Our route.. in minature
Follow the yellow stars from left to right: Koh Phi Phi (bottom left), then across the mainland to the Gulf of Thailand and the islands of Koh Pha-Ngan and Koh Tao.
Here we go….
Koh Phi Phi
“Oh how beauty can be a burden. Like Marilyn Monroe, Phi Phi’s stunning looks have become its own demise”
Thank you Lonely Planet. For once, you’re absolutely spot on.
Of course, we can’t exactly speak PERSONALLY from experience of the burden of beauty, but we have become aware of it’s bittersweet truth having spent a few days on the Thai island of Phi Phi (Pee Pee.. it never gets old).
As you catch the boat over the Andaman Sea towards the island, the sparkling azure waters, fine white sand, and towering cliffs rising over great lagoons give you every reason to think that you are in paradise. But it’s this appeal that is killing it – it’s a hidden treasure that is not so hidden any more, and the island’s resources and infrastructure are buckling under the swelling tourist demand.
Of course, there’s plenty to see and do. The actual island is tiny; home to a minute resident population and completely devoid of cars. The tourist village of Tonsai, once consisting of a handful of hotels and completely battered in the 2004 tsunami, has grown and re-grown to a beach holiday mecca; plenty of accommodation, any style of food, all-night bars spilling out the streets, dive centres, beaches, pharmacies, 7/11s – you name it, in terms of convenience, Phi Phi has probably got it. Although most of the accommodation is centred around Tonsai, there is a clear divide between the more upmarket hotel-resorts of the south side, and the lashtastic hostel holes of the town centre.
This works well for both parties; those who want a relaxing holiday pay that little bit extra and avoid the town chaos, and those who are having a bit of a blow-out don’t have to worry about making too much noise. If you are going to stay in Tonsai, you’ll have a tough time escaping the tween traveller trail. Who can blame them? Phi Phi is every 18-year olds dream; dirt-cheap alcohol buckets, streetside tattoo parlours, bunches of sexy farang (foreigners.. that’s you and me) touting for bars on the streets in exchange for free booze and a guaranteed good time, and absolutely no one to tell you that the sea isn’t a bin, the street isn’t a toilet, and flailing about with a Bacardi Breezer and sunburn isn’t a good look.
Thankfully, Phi Phi isn’t all rum and neon, it’s also a great place to make the most of the sea, and is the starting point for some fantastic day boat trips. It only takes a few hours to go round the whole island, including stop off points at uninhabited Mosquito and Bamboo islands as well as Monkey Bay on the main isle. Depending on which boat trip you have, you are more than likely to be able to stop and jump off for a bit of snorkelling whenever you want.
Most trips continue onto the neighbouring island, Phi Phi Leh, which ticks every box in terms of an antidote to the rowdy main island. It was here where Alex Garland’s cult classic, The Beach, was filmed, and naturally has become a sort of pilgramage for the modern day traveller. The scenery is stunning – so much so that you can easily forget that you are sharing the water with hundreds of other boats, and there is almost no accommodation, which means the island remains largely unspoilt. This is one experience not to miss – swimming in deep clear lagoons in the shadow of craggy cliffs. You know that typical postcard perfect ‘image of Thailand’? Longtail boat, turquoise sea, rugged rock face in the background…? Well, this was it in the flesh.
So, that was it. Phi Phi Don (lash) and Phi Phi Leh (beaut). To be fair, although I’ve definitely had a good old moan (M.A.I = Middle-aged Imogen…I should probably get back to my knitting), it’s not all bad. Despite feeling like we weren’t young enough or our clothes weren’t neon enough, we did adopt an ‘If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’ attitude fairly quickly. Which was fun. Very fun.
I guess it’s just a word of warning: we were under the impression that Koh Phangnan was the party island and Phi Phi was the calm before the storm, but this is not the case. If you go to Phi Phi Don expecting deserted beaches and a true taste of Thailand, you’ll be sorely disappointed. But go for some cheap voddie and maybe a tattoo or two, and you’ll have a blast.
From here we sweated on to the ferry to Krabi, bussed it across to Surat Thani, on the Gulf of Thailand, and landed on the shores of Koh Phangnan as the sun was setting…
Everyone knows about Koh Pha-Ngan. That’s where the Full Moon Party is, right? So it’s going to be crazy and drunken and dirty and loud and generally a bit minging, yes?
Well, not really. At all.
For a start, Koh Pha-Ngan, although smaller than neighbouring Koh Samui (which we didn’t have time to go to), is much bigger than Phi-Phi. And you can feel it. There are people who live permanently on the island and it doesn’t have that feeling of a purpose-built resort about it. Cars, pick-up truck-taxis and mopeds storm about on concrete roads and authentic Thai street food stalls far outnumber the dodgy western fare. Yes, this may be the site of one of the most famous parties on the planet, but its overall appeal is immediately evident
So we started off with the Full Moon Party. Sorry, Mum, but as someone said to us when we arrived, ‘The Full Moon Party is kind of like smoking. You know it’s not very healthy, but you have to try it once to see what it’s like’.
It all takes place in Hat Rin (Haad Rin), a town set on a peninsula on the southernmost tip of the island and geared up in every way possible for the monthly influx of full mooners. The tongue of land jutting out into the gulf has a beach on either side; handily called Hat Rin Nai and Hat Rin Nok, Sunset and Sunrise respectively. Sunset is smaller and quieter, whereas Sunrise is where all the lunar madness happens.
You can tell that the Hat-Rin-ers are used to the parties because they are absolute pros. As the sun goes down, makeshift bars pop up on the street sides and along the beaches, tattoo artists sit outside their shops drawing swirling patterns in UV paint on the bodies of willing tattoo-ees, EVERYONE has some sort of neon item of clothing or paint on and the streets are packed, which gives the whole town a kind of eerie glow, as though you are seeing everything through a phosphorescent lens. The actual party doesn’t kick off ‘till late, when the whole town is sufficiently fed, painted and lubricated.
As for the party itself, there is no doubt that this is one of the best parties we’ve ever been to. The music is phenomenal, there are literally thousands of people and it all takes place on this paradise island moonlit beach. And if it all becomes a bit too much, you take time out and marvel at the revelry on Mellow Mountain or Kangaroo Bar set on the rocks above the beach. Recounting stories is probably going to be mighty dull (you had to be there, mrah), so if anyone fancies going, here are a couple of tips:
1. If you go to the island but miss the Full Moon, don’t fret. The enterprising Thai locals have cottoned on to just how lucrative the blow-out traveller trail can be, and have created an array of almost-but-not-quite Full Moon parties; Shiva Moon, Black Moon, Moon-Set – it’s all just an excuse really.
2. If you do make it to a Full Moon Party, you MUST book accommodation in advance. This does include weird and wonderful deposits which nearly always get declined and leave you with some very confused email conversations with hostels. Obviously the town is full to the brim around party time and most places want you to stay for between 3 and 5 nights. So get organised.
3. DON’T TRY TO LEAVE TO GO TO KOH TAO just after Full Moon. It’s where the party continues and everyone has the same bright idea – ferries are packed, and more often than not you spend a couple of hours in the merciless sunshine only to spend the next two tucked up in a sweaty corner of a jam-packed ferry.
In fact, thanks to some good advice from Luke ‘I’ve-been-here-so-many-times-I’m-basically-a-local’ Farley, we managed to totally avoid the Koh Tao crush and instead spent a few days discovering the rest of Koh Pha-Ngan…
Haad Salad/ Hat Yao
What. A. Place.
If anyone is planning a honeymoon anytime soon, you should seriously consider spending it here. Haad Salad, set on the northern side of the island, seems like an undiscovered chunk of paradise. Far less busy yet far more beautiful, this gives you an insight into true Thailand island life. From hammocks and beach bungalows at Lucky Resort (gorgeous family-run resort, unbelievable value) to freshly caught fish at the seafood market in Chalok Lam and lonely longtails silhouetted against a pink sky, this was such a find.
During our few days of R&R in the north, we managed to rent a jeep for 24-hours, which gave us access to the whole island. OK, so the roads sometimes just descended into sheer drops of terrifying terrain and we may have come across a couple of wandering elephants on the roadside, but honestly, having the freedom to discover a place for yourself is ideal. Hats off to; Cel, who managed to get us out of the clay rut on an almost vertical hill with minimal clutch damage; Ali, who proved herself to be a ridiculously good cruiser after having been sans voiture for more than 2 years; Farles, for being reckless but really really knowledgeable; and Imogen, for not crashing.
Perhaps three days wasn’t enough, but time is of the essence and we had to continue onwards and upwards to…
There is no doubt about it, Koh Tao is cute.
At only 21km2, the place seems tiny in comparison to the other islands of the Gulf, but that is most definitely part of its charm. It doesn’t have the holiday hedonism atmosphere of Phi Phi and is famed for it’s deep sea diving, so the sunburned Thailash-heads are diluted with cool-looking active types sporting six-packs and oxygen tanks.
There is more than enough for everyone. We spent some middle-aged time (probably my idea) at Shark Bay (see the map) – a quiet cove renowned for it’s coral and impressive array of marine life. The adjacent bay, Chalok Ban Kao, went down well as somewhere to relax with a cold drink as the sun goes down and the tide comes up. We had something a little bit different at Hat Sai Ree, the ‘town’ in Koh Tao. Busier than the remote reaches of the south, this was like a really relaxed version of Sunrise Beach, Koh Phangnan. Some great bars spill onto the sands – chilled out music, giant beds, and mesmerizing fire shows. You can party hard here, but the nice thing is you definitely don’t have to.
And so ends our trip to the islands of Thailand. Apologies for a mega post.. it’s hard to be concise when you’ve got over two weeks to cover and you’re fighting with an internet connection. I’ll work on that.
Any last thoughts about the islands?
Yes, a few.
It is ridiculously easy to get to and from and around all of them. Because this is such a time worn travel destination, you’re ushered from boats to buses like a herd of very sweaty sheep. They have this almost fool-proof sticker system (except when you’re Celyn and manage to lose it) so it’s clear to everyone where you are going and where you should be. The infrastructure of the islands is exemplary, and the roads are crammed with Sorng-taa-ou – basically, pick-up trucks with benches on the back working as taxis. Prices are non-negotiable – word on the street (Farley) is that they’re owned by the Thai mafia, which seems plausible given that on Koh Phangnan the taxis would routinely stop and pay a sort of informal road tax. The trucks on Koh Tao don’t have any roofs, which makes for fun if not slightly hair-raising (literally) rides.
The Thai people are gorgeous. Nearly everyone we met was so friendly and helpful and they absolutely love a practical joke. The food has been spectacular, (Massaman Curry, Pad Thai, Banana Shakes, Flied Lice…), the service sporadic and the bars absolutely brilliant. Plus, there is no denying that this is paradise. We’ve been treated to beautiful sunset after beautiful sunset, snorkelling with tropical fish, eating deliciously fresh food, drinking chilled beer… it’s perfect. And although we all complain of profuse sweating ALL THE TIME, we’re not really that bothered. Heat is heat is GOOD. And sweat clears your pores and makes you lose weight… right?!
Of course, there are some glaring flaws; tourists often treat the islands like a theme park and possess an astonishing disrespect for the people and the places, stinking piles of rubbish line the streets and cups and wrappers can be found floating in the shallows of the beaches, and the eggy smell of full drains is never far away. Yet, tourism is a massive deal here, and for every tourist tyrant, there are a whole load of people who come and enjoy and spread the word. For our part, we hope that everyone has a chance to visit at least one of the Thai Islands. It’s well WELL worth it.