Finding “The Beach” in the Phi Phi Islands

The view from Long Beach. The filming location for the The Beach is in the background

Located in the Andaman Islands in the south of Thailand, the Phi Phi Islands (Koh Phi Phi) have been a popular travel destination for decades. When we headed to the region to do some relaxing after five weeks travelling around Southeast Asia, we wanted to enjoy nature as well as culture. In the end, we had no idea the relaxation wouldn’t last long as the news about COVID-19 built up, but we enjoyed it while it lasted.

The Phi Phi Islands in the southern part of the Andaman Sea

We took a ferry to Phi Phi from Phuket where we had spent the previous five days. The only way to get to the islands is by boat as the island is too small for an airport. Most ferry trips from Phuket include transportation to the ferry terminal which made the trip much easier. There are only two ferry companies so there wasn’t a lot of choice, but the prices were reasonable. It took about two hours from the terminal in Phuket to the one on Phi Phi and the ferry ride was spartan basic but got the job done. Kim did see a cockroach on the floor of the inside seating area and almost screamed. She proceeded to go up to the outside deck for some fresh air and stayed there for the rest of the trip, leaving me below with the luggage and the roach!

Note: if you are only buying a one way ticket as we did, the people at the ferry terminal will try to sell you the return or onward ticket at a “reduced” rate. We didn’t buy from them and once we arrived on Phi Phi we found prices were even lower for ferry tickets so there’s no need to book onward in advance. If you do buy a ticket on Phi Phi it pays to ask around as the prices varied from shop to shop. This was different from Phuket where ferry prices were the same wherever we asked.

In Phuket getting ready to board

Koh Phi Phi is comprised of a large group of islands, although there are only two main islands: Phi Phi Don and Phi Phi Le. Phi Phi Don is the only permanently inhabited island and it’s where the tourists stay. Phi Phi Le is to the south and is part of a national park and popular tourist site.

The island is very compact, and when we arrived at the terminal at Tonsai Bay our hotel was a five minute walk from the pier. Interestingly the main town is centered around the narrowest part of the island.

Ferries enter from the south. We stayed at the Panmanee Hotel. Very basic, but a great location right in the middle of town
Longtail boats ready to go at the main pier
The other side of the main pier
A covered retail area close to our hotel. It gave welcome relief from the hot sun

On our first full day there we went from the town to a beach located close by called Long Beach. It had a good reputation as arguably the best beach on the island. While it’s possible to walk there from town, it’s a long and more difficult journey through the jungle. Instead, it’s just a five minute trip by longtail boat to the beach, so we hired a boatman from the main pier and headed over.

The shade was great, but Kim banged her head twice getting in and out of the boat because of the low cover
Long Beach is in sight
A view of Phi Phi Le in the distance. We went there the next day
Looking back towards Tonsai Bay
Going for a swim
A swing with a view

We did a half day trip to Phi Phi Le on our last day. We purchased tickets from one of the many shops in the town and showed up early the next day to meet our guide. We went to the pier and boarded the boat with about 10 other people. The longtail took us across from the main island to the other one. The sea was choppy at times but not too rough and after about 20 minutes we reached Phi Phi Le.

Koh Phi Phi Le and the three locations on the island we visited
Heading towards the island

Our first stop was Maya Bay, a spot made famous in Leonardo DiCaprio’s film The Beach. Unfortunately, it became a victim of its own success and the popularity of the film meant more and more tourists have been coming there in the 20 years since the film was released.

By 2018, Maya Beach was getting about 5,000 visitors per day, and it was overwhelming the environment. The Thai government didn’t want to lose the tourism revenue, but it risked losing the entire ecosystem instead, so the tough decision was made to close Maya Beach to tourists and only allow boats to moor just offshore.

Since 2018 tourists have not been allowed to land on the beach. It is now “the beach nobody can touch“. And to be honest, after seeing photos of how crowded things used to be I really didn’t mind. It was far better to see Maya Bay and the clean water and white sand from the water rather than just crowding around the beach looking out at boats filling the bay. And it looked more authentic to the simplicity of the beach in the film, too. The water was just as clear in the bay where I was able to swim and the snorkeling was great.

Maya Bay in the distance
There were a couple boats within the beach limit but according to our guide they were park rangers
We couldn’t get any closer than the markers, but it looked great

This was as close as we could get, so the boatman put down the anchor and we went snorkeling in the bay. It was easy to spot a variety of fish and coral in the clear shallow water.

Time to check out the wildlife
Lots of fish in the water

We left Maya Bay and headed on to our next stop, Loh Sama Bay. This was another snorkeling spot with schools of fish. The guide hoped we might see some small sharks there but we didn’t see any.

On the way to Loh Sama
Doing more snorkeling

At lunchtime we were given fried rice in a styrofoam container. Kim gave a little bit of hers to the fish. The guide was okay with it as he was doing it as well to attract them. The rest of the tourists enjoyed the sight of all the fish going after the rice.

A fish frenzy for Kim’s rice donation

Our next stop was Pileh Lagoon, another striking location where you could stand up in the shallow water of the lagoon. Although it was busier there with more boats coming and going we still enjoyed it.

Heading into the lagoon
Going for a swim

Our last stop on the way back was Monkey Bay located back on the main island, but the monkeys weren’t there at that time of the day so we just enjoyed the shallow water for a while.

Monkey Bay minus the monkeys

We were back to the pier before evening. Before dinner we walked around the town. There are no cars on the island, and almost everyone walks. On the north side of main town is Loh Dalum beach. It’s a popular swimming and kayaking beach with lots of bars along the beachfront. We walked along the beach as the sun went down, making for a nice finish to the day.

At this time of the evening the tide was out

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