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, tattoo shops, travel agents, banks, mini-marts, 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 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.
More hotels, bungalows and shops are being added to the island with each passing year, and by 2013 the island's visitor arrival numbers were up to 2.5 million a year, including day-trippers from the mainland and Phuket. A distressing sight on arrival in 2014 was the construction of a giant shopping plaza just steps away from the pier, next to the Phi Phi Island Cabana resort. What, aside from naked, unchecked greed could have ever allowed this to happen? Being met with this claustrophobic "Buy Buy Buy" scene in your face the moment you arrive to the island speaks volumes for the lack of a coherent, sustainable plan for Phi Phi.
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 Lo 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.
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.
During our most recent visit in August 2014, just months after the coup in Bangkok, Thai soldiers began making checks along Phi Phi's beaches and a few people working at beachside bars told us that they were ordered to scale back or stop their fire shows and late-night parties. Within weeks of these initial checks, some encroaching restaurants and guesthouses were ordered to close, according to local media reports. It remains to be seen, however, if freewheeling Phi Phi will eventually get the same junta treatment as its neighbour Phuket, which was subject to some dramatic clearouts of commercial activity on its beaches and parks in mid-2014.