21 Nov The Problem with Phi Phi
As I sat on the balcony overlooking one of the bays on Koh Phi Phi, Thailand, I thought: this place is amazing; it’s paradise! Crystal clear waters bordered with soft and sandy beaches or incredible rock formations that look as if they have just appeared from hundreds of metres below sea level.
I took in the spectacular views of Koh Phi Phi Don while I waited for my sisters to arrive from Koh Phangan. After watching The Beach, which was famously filmed in Phi Phi, I had been expecting to see beautiful bays and gorgeous sunsets on the islands but it’s a shame I left the balcony really, because when I looked closer at this paradise I found quite a different story.
Since Koh Phi Phi was devastated by the 2004 Asian Tsunami, I was expecting to see some visible scars but actually it’s amazing walking around the island; unless you look closely you wouldn’t believe that the main town had been damaged at all. They are continuing to build more hotels in Koh Phi Phi and these need to conform to more rigorous standards, so that they can withstand another tsunami. However it seems the bigger threat to the island isn’t nature, it’s the way it’s treated by people.
The worst thing I found about Phi Phi is the rubbish that gets left behind by thousands of visitors. Even the beaches that are only accessible by boat have a thick layer of washed-up litter on them. Koh Phi Phi Le, the place where they filmed The Beach, also has a sad amount of rubbish building up: I’m sure it didn’t look like that when Leonardo Di Caprio filmed there.
This rubbish problem is partly caused by drunken tourists. The Kho Phi Phi nightlife seems to be similar to Benidorm or Surfers’ Paradise; every night the streets fill up with booze-thirsty backpackers, mainly Brits, intent on getting trashed – one of the milder terms I heard. There are so many kiosks, bars and shops on the island fueling this booze culture; everywhere you go you see the notorious buckets containing dangerous concoctions of alcohol and soft drinks lined up to be sold. The government has obviously tried to tackle this problem by charging tourists a 20 Baht cleaning fee when they arrive but perhaps this makes people think that they can treat the island like a bin?
Another sad effect of tourism that I witnessed was a gibbon being used as a photo prop, chained to its owner on the bustling, noisy and brightly lit streets. This poor creature was as far away from its natural environment as it could get, yet tourists were nearly queuing up to have their pictures taken with it; this is something I also saw on Koh Tao.
Exploring Phi Phi
Despite all this, there was beauty to be found on Koh Phi Phi, which is split into two islands; the larger and inhabited Koh Phi Phi Don and the designated national park Koh Phi Phi Le. I took a boat trip with my sisters to a few of the key attractions; our first stop was Monkey Beach and true to form as five or six boats slid onto the shore macaques appeared ready to take whatever snacks they could lay their paws on. We then tried some cliff jumping, this cost an extra 100 Baht on top of the 500 Baht per person we’d already paid for the boat trip; this covered two jumps, one at 12 metres high and one at 16 metres. It was fun but we would have liked a few more jumps for our money.
Next stop was a lagoon on Koh Phi Phi Le. On the way there we saw the Viking Cave from a distance where people collect swiftlets’ nests (made mostly from the spit of the bird) for birds nest soup, apparently worth thousands of pounds per kilo. In the lagoon we were able to swim and snorkel, seeing quite a bit of the coral and sea life.
We then headed to the place where Leo filmed The Beach. This was quite stunning, and was full of other tourists just like us. Again, sadly there was so much washed-up rubbish at the back of the beach that it was difficult to appreciate the views without thinking that things could be so much better.
We were meant to be on a sunset tour, however the clouds put paid to that but we still had one more stop before heading back to the pier. We were waiting for darkness to fall so we could hop in the water again to see the phosphorescent plankton; something I saw in New Zealand’s Bay of Islands and wanted to experience again. It was magical the way your arms and legs seemed to spark the water to life – like you were swimming in fireworks. Then I bumped into a plastic bottle, and another. The magic disappeared and I was reminded of the problem here.
Is Phi Phi Perfect?
I had a great time on Koh Phi Phi, but this was mainly because I got to spend time with my sisters. Even though I was sick for a couple of days, we all enjoyed it. It’s not too expensive; we found bungalows with fans for two people for 400 Baht, that’s about £4 each. And to top it all off the Koh Phi Phi weather was fantastic; not a drop of rain and clear blue skies for most of our time there.
There are some things that could be done on this island – and elsewhere for that matter – to make it superb. I’m not saying that the whole island is terrible and I’m sure if you are willing to spend a little more money then you can stay farther around the island and get cleaner, quieter and less boozy beaches. This however doesn’t solve the rubbish issue. Perhaps each tour could offer reductions if the tourists spend 30 minutes to an hour cleaning up one of the beaches they visit? I would choose a tour like that myself but I’m not sure everyone would.
What do you think? Have you been to Koh Phi Phi? What did you like and dislike?