The Phi Phi Islands are our favourite romantic paradise… but for how long?
When my in-laws offered Mr Globetrotter and I a week of babysitting for us to travel anywhere in the world, we did not hesitate at the opportunity to take a kid-free vacation!
After much debate, if we should try somewhere new and slightly more adventurous, we ended up settling on an old favourite, Phuket & Phi Phi Islands, Thailand.
Although October is towards the end of the rainy season, we were willing to take the gamble to visit our favourite tropical paradise. Phuket, sadly, has lost its once charming shine as we noted during our last family visit to Karon Beach – but Phi Phi is still really something special, worth travelling that little extra distance. But will it stay that way for much longer?
This post is part of our Discover SE Asia series – read on more exciting family adventures around Bali, Cambodia, Singapore & more!
A bit more about the Phi Phi Islands Thailand
Although often called Phi Phi Island, or Koh Phi Phi, the Phi Phi Islands are actually made up of two larger islands and four smaller, uninhabited islands, situated about 40km away from Phuket and Krabi.
Most well known are Ko Phi Phi Don to the north where you will find Tonsai Bay and numerous backpackers, hotels and beach resort – the only inhabited island; to the south is Ko Phi Phi Leh.
Made most famous by the movie ‘the Beach‘ – real name Maya Beach – its exquisite white sand beaches, azure waters and dramatic line stone cliff faces have made it an incredibly popular tourist destination.
The Phi Phi Islands were first inhabited from about the 1940s by Muslim fishermen, it then became a coconut plantation, before becoming a tourist destination.
To this day, the island has a large Muslim population and the call to prayer can be heard – something we are used to every day living in the UAE but came as quite a shock in a country with a largely Buddhist population!
The devastating 2004 tsunami wiped out most of the structures on the island and resulted in the evacuation of all residents (no official death toll but believed to be in the thousands).
We first visited Phi Phi in the years immediately following the Tsunami and there was little more than a few shacks and hotels. Over 12 years later the village of Tonsai Bay is as bustling as ever and much development has occurred (maybe too much?) across Phi Phi Don.
All roads on Phi Phi Don are for pedestrian use only, with small pushcarts used to transport luggage and goods around (those arriving by ferry can hire a cart from the pier for a small fee) which gives a fabulous small village atmosphere.
The daily arrival of new tourist from the Thai mainland, however, and innumerable boat tour companies operating particularly around Phi Phi Leh is an increasing concern for the islands.
Ko Phi Phi – Important visitor facts
The rainy season in Ko Phi Phi runs from May to December while January to April are quite dry. Although you can experience some absolute downpours, rain tends to roll in and out and not stick about for too long (visiting in October we only had one completely washed out day, and a couple of absolutely superb ones!)
There are plenty of pharmacies and convenience stores around Tonsai Bay, but little else in the way of essential supplies throughout the rest of Phi Phi Don. If you are staying in one of the more remote resorts you may need to stock up on any little essentials before you travel or make a trip into town. A limited range of baby supplies can be found in Tonsai Bay.
What to do on Phi Phi
Whether you are taking a day trip from the mainland or staying on Phi Phi Don, a boat cruise around Phi Phi Leh is normally the top of most people’s agendas. They include a pretty standard itinerary of swimming at famous Maya Beach, snorkelling in one of the limestone caves (all gear usually included), taking a look at the Viking caves and stopping at Monkey Beach.
Be warned, you are not alone. If you are staying on the island, taking a longboat direct from your accommodation or from Tonsai Bay is the nicest way to experience the fresh open waters (and in your own chartered boat you can discuss the itinerary with your skipper – though they make speak very little English).
Even starting pre-8am from our resort, Maya Beach was getting crowded. Once the big ferries, catamarans and speed boats full of tourists start arriving, forget it.
Undoubtedly snorkelling and diving are favourite sports though with plenty of operators offering services from all over the islands, and from Krabi/Phuket/Koh Lanta.
The most popular tour that is sold is to Hin Phae (“Shark Point”) where you can swim with the sharks! Black Tip Reef Sharks are around a metre long and we are advised as long as you stick to instructions, harmless to swim with.
Another popular option (often included in a Maya Beach package tour) is a trip to Mosquito Island. There are no permanent inhabitants here but you can borrow snorkelling gear and have a drink on the amazing white sandy beaches (though as the name suggests, there are a few other evening inhabitants…)
As Phi Phi Don is pedestrianised, there are several walks you can take across the island, some more challenging than others if you have little legs to consider.
Do ask at your local bars or accommodation which would be most appropriate and go out prepared with good footwear, sun protection and water.
Near to Tonsai Bay there is a viewpoint walk, or if staying in the north, Loh Bagao has a mangrove walk as well as a fairly steep climb to the viewpoint (you may want to be wearing more than flip-flops for these walks!)
Those with far more experience and athleticism than us may want to investigate rock climbing and cliff jumping options – both naturally with their dangers and precautions.
We really enjoyed though just walking around Tonsai Bay itself, admiring the artists at work in the small galleries, negotiating for our tourist tatt to bring home for the kids (Miss Z would have been in handbag and jewellery heaven!!)
If you have been to the markets in Phuket though, expect something different. Ok, we all know it’s same-same, but a more laid-back attitude and a slower pace of life which we really enjoyed.
Drinks are cheap, the sun is plentiful. Tattoo parlours galore if that’s your thing! There really wasn’t much more we could have asked for on our kid-free break. Phi Phi was perfection.
Where we stayed – Phi Phi Island Village Beach Resort
On the eastern coast of Phi Phi Don and only accessible by boat sits the exclusive and highly acclaimed Phi Phi Island Village Resort.
I would classify this as “affordable luxury” – though we did travel off-peak which helped with our perception of pricing! The disadvantage of travelling during an off-peak period, they were renovating many rooms and facilities during our stay.
Great news for future travellers you will be treated to some truly spectacular, newly renovated rooms! We did get a room upgrade but due to the works, we were a fair walk from the beach and pool (but fabulously close to the village!).
If you are looking for that iconic Phi Phi hut accommodation though, then this is your place; the stuff romantic island dreams are made of and perfect for our kid-free vacation.
Family-Friendly Phi Phi?
Not exclusively for the adults, however, Phi Phi Island Village Beach Resort caters well to families.
Families of three can fit in a single room (a smallish child can fit on the couch or in a portable cot), whilst families of 4+ can fit in a double bedroom and bathroom deluxe villa.
While there isn’t a separate kids club, I think you will find enough water-based and exploration activities to keep kids entertained for a few days at least. The pool has a shallow kids area with a slide and the restaurants have kids menu options.
The Village behind Phi Phi Island Village Beach Resort
Nestled behind the resort is a local Village, small but full of the necessities you might need – i.e. Mini Marts, beers and massage! (at a fraction of the cost inside the resort).
Our favourite place for a drink was The Beach Bar. Bartender Chad tells us where to find the hidden beach for sunset viewing Nui Bay.
We wimped out on staying here until dusk as we knew the tide in Loh Lana Bay would rise to impassable (and the rope climb to get to the bay was no easy feat! Something unique we wouldn’t have tried with the kids in tow). We were still rewarded with the most glorious orange glowing sky, photos simply can’t do it justice.
For some of the best Thai food we’ve had in a long time and service with a smile don’t miss Oasis Bar (ok so the floor is a little ah, angular, it adds character).
Another good bite can be found at their diagonal neighbour who cooks freshly caught fish nightly on his barbeque, superb! (But sorry I forgot your name!)
We did really enjoy our stay in Phi Phi Island Village Beach Resort, but really it was the friendliness and atmosphere (as well as cost-saving) of this small little community that was the winner of this trip.
Other accommodation options on Phi Phi
Only a small island in relative terms, Phi Phi caters well for all budgets – there’s a great guide on where to stay in Phi Phi Island here to check out more budget options and hostels.
In a nutshell, party lovers, backpackers and those who like being nearer to the action may prefer to stay around the central area of Tonsai Bay, stretching over to the north-facing beach Loh Dalum.
There are lots of restaurants, shops and activities within easy walking distance to enjoy here – but it may come across to some as a bit too party hard if you’re visiting Phi Phi on your honeymoon or as a romantic retreat.
Those seeking quiet and exclusivity may prefer Laem Thong (Golden Bay) where you snorkel in the reefs immediately off the shore from your hotel.
For a pleasant mix between more tranquil yet walking distance to the main village, Long Beach is a popular choice with the more budget-conscious, offering bungalow style accommodation. Prices vary significantly depending on the season. Check out current deals below.
How to get to Phi Phi Islands
There are several different ways to get to Phi Phi, as either a day-tripper or to stay on Phi Phi Don. Ferry boats run from Phi Phi to Phuket, Koh Lanta and Krabi – allow 2+ hours.
Arrival at some of the resorts is only available by boat. Phi Phi Island Village Beach Resort run their own transfer service from Oa Po Marina, Phuket – two daily services via Catamaran (pricey but amazing – pick up from your mainland hotel or airport included).
If arriving at low tide a smaller boat will then transfer you to their tractor to take you to shore – quite an experience!
A less pricey option is to take a public ferry to Tonsai Bay and transfer either on their shuttle (200 baht at time of writing) or by hiring a private long boat (you can probably negotiate to 500 baht).
Other transfer options to Tonsai Bay
- Shared Speedboat Transfers (One Way) between Phi Phi Island and Phuket
- Jet Cruiser Ticket (One Way) between Koh Phi Phi and Phuket
- Ferry Ticket (One Way) from Koh Phi Phi to Lanta Island
- Phi Phi Private Speedboat Charter
- Phi Phi Jet Cruise Tour from Phuket
Phi Phi and sustainable tourism
For all the beauty of the Phi Phi Islands, there are some sad realities that need to be faced. Phi Phi produces about 25 tonnes of waste PER DAY (source Wikipedia) – excluding human waste.
This all has to be removed from the island daily by boat as there is no public refuse point on the islands. Despite this, we saw the devastating effects of what just a few stormy days can do to the island’s ecosystem.
The magnificent and largely uninhabited north-west coast is strewn with garbage, mostly plastics and fishing net waste washed into the shores, most notably a problem at Loh Lana Bay.
Even swimming at Maya Beach, a protected National Park we were dodging mouthfuls of rubbish. A minuscule tourism fee is collected from visitors at the pier on Ko Phi Phi Don and only if you go on shore at Maya Beach a 400 baht (12usd) tourist fee is collected.
This surely can’t be enough to protect these fragile islands longer term?
A quick snorkel at Ko Phi Phi Leh showed us the damage constant motorboat traffic caused to the coral reefs (yes, an issue I am abundantly aware our longboat was only adding to). The colours we saw in the coral reefs 10 years ago had all but vanished.
These images will stay with me a very long time (thanks to fellow sustainability bloggers who’ve introduced me to #take3forthesea – an effort to each play our part to protect our fragile oceans and something we will definitely be applying during future beach visits).
You can read similar views on sustainability issues on Phi Phi here by Emma from Wanderlust & Wet Wipes and check out this guide for some tips on how you can reduce your impact as a traveller and use less plastic every day.
The local villagers here could do nothing more than sweep up the tidal rubbish daily and attempt to burn it. Want a more unspoilt Thai island? Why not try Koh Lipe – easier accessed from Malaysia than Thailand but its remoteness holds its beauty.
We dearly enjoyed our visit to Phi Phi and think it will be a beautiful place to take the children – but how much longer can the Phi Phi islands sustain this level of tourism without becoming outrageously overpriced and exclusive or simply destroyed before our children can enjoy it….?
It’s, unfortunately, a dilemma such small but beautiful tropical paradises face. It is very much a child-friendly place, but we chose to make this visit kid-free just because of the inconvenient flight times followed by several transfers to get there. That, and who doesn’t want to take a trip alone with their loved one to somewhere so amazing!?
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