Monday, 17 September 2012

Travel: Koh Phi Phi, Andaman Coast, Southern Thailand

Koh Phi Phi: One of my favourite places in the world.

Maya Bay, the real life location of The Beach.
If I had to write a one sentence review of Koh Phi Phi it would simply be this, ‘Koh Phi Phi is one of my favourite places in the world.’  Given how big the world is and all the amazing places to be found, that’s quite a big compliment, but it’s totally deserved.  With Koh Phi Phi, it’s as if someone has read my mind and discovered all the ingredients necessary to create my perfect travel destination, and then used those ingredients to create Koh Phi Phi.

To go into more detail, Koh Phi Phi is a tropical island off the coast of Southern Thailand, and when travellers refer to Koh Phi Phi they’re generally meaning Phi Phi Don, the larger of the two main islands that make up Koh Phi Phi and also where all the accommodation is located, but technically speaking Koh Phi Phi also includes several other smaller islands.  Phi Phi Leh is the smaller of the two main islands and is where the movie The Beach was filmed (with Maya Bay providing the famous beach setting) and although there is no permanent accommodation on Phi Phi Leh (to help protect its natural beauty), it is easily accessible on a half day or full day boat trip from the main island of Phi Phi Don which you can book from any of the numerous tour agents situated around town.

Maya Bay is a massively popular tourist trip so you’ll inevitably find it absolutely crammed with people when you arrive and therefore looking considerably different to how it looks in the movie, but it’s still a really nice beach and well worth checking out.  And if you prefer the option of sharing the beach with a smaller crowd then there are also overnight trips available where numbers are restricted to no more than about fifty visitors.  Although the overnight option is considerably more pricey, it’s nevertheless a very popular trip, especially with younger more party orientated backpackers.

Welcome To Paradise ... a bold claim,
but one not without its merits.
Phi Phi Lei is quite a small island (Lei is actually Thai for little), but as well as the famous Maya Bay, there’s also a short trail you can follow which leads you to a shallow rock pool and viewpoint at the other side of the island and along the way fans of The Beach may recognise the general scenery from where the morally vacant characters from the movie callously dumped the dude who got his leg bitten off by a shark.

Maya Bay is only one of the many stop-offs on the popular boat trips though, with other places visited including Monkey Beach (as the name suggests a beach which is home to several monkeys), Viking Cave and also a couple of pleasant snorkelling spots.  The full day trip also passes Mosquito Island and Bamboo Island for further snorkelling opportunities, although these do feel as if they have been tagged on just to stretch the trip out to the full day, so for anyone on a tight timetable the half day boat trip is fine.

Looking down on Koh Phi Phi from the viewpoint.
Koh Phi Phi isn’t all about boat trips, however, and there’s also plenty of other things to keep you occupied during your time on the island.  Perhaps the most popular of these is the short trek up to the viewpoint which offers an excellent panoramic view of the island.  While not an overly strenuous walk, it can nevertheless be reasonably tiring and leave you hot and sweaty if undertaken during the peak of the midday sun and most people therefore tend to do the trek later in the afternoon when the temperatures are slightly cooler.  Sunset in particular is a popular time to visit the viewpoint both for the slightly cooler temperatures and also the chance of catching a picturesque sunset to add to the impressiveness of the view.

To go back to my opening statement, I’m not alone in my high opinion of Koh Phi Phi, and during high season you often find that literally every guest house and hotel in the main village of Tonsai end up fully booked.  I would therefore strongly recommend arriving on one of the morning ferries as these arrive just when people are checking out and therefore give you the best chance of finding a room in one of the more reasonably priced accommodations on the island.  The few budget options on Koh Phi Phi are mainly situated on the lane behind the top end of Tonsai Beach, about a ten minute walk from the ferry port.  Arguably the cheapest option on the island is The Rock Backpackers Hostel which also boasts a restaurant in the distinctive shape of a boat making it easy to find for new arrivals.  If The Rock is full then the lane opposite has several budget options but these can sometimes fill up very quickly so once again I would stress the importance of arriving early.

Long Beach ... less crowded than Tonsai beach.
The vast majority of the accommodation on offer on Koh Phi Phi is situated within a ten minute walk from the ferry port in Tonsai village but another popular spot is the slightly quieter Long Beach.  Even if you don’t stay there, Long Beach is well worth a visit as the beach is a lot less crowded and also cleaner and more picturesque than the main beach of Tonsai Beach.  My own personal favourite spot is halfway along where a cluster of trees are home to a selection of hammocks where you can lay back, chill out and enjoy the shade.  If you’re feeling lazy you can hire a longtail boat to get you from Tonsai to Long Beach but it’s actually a really pleasant walk which passes several nice secluded small beaches on the way, so I would recommend walking there and then maybe getting a longtail boat back if you find that all that relaxing in the sun has taken the energy out of you!

The famous cat that chills out in the fridge
at Papaya Restaurant.
As well as the beaches and the boat trips, Koh Phi Phi also boasts some of my favourite restaurants in the world, with Papaya Restaurant, Cosmic Restaurant and Banana Sombrero probably at the top of a long list of many.  Papaya Restaurant in particular is extremely popular with visitors to Koh Phi Phi due to its extremely tasty food and very generous portions.  Many people struggle to finish a full meal so a popular option if travelling in a group is to order maybe four main courses between six people and then sample a bit of everything in the form of a Thai buffet.  Due to Papaya Restaurant’s popularity you may find you have to queue to get in but it’s definitely worth the wait.

Koh Phi Phi is also an excellent destination for backpackers looking for party orientated night-life and therefore as you’d expect there are plenty of party spots worth visiting, with the general routine being to start off at the bars in town and then gradually work your way down to the clubs down on the beach as the night progresses.

Backpacker girls taking on the Muay Thai
challenge at Reggae Bar for a free bucket.
A good starting point is Dojo Bar which is pretty central and attracts a good crowd every evening with its blasting dance music and nightly drink offers.  Another popular choice is the bizarrely named Reggae Bar which never plays reggae but does boast its own muay thai boxing ring with nightly fights between local boxers.  These professional fights tend to be a bit staged and the best entertainment actually comes from watching the amateur fights between drunken backpackers.  To tempt people into fighting, the Reggae Bar offer a free bucket* for anyone accepting the challenge to get in the ring and fight a fellow backpacker, and the drunken haphazard nature of some of these fights make them excellent entertainment.  Jordan’s Irish Bar (usually just referred to as The Irish Bar) and The Banana Bar (or Rooftop Bar) are also worth a visit, with the nightly movies shown early on at The Banana Bar making it a good choice for anyone wanting to start the night off at a gentle pace before winding things up as the night goes on.

* As the name suggests, 'buckets' are plastic buckets more usually used to make sandcastles on the beach, but in this case filled with half a bottle of spirits, a bottle of Red Bull, a can of Coke or Sprite and topped off with ice.

Backpackers enjoying the Koh Phi Phi
party vibe down at the clubs on the beach.
As already mentioned, a night out on Koh Phi Phi inevitably seems to lead you eventually down to the clubs on the beach and the first thing you’ll notice is that a lot of the clubs all seem to blend into one with most of them having a similar personality.  Two of the most popular are Slinky and Woody's where the DJs play similar dance music every night and the theme is very definitely dancing on tables and podiums, but if you head further along the beach you’ll find a couple of more chilled out places where you can lay back and relax on Asian style cushions and listen to more varied styles of music.

Koh Phi Phi isn’t all about the partying though, and it also attracts couples and families, as well as backpackers looking to take a diving course, so it appeals to a wide range of travellers.  One of the best compliments I can pay Koh Phi Phi is that time and time again I meet travellers who originally planned to visit for only two or three days but then end up staying for six or seven days or even longer.

'Live the life you love, love the life you live.'
To illustrate why I love it so much, as you head along one of the paths down to Tonsai Beach you pass a snack shack with the words, ‘Live The Life you Love.  Love The Life You Live’ painted in big letters on the side of the wall.  Whenever I visit Koh Phi Phi I am very definitely living the life I love and for anyone lucky enough to live permanently in Koh Phi Phi it must surely be a very easy task indeed to love the life you live.

To sum things up, Koh Phi Phi is an essential travel destination for anyone planning a backpacking trip to South East Asia.

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And if you want to read more about why Koh Phi Phi is so great then this is an interesting post on which I recommend reading:
Top Ten Best Things About Koh Phi Phi

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