longboat ride (they are everywhere on the island) to another part of the island will get you away from the crowds, and the water in less trafficked areas is clear and pollution/algae free. Maybe next time. The visual beauty of the island, both from boat and from an elevated view from the hilltop lookout we hiked to, is also remarkable,
If you are planning to visit Thailand, I do recommend going to Ko Phi Phi for a couple nights, but be ready for the crowds and the partying, and plan to go elsewhere if you want to relax. It also won’t be a good travel destination for kids IMO. If you book a hotel far from the main beach/downtown area, you will find less noise, better smells, and more relaxing beaches.
After three nights in Ko Phi Phi we caught a ferry to Ko Lanta where we finally found the sunny, sandy and peaceful beach we were looking for in coming to Southern Thailand.
More on Ko Lanta in the next blog post.