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Ko Phi Phi

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Ko Phi Phi, or Phi Phi Island, is one of the most talked about places in Southeast Asia, with its natural beauty and reputation for good times putting it firmly on the tourist trail. The beauty of the island is unparalleled, even in a region of the world renowned for its stunning destinations. Limestone cliffs, turquoise waters, white sand beaches and miles of trackless forest make Phi Phi a perfect tropical island.

Developments over the past 20 years however have made it the subject of great controversy. Those who wanted to preserve its natural character have been pitched against those who wanted to make it a world-class holiday destination, and profit financially from the trade.

To understand the dispute, imagine what the island was like more than two decades ago when it was first 'discovered' by adventurous backpackers looking for Eden on earth. They found it on Ko Phi Phi Don -- a long, wide sand bar gracefully arching between two magnificent islands, creating two placid bays ideal for swimming, snorkelling and scuba diving, surrounded by cliffs waiting to be climbed and forests to be explored.

Back then only a scattering of bungalows dotted the island, which was populated mostly by a community of sea-faring gypsies who call themselves the Chao Ko, or Island People. There was no pier and only one public boat each week made scheduled trips to the island.

But the paradox in seeking out a hidden paradise is that it winds up on the map and others begin to seek it out, too -- in ever-increasing numbers. The once-idyllic Ton Sai beach became a port, clogged with boats and debris, with a pier to accommodate the large vessels needed to bring the growing number of visitors to shore.

The sandy isthmus is almost unrecognisable now, blanketed with guesthouses, luxury hotels, bars, restaurants, tailors, internet cafes, travel agents, banks, CD shops, jewellery stalls and clothing markets. Tourists are hounded by Thais and resident foreigners alike touting diving trips, boats for hire, places to stay and bars to drink at. Those who remember what it once was, and what it could have been, find it impossible not to shed a tear when they see the place today. It exists, after all, on what is partially national park land. Thailand might have created a well-managed park with walking trails, rock-climbing, caving, unspoiled diving and snorkelling sites. From that perspective, it is a paradise lost.

But the blame doesn't rest solely with foreign tourists. The Western world has been paving paradise and putting up parking lots for a long time before Thailand got into the game and can hardly take the moral high ground. Whatever one may wish had been done with Ko Phi Phi, the balance of forces in Thai government and society have developed the island as a well-developed and fairly affordable resort destination for holiday-makers from around the world

The checkered history of Ko Phi Phi took a tragic turn in 2004 when the Asian tsunami lashed its shores. In the wake of the devastation, the balance of power seemed to shift as plans were revived to assert government control of the island and restore its status as a national park, allowing only careful and controlled development.

Local land owners saw this as a land grab by parties within the Thai government. The government's plans were thwarted and private industry rebuilt, reinvested, and expanded the island's infrastructure. And they did so in fairly short order, considering the enormity of the task and a complete lack of any government relief. Private development picked up where it left off before the tsunami and shows no intention of changing course.

On the bright side, the island has been cleaned up considerably from the festering sore it was a decade ago, when construction marred much of it and filth covered the beaches. Thanks to a growing awareness of green issues and the tsunami itself, today the sand and waters are fairly clean, there are almost no private cars or macadam roads, and no plans to introduce any. A few dozens saleangs -- motorcycles with side cars -- pick their way over sand and dirt roads, transporting passengers and their bags to their hotel when they first arrive, but they are mostly used for getting goods and equipment from here to there. Other than that, modes of transport are limited to a few (but growing) number of motorbikes, push carts, bicycles and flip-flops. The bikes are becoming increasingly annoying on Phi Phi's narrow lanes, with many oblivious to pedestrians. Accidents are definitely waiting to happen.


As before the tsunami, Ton Sai village occupies a large chunk of the isthmus, acting as an open-air shopping mall. Along Ton Sai beach, half-a-dozen bars blast pop music out over the water, serve pricey drinks and provide fire shows into the wee hours of the night. Though on average it's more expensive than many other Thai islands, it's still remarkably cheaper than similar accommodation in other premier destinations around the world. Try finding a decent room in Hawaii or San Tropez for ten dollars a night.

Recently the beachside parties have been getting larger, with the noise pollution keeping those nearby awake until 3/4/5 am. This has become a serious issue for hut operations around the beach area on Ao Loh Dalam. The licensing laws governing alcohol sales simply do not apply to some bars and outfits -- those that are well connected, local advice suggests. Many travellers do end up changing accommodation or having miserable stays.

Despite the touts and the crowds, Ton Sai village remains just what many vacationers are looking for in a fun, memorable holiday. And in terms of the unspoilt tropical paradise the island once was, the good news for the keepers of the flame is that it has not died out completely. Ko Phi Phi Don's sister island, Ko Phi Phi Leh remains completely untouched, being only available for daytrips by boat -- though many now complain that the inundation by daytrippers spoils the place in an only slightly less regrettable way.

But there's more: between Ton Sai and Laem Thong, at the northern tip of the island, are a half-dozen beaches, many accessible only by boat, offering an escape from the maddening crowds. There you'll find accommodation ranging from dirt cheap spots through to some of the most exquisite luxury spots in Thailand. And Chao Ko still live out on Laem Thong, running local shops alongside the fancy resorts, selling food and drink at local prices. Even within walking distance of Ton Sai village, inland towards the northern part of the isthmus, are a great variety of places to stay where you can easily forget all about the shopping mall's dubious attractions.

Modern Phi Phi can be summed up as a place with plenty of choice, a vibrant nightlife and an island which still retains its natural stunning beauty -- all at a price though. The crowds will bother some, the prices will make many cringe and the disappearance of the Thai smile may be upsetting, but overall Phi Phi remains a must-see destination.

Related reading

2011 Best places to stay on Ko Phi Phi
Ko Phi Phi on a budget
Thailand tsunami wrap
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Text and/or map last updated on 30th October, 2013.

Last reviewed by:
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton and he spends most of his time in Bali, Indonesia.

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