Southeast Asia Vacation Part 3: A Week in Phi Phi Islands Paradise

We knew we wanted to end our vacation with some beach time. But how do you decide where to go, when Southeast Asia has some of the world’s best beaches? Since we were already going to be in Thailand, the question became, do we go to Krabi, Phuket, or the Phi Phi Islands? Ultimately, we liked the thought of getting away from the mainland and hopefully being around fewer tourists.

Thailand’s Phi Phi Islands (pronounced PEE PEE) are comprised of two main islands, Ko Phi Phi Don and Ko Phi Phi Leh, and several tiny islands — “Ko” means island. Ever since the movie The Beach (2000) featuring Leonardo DiCaprio was filmed there, the islands have become an increasingly popular tourist destination.

Getting there was an adventure in and of itself. We flew into Phuket, drove to the Rassada Pier, took a ferry to the Tonsai Pier on Ko Phi Phi Don, then took a long-tail boat to our resort. Pulling up to the islands was an experience I’ll never forget:

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Have you ever seen limestone cliffs like that? It was breathtaking. For the entire week we spent on the Phi Phi Islands, we felt like we were in paradise. It helped that we picked the best resort on Ko Phi Phi Don to stay at, too. The Phi Phi Island Village Beach Resort sits on Loh Ba Gao Bay, one of the longest beaches on the island. It’s a large resort where you sleep in tropical huts, and features multiple restaurants, a huge pool area, a recreation center for tours, and more. It was just perfect. We had plenty of time daily to sightsee and then come back to the resort to enjoy the pool and beach until dinner time.

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The beach at the resort is a shallow, white sand beach with crystal clear waters. It was fascinating to see it recede so far at low tide. Here are before and after photos.

Low tide:

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High tide:

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There’s also a small village right behind the resort, not even a five-minute walk away. The hotel staff don’t really publicize its existence too much, since the village has several convenience stores where you can buy things much cheaper than you can at the resort’s gift shop. We went into the village multiple times to buy sunscreen, body lotion, supplies for our kayaking trip, and to eat dinner one night, since they also have a few restaurants there.

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If you keep walking through the village and cross over the bridge, you can walk to Loh Lana Bay. The island is a narrow peninsula there, so it’s a really short walk. We ventured here one day and not only came across cows on the beach, but also passed some of the villagers’ homes. We were a bit taken aback to see such poor living conditions, considering the fact that we were staying on a massive, fancy resort just a hop skip away.

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Our first excursion with the hotel was an early-bird tour to Ko Phi Phi Leh. It gets you to the famous Maya Bay before the mad rush of tourist boats from Phuket and Krabi arrive. It was absolutely pristine. Here are some videos Will took of us arriving in Maya Bay. You have to see it to believe it.

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We went for a short walk here and discovered a spectacular view, too:

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After some swimming at Maya Bay and some snorkeling at Loh Samah Bay

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… they took us to Pileh Lagoon for the best half hour of swimming in my life. I couldn’t believe this place. I felt like I was in a dream. We jumped off the boat and into perfect temperature waters, perfectly calm. We didn’t have a worry in the world. I wanted to stay there forever.

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From there, we stopped by the Viking Cave (where they harvest edible bird’s nests) and pulled up to Monkey Bay to get a close-up of the monkeys.

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A few days into our stay at the resort, they moved us to a different hut, closer to the beach. Here are some other views of the resort grounds:

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Our next adventure on Ko Phi Phi Don was far from what we planned. We thought, let’s rent a kayak for the afternoon, kayak around the island here and there, go snorkeling, eat lunch at one of the beaches, and have a fun, relaxing time. Hahaha. We rented a tri-kayak, jackets, and snorkeling gear, ordered some boxed lunches, stocked up on water bottles, bought a waterproof bag for our valuables, a waterproof case for my cell phone, and some bungee cords to tie everything down. We had hats, slathered on the sunscreen, and Will had his GoPro. We were all set.

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Roughly six hours later, we were back at the resort, without the kayak. We had abandoned the kayak at Lo Lanah Bay and carried everything else back. What happened, you ask? The recreation center had suggested we kayak north and then west around the island and visit the various bays and beaches. Problem was, as soon as we rounded the corner, we hit rough waters.

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It was so intense, it took us two hours to get to Monkey Bay (aka Yongasem on the map). There were a couple of meltdowns, shouting and tears as we paddled and paddled and seemed to get nowhere.

Ko Phi Phi Don map
Ko Phi Phi Don map

On top of being exhausted from fighting the waves, when we arrived at Monkey Bay, we made the mistake of opening our boxed lunches. We were starving. BIG mistake. Within seconds of opening the food, I hear Will shouting behind me. I turn around to see a huge monkey inches away from Will’s face, slurping on his juice box! Then I look over and see several more monkeys coming our way. So much for lunch. Let’s just say we booked it out of there as fast as possible. I threw everything back into the kayak and got it to the water, as one monkey came after me (they swim) and Will tried to rescue the Ray-Bans he’d set down on the rocks before the monkeys grabbed them.

Here are some scenes from Monkey Bay. Unfortunately, no footage of the attack — too busy trying to get out of there!

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We managed to stop and finish eating at Loh Dalum Bay

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… and then paddled our way to Nui Bay for a short break, while we still had some daylight. Yep, waters were still choppy!

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Shortly after that, we ditched the kayak at the next bay, Lo Lanah Bay, and walked back to the hotel. The ocean was just way too choppy and we didn’t feel safe trying to round the island again. We got back to the hotel sunburnt and exhausted, never got to snorkel, and we’d been attacked by monkeys. But, we came away with some good stories. Looking on the bright side!

We also went for a short “hike” on the island. There are two viewpoints on Ko Phi Phi Don. I’m not sure what this one was called, but it’s the northernmost viewpoint, the closest to our hotel. While the sign says it takes 40 minutes to hike up, I don’t think it even took us 20 minutes. It was a bit tricky in certain parts, though, where the trail markers were lying on the ground and there seemed to be no clear path to take. It wasn’t very well maintained. We eventually reached some kind of viewpoint…. It was pretty enough for us. 🙂

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I think it was our last full day on the Phi Phi Islands that we finally went scuba diving. We hadn’t been diving since our honeymoon in Belize over a year before, so we were excited. We booked our trip through the resort’s recreation center and ended up having the two-story dive boat all to ourselves, which was pretty sweet. Here they were trucking us out to the boat during low tide.

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Both of our dives were at Ko Phi Phi Leh, at 15 meters along the Palong Wall and then at 16 meters near Pileh. While it’s always fun to dive regardless of whether you see much, the reefs along the Phi Phi Islands are not in the best condition. (We witnessed part of the problem while snorkeling on the early-bird tour — fellow tourists stepping on the corals! And no one telling them not to.)

We did see plenty of marine life, though: hawskbill sea turtles, giant clams, large jellyfish, lionfish, eels, pufferfish, Moorish idol, flute fish, squid, clownfish, peacock mantis shrimp, yellow boxfish, Maldives sponge snail, sole fish, sea cucumbers, sea urchins, crown-of-thorns starfish, harlequin sweetlips, and more. Check out the videos below to see some of these. Unfortunately, though our divemaster told us Palong was known for having black tip reef sharks and I got my hopes up that I would FINALLY see some sharks, we had no such luck.

Dive #1 (Palong Wall):

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Surface Interval (Pileh Lagoon):

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Dive #2 (near Pileh) — lots of videos:

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After all of our snorkeling, swimming, kayaking, hiking, exploring, diving and eating, we enjoyed one last afternoon at the beach. Life doesn’t get much better.

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We departed the following morning and embarked on our long journey back home, to Tonsai Pier, to Phuket, to Guangzhou (China), to Los Angeles. Who wants to leave paradise? The Phi Phi Islands are a jewel. Its waters are delightful, its cliffs and mountains spectacular.

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We indulged in fresh coconuts, pineapple and other fruits. We saw bats, tropical birds, lizards and crabs. We had as much pool and beach time as possible. We enjoyed the live music during dinners at the resort. We discovered there’s a significant muslim population on Ko Phi Phi Don and heard the mosque prayer calls daily. We learned there’s only one ATM on the entire island (by the pier). We witnessed the poverty of the villagers and saw their kids playing naked in the dirt and in buckets of water. We observed specific Asian tourists (I won’t say who…guess…) always causing problems at dinner, and going to the pool and beach only once the sun had gone down.

The Phi Phi Phi Islands are absolutely stunning, but I imagine that growing tourism will only hurt its natural wonders. Our divemaster was telling us how much the islands have changed in just the last five years or so. We’re glad and thankful that we had the opportunity to visit when we did.

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After seven months in South Korea and two weeks vacationing across Cambodia and Thailand, we were happy to be home. There’s no place like home.

See more photos of the Phi Phi Islands here.

Bonus video — traffic in Phuket:

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