Myself and three friends eagerly abandoned our Korean life in search of sun, good eats and a seriously awesome, beautiful adventure for this past winter break. We headed to the Koh Phi Phi islands, made famous for their Hollywood feature in the Leonardo DiCaprio movie, The Beach. Six islands make up Koh Phi Phi, the group of islands that are situated 50 kilometers southeast of Phuket in the Andaman Sea.
Fueled by the sheer adrenaline of leaving Seoul for an otherworldly paradise, we threw on our backpacks and headed on a marathon traveling excursion consisting of 3 flights, a ferry and too many taxi vans to count. We left at the crack of dawn on the day of Christmas Eve.
Full story and incredible photos after the jump.
We flew from Seoul to Guanzhou, the second busiest airport in China. My first (and only) impression of China left much to be desired. I expected a shiny, bustling, state-of-the-art airport. Upon descending, the sky was even nastier than I could have imagined. Without warning, the sky turned from a clear blue sky to a thick, yellowish brown. It was a sunny day, and from the ground, only a thick layer of yellow smog was visible. Guanzhou was the least impressive airport I have ever had the displeasure of visiting. From Guanzhou we headed to Bangkok.
We arrived at the Bangkok airport with only small backpacks and no real plans for where we would stay when we landed at our final destination. We had a final flight that would take us from Bangkok to Phuket. We would arrive to Phuket at almost midnight on Christmas Eve, after nearly 24 hours of traveling. We anticipated it might be a scramble to find a place to stay once we arrived in Phuket. We wanted cheap, cheap accommodations; we were only going to be spending a few hours in Phuket prior to catching our ferry to Koh Phi Phi. Did I mention it was Christmas Eve? We settled for the expensive, safe airport planned accommodation and taxis. This took us to, unbeknownst to us, by far the most luxurious accommodations we would have during our trip. We had two bungalows, each nestled amidst a jungle of greenery. From the few hours we spent in our rooms, Thailand already felt like paradise.
9am and we were on a packed, wet ferry to Koh Phi Phi putting down Chang after Chang, a brand of Thai beer, and entire fresh pineapples served on sticks. It seemed that nothing on the ferry remained even remotely dry. Slated to be an hour an a half, actual travel time was closer to three hours. This was our first introduction to island time.
From the first glimpse on the horizon, the Koh Phi Phi islands were stunningly beautiful. Large rocks jutted out from the ocean and the water was the most unbelievable color of bluish green. The famous islands were looking even more magical than we could have ever imagined. Neither descriptions nor photographs can do these islands justice.
As we approached Tonsai Bay, the docking bay of Koh Phi Phi Don, the water was swarming with longtail boats, speedboats, yachts and ferries. Having read quite a bit about how the crazy peak season is at Koh Phi Phi, I had mentally prepared myself for this. Prior to the Christmas 2004 tsunami that devastated Koh Phi Phi Don, the only inhabited Phi Phi island, the island was much less out of control than it is now. The infrastructure, which was nearly completely wiped out, was furiously built and, shortly thereafter, the tourists began pouring in from every alcove of the globe. Now, Phi Phi is swarming with westerners looking for an escape.
What I was unprepared for was feeling like I was arriving at an adult Six Flags, a Hurricane Harbor water park in Thailand. We were greeted by an onslaught of solicitors. Stay here, scuba dive here. The streets were narrow, dirty and packed with street vendors, western style restaurants and bars and all sorts of accomodations- ranging from 5 stay resorts to dorms.
We meandered a bit, stumbling upon the most epic of Christmas celebrations. The narrow streets were lined with bars packed with santa hats, celebratory Christmas beers and all sorts of holiday debauchery. As we attempted to get our bearings, overwhelmed by the sea of westerners, a local woman, with two babies on her hips said casually “You need room to stay?” Timidly, we followed her into a room in her home. The super bare bones room had three twin beds pushed together- and that was it. Literally. For $12 a piece, we thought it was a steal. To top it off, it seemed to be in the middle of the action.
This is when our vacation really began. As we tried to shake off the shock of hearing people speaking English everywhere, we enthusiastically participated in the epic Christmas festivities while exploring the village. Relatively small, the Phi Phi village can be covered by foot in its entirety in no more than twenty minutes. We met other foreigners, sang Christmas songs and could not have been happier to be celebrating Christmas basking in the sun and drinking dirt cheap beers in a shockingly beautiful environment.
Loh Dalam Bay is home to the main Phi Phi beach. Lined with bars and filled with stands renting kayaks, drivers selling longtail boat rides and drop dead gorgeous 20-somethings soaking up the sun, it is an unbelievable sight to behold. Despite the crowded, not particularly clean beach, the backdrop is amazingly stunning.
As the sun sets each evening, locals bring out rows of bean bags and tables to line the beach, set up stages for fire shows and set up body paint stations. What looked like decrepit and decaying bars by day are transformed into vibrant, pulsating alter egos by night. Huge dance stages are set up. Buckets of booze are sold for $3. It was unlike anything I had ever seen. It was really incredible.
The first two nights we stayed in our aforementioned room with three beds. As people moved on to their New Year’s destinations, we so we were able to get beds in a “dorm room” for only $6 a night. As unglamorous as it was, it was a great experience. There were around 40 beds filled with young travelers, many of whom had met while traveling, only to continue their adventures together. Four showers, four toilets and two sinks made for an interesting few days.
Budget Boat Tour
With so many islands and beaches to see, we knew we absolutely had to do a boat tour. Some folks in the dorm told us to do a “budget” boat tour. Cheap? Of course we were in! $6 for half a day? No brainer! They put 20 of us in a tiny longtail boat that took us to Monkey Beach, Maya Bay and snorkeling and swimming in several otherworldly lagoons. Maya Bay is where The Beach was filmed. Yes, it was beautiful, but it was predictably overrun with tourists. Monkey Beach was the first time I had seen monkeys in the wild, but it was a tiny area where we just got out for a few minutes before hopping back on the boat. On our way back, the longtail boat stopped to watch the sunset, fed us fresh pineapple, served us water and gave each of us our own bucket of booze. All for $6! It was truly unbelievable.
Loh Lana Bay
My favorite day began with dragging my friends up to the Koh Phi Phi viewpoint. I knew it was going to be beautiful and I knew they wouldn’t want to miss it. I also knew they were not going to want to participate in the climb to get there. Innocently, I fibbed to get them on their way. Needles to say, they were not pleased. The payoff was worth it; from the viewpoint, you can see the entire island.
After seeing the the viewpoint, fed up with walking, my friends took the easy way back down to the crowded beach. I headed on a hiking adventure through the jungle to find a deserted beach. Despite a lack of signs and a much longer trek than I anticipated, I made it! After over an hour of hiking through the jungle, I was on a nearly empty, totally secluded, white sand, clear blue water beach. It was epic.
This was the Thailand I had traveled to experience. Solidarity. Silence. Sun. Life doesn’t get any better.
Unfortunately, out of drinking water and facing an encroaching sunset, I was forced to take a longtail back to the main bay. Of course, it ended up being way more expensive than I anticipated. But it was so worth it! This trek was the highlight of my trip.
Koh Phi Phi was quite an experience. Would I go back there? Probably not. Am I glad I did it? Absolutely. It was stunningly beautiful, a fantastic time and full of adventure. Really, what more could you ask for? I can’t wait to explore more of Thailand.
For tons more pictures of Phi Phi, pop over to my Flickr!