Phi Phi Island: Paradise or tourist dumping ground?

Maya bay, in the EXACT right location to appear closed

Ever since seeing the movie, The Beach, my son and I have been infatuated with "that" island.  I mean who wouldn't be? It appears to be totally secluded, stunningly beautiful, and Leo sat right on it!  Since we were already in Phuket Thailand when my son's birthday was coming up, I left it to him to decide what he wanted for his birthday.  No need to think about it, he said, Phi Phi island boat trip!

There are many ways to experience Phi Phi.  You can stay on the island Phi Phi Don (different actual island than in the movie) and tour around on a longtail boat.  You can stay in Phuket and take a day trip, which is what we did because Phuket is less expensive than Phi Phi island is.  Or you can go camping overnight ON the actual beach (Maya beach) from the movie.  The last one I think would be the best option but the cost was a factor. It's triple the cost of the day trip.  If you can swing it though, camping there is probably amazing.

We booked our day trip through our hotel.  2800 Baht (roughly $90 US) for both of us.  Included were several stops, unlimited beverages (non alcoholic),  lunch, and transport to and from the boat dock.   We were picked up at the hotel promptly at 8am and drove directly to the boat dock.  I was impressed right away with the dock area as it was very clean and the boats were all beautiful, well maintained, and gave a nice feeling of confidence that quite frankly I really need when heading out into the open ocean with one of my children.

After waiting at the dock for about 20 minutes we boarded the boat and took off, very James Bond style, as we twisted around the curves of the canal to get out to the ocean.  We enjoyed the ride out. Many small secluded islands peak through the sea offering beautiful scenery.  It was a speedy and comfortable way to reach Phi Phi.

First stop was the famed Maya bay, where the movie was actually filmed.  It is disappointing and amazing all at the same time.  You could hardly even see the actual beach because of all the boats lined up against it.  There were so many people on the island, so many boats in the water, an odor of gasoline, and a HUGE gap in the supposed secret beach.  It was clearly a bit photo shopped for the movie.  We knew that, but the size of the opening was still surprising.  If you went way to one side you can get a pick that makes it appear closed otherwise it looks like any other highly overpopulated beach.  The water is beautiful and the sand amazingly white and soft, but something about being herded around like cattle and breathing in gasoline fumes just left us feeling a bit deflated!

What the gap really looks like
40 minutes later we were off to a new area for snorkeling.   I cannot remember the name of the precise cove but it was just the other side of Maya bay.  It was also stunning and the one spot that we visited where the coral was relatively healthy.  We stayed about 20 minutes as they fed bread to the fish so they would swarm.  We swam away and dove down a bit to see some more.  We saw a reef shark, manta ray, and a host of beautiful fish while snorkeling.  Wish we could have stayed down there longer but it was time, as they so loudly instructed, to move on.

Viking cave, and no that water has not been photo shopped
We passed by viking cave, where they harvest the birds nests that sell for a high price.  We were not allowed to enter the cave and for that we were glad.  The water by the cave was stunning, the harvesting of the birds eggs not so much!  After 15 minutes in a beautiful bay we were off to the next stop, Monkey Beach.  This is where the tourism seemed most irresponsible.  Loads of people gawking at the poor critters, feeding them chips.  I even saw a monkey with a Coke can!  Worst of all, these animals looked terribly unhealthy.  Each one of them with a skin condition or large cysts on their body, very sad.  We snapped a few pics and again were hustled to the next point, this time grateful though to leave that behind!

Lunchtime was at a very nice buffet set up, clearly designed for the hundreds of tourist-packed boats they see everyday.  We were on Phi Phi Don, the main island, but no where near the actual town.  The lunch was actually quite nicely presented and delicious with a wide array of choices.  Maybe it was because we were starving, but we both thought the meal was fantastic.  We had a whopping 45 minutes to eat and then onto another point, our last stop of the day.

Lunch stop
A quick 20-minute ride back towards Phuket and the boat tour guide, who did not speak very good English, emerged pointing to a row of boats and says "we stop here now, for swimming, kissing on the beach, and drinks, snorkel is OK too".  My son and I looked at each other and just laughed out loud!  You couldn't even see the "beach" behind the covering of boats. We were not interested in swimming in that diesel filled water or kissing, and snorkeling.  Well, we tried but it was just impossible to see anything as the water was so churned up from all the traffic.  We spent the 40 minutes mostly sitting on some beach chairs, that we were quite grateful for, and discussing what we thought of this beautiful island that we had been so excited to see.

A bit disturbing!
By the time we got back to Phuket, sunburned and tired, it took a few days to digest the experience and even longer for me to get it down in writing.  Phi Phi is an absolutely beautiful place and well worth a visit, but as we had read before we went, it truly is a somewhat of a disgrace.  Irresponsible tourism at it's worst.  Should you go?  That is up to you to decide. I am glad we did. It was a great day and it is quite stunning scenery.  Are there more pristine places that handle tourism in a more eco-friendly way?   No doubt!

Have you been to Phi Phi Island?  What were your impressions?

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  1. Where are your top countries handling tourism in a more eco-friendly way? (I bet Costa Rica is on the list?)

  2. Costa Rica is on the list ion some ways and off in others:) I am sure anyone who goes there gets a good sense of that, but I believe they are trying.

    Countries like Bhutan ans Nepal that limit the amount of people at certain sites, and New Zealand, Madagascar I hear. Really any place that protects its gems! This beach is not being protected it is being harmed, dying coral, diesel fumes, and trash every where.

  3. We were in Phi Phi before the tsunami and had the exact same feeling. Beautiful, but seriously lacking in any kind of infrastructure to deal with sewage and garbage. The noise from the boats ALL day long in the beautiful bay was overwhelming.

  4. Phi Phi Island is such a really nice place to visit.

    1. I agree, really beautiful, but perhaps too much tourism!