In the middle of Thailand’s Andaman Sea, you’ll find a little jewel of an island called Ko Phi Phi Don. Though sadly devastated by the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, the island has recovered and is once again thriving, opening its beautiful ports to travelers, backpackers, and sun-worshipers from around the globe. It is, without a doubt, the ultimate vision of tropical paradise.
How to get there
There is no airport on Ko Phi Phi, so you have to get there the old-fashioned way – by boat. The simplest and most affordable option is to hop on one of the high-speed ferries that run from Phuket (2 hours to the west) or Krabi (1.5 hours to the east). We used this site to book our ferry tickets at half-price, bringing the cost of our voyage down to US$9. The ferries are clean, comfortable, and quite modern, with air-conditioned galleys, multiple sundecks, and food and drinks for purchase.
The journey to Ko Phi Phi is an experience in itself. One minute, you’re surrounded by nothing but sea and sky and an endless stretch of blue. Then you see little green jewels popping up on the horizon, and as you near the islands and gawk at the towering sea cliffs high above your head, you can’t help but marvel at how small you feel.
Arriving at Ko Phi Phi
After a delightful cruise from Phuket, we arrived at Tonsai pier on the main island of Ko Phi Phi Don. We handed over our “clean-up” fee of 30 baht (about 85 cents) – a small price to pay to access such natural beauty and help preserve it for the future. We couldn’t help but feel excited when we saw the long row of longtail boats bobbing in the crystal clear water, ready to ferry us to the most beautiful beaches imaginable.
Our accommodation for the night was at Ivory Guesthouse, conveniently located in the center of town and only a few minutes’ walk from each of the island’s twin lagoons. We dumped our bags and immediately headed for the highlight of any visit to Ko Phi Phi – the view from the top!
Phi Phi Viewpoint
A long series of stairs and a steep paved pathway led us past guesthouses, tropical forests, and butterfly gardens before we reached the viewpoint. I won’t lie – it’s a tough climb. You’re a hot, sweaty, panting mess by the time you emerge from the trees and get your first glimpse of the island.
But oh man, is it worth it.
I didn’t know it was possible to see such vastly different colors of water so close together. The darker water to the left is Tonsai Bay, where the pier is located. The lighter, shallower water to the right is Loh Dalum Bay, warm enough to make you break a sweat (again) and rimmed by a stretch of soft, powdery white sand.
Welcome to tropical heaven.
Eager to explore the island and surrounding area, our group of seven hightailed it to one of the many shops in town to inquire about renting a boat. Six hours in a private longtail boat to three different islands, complete with a captain, bottled water, and fresh fruit, came in at 5000 baht, or about US$20 per person.
How could we possibly argue with that?
Armed with sunscreen, snorkeling gear, and a few bottles of Phoenix coconut rum (the most delicious rum I have EVER tasted), we boarded our longtail and settled back as our captain guided us north to Bamboo Island. More stunning water greeted us as we approached the sand, and one quick glance overboard revealed a dizzying array of coral and tropical fish.
We snorkeled for half an hour or so, admiring the brightly colored parrotfish, angelfish, and coral formations. Then we settled back on the sand to relax and enjoy the scenery, savoring what was already an amazing day.
Little did we know how much we’d need to conserve our energy for later!
Our next stop was back on the main island of Ko Phi Phi Don, in a little alcove on the northern side only accessible by boat. Deep blue waters and impressive rock formations greeted us as we dropped anchor and jumped in (literally) to explore the incredible scenery.
Ko Phi Phi Le
As the sun began dipping lower in the sky, we bid farewell to Nui Bay and voyaged south to Ko Phi Phi Le. This spectacular island – specifically Maya Bay – was the backdrop for Leonardo DiCaprio’s movie “The Beach.” We’d already gotten a sneak peek at the bay during our ferry ride from Phuket, so we couldn’t wait to experience it up close!
Our first stop, however, was the jaw-dropping Pileh Lagoon. I didn’t know if I was in southern Thailand or the fjords in Norway as the captain killed the motor and we drifted, in silent awe, beneath the ancient sea cliffs.
As the sun continued to sink and the cliffs lit up like gold, we rounded the southern tip of Ko Phi Phi Le to begin our journey to Maya Bay. To our dismay, a fierce wind was whipping across the sea, tossing our little longtail boat around and getting us soaked in the process. Our captain turned around and regretfully informed us that the conditions wouldn’t allow us to reach Maya Bay.
“But,” he added, “there’s another way.”
“Lead on!” we replied. So we backtracked into Loh Samah Bay, where we caught our first glimpse of…
The Cliff of Insanity
Okay, in all fairness, I don’t actually know what this place was called, but as soon as we saw it, we coined our own appropriate name for the sight before us. With the wind whipping, the tide coming in, and razor sharp rocks just below the surface, our captain could only get the boat within about 100 feet from the cliff.
“Swim,” he told us. “Climb the net. Walk to Maya Beach on foot.”
It was one of those moments when you didn’t have time to think. Or maybe you knew that if you DID think about it, you’d chicken out and never actually do it. So we did what any sane person would have done.
We jumped out. We swam. And we climbed the Cliff of Insanity.
Somehow, despite the rocks and the pounding surf and the questionably safe condition of the netting, we made it to the top with only a few scrapes and splinters. Thrilled by our climb (and the fact we’d survived), we made the short walk across the island into Maya Bay. The only downside to this adventure was the absence of my camera, since I didn’t dare risk it on the swim and the climb.
And so, for that reason, I have only one photo of Maya Bay, taken from my friend’s dying GoPro.
It’s a bit of a tragedy, being in one of the most beautiful places on earth without your camera, but the laughter and the adrenaline rush of climbing up the Cliff of Insanity was worth it. The way I see it, I now have one more reason to return to this island paradise in southern Thailand!