FEEDING THE FISH OF PHI PHI ISLAND
The stunning Phi Phi Islands are just off the coast, easily reachable from Ao Nang, Krabi, and Phuket. Their beauty and accessibility has made these islands extremely popular with tourists visiting this part of Thailand. We had heard so much about these tropical paradises, especially Koh Phi Phi Don and Koh Phi Phi Leh, that today we signed up for a speed boat tour of the islands. And after a long day of snorkelling, swimming, sunbathing, and dodging crowds we can attest that the Phi Phi Islands are, in fact, glorious. Their popularity, however, has just about ruined them and we would strongly recommend that anyone looking for serenity and solitude by the sea look elsewhere in Thailand.
There are 6 Phi Phi Islands, with Koh Phi Phi Don being the largest and most developed, and Koh Phi Phi Leh being the most photographed. These were the 2 islands our speed boat tour stopped at today, starting with Koh Phi Phi Leh.
Made famous by the 2000 movie “The Beach”, this 2km-long island is uninhabited and undeveloped (camping is allowed and there are basic bathroom facilities there, but that’s it). No doubt when the first backpackers and intrepid adventurers arrived in this region in the 1970s the island must have seemed like paradise, with its startling bright white sands, limpid turquoise waters, dramatic karst peaks*, and lush vegetation.
*The karst mountains of the Andaman Coast are a continuation of the same ancient seabed that stretches from Southern China, across Vietnam, Laos, and Northern Thailand.
Those idyllic days are long gone. Today Koh Phi Phi Leh is like a circus, with more than 1,000 tourists per day descending on this small outcropping of limestone and silica. The most popular stop of all: Maya Bay. This tiny stretch of sand was where “The Beach” was filmed and, though still beautiful, was the most horrendous stop of our day. We were dropped off there by our boat captain and given almost an hour to “enjoy this beautiful beach”. We tried desperately to find a quiet(ish) corner of the beach to sit and do as instructed, but to no avail. The sheer number of people made it impossible to enjoy Maya Bay and we were actually really glad to leave the chaos behind.
Leaving Maya Bay, we proceeded to the next stop: Leh Lagoon. Located on the Western side of Koh Phi Phi Leh, on the opposite side of the island to Maya Bay, this small lagoon is impossibly green and stunningly beautiful as well. Surrounded on 3 sides by 100m-high limestone cliffs, Leh Lagoon is very sheltered and was once a haven for spawning fish and seabirds. Like Maya Bay, however, it is today an aquatic circus awash with longtail boats, speed boats, and the odd brave/fool-hardy swimmer.
Leh Lagoon was incredible – how could you not fall in love with water this clean and clear?! But the number of boats motoring around the bay put us off completely; we didn’t dare dive in for a swim lest we get sliced up by all the engines!
By this stage we were beginning to despair that our day trip to the Phi Phi Islands was going to be a total disaster, but luckily things got better when we made our way across to Koh Phi Phi Don, the largest of the island chain.
Once populated exclusively by fishermen, Koh Phi Phi Don was “discovered” by tourists in the 1990s and, since then, numerous resorts and hotels have sprung up across the 8km by 3km island. There are frequent ferries from Krabi and Phuket that bring visitors here by the thousand, and much of the central part of the island is as over-developed and touristy as the mainland. Luckily the island is big enough, however, that finding a relatively quiet spot to snorkel, swim, or kayak is not too hard.
Our boat stopped at Yong Gasem Bay first, where the main attraction was all the coral. There were large brain corals; bright pink and purple stag horn corals; and a whole variety of soft corals moving around with the currents like trees in the wind. In amongst all of these were lots of little sergeant fish and blue-fleshed giant clams. It was awesome!
From there our boat took us around the point to Nui Bay for even more frolicking with the fish. The water here was teeming with parrot fish, angel fish, and a whole lot of other piscine critters. With our heads under water all we could hear was the sounds of the fish nibbling away at the coral and the movement of the sands as the currents moved round us. Whether its snorkelling or diving, time underwater is always magical – especially in places like this where the sea teems with life.
After we’d had enough snorkelling and swimming, we pulled up on the boat for the remainder of the afternoon and lounged on the front deck enjoying the gorgeous views around us. There was just 1 other boat in the bay with us and the serenity was marvellous. Seems you CAN find your own corner of paradise out here, you just need to avoid the most popular beaches and bays!
Our day out at the Phi Phi Islands ended around 3:00pm, with the hour-long speed boat ride back to Ao Nang proving to be as uncomfortable as the ride out*, though no less spectacular in terms of scenery.
*Speed boats are not recommended for those that get sea sick easily, don’t like bumpy rides, or for anyone with concerns regarding spinal readjustment.
We’re back on the mainland again now, reflecting on how beautiful the Phi Phi Islands are and how damaging uncontrolled mass tourism can be. Much of the coral around the islands has been destroyed and even today we saw a couple of stupid tourists standing on the coral, not realising the damage their careless feet were wreaking on the delicate ecosystem below. And with Thailand a cheap holiday destination for a growing number of Chinese, Korean, Indian, and other tourists, the numbers of visitors to Phi Phi are set to grow even more over the coming years. We can only hope that the campaign currently running in Thailand to have Phi Phi tourist numbers capped is successful, before its natural beauty is completely destroyed.