Paradise defined: Koh Phi Phi, Thailand

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October, 2009

If you’ve never been to Koh Phi Phi, then put down everything you’re doing, and get on the nearest plane/train/boat towards the place. Unless of course, sheer limestone cliffs jutting from turquoise waters, and jungle-lined beaches covered in wild monkeys aren’t your thing. Then maybe you should just stay home.

Thailand 351Seriously though, while this island is just epically beautiful, it definitely isnt for everyone. The island’s main (and basically only) town is completely over run by backpackers, and there are really only about 5 different types of shops comprising the claustrophobic corridors: bars, restaurants, dive shops, massage parlors, and mini-markets.  If you’re 20 years old and looking to scope out the opposite sex on the beach all day, get scuba certified between drinking bouts, and get as drunk as humanly possible each and every night on 2-for-1 buckets of rum and coke, then look no further than Koh Phi Phi.

That being said, the island isn’t all youthful drunkenness and debauchery. Hillside bungalows and perfect white sand beaches lie just around the corner at Long Beach, reachable via a brief long-tail boat ride or a circuitous hike Thailand 198through the jungle along the coast. Long Beach is one of those picture-perfect honeymoon getaways where beachfront massage cabanas face the open ocean, and smooth reggae vibes waft from the speakers of the nearest beach bar. It’s a complete world away, both figuratively, as well as financially, from the backpacker scene back in town.

We, however, were not actually staying at Long Beach, but in fact had rented an apartment in town for the week. Our “landlord” as we like to call him, was a 19 year old  boy (who looked 13) who would, in rapid fire, barely legible English come by each day to collect the rent and give us fresh towels. There was no reception, no front desk, not even a sign. Just a simple door in a wall squeezed between two small clothing shops on the waterfront that led to the upstairs room. If you weren’t looking for it, you’d never know it was there. On numerous occasions I actually had trouble finding it, it was that “tucked away”. What it lacked in conventionality however, it made up for with the view. From our own private second story balcony, we not only had a great people watching perch for the busy street below, but also a complete panorama of the green cliffs, turquoise water, and myriad anchored boats Thailand 169gracing the calm waters of the bay. A perfect spot for a morning coffee and book reading. Like I said, this place was relaxing.

Seeing as we had a number of days to relax, we managed some time as well to get out and explore the island. While Heather opted to sleep in (and feeling financially guilty about a dropped camera lens overboard on the ferry from Phuket…ouch), I headed out early one morning to do some diving with Island Divers towards Bidah Nok and the Marine Park. In search of a leopard shark, I was not disappointed. A 7 ft. leopard shark greeted us 10 minutes into our first dive, and after a good 2 minutes of observation it skittishly swam away from its patch of sand, wagging its strong tail off into the open blue. Pretty cool stuff.

On the lunch break between the two dives, our boat headed over to Phi Phi Ley, an offshore island, national park, and notably, the place where they filmed the Leonardo DiCaprio movie “The Beach”. Put simply, never before have I seen such a tragic example of paradise destroyed. While “the beach” that they filmed it on, Maya Bay, arguably has the potential to be one of the most scenic places I have ever seen, it has been completely obliterated by hordes of camera toting yahoos looking to “check it off their list”. On a 200 meter stretch of sand, no less than 35 speedboats and long-tail boats Thailand 160jockeyed for position, each spilling 10-20 giddy tourists out onto the crowded shore. Backpackers drunk at 10am, camcorder toting groups of Japanese and Koreans, topless Europeans, speedo clad old hairy men, you name it, and they were all there contributing to the chaos. Feeling guilty by my mere presence, I quickly ducked back towards just-as-crowded Loh Samah Bay, completely content with leaving Maya Bay behind.

One incredibly worthwhile trip that we did take was renting a kayak and ducking around the corner to Monkey Beach. As the name would imply, it is a beach that is covered in wild monkeys.  What’s more, however, is that it offers good snorkeling right off of the beach, the water is warm and blue, the sand hot and white, and it is completely undeveloped. Accessible only by boat, the only signs of human presence are the group tour boats that occasionally pull up and feed the Thailand 334monkeys nuts and berries for the amusement of the camera wielding crowds.  One lady we saw got attacked by monkeys in her kayak. Good reason to not feed wild monkeys. All in all a pretty great place to spend an afternoon.

For the best view in all of Koh Phi Phi, head up out of town to the Viewpoint, where you can get a birds eye view of the island from over 500 ft. up. From here, you can continue around the back of the mountain towards Long Beach as well as to Runtee Beach, which while I did not make it to, looked to be the most pristine, undeveloped spot on the island. If I were to give anyone advice for Koh Phi Phi, I’d say skip Maya Bay and spend the money on a private long-tail boat to Runtee instead.

Finally rounding out our time on the island, we submitted to the party-minded subculture and headed out to Legacy Bar and restaurant for a half-moon party throwdown. An incredibly talented guitar player from Kuala Lumpur serenaded the crowd who had come early for the advertised free dinner buffet (duh…) , and the night progressed on from there into the usual Thailand 401fire dancing and booze fueled blur that an (insert moon phase here) moon party offers. While many younger revelers made the all night binge ’til dawn at various half-moon parties around town, us old timers called it a night around 1am with some late night kebabs, banana Thai pancakes, and a morning date with some Ibuprofen.

If nothing else, besides the striking natural beauty, Koh Phi Phi reminded us that we’re simply not 20 year-old backpackers, anymore. And believe it or not, we’re actually really alright with that.

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