Thursday – February 17, 2011 –
Have you ever seen the movie “The Beach” starring Leonardo DiCaprio? If you have, you will recognize Maya Bay from the Phi Phi islands. The Phi Phi islands were popular before the movie was released in 2000, but the release of the film created an increase in tourism to these islands. Today I was lucky enough to see them in person on a speed boat tour from Phuket.
After a late night out, I was dragging a little bit this morning. However, today was going to be an amazing day. I had to get up and get ready for my transfer by minivan to Phuket Town on the eastern side of the island. My van arrived and stopped to pick up a number of guests at other hotels. Along the way, we passed the largest Buddha in the world perched dramatically on a mountain. Not long afterwards, we arrived at the pier in the Phuket town harbor. After checking in and a safety briefing, we prepared to leave on our Phi Phi Islands Speedboat tour.
The Phi Phi islands (Ko Phi Phi) are one of Thailand’s most popular destinations for diving, snorkeling, kayaking and other marine recreational activities. Part of Hadnopparattara-Koh Phi Phi National Park, they lie 40 km south-east of Phuket and west of the mainland Strait of Malacca. They beautiful islands are world famous for their limestone mountains with cliffs, caves and long white sandy beaches seemingly appearing out of nowhere in the Indian Ocean. The two main islands in the archipelago are Koh Phi Phi Don (the largest) and Koh Phi Phi Ley, the second largest island of the archipelago.
On Boxing Day 2004, one of the greatest natural catastrophes in generations hit southeast Asia. Ko Phi Phi was devastated by the Indian Ocean Tsunami, which wiped out nearly all of the island’s infrastructure.
The damage was particularly bad on the Phi Phi Don in the main village of Ton Sai. Built on a sandy stretch between the island’s two tall limestone ridges, the village only rested at less than six feet above sea level. Shortly after 10 a.m. on December 26, water from bays on both sides of the receded. Around 10:37 a.m., huge waves appeared on the horizon moving at tremendous speeds. The village was a sitting duck and took a direct hit on both bays. One wave crashed into Ton Sai Bay at 10 feet high while a higher second wave roared Loh Dalum Bay at about 18 feet high. At the time of the tsunami, the island had an estimated 10,000 occupants, including tourists. More than 70 percent of the buildings on the island were leveled.
Phi Phi Don was evacuated after the disaster as the Thai government declared the island temporarily closed while a new zoning policy was drawn up. For months, emergency workers assisted on the island. An estimated 850 bodies had been recovered by July and more than 1,200 people were still missing. However, many guides suspect the death toll was really closer to 4,000, though it will never be known. By December 2005, about 1,500 hotel rooms were open again, and a tsunami early warning alarm system had been installed by the Thai government.
With the islands recovering after several years of investment, I was hopeful to see the beauty of these islands. This was a very interesting and unique international tour group. Our group included tourists from Thailand, India, Japan, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Spain, the USA, UK, Australia and South Africa. There is nothing like the wind in you hair and the thrill of travelling by speedboat and island hopping.
Our first stop was Ao Ling (Monkey Bay) on Koh Phi Phi Don. We don’t go on shore because of water levels, but we saw the crazy monkeys that are known for their curiosity of humans. Then we headed to nearby Hin Klang, the famous underwater reef located about a little more than a mile and in front of Laem Tong Beach in the north of Phi Phi. We snorkeled the 180-foot-long reef where I saw some stunningly beautiful fish and colorful coral in the crystal-clear water.
Afterwards, it was off to Koh Mai Pai (Bamboo Island), where we had a choice of snorkeling or enjoying the beach. The small island is only 1,500 feet long and is located about 3 miles from the north tip of Phi Phi Don. Beautiful sandy beaches encircle the island and gave way to fascinating shallow coral reefs underwater. Then, we left for lunch at Koh Phi Phi Don.
After lunch at Koh Phi Phi Don, we headed to the smaller island of Koh Phi Phi Ley for the rest of the day. We enjoyed open coolers of soft drinks, fruit, snacks & drinking water all day. We first passed by the ‘Viking Cave,” where Chinese businessmen harvest birds nests for the bird’s nest soup industry.
Koh Phi Phi Ley is made up of a ring of steep limestone hills surrounding two shallow bays, the Maya Bay and Loh Samah. There is also one large shallow fjord like inlet called Pi Ley with a small coral reef at the entrance. We started here at Pi Ley Bay. Pi Ley rests on the opposite side of Phi Phi Leh from Maya Bay. It’s one of the most dramatic sailings I have ever experienced as we cruised up the long and thin bay with 300-foot-high cliffs on all sides. The sun and shadows danced behind the cliffs making for interesting vistas as we passed through. The shallow and clear water offered us some excellent snorkeling as we jumped off the boat. I saw bright parrot fish and sergeant majors curious about us in the water. I fed them some bread and banana right out of my hands!
Afterwards, we visited Maya Bay, where ‘The Beach’ was filmed. This is the quintessential postcard photo you have seen from southern Thailand. The beautiful lies below 300-foot-high cliffs on three sides. Inside the bay, we anchored at the main 600-foot-long beach. The silky soft white sand was stunning. Basically, the whole bay is a reef and we snorkeled in the crystal clear water observing underwater coral and exotic fish.
The only downside was how crowded it was. There were probably at least 25 speedboats and longtail moored on the beach.
I made some friends with a couple of South African guys, two Americans from Utah and a Sydney couple. I asked one of my Utah friends – Brandon – to take a video clip of me on the beach for my trip video. It was truly a beautiful beach and was the highlight of my trip so far.
Around 16:00 p.m., we headed back to Phuket and arrived back around 17:30. I said goodbye to my friends after our transfer dropped me off in Patong that evening. My gear had been transferred to the sister property of the Bamboo Spa during the day, so this was my night on the hotel on the hill. I grabbed dinner at fish place down the street and hit up a couple of bars. Then I came back to my hotel and crashed for the night.