Ko Phi Phi is actually a collection of islands, with Phi Phi Don being the largest and only inhabited island.
Phi Phi is probably the best known of all of Thailand’s islands thanks to Alex Garland’s novel, The Beach, and the subsequent movie of the same name starring Leonardo Decaprio, which was filmed around Maya Bay on the neighbouring island of Phi Phi Ley. The book follows a group of young backpackers who set out to find paradise but end up destroying it and, in a sad, self-fulfilling prophecy, it seems that the tourism brought to this area by the movie has done just that.
These beautiful islands fell victim to the Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004, when more than 2,000 people lost their lives as a result of the killer wave. These days it´s hard to believe that such a tragedy ever took place, other than the sight of the subsequently placed tsunami evacuation signs. The island has since been rebuilt (such as it is), but it seems to me that the opportunity for reinvention has been missed.
Phi Phi is, without doubt, the most beautiful small island we have ever been to – but sadly, it has been over-developed in a down-market kind of way, and is hopelessly under-developed in the infrastructure required to handle the volume of tourists who arrive on it´s shores each year. No doubt there are many reasons for Phi Phi being the way it is – such as corruption, lack of planning, turning a blind eye or the complete indifference of the tourists who fail to realise the problems their custom creates, but the impression we were left with was that of overwhelming greed. Everything is very expensive here. Accommodation is over-priced and largely sub-standard, with little sign of any money being ploughed back into improving the environment. On arrival at the island by ferry, visitors are obliged to pay a 20 Baht tax to “keep the island sparkling clean“, yet we saw many areas of land, beach and water strewn with rubbish. It´s tragic.
I’ve never seen the movie version of “The Beach”, but I have read the book, which is essentially a backpacker novel. As I mentioned at the start, it´s incredibly ironic that the scene on Phi Phi nowadays is exactly what Richard, the main character in the book, was trying to escape from. He flees the chaos of Bangkok’s Kho San Road in the hope of finding a quiet, perfect beach. An escape from the travel industry and the pressures that surround it. Now, thousands of backpackers, ostensibly seeking the same thing, have turned what was probably once paradise, into a circus.
Phi Phi island appears to be only good for one thing: partying. As darkness falls, the bars start blasting out their music and the drinks flow freely. Neon lights blink all around the bay, totally obscuring the stars, as thumping beats pound out on dance floors next to the ocean. Our hotel was more than a kilometre away but the noise carrying across the bay made it sound as though the disco was in the basement.
We were only staying two nights, so the following day we decided to take a trip on a longtail boat around the Marine Park, calling at Phi Phi Ley and Monkey Island. This also allowed us to swim and snorkel in the clear waters around the islands, together with hundreds of others, in scores of boats. We spent about an hour at Maya Bay, where the speed boats and longtails lined almost the entire water´s edge, but with so many other people on the beach at the same time it was something of a relief when it was finally time to leave. The place was packed, though it doesn´t take much imagination to picture the scene as it once must have been, and most likely remains each night, enchantingly serene and still.
Good marketing, pretty pictures, and a reputation for a good party keeps Ko Phi Phi alive, but if you are looking for beautiful, unspoiled tropical islands, this is not the place for you. Ko Phi Phi is well past it´s sell-by-date and was a huge disappointment for us.