Koh Phi Phi
Going Native in Koh Phi Phi
I recently visited the stunning archipelago of Koh Phi Phi in Krabi province, southern Thailand with my wife and two children. My wife – who is from Buriram, northeastern Thailand, has a cousin (Joy) who lives and works as a traditional Thai masseuse on Koh Phi Phi Don, the largest of the six islands, and the only inhabited one of the group. Joy has lived on the island for four years with her partner, Bao – a laidback local and beach dude.
Bao – ‘Mr Cool’, is a longtail taxi-boat captain on ‘Tonsai West’ beach on Koh Phi Phi Don. He reminds me of the late, great Bob Marley. He has long dark hair and a Captain Jack Sparrow tattoo on his upper arm that he proudly displays as he pilots travellers and tourists and backpackers around the island on sightseeing tours. Bao is Muslim. But he’s not like those Muslims we keep hearing about on the telly; the ones that the ‘NEWS’ keep warning us about. But that’s another story, for another time… Back to Phi Phi…
Koh Phi Phi is described – quite rightly, as being one of the jewels in the proverbial Thai crown. The islands are blessed with an abundance of beautiful, breath-taking scenery. Steep, coastal cliffs and jagged rocks rise out of the clear, turquoise waters and tower hundreds of feet into the cobalt-coloured sky. Lush, tropical jungle blankets the slopes of Phi Phi Don – where the locals like Bao were relocated to after the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004.
The tsunami that devastated Phi Phi that day killed close to 2000 people – locals and tourists alike. Bao was working on the mainland when it hit and was lucky enough to only lose one family member. As we sit on the floor of his government built home, smoking and chatting, a pleasant feeling washes over me. Despite aggressive mosquitoes the size of spitfires harassing me, I feel privileged to be sitting here in Bao and Joy’s humble, tropical, island abode. And with my Thai wife and two half Thai children I feel welcome and connected and part of the family.
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The next day we awake early and Bao takes us out gratis on his longtail taxi-boat. We depart Phi Phi Don from the beach on ‘Tonsai West’ where his boat is moored, and head out into ‘Tonsai Bay’ towards Koh Phi Phi Lee. The engine is loud so we don’t talk much as Bao expertly navigates the choppy, ‘monsoon-season’ sea.
First stop before Koh Phi Phi Lee is ‘Monkey Beach’ – an isolated strip of sand at the top end of Phi Phi Don; here the dramatic limestone cliffs of Phi Phi Don Mountain loom hundreds of feet above us. Monkey Beach is accessible only by boat or kayak and as you approach it by sea, the narrow strip of white sand with the towering limestone mountain backdrop is an impressive sight. Bao cuts the engine as we approach the shore and lets the momentum of the boat take us the last few metres in towards the beach. He drops anchor and we clamber out of the boat, splashing into the warm tropical water before wading up onto the pristine, powdery, white sand.
There are monkeys everywhere – adults and juveniles and babies. Some of the monkeys are quite friendly; I watch others interact mischievously with a group of Chinese tourists, as they whip cans of coke from unsuspecting hands and grab at cameras and handbags, I assume, in a quest for food. We do the usual touristy things – take some pictures and interact a bit with some of the younger, cheekier members of the group, until Bao warns us not to get too close as some of them may be carrying rabies. ‘Monkey Beach’ done and dusted, we wade back into the sea and climb back aboard the boat – next stop… Koh Phi Phi Lee.
Koh Phi Phi Lee is the second largest island after Phi Phi Don. It rises up out of the water like something out of an old ‘King Kong’ movie. I know this island – I’ve seen it in photographs and also in the movie ‘The Beach’, starring Leonardo DeCaprio. Koh Phi Phi Lee’s main feature is the ring of rugged, limestone cliffs that surround the two shallow bays on the island – Maya bay and Phi Lee bay.
As we approach the island from the open water, I notice a cave with bamboo scaffolding built up around the entrance. Bao cuts the engine to let us get a closer look and explains to us that this is where the locals harvest the nests of swifts for the main ingredient of the Chinese delicacy ‘Bird Nest Soup’. The cave is nicknamed ‘Viking Cave’ after cave drawings were discovered inside, seemingly depicting what looks like a Viking longboat. With the engine roaring, we head off again, skimming and slashing through the sea – toward ‘Phi Lee bay’, one of the two bays on the island.
Entering ‘Phi Lee bay’ is like entering a lost world and the ‘King Kong’ analogy springs back to mind. I’m half-expecting to see a dinosaur peering over the towering limestone ring of cliffs that surround the shallow bay. The scenery is spectacular and I can see why the Thais hold this group of islands in such high regard. Bao cuts the engine and drops anchor in the middle of the bay and then hands out snorkelling equipment to myself and my two children.
The warm water is crystal clear and teeming with a colourful, kaleidoscope of tropical marine life. Underwater Phi Phi is almost as impressive as the Phi Phi I’ve been admiring above the waves. We swim around the bay for a bit, checking out the schools of colourful fish that inhabit the reefs. Bao tells me that black-tipped reef sharks and leopard sharks can be found in the waters around Phi Phi, as well as hawksbill sea turtles and Manta Rays.
After Koh Phi Phi Lee, Bao takes us to another dive spot in Moo Dee Bay on the east coast of Phi Phi Don. The reef at this dive spot is colourful and pristine and looks healthier than the reef at Phi Phi Lee. I marvel at the multitude of marine species that inhabit this strange, underwater world as I explore the nooks and crannies and dips in the colourful exotic reef.
Last stop on the itinerary, is ‘Phi Phi Shark Point’ – a rocky outcrop at the top end of Tonsai Bay about two hundred metres from the shoreline; Bao says if we’re lucky we might see some black-tipped reef sharks or maybe even a leopard shark or two. We enter the water with our snorkelling gear and swim amongst the multi-coloured schools of fish again as we scan the seabed for thirty minutes or more hunting for sharks.
Unsuccessful in our quest for sharks – but still thoroughly amazed by the rich, diversity of marine-life that inhabit the waters around Phi Phi, we swim back to the boat before finally heading back into Tonsai Bay.
Later that afternoon – after some food and a few drinks (non-alcoholic), Bao (who had some business to attend to) gave me the key to his motorbike and told me that he’d meet up with us all later back at his house. There are no cars on Koh Phi Phi – and the only motorbikes in use are for the locals driving up into the villages in the high-ground. We made our way through the congested, narrow streets of Tonsai Village – to where the locals park their motorbikes out of sight of tourists. The winding road up to the village is so steep that you have to drive up the hill in first gear. And because of this, the majority of motorbikes gearboxes are goosed.
Bao’s was no different. Up and down I went – 3 times, with my pillion passengers (my son, my daughter, and my wife), the gearbox rattling like a bastard on each precarious journey. When Bao and Joy finally got home later that evening, they cooked up a barrow-load of seafood that they had bought and we all sat down and tucked in, thoroughly enjoying it. My time spent on Koh Phi Phi, and the kindness shown to me by Bao and Joy (and Joy’s son – Daeng, Joy’s sister – Yan, and Joy’s neice – Nam), I will remember forever.
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Koh Phi Phi is a stunning location. Forget the fact that everything is more expensive on Phi Phi than it is anywhere else in Thailand, or that drunken western backpackers piss and fornicate in the street in front of Thai children, or that over the years Phi Phi Don has been irresponsibly over-developed. Forget all that. Phi Phi is – despite the obvious downsides, a jewel in the crown of Thailand, and it is still well worth a visit, especially if snorkelling and scuba-diving is your thing.
If you find yourself on the island of Phi Phi Don and are looking for a traditional Thai massage for those weary, travel-fatigued muscles, or a cool longtail taxi-boat captain to show you around, then look no further than the beach on ‘Tonsai West’, and ask for Bao or Joy (longboat no.7). I guarantee – you won’t be disappointed.
Safe travels… Ray
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