Written by: Matt Newkirk
Destination: Ko Phi Phi, Thailand
Visited: October 2017
Like so many of Thailand's islands, Ko Phi Phi is a stunning sight to behold, with sheer limestone cliffs rising straight from the depths of the sea, hundreds of feet into the sky, capped with dense green jungle, and surrounded by turquoise waters and patches of snow-white sandy beaches.
Approaching Ko Phi Phi Lei
Situated halfway between Phuket and Krabi in the Andaman Sea, Ko Phi Phi was once upon a time a true backpacker's dream. A spot where budget wanderers could have a bungalow on their own private beach for just a few dollars a day. Extending their stay for months at a time, because the raw beauty of the tiny island, coupled with the amazingly low cost of living was just too hard to leave behind.
Boat on the beach in Ko Phi Phi
While Ko Phi Phi still draws hoards of backpackers, those days are long gone. Today the tiny island draws mixed crowds of tourists, including families looking for a beachfront resort vacation, giant Chinese tour groups following the leader with the yellow flag held high on a telescoping stick, rich kids on the international party circuit biding their time between full-moon parties, and divers and dive instructors looking for their slice of the turquoise dream.
In the low season, there are still some good deals to be found, but when the monsoons ease up and the sun comes out, Ko Phi Phi suddenly becomes prime real estate on the international vacation market.
More boats on the beach in Ko Phi Phi
There are no roads to speak of on Ko Phi Phi, so choose your location wisely. In “town”, there is a wide selection of restaurants and happening bars that go off late into the night, but on the outer parts of the island, it can feel pretty isolated.
Trail into "Town"
There is a path that runs through the jungle, which can take up to 45 minutes, depending on where you are staying, on a steep dirt trail, or there are shared water taxis that will shuttle you back and forth for about $3 USD / person (provided that the seas are not too rough).
Water taxi from "Town"
We stayed at “The Beach” resort, undoubtedly named after the popular Leonardo DiCaprio film of the same name that was shot in 2000 on the island. We actually walked up and were able to get beach-front double rooms for $75 USD per night without a reservation.
The Beach turned out to be a great choice because it has a private beach, with chairs (something many beach-front resorts on Phi Phi mysteriously don't have), two swimming pools, two bars, two restaurants and a fantastic dive shop run by a friendly couple from Spain. As an added bonus, it has the only sheltered place along the beach for the water taxis to pull up to, so it happens to be the only resort that they will drop off, or pick up at if the seas are rough.
View from our room at "The Beach" resort, Ko Phi Phi
Diving Ko Phi Phi
The dive sites surrounding Ko Phi Phi and Phi Phi Lei are some of the most popular in all of Thailand, and for that matter, the world. While I wouldn't say that the diving here is the best in the world, or even the best in Thailand, I will say that this is one of the best place for beginning open-water divers in Asia.
Hawksbill turtle, Ko Phi Phi
The vast selection of quality dive shops, coupled with the relatively calm waters and beautiful shallow reef make this a great place for new divers to cut their teeth. In fact from what I've seen, the best part of the dive sites surrounding Ko Phi Phi are all above 18 meters.
Tiny coral crab, Ko Phi Phi
At dive sites such as shark point and anemone reef, the soft corals and huge schools of fish fry are exquisite.
School of fish, Ko Phi Phi
There are occasional black-tip sharks, rays, and some of the largest anemone and clownfish colonies that I have seen anywhere.
Blue spotted stingray
One thing to watch out for, is because the island is so popular and the dive boats can get REALLY crowded, it is easy to be left behind. This happened to my wife and I for about 30 minutes last year. Thankfully we always carry SMB signal buoys and whistles.
More advanced divers will want to explore Bida Nok, Bida Noi, and the King Cruiser wreck. Last year, I dove on three different occasions without seeing any of the black-tip sharks that frequent Bida Nok, but this trip I am happy to report that we spotted at least 6 on a single dive.
This is a good sign that Thailand's ecology efforts to protect the reefs are having a positive effect, despite the fishing that still goes on in the protected areas. The fact that the ecosystem is coming back takes some of the sting from the ever-increasing marine park fees. I don't even want to quote a price for the marine park tags in this article, because the price seems to be different with each visit that I have made in recent years.
Moray Eel, Ko Phi Phi
Ko Phi Phi is growing more popular with travelers every year, but with good reason. The tiny island truly has something for everyone, budget accommodations for backpackers all the way to mid-range and luxury accommodations. There is no shortage of day trips, including kayaking, snorkeling, diving, or just island-hopping. Despite the ever-growing crowds on Ko Phi Phi, there is still plenty of beach to go around, and even if your hotel isn't ocean-side, with a little hoofing it, you should have no problem finding your own perfect little spot of paradise.
Getting the boats ready for high season
You can reach Ko Phi Phi from either Phuket or Krabi in about 2 hours by ferry, but give yourself some extra time, the boats tend to run on a loose schedule and many do sight-seeing of Phi Phi Lei along the way. If you're headed to Ko Phi Phi, there's no need to be in a hurry anyway, sit on the deck, and enjoy the ride through some of the most scenic waters in South East Asia.