Ko Phi Phi, a drop dead gorgeous, jungled limestone and white sand butterfly is one of Thailand’s signature islands. Just fifteen years ago it was a backpacker’s secret, laced with sandy trails and dotted with a few thatched bungalows. Then it blew up, grew concrete streets, plugged into absurdly loud sound systems, and became the cheesy fire dance Mecca of the south seas.
The Boxing Day tsunami hit Phi Phi hard, flattened everything on the flat section of the island and claimed thousands of lives. Those that remained had an opportunity, a second chance to plan and develop Phi Phi with intelligence and grace. Um… didn’t happen. Maybe the wrong people bought into the island, maybe the need to recover their life savings fed the greed that has quickly swept the island into an even more commercial era.
Now, the beaches of Ao Lo Dalam, with it’s narrow mouth, soaring cliffs and sugar white sand, are home to four beach bars that play bad techno so loud it can be heard on nearly all parts of the island until 4am. Two equally musically challenged bars pollute Ao Ton Sai. Strange daze when I can get a better night’s sleep on Bangkok’s Sukimvhit, then on this mostly car-less island with soaring limestone karsts, thick tropical forests and azure seas.
Thing is, Phi Phi is still a stunning sight, and isn’t completely spoiled. And if you follow these five steps, you may yet find that tarnished, but still glowing hippie soul that made her famous in the first place.
1. NEST VILLAGE LEFT: If you want to be in the center of the action, but hate falling asleep to schizophrenic, bass heavy, DJ battles, eschew the more dramtic Cliffside lodges and check into a humble bungalow on a village side street. I love Chunut House (+66.(0)75.601.227; firstname.lastname@example.org), and their attractive, spotless, bamboo and wood bungalows scattered on a blooming hillside.
2. HIKE THE LOOKOUT: In order to gain full appreciation of Ko Phi Phi, you must take in the full butterfly effect and hike the 400m trail to the view point. If you keep hiking from there over the next ridge you will eventually reach Rantee Beach, where you can hire a longtail boat back to town.
3. EAT LOCAL: Ditch the glut of Westernized restaurants and dig into seriously local food at the market, on the isthmus just north of the harbor. Here Thai chefs stir-fry the best noodles, grill the best chicken and fish, and chop the spiciest papaya salad on the island. The market was also the hardest hit section of Phi Phi when the tsunami roared taking 3,000 lives. So say a prayer for the departed before you dig in.
4. ROCK IT BACKSIDE: There are worse ideas than turning your back on dysfunctional, endless Spring break tourism and staying in one of the secluded beaches and bays isolated on Phi Phi’s backside. If you have the means, go four star at Phi Phi Island Village (ppisland.com). This splashy resort sprawls on a sugar white beach backed by stunning limestone cliffs.
But Phi Phi’s rugged backpacker soul still lives and breathes on it’s southern tip at Ao Poh Beach Resort (+66.(0)84.186.1245). These barefoot beach bungalows spill onto a sweet sliver of white sand nestled between rocky outcroppings. Management is warm and friendly and there is great roots reggae on the soundsystem.
5. DIVE BABY, DIVE: Diving is what lured the backapckers here in the first place, and though the reefs seem to have been bleached in some places thanks to rising sea temperatures, there is still some fun diving here with resident reef sharks and hawksbill turtles. Plus, there’s nothing like surfacing from a dive beneath the sheer, soaring, pocked limestone cliffs of Phi Phi Leh. Simply spectacular. I suggest joining up with either of Phi Phi’s most environmentally conscious diver operations: Blue View Divers (blueviewdivers.com) or The Adventure Club (phiphidivecamp.com), owned by Phi Phi’s original dive pioneer and reef restoration guru, Andrew Hewett.