Some 40 km (25 mi) from Krabi, off Thailand’s southwestern coast, Ko Phi Phi is a group of limestone islands that just sharply from the surrounding turquoise sea. Phi Phi Don is both the largest and the only one with a permanent population. Phi Phi Leh is much visited but uninhabited. The remaining islets are little more than limestone rocks.
Phi Phi Don divides into two sections joined by a narrow isthmus, on either side of which are two superb sweeps of white sand. It is startlingly beautiful with green hills culminating in astonishing cliffs plunging down to the water, many glorious beaches and unparalleled views. The islands are part of a National Marine Park, which should, though does not, protect them from the worst excesses of the developers.
During the 1940s Phi Phi Don was populated by Muslim fishermen, and even now a good 80 per cent of the inhabitants are Muslims. Later, coconut plantations were introduced, but by the 1970s travellers had got wind of this remote and delicious paradise, and a fledging tourist industry grew up.
The good news is that as diving and snorkelling are so popular, the fishermen no longer use dynamite, and the surrounding coral is in better shape than it might be. Conversely, attempts to limit the number of tourists and tourist facilities, to better preserve the nature of the place, have failed due to greed.
Phi Phi Leh is all towering cliffs, caves and a sea lake. Tourists visit for the day to swim, but it is also famed as a centre of the bird’s nest soup industry. Swiftlets nest high up in rocky hollows, and licenced collectors climb rickety-looking scaffolding three times a year to harvest these nests, made of saliva, which is as desirable and valuable to the Chinese as white truffles are to Europeans.
When to visit
November to April
How to reach
By boat from Phuket or Krabi
- On Phi Phi Don: Rock climbing, Sea kayaking, Game fishing, snorkelling with sharks.
- Viking Bird Nest Cave, with pre-historic wall paintings and nests on Phi Phi Leh.
- The Beach – the actual beach made famous by the eponymous film starring Leonardo di Caprio.
You should know
Phi Phi Don was shattered by the 2004 tsunami. Over 70 per cent of the buildings were destroyed, about 4,000 people drowned, survivors were evacuated and the island was closed. Help internationally.
Phi Phi was set up by a former (Dutch) resident and with the help of both Thais and backpacking volunteers cleared 23,000 tons of debris, 7,000 tons of it by hand. A second organization cleared debris from the bays and reefs and one year later 1,500 hotel rooms were back in action.