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.
The Phi Phi islands are set right in the middle of Phang Nga Bay about equidistant between Phuket and the Krabi mainland, with all accommodation and services found on the largest island, Phi Phi Don. Most of its 28 square kilometres is forest, while its edges are ringed with white-sand beaches and steep karst cliffs.
One side of the narrow, flat isthmus in the middle of the island is Ton Sai bay, where the pier and most boat activity can be found. All arrivals at the pier must pay a 20 baht entry fee, which goes towards cleaning of the island. Ton Sai beach stretches out along the bay, while inland is the busy Ton Sai village, where most of the hostels and cheaper accommodation choices on Phi Phi are found as well as the local market and scads of food stands, bars, restaurants, dive shops, tattoo parlours, massage centres and clothing/souvenir shops.
Walking straight over to the other side takes you to Lo Dalam beach, home to a narrow stretch of sand and the island's main party scene. Despite the noise, a growing number of bungalows and small hotels are venturing back here, which was a popular area to stay before everything got swept away in the 2004 tsunami. Just beyond the beach, past the Phi Phi Viewpoint Resort, a new path has been carved into the headland and several cheap to mid-range bungalows are being built up along here.
Those hoping to escape the crowds can easily catch a boat or (less easily) walk to one of the beaches along Phi Phi's east coast, where a more sedate, family-oriented scene prevails. A short longtail boat trip or a 15-minute walk along the seaside path from Ton Sai beach takes you to Phi Phi's most stunning length of sands, Long Beach, which is lined with mostly mid-range bungalows.
Laem Thong beach at the northeastern tip of the island has five fully-fledged resorts along its sands including the four-star Holiday Inn and the ultra-chic, and pricey, Zeavola resort. One beach south, Ao Lo Bakao, is the domain of the sprawling Outrigger resort, while more low-key and local style places of varying prices and quality may be found at Pak Nam, Rantee and Toh Ko beaches.
With few cars or roads on Phi Phi, expect to do plenty of walking here, or budget for some boat trips should you wish to explore the island beyond the Ton Sai village area.
For banking services, several ATMs and a few small banks are scattered around Ton Sai beach and Ton Sai village, and the larger resorts will be able to change money for you.
Many restaurants and hotels offer WiFi internet service, usually for free, and the signal for mobile phone service is adequate most anywhere on the island. A few shops around Ton Sai village sell mobile phones, SIM cards and computer accessories. For computers or laptops you'll need to go to Phuket or Krabi Town, though we did find one shop that does repairs. Electricity is better than it used to be and is on 24 hours a day, except at more remote beaches, where your hotel may have generator power in the evening hours only.
Phi Phi's only hospital, just a large clinic really, is on Ton Sai beach about 100 metres from the pier towards the Ton Sai cliffs (T: (075) 622 151). A few more small medical clinics are found around Ton Sai village. Patients in need of more serious medical treatment or emergency care are usually transferred by boat to one of the international hospitals on Phuket. Divers take note: the nearest hyperbaric chamber is at Phuket International Hospital on Phuket, so be sure to check with your dive operator about their plan/ability to handle cases of decompression sickness before you book.
Phi Phi has a local police station near Carlito's bar on Ton Sai beach. T: (075) 601 061; Emergency 191.
By Lana Willocks.