11 February 2009

Ko Phi Phi - the good, the bad and the ugly

Ko Phi Phi is possibly one of the most stunning places we've ever been to. The natural beauty of the scenery is just amazing. Massive jungle covered cliffs rising from a bottle green sea with sweeping curved white sand beaches.

Ko Phi Phi is actually two islands, Ko Phi Phi Don, which is where all the action is, and Ko Phi Phi Leh, a smaller uninhabited island a few kilometers over the Andaman Sea to the South.

Ko Phi Phi Don is itself really two separate islands, Ko Nok and Ko Nai, that are joined by a half a kilometer long sand bar. Perched on top of the sand bar is Ton Sai Village which is packed full of bars, restaurants, shops and accommodation.

During the day the atmosphere is very much like it was on Ko Samui with a really relaxed beach vibe. However in the evenings it's quite lively, more like Ko Phangan, with the beach bars putting on music and fire shows until the small hours.

Despite the natural beauty of the island there are some big problems here. The tsunami of Boxing Day 2004 was an unavoidable natural disaster that caused massive damage to the island, buildings and infrastructure. However, it's a real shame that a lot of the rebuilding work has been done really haphazardly and, lets not pull any punches here, is fairly ugly. It looks like a lot of the building is unregulated and as a result the place looks more than a little scruffy.

The other really shocking thing is the amount of litter . . . an absolutely staggering amount really. Everywhere you go there are plastic bottles, cans, paper and other general waste just thrown at the sides of the road, in fields or on the beach. It's a real shame that somewhere that is so beautiful is slowly being turned into a complete tip.

Take the following as a good (bad!) example. The first guesthouse we checked into here was the R.S. Guesthouse. Upon opening one of the windows from our bedroom we were confronted with the following . . .

. . . about 3 foot deep pile of old plastic bottles! And this is typical of the mess in and around Ton Sai Village. We've since moved to a place called Scenery Guesthouse which is a little further out of town up the hillside of Ko Nai.

The other thing about the accommodation here is that it feels massively overpriced. It appears that you have to pay twice the amount to get half the amenities of everywhere else in Thailand. This is a place that is trying to go more upmarket and move away from it's backpacker beginnings. If you're going more upmarket you have to do more than just charge high prices!

The overspill of rubbish and the general ugliness of the buildings has a big impact on the two main beaches that are on either side of the sand bar. It makes them not particularly nice places to hang around during the day. It's a real shame too as they are stunning locations. The beach to the North of the sand bar, Ao Lo Dalam, also has the additional problem of what appears to be some stinky discharge from a water treatment plant oozing out onto the beach. Adding a rather strange sheen and nasty odour to the shallow lagoon of water.

It's hard to be overly critical given everything that the people here have been through as a result of the tsunami but without a little more care there's a risk that the man made mess will turn the tourists away.

Thankfully it's fairly easy to escape from the worst bits of the man made mess on Ko Phi Phi.
About a half hour walk, or a couple of minutes in a long tail boat around the coast from Ton Sai Village is the stunning beach of Hat Yao (Long Beach). Thankfully the beach here is a lot less developed and devoid of litter and stinky effluent. It's also a great beach for snorkeling from as there is a large coral reef just off shore. Although this has the disadvantage of making the sand really sharp under foot.

Ko Phi Phi is reputedly one of the worlds top dive sites, in particular the waters off the uninhabited Phi Phi Lay. We took a half day boat trip for a bit of snorkel ling there and saw a stunning array of fish and coral including lion fish, clown fish, moray eels and giant parrot fish.

As part of the boat trip you also get to visit a few of the other sights of the Phi Phi islands including Monkey Beach (there were no monkeys on our visit), Viking Cave (where swiftlet nests are collected for birds nest soup) and Maya Bay where the film of the Alex Garland book The Beach was made. Unfortunately the timing of our sunset visit to Maya Bay coincided with low tide so we got to see the mud flats of the bay rather than the shimmering lagoon that was seen in the film!

Last night, being a full moon, saw the now obligatory full moon party. This being Ko Phi Phi was more of a full moon party "lite" with lots of really lame dance music. If I hear Bob Sinclair's love generation one more time there might be a DJ related accident!

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