Thailand

The Case for Visiting Thailand’s Phi Phi Islands

A GUIDE TO THE PHI PHI ISLANDS IN THAILAND

Plotting out which Thai islands to visit proved to be no easy feat my first time in Thailand.

There seemed to be plenty that were well trodden and over recommended, a few that were loved by backpackers, and a couple that weren’t mentioned often, a sign that they’re still developing or harder to reach.

When all was said and done, Lanta was my favourite Thai island.

Although, I’m keen to visit Koh Yao Noi and Koh Yao Yai, two islands closer to Phuket that are still relatively peaceful, in part, because they aren’t as commercialsed.

One island I was conflicted about visiting?
Koh Phi Phi.

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It would be more accurate to refer to Phi Phi as the Phi Phi Islands, as it’s a chain of six islands in the Andaman Sea.

Visitors stay on Phi Phi Don, but often rent a long tail boat or take a day trip to visit some of the other Phi Phi islands.

Why did I feel conflicted visiting the Phi Phi islands?

For a few reasons. Other travellers I knew had written off the islands, saying they were too developed, too touristy, and not worth the time or effort required to reach them and spend time in them.

Others said they were among the most beautiful islands in all of Thailand and couldn’t imagine their trip without seeing them.

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I’d read reports of the Thai government closing part of the Phi Phi islands (Maya Bay) to help it recover from the impact of mass tourism. I didn’t see the closing as an inconvenience, but rather all the more reason not to visit an area that was clearly under tremendous tourism strain.

In the end, I decided to visit the Phi Phi islands out of convenience more than anything else. Ferrying from Lipe to Phuket, it was easy to stop in the Phi Phi islands. It meant I was able to break up what would’ve been an incredibly long travel day otherwise.

I justified the decision, in part, by deciding to only stay for a day, and by choosing a half day sightseeing trip with a local run, eco-conscious company.

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I’m so grateful I decided to visit the Phi Phi islands. They were, as others have said, some of the most visually arresting scenery I encountered while in Thailand.

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Phi Phi Don is like the main towns on other Thai islands- commercialised, and in my opinion, a bit sad.

I didn’t spend much time in town- enjoyed a good mango smoothie at The Mango Garden, ate great street pad Thai at Only Noodles, and savoured flaky pastries from Phi Phi Bakery.

The waterfront walkway is lovely at sunset, but the tide is out so you won’t see longtails bobbing again until the morning. Aside from a few meals and a bit of shop wandering, I didn’t see much else.

There was a viewpoint I wanted to hike up to, but wasn’t feeling well and decided to forego it in favour of rest.

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The half day trip I did to see more of the Phi Phi islands was incredible, and what made the stop in Phi Phi worth it to me.

It started with a swimming stop at a quiet, secluded large lagoon in Phi Phi Ley. My tour left earlier than most tours (because it was only a half day tour), and so we had the lagoon pretty much to ourselves.

Think: Gleaming turquoise water, high limestone carats and birds chirping overhead.

It was the most beautiful way I’ve ever started a day.

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Next, we made a snorkelling stop where I spotted a baby shark.

Our third stop was another snorkelling stop near the infamous Maya Bay.

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I hadn’t heard of Maya Bay before visiting (not a big movie buff), but watched a clip from the film to understand the hype. In the movie, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character discovers a hidden beach, which is thought to be the ultimate paradise.

After the film came out, tourism to the Phi Phi islands boomed. Everyone wanted to see paradise firsthand.

In 2018, the Thai government closed Maya Beach to tourism in a conservation effort. Tours that visit Maya Beach nowadays just point out the beach from a distance, which I was completely fine with.

The snorkelling spot near Maya Beach was my favourite in all of Thailand. Deep water, tons of coral and loads of fish- so many sizes, varieties and colours. I could have gazed at the underwater world for hours on hours.

Next up: Monkey Beach. We visited at high tide, which meant there wasn’t actually a beach to see. But, we were able to see lots of monkeys hanging out cliffside by bobbing in the water near the beach.

I loved this stop, in part because tourists couldn’t get close to the monkeys- animal exploitation win. As we were leaving, I saw heaps of trash in the rock crevices and felt quite sad. More than maring the land, it’s just not fair to the animals.

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Our final stop of the day was another snorkel opportunity at Shark Point, where we were lucky enough to see a few small sharks whizz past.

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All said, I was back in Phi Phi Don by 12:30 pm, plenty of time to have lunch and buy a ticket for a 2 pm ferry to Phuket.

I left the Phi Phi islands feeling almost as conflicted as I had before I arrived. I had a fantastic time seeing parts of the island chain, but there was no denying the impact of mass tourism.

It’s apparent how in danger the islands are. And yes, I’m aware tours like the long tail one I took contribute to that destruction by damaging the reefs with their anchors (say nothing for the tourists who step on or touch coral and other things underwater).

Realistically, I know I’m only one more person visiting, but it’s hard to shake the feeling of seeing a place that’s so clearly on the brink of being destroyed.

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I wish the Thai government would do more to protect its beautiful country.  There’s so much that could be trialled- visitor limitation programs like Cinque Terre in Italy is testing, or even enforcing more eco efforts that are the way of life on other Thai islands (looking at you, Koh Tao).

It felt odd there wasn’t a great sense of environmental urgency for protecting the Phi Phi islands (consciousness about plastic, energy sensitivity, etc.) when I’d witnessed such measures on far less frequented Thai islands.

The saddest part of it all is that it isn’t sustainable. The Phi Phi islands (and other places) were never meant to accommodate tourism at the levels they’re experiencing.

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I titled this post, ‘The case for Visiting the Phi Phi Islands’ because I do think they’re worth visiting. Which, is why it’s actually more so a guide to the Phi Phi islands.

They’re absolutely stunning. There’s no way to deny or downplay their beauty.

I’m also mindful there’s a local community that depends on revenue from tourism. Some of it may be corrupt, but there are plenty of local families who are trying their best to run honest businesses.

So, yes, I’d  recommend visiting the Phi Phi islands- but only for a day or two. Then, I’d move on to other islands- Railay, Ao Nang, Lanta- you’re well connected on the Andaman side and each island has a different vibe and its own advantages, it’s worth checking out a few if your schedule will allow it.

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Have you ever visited a location so special or so beautiful you were hesitant to recommend it to others in effort to protect what you experienced? Would you add anything to this guide to the Phi Phi Islands? 

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