So I already went into detail about how the south of Thailand in high season isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. But given that the setting was not ideal, I managed to have some pretty great times over the three weeks I spent there. Here are some highlights:
Seeing Sveta on Koh Lipe
It’s not every day you get to meet up with your second cousin from Moscow on an idyllic Thai island. Once we managed to find each other (it took a few attempts), we spent some quality time snorkeling, beach bumming and sharing buckets. I got to meet Sveta’s boyfriend Maxim and the other couple they were traveling with, Denis and Sasha.
It was also nice to practice speaking Russian for a week and to have some company on an island full of couples and families. Unfortunately, Sveta and her friends each got sick in turn so we had to adjust some of our plans, but we had fun in the end.
Diving around Phi Phi
When I arrived on Koh Phi Phi, I was almost ready to leave – the place had changed so much and was dirty and chaotic. But my first day on the island I got up before 7 (when most of the partiers are just getting to bed…) and went on two dives with Viking Divers. I rented an underwater camera for the first time and spent the day honing my skills. Fortunately, we saw so much I had many chances to get a decent shot.
We saw tons of turtles, lionfish, stingrays, eels, clownfish (Nemo!) and other fun things, but my photos of those weren’t as good.
Camping on Bamboo Island
When I first visited Phi Phi four years ago, I took one of the many day trips around the island to see beaches and go snorkeling. My favorite place was surprisingly not the famous Maya Bay but this tiny island I’d never heard of, Bamboo Island. My dad later said it was his favorite beach near Phi Phi too. All I could think of when I visited for an hour was how cool it would be to visit the island for a longer period of time, to be there when the day-trippers were gone.
So when I got to Phi Phi and met Sarah, an Italian traveler who was equally disenchanted with the state of Phi Phi itself, I mentioned that we should look into camping on Bamboo Island. All over town, touts were selling trips to go camping at Maya Bay, which is apparently just an extension of the party on Phi Phi. Bamboo Island wasn’t mentioned anywhere. But while I was out diving, Sarah took a walk and at the quiet western end of the beach managed to find Suleiman, a man of many trades – one of which is taking people to camp on Bamboo Island! For the price of a (high season) mid-range room on Phi Phi, we could get a private longtail trip to Bamboo Island, all meals, snorkeling, national park fee and camping included.
After delaying the trip a day due to bad weather (by the way, “dry season” in Thailand is far from rain-free) and the fact that Suleiman had some other customers to take camping, we were finally off. Another woman, Anna, joined us just for the afternoon. On the way to Bamboo, we went snorkeling in quiet Nuy Bay and Sarah jumped off a 6-meter boulder (“cliff”) with Suleiman (Anna and I decided we were too old/chickened out).
Around 5, we arrived at Bamboo Island. We “checked in” to our tent at the park ranger station, although we would end up sleeping under a mosquito net on the beach. The next 16 hours or so were nothing short of magical. Aside from Sarah, Suleiman and me, there was one couple with their guide, and aside from that, some park rangers. There seemed to be fewer than 10 people on the whole island.
After a delicious dinner of Thai curry and several kilos of fresh crab, the main events of the night included:
It’s funny, but finally being away from all the noise and partying on Phi Phi, with nothing but the waves crashing on the beach and the moonlight, I couldn’t sleep all night. Maybe my goal was to enjoy every minute… The lack of sleep didn’t stop us from touring the island in the morning before the first speedboats arrived around 9. The island can be circled by foot in less than 45 minutes.
I did some snorkeling off the beach and saw some interesting fish (coral was nothing to speak of) but it was a little awkward while the water was so low. We headed back midday and stopped at Mosquito Island to check out a secret cave where Suleiman and his family collect swallows’ nests. Aside from taking tourists camping, Suleiman’s occupations include free-climbing for expensive swallows’ nests, cleaning up the beach, fishing and being a pirate.
After one last stop at monkey beach (which was actually cleaner, prettier and less overrun with aggressive macaques than I remembered from last time) we arrived back at the quiet end of the beach on Phi Phi. We might have been gone for less than 24 hours, and been under an hour away by long tail, but it felt like we’d been on a different planet for a week.
I’m still amazed we were able to do this trip from Phi Phi, and wonder if the option will still exist four years from now – or if Bamboo Island will become as popular as Maya Bay or the Similans for camping and lose any semblance of being undiscovered. In any case, I’m glad we got the chance to experience it now.
Off the beaten track on Phi Phi
So, mainly because of the camping trip, I ended up staying on Phi Phi for five nights (four not including Bamboo Island). This was longer than I’d planned, but gave me time to explore the island and discover that on the edges of the chaos, there were still some hidden-away gems. Here are some of the good things you can still find on Phi Phi:
- The food. I had the best Pad Thai of my trip (and maybe my life) at Suleiman’s family’s place (“P.P. Fisherman House”) on the western edge of Loh Dalum beach. There was also an excellent restaurant called the Orange Place on the quiet eastern road near the mosque. There’s street food and markets selling things like (amazing) mango/sticky rice, and even if it’s a bit pricey by Thai standards, it’s all very good. There actually are locals living on Phi Phi, and because it’s such a small place, they live side by side with the mess of tourists. One of the perks of this is the surprisingly authentic, tasty food.
- The quieter streets, beaches and bars. The farthest east and west streets cutting across the island were remarkably quiet and pleasant to walk along, without all the crazy bike and backpacker traffic of the ones in the middle. That’s where we found bamboo bungalows, much like the ones I stayed at on Koh Lipe – we were able to stay at the clean, comfortable Chong Khao bungalows for 600 baht (a steal on Phi Phi) and the Gypsy bungalows on the other side of the island looked nice too. Good to know these places still exist on Phi Phi. As for bars, Sunflower bar and the bar at the very eastern edge of the beach (P.U.?) were chill places to watch the sunset. While it’s the opposite of quiet, Stones Bar had the best fire show hands down, and Sarah and I went there so many times we started to feel like we knew all the performers.
- Phi Phi viewpoint in the morning. I missed seeing the viewpoint last time I was on Phi Phi and was determined to make it up there this time. It was quite a climb, and I did it before breakfast around 9 AM. But it was pretty cool to be up there with less than six other people…
Railay is known as the “climber’s paradise” and since I’ve never been a rock climber, I didn’t think about stopping there before. But it was one of my favorite places in the south this time, and I wish I’d had more than two nights to hang out. Compared to Phi Phi, the atmosphere was more relaxed and chilled out and the people were much less drunk and disgusting. The evening entertainment at the “Last Bar” was fantastic, mainly thanks to this one guy who probably is the best singer, fire dancer *and* DJ in Thailand. Seriously, it’s a little scary how much he excels in everything he does.
The views are absolutely gorgeous, and I did try rock climbing, which was pretty challenging but also satisfying and exhausting – in a good way.
If I’d had more time i would have loved to take a sea kayak around the nearby limestone formations. Also, I stayed on Railay East, which was the better (backpacker) side of the peninsula, but I’ve heard that Ton Sai (a short boat ride – or swim – away) has the bamboo bungalows and hippie vibe I’d probably enjoy even more. Maybe next time!
Khao Sok National Park
To top off my stay in the south (and a big part of why I stayed as long as I did) I joined Wicked Diving for an unconventional trip to dive in the lake at Khao Sok National Park. I’d always wanted to see the park, and after wondering what it would be like to diving among submerged trees at the Tonle Sap in Cambodia, I figured it would be an interesting experience. The lake in the park was created artificially 30 years ago, so there are trees and even villages underwater (the villages are too deep for recreational divers to explore).
The scenery was even more beautiful than I expected – rock formations similar to the ones at Railay and Phi Phi, surrounding a clear lake. Riding on a bamboo raft or a kayak on the still water was amazingly serene. We stayed in floating bungalows right on the water that creaked and moved as people walked on the attached boardwalks.
Diving was interesting – definitely different from what I’m used to. I learned I don’t need much extra weight at all when diving in fresh water. We saw underwater continuations of the limestone formations we could see above water, cave entrances, trees that would seemingly appear out of nowhere through the green foggy water, and a bunch of friendly (or blind enough to seem friendly) catfish. At one point, I lost the other divers for a minute and it was pretty spooky to be surrounded by dead trees and green light with nobody else in sight (turned out they were just above me, the only place I forgot to look).
Aside from diving, we got to check out the Coral Cave, named for its formations that look a lot like coral – almost like diving, but without the water! On the way, we hiked for 30 minutes on a somewhat muddy path through the jungle, and I managed to get the goriest leech bite to date (once I finally had forgotten to worry about them). At this point, it barely fazed me when I looked down to see what I thought was sticky mud in my croc was actually blood…!
Anyway, the park was a beautiful setting and somewhere I’d definitely return for more time if I was with the right company. It’s not a place to meet new people, but the plus side is that it’s far from overrun with tourists. It’s also as popular (maybe even more so) among Thai visitors, giving it a different vibe than most destinations in southern Thailand.
So, that’s all I’m going to write about the south of Thailand for quite a while, hopefully. Now, will I ever write a post under 1500 words again?