Exploring Koh Phi Phi Island
Planes, Trains and Automobiles...
In order to get to paradise, you have to put in a little leg work. Daniel and I woke up in Chiang Mai at 4:30am. After successfully taking off in Chiang Mai and then landing, two hours later, in the Krabi airport, we hunted for the "express bus" that would charter us to the ferry. (The express bus ended up making a quick pit stop where we transferred from the bus to a van, then we were dropped off at the ferry terminal.) The ferry isn't fancy - it's just a boat and a bunch of chairs. Thankfully, it was about 1/2 full and we were able to stretch out across our own row. During the 2-hour trip, when not napping, we ventured up to the roof so that we could bask in the open sea and its hazy horizon. Do be careful, though, because the ferry doesn't have any walls.
When we finally arrived on Koh Phi Phi, in the village of Tonsai, the crowd was amped - there were locals yelling for customers to visit their shops or charter their taxi boats, there were dozens and dozens of longtail boats bobbing in the water, and many people standing on the dock with signs - people's names and destinations in block letter. We found our names and, though our guide didn't speak English, he motioned for us to stay, then disappeared into the crowd. While we stood on the dock, we watched tourist upon tourist exit the ferry and climb into one of the many taxi boats. There are no cars on the island of Koh Phi Phi so, aside from hiking, boats are the only mode of transportation.
Eventually our ride came (a motorboat, not a longtail - though we'd get our fill of those later) and we took off across the water. Our hotel was a 20 minute ride away from Tonsai over the turquoise water. I took in the palm trees, the white beaches, the limestone cliffs; when the boat slowed, I could see hundreds of colorful fish beneath us. I had barely been in Koh Phi Phi for an hour and I was already starstruck.
Chartering a Longtail
One of our favorite days in Thailand - actually one of our favorite days, ever - was spent touring the islands surrounding Koh Phi Phi in our privately chartered boat. For a four-hour private tour, you can plan on spending around 1000 baht ($40 USD) - give or take, depending on your bartering. You are welcome to design the tour and ask for your driver to take you to specific places; we, however, left our fate up to our driver and simply asked him to take us to his favorite places.
We climbed into his longtail boat and we were on our way.
The longtails cut slowly through the water; after about a 1/2 hour, we arrived at the island of Koh Phi Phi Ley. We took anchor in a bay that was snug between two enormous limestone cliffs; it was dark blue and glistening in the sunlight. Our driver handed us some snorkeling gear and then threw his ladder over the side of his boat.
The world underneath the water's surface is incredible. Hundreds of colorful fish swam all around me, zipping over coral and anemone. Crabs, conch, clams, urchins; this world had it all. The urchins in particular were terrifying - their ominous black spines reached as far as one foot. Daniel and I floated above the coral, trying to take it all in. At one point, a school of fish - a couple hundred yellow and blue fish - swam right through us. Daniel and I just stayed in one place, trying to memorize the way it felt to be caught up in the middle of these tropical fish' otherwise normal day.
We stayed in that bay for nearly an hour, our bodies fully coated in salt and sunrays, before we decided to call it a day. We snapped a few GoPro selfies, then swam back to our boat.
After another gorgeous ride in the longtail and yet another dip in the crystal waters to snorkel, our driver took us to Maya Beach. We arrived around 6pm, so the crowd I hear about had dwindled considerably. The beach is hidden in between a near circle of the limestone cliffs - and it is stunning. Made famous by the movie 'The Beach' with Leonardo Dicaprio, it surely didn't disappoint. The white sand and crystal water lapped against each other; Daniel and I sat in the sand and enjoyed a moment of quiet and shade after a day of constant movement, sun and snorkeling. We had simply never spent a day in a location more beautiful than the islands and bays we had just explored.
A few notes about chartering a longtail:
- If you pay through a booth set up in Tonsai rather than approaching a driver directly, they will hand you a receipt. In order for the driver to collect his wages, he'll ask for the receipt at the end of the ride. Make sure you hold onto that!
- The ladders that these longtails provide are killer to climb back up on when you are trying to enter the boat from water where you can't touch the ground. They have two rungs and barely dip below the water's surface. The best way to go about it is to grab the ladder with your hands and, while you're still in the water, put your feet on the bottom rung (so that you're basically in the fetal position) and pull yourself up with your upper-body strength. Usually ladder climbing is a lower-body moment, so it feels unnatural. However, your driver will help you out with a hand to grab on the other side. But he (or she) might laugh at you a bit too, because they are incredibly limber when getting in and out of their boats!
- The longtails are creaky and rickety and, especially when in the open water rather than the bays, sort of terrifying. You will get wet, and you may even see your life flash before your eyes. But it's worth it!
Other Things to do in Koh Phi Phi
During our entire time in Thailand, we found the best food in Tonsai. The food is colorful and flavorful, just like the island. The hiking is incredible; the jungle is thick (and sort of terrifying) - just be careful of bats! And remember: unlike Phuket, Koh Phi Phi has retained a lot of its local culture, so feel inspired to explore the island and meet the people who call it home.
Other things we wish we had time for:
The Sunset Cruis and Plankton Tour by Maya Bay Tours; though we didn't get to go on this and, therefore, can't truly recommend it, it seems like it's worth looking into if you are planning on visiting Koh Phi Phi. These tours alone have access to Maya Beach after dark - and this is where the bioluminescent plankton is found! Definitely on our bucket list, and definitely something we'll do eventually. Book in advance, though; they were sold out by the time we discovered them.
The shark snorkeling.
There are places in Koh Phi Phi where you can snorkel with Blacktip Reefsharks! Unfortunately, there was just no way we could fit it into our visit. Next time!