Phi Phi Islands: lost to the plague of tourism?

Phi Phi Islands, the postcard destination conjured to mind when anybody utters the word Thailand. Home to Maya Bay (the setting of the Leonardo Di Caprio film ‘The Beach’), monkeys galore and never-ending cocktails at rustic beachfront bars – it is easy to understand why the islands attracted up to 5000 visitors a day. To much controversy, Maya Bay was closed to the public in an effort from the Thai Government to preserve the National Park, a ban due to stay in place until 2021. With such a blatant impact from unregulated tourism, I had strong doubts on whether a visit to Phi Phi Islands would leave as lasting an impression as it would have done a decade ago. I had nightmare images of being packed into an overcrowded boat and squinting at a beach so small it was laughing at my budget camera lens as I was told “picture time”. Research for reputable companies on TripAdvisor I found, also only took you so far. On our second day in Phuket, I knew it was time to bite the bullet and explore my options face to face.

We settled with Ocean Mania and their “Phi Phi Islands, Maya Bay & Khai Island” package, which we bought from a tour agency in Kamala. The package was one of the steepest at £35 per person, although the bonus was it included swimming/snorkelling at areas of the National Park – something you should keep an eye out for as pamphlets can be misleading and simply add “sightseeing” on the itinerary. Another thing to watch out for is whether the National Park Entrance fee is included in the overall price, as otherwise you will have a 400 baht surprise once you arrive.

7:30am came by quickly the next day, and it was a relief to see our guide outside after reading some horror reviews of different companies. The drive itself was around 1.5 hours due to detouring for other pickups but was comfortable and airconditioned in the minivan. On arrival at the tour centre though, my heart sank a little. There must have been 400 people alone just around the entrance waiting for tours. We were assigned a coloured band depending on our tour type, which did noticeably shrink the group sizes to about 25. There was definite organisation amidst the chaos because before we knew it we had grabbed our complimentary breakfast, had a prep talk and were donning bright orange life jackets on board a moored boat.

The first stop was Coral Beach on Phi Phi Don Island, which was a gorgeous burnt yellow shaded by palm trees and set upon crystal still waters. There are beach bars and snorkelling opportunities, in addition to those swings for a perfect Instagram photo. It was quaint and rustic – developed in the way of toilet facilities, food and drink for tourism but in such a minimalistic manner it retained that secluded tropical vibe. Regardless of your tour choice, Coral Beach would be a great way to beach bum a day in style.

Next in line, Monkey Beach is not to be missed. Whilst I will be the first to admit the cuties actually scared me a bit despite my rabies vaccination, this was one of the highlights of the day trip. I for one, was previously completely unaware that monkeys swim. I discovered this when a larger monkey turned on the spot, stood on two legs and waded into the sea with either a likeness to Conor McGregor or a stone faced old man. 15 minutes was in no way long enough to spend here! You could easily watch them frolic and play fight all day. They are full of character, as expected, and the beach itself has fantastic views up to the untamed greenery above. One thing to note is that whilst it is not advised by tour guides, we did see people tempting monkeys on to their shoulders for a picture with food. This is completely your decision but be warned – after watching a pair of men snap photos like this for about 10 minutes they did get into a bit of difficulty. Said monkeys actually jumped on to a disembarking boat from the water to carry on playing and became quite frustrated when they realised there was no more food to reward their efforts. All bites or scratches should be treated seriously and do require medical attention so it is best to respect the monkey’s personal space and not tempt them in to yours.

A short trip from Monkey Beach took us to the Viking Cave, which did seem a little less exciting but made for an interesting stop off before Pi Leh Lagoon. You don’t get to disembark but you are able to take photos from the boat of the outside of the cave, which is filled with ladders that locals use to collect birds’ nest. Birds’ nests are considered a local delicacy and beneficial to your health in many ways, including improved skin complexion and increased libido.

Of the entire trip, the most impressive experience of the natural landscape was sailing in to Pi Leh Lagoon. Flanked by towering limestone cliffs cloaked in greenery, the beauty is purely effortless. Whilst we could not swim due to tide levels, visiting Pi Leh Lagoon showed a side of the Islands and National Park that was seemingly immune to the impact of tourism. To really appreciate and immerse yourself in Thailand’s island scenery, I would recommend including the lagoon in your visit. Escaping the crowds and simply observing was incredibly relaxing and felt otherworldly.

Finally, we arrived at the star of the show – Maya Bay. Conjuring up images from the movie “The Beach”, it was easy to see why tourists flocked here. The water was ideal for snorkelling as visibility was high and although we didn’t spot any, apparently there are reef sharks near the rockier areas. Squid, fish and sea urchins (watch where you step) all call Maya Bay home and can be spotted from the water’s surface. In the serenity underwater, tourist boats and crowds were easily forgotten – the experience deserves to be at the top of most Thailand bucket lists. As previously mentioned, access to Maya Bay is currently prohibited in effort to conserve areas of the national park that was under threat from excessive and unregulated tourism. This is upheld by ropes and signs, which warn of fines should anyone cross the boundaries. By not allowing tourists to disembark at Maya Bay, the Thai Government may actually have improved the experience for everyone – as observing the beach empty of people, the allure of untouched natural beauty can still exist.

It is because of these major decisions regarding the regulation of tourism at Phi Phi Islands, that I would argue a visit should still be ranked as one of the top attractions in Thailand. The conservation of the National Park has clearly been prioritised here and after witnessing its beauty first hand I can see why. Yes the Phi Phi Islands are on everyone’s itinerary, however, each individual island and natural landmark retains such an impressive atmosphere that I believe their popularity is justified. Don’t rule them out!

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