It is quite quick and easy to get from place to place on the Andaman Coast by ferry, although this may involve some shopping around because the price often depends entirely on which agent you get your ticket from (price discrepancies venture into the hundreds of Baht so it really is worthwhile to check your options). Compared to our bus trip, the ferries have been absolute bliss and as a result we have both developed a bit of mainland-phobia when it comes to travelling in Thailand.
From Krabi, our next stop was Phi Phi, just a pleasant hour and a half ferry ride away. After hearing such mixed reviews about the islands we were really keen to get there and make our own minds up, and were totally prepared to the take the good with the bad in whatever measures they were dealt. However, the view that greeted us as we rounded the corner into Tonsai Bay was so startlingly beautiful – crystal clear turquoise water framed by white sand and the intense greens of the surrounding karst formations that the line the beaches – that it was hard to imagine this island as anything but paradise.
From the pier we just wandered straight into ‘town,’ which is basically a series of serpentine footpaths lined with dive shops, travel agents and restaurants, with the odd Seven-Eleven/hotel/hostel here and there. We found that the further away from resort-lined Tonsai we walked, the cheaper our options became, but despite it being the ‘low’ season, many of the budget options we found were already full. So after about an hour of trudging around with our backpacks, we were so relieved to find a bungalow in our price range that we barely looked at it before our packs were on the floor and we were stretched out in front of the fan. Rainbow Bungalows (as we later discovered they were called) is really conveniently located near the heart of the backpacker action on the Loh Dalum side of the island, so it only took us 2 minutes to stroll to the beach. But after the glory of our approach into Tonsai Bay, Loh Dalum was like a punch in the nose. There was rubbish all over, the water was shallow, murky and so warm that it could never pass as refreshing, and yet the beach was crowded with people.
Neither of us wanted to admit our disappointment, but it was palpable.
It was only after night fell that we realised that this was that side of Phi Phi; the side that went hand in hand with more nefarious booze buckets, thumping clubs, 24hr tattoo parlours, late night pizza slices and a bar fitted with a Muay Thai (Kickboxing) Ring. Here tourists can pay exorbitant amounts of money to let off some testosterone by getting totally inebriated and fighting one another whilst their equally drunk mates cheer them on from the ringside. Once a night, the Thai ‘pro’s’ came on and ‘show them how it’s done’ by putting on a wonderfully impressive, but completely choreographed show of agile athleticism, much to the delight of their hopelessly coordination-impaired fans. Once again we went along for the ride (drunken tourist Muay Thai is a brilliant spectator sport!), and it was great fun for one night, but it seems that many people go to Phi Phi for this alone, and we didn’t fancy more of the “Same Same, but different” Khao San/ Bangla Rd vibe. So the next day we packed up again and went in search of something a little less rowdy.
It turned out that Phi Phi was actually much smaller than we’d originally thought, and it took just ten minutes to walk from the Loh Dalum side back to Tonsai (avoiding ‘town’), and somewhere in between we found Gypsy Village, where we got a perfectly adequate little pink bungalow, surrounded by Thai homes and playing children, for 350Baht a night. From here we frequented the Tonsai beaches (3minute walk) and explored a number of the others (Long Beach and Runtee seem like great options for people with a budget higher than 500 Baht a night), and got quite comfortable at a very restful establishment called The Hippie Beach Bar, where there was a steady diet of Chang, Cat Stevens, Tracy Chapman and all the Bobs. We also found an incredibly special restaurant called The Orange Place, which is a two-person operation that makes what is arguably the best food we’ve had in Thailand. Fronted by the loud, lively and endearing ‘Eat’ who plays waitress while the quieter kitchen maestro ‘Noi’ does his thing in the open kitchen behind, we returned night after night (and one morning) for both the food and the atmosphere.
Of course, no trip to Phi Phi is complete without making the trip out to Maya Bay on Phi Phi Ley (Phi Phi Don is the larger, main island), the famed location for the film The Beach. We’d heard from a trusted source that it is overrun by tour groups and motor boats during the day (thanks for the heads-up, Anton) so we opted for a sunset cruise instead. Phi Phi Ley is uninhabited as it is a national park devoted to the harvesting of birds nests (for soup), so our first port of call was Viking Cave (so-named due to the rock art depicting Viking long boats within) where we could see the harvesting set-up. After that we were treated to great bit of snorkelling in the lagoon at Pileh Bay, and then it was on to Loh Samah Bay, where we swam to a rope bridge and hiked over the island to Maya. The beach at Maya Bay is stunning, and deserving of all the attention it gets so we didn’t mind all the people. We just sat back with all the others and watched the sun dip below it’s craggy forested peaks.
One of the best things about doing the cruise was that it gave us plenty of opportunities to scope out potential snorkelling spots for the next day ,when we hired a kayak and paddled ourselves out to the goodies. There are plenty of chartered snorkelling tours that go out each day, but one of the most heart-breaking realities about Phi Phi is how evidently its beauty is being rapidly torn apart by the excessive boat traffic in the bays (and human traffic in general). Many patches that looked so promising turned out to be coral graveyards where the sea bed had obviously been churned up by motors, dive-traffic and what seems to be a widely practised norm of anchoring on the choral. Despite this, we did find some magical spots where the sea life was unimaginably vibrant, but bobbing along with our kayak amongst all the massive speedboats, we could not help thinking ‘how long can this last?’ It seems that Phi Phi is the kind of island where it’s hard to find a way to be ‘part of the solution’ rather than ‘the problem’ and after the wonder of the first few days wears off, it does start to weigh rather heavily.
So after four days we left our beautiful, but shell-shocked, paradise for Koh Lanta, an island further South that promised a chilled hippie vibe and long days of nothingness, which it delivered, to an extent. After a couple of days just lounging around the pool and the restaurant at our budget-friendly resort (the beach wasn’t much to speak of), we once again braved a scooter rental. A large part of the island is protected forest reserve so driving around gave us the chance to take in some beautiful scenery. But overall, we wouldn’t really recommend Lanta over more time in some of the other places we’ve been (especially Krabi), even though it turned out to be a good, affordable spot from which we could do the necessary planning for our travels to come.
The original plan to jump from Koh Lipe to Pulau Langkawi in Malaysia was foiled by low-season transport issues (we’re thinking Dec might be a better time anyway), so a very reasonably priced (ninety minute) Air Asia flight was all it took to get us down to Kuala Lumpur, the starting point of the Malaysian chapter of our journey.