The Beach beach

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.

Fishing on Koh Phi Phi

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.

Me with Sarah on Phi Phi

Trashing Paradise

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.

Boats on Phi Phi, Thailand

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.

Me with Claire on Phi Phi

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.

Monkey on Monkey Beach

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.

The Beach, Koh Phi Phi, Thailand

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.

Koh Phi Phi Viewpoint, Thailand

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?

  • Alyson
    Posted at 10:18h, 21 November Reply

    The gibbon thing, we saw that on Ko Samui too, it’s horrible. Little baby ones being thrust onto Russian tourists’ backs for photos. It’s pretty sickening. I really don’t like any of the more touristy parts of Thailand, it’s horrible, I wouldn’t ever go to Phuket. The Beach is one of my favourite books and I’d love to see that bay, but I know I’d be disappointed so we stayed away. Sad inn’it?

    • Andrew
      Posted at 12:39h, 21 November Reply

      It is sad Alyson, the gibbon situation is similar to the elephant camps all over Thailand in particular, the tourists don’t think about where the animals have come from and what life is now like for them.

  • Rob
    Posted at 11:37h, 21 November Reply

    Gah! It pains me the rubbish situation. I think part of the problem is people don’t realise the impact dropping one plastic bottle has. Surely one plastic bottle won’t hurt??

    Travellers/tourists definitely have a responsibility to clear up after themselves.

    Have you heard of these guys…

    They did some cool work spreading awareness.

    • Andrew
      Posted at 12:34h, 21 November Reply

      That is the problem, when I was teaching in London too I saw kids dropping litter without a second thought. Some people just do not think ahead and about the bigger picture. The Plastiki Expedition looks interesting too. 🙂

  • Steph (@ 20 Years Hence)
    Posted at 12:14h, 21 November Reply

    Although we were in that neck of the woods, we decided to hang out on Ko Lanta rather than Phi Phi and I don’t regret that decision. We aren’t really interested in party islands and everything we read made it sound like Phi Phi was an example of tourism gone wild with massively elevated prices to boot.

    I will say, however, that I do seriously wonder how much of the rubbish you encountered was truly due to tourists. I know that there are undoubtedly some tourists who behave badly while on vacation, I have rarely found that it is Westerners who are doing the littering in this part of the world. Instead, I find it is often the locals who pay no heed to environment and show no compunction at just throwing their trash wherever they see fit. It might be a different scene on Phi Phi, but honestly, rampant garbage polluting otherwise beautiful vistas is a problem I have encountered in nearly every country in Asia.

    • Andrew
      Posted at 12:32h, 21 November Reply

      You may well be right Steph, we have seen littering by locals in just about every country too, I think the difference on Phi Phi from what I saw is that there was a lot of beer bottles left on the beach and other garbage that led me to believe that the tourists were more to blame than usual. I agree that it is very often the locals who do a lot of the garbage dumping too though.

      • louisa klimentos
        Posted at 14:30h, 14 February Reply

        when Leonardo Decaprio filmed The Beach.Did you know that 4 tonnes of rubbish was removed from the beach.The problem was always there ,even before tourism really hit.In most advanced countries,you have a bin collection every week.Do the locals have this facility on this island?Maybe not..If this is the case ,it is no wonder there is so much rubbish.It is a big shame because the Rock islands of Asia are some of the most stunning in the world.

        • Amy
          Posted at 00:38h, 18 February Reply

          That’s interesting Louisa, it’s a shame that such a problem exists but even if tourism isn’t the cause of it then it certainly adds to it. One of the most annoying aspects was that the island charges a cleaning fee to all the tourists which most likely doesn’t go towards cleaning at all.

          • Phi Phi Trash Warrior
            Posted at 06:13h, 06 December

            Actually, it does there chief. I am a local and we do beach clean ups, but for a tourists that never stepped foot on this island, it is pretty shallow talk. Do you know it costs approximately 25 baht per kilo of PUBLIC rubbish taken off of this island, not the mention the private garbage paid by businesses on this island? Was it annoying? Was it annoying to have to pay a half a pound to help combat the affects of tourism to this island? If it was, then you are easily annoyed. I do beach clean ups with my staff EVERY DAY and let me tell you, we get way more than a kilo a day. Check out of Facebook Page Phi Phi Island Preservation and Conservation. Then tell me how annoyed you are that your 20 measly baht didn’t go to anything good. So tired of three day tourists that come here and think they know everything without engaging with locals so that you may learn something. Rant over.

          • Amy
            Posted at 08:24h, 07 December

            Hi, thanks for commenting. We’re certainly not annoyed about paying a cleaning fee and stated in the post that we’d pay more/would like to do more to help the situation. Saying that, this post was written over four years ago now so I’m sure things are different on the island now, it sounds like you’re doing great work to tackle the problems. We did visit Koh Lanta earlier this year and found it really clean.

  • Patti
    Posted at 05:29h, 22 November Reply

    This was an interesting post Amy & Andrew. As I’ve mentioned before, southeast Asia is not on our radar so I’ve really been enjoying learning about it through your eyes/words. It’s really a shame about all of the trash isn’t it? It seems to come in many different forms. In Europe, there is SO much graffiti everywhere. Sometimes it seems as if the local government just gives up in trying to contain it all. Safe travels!

    • Andrew
      Posted at 15:01h, 22 November Reply

      Hi Patti, you’re right; it comes in so many ways. It’s a shame that some people aren’t doing their bit to look after this planet.

  • Charlie
    Posted at 00:43h, 26 November Reply

    I’ve never been to Phi Phi. I actually avoided it when I was in Thailand, visiting Koh Samui and Koh Tao instead, at the suggestion of other travelers. They said it was ruined by tourism, and sounds like it is a bit. Such a shame, I can’t stand to see beautiful places ruined by rubbish. Or any places for that matter!

    • Andrew
      Posted at 10:47h, 26 November Reply

      It is such a shame Charlie, it could be such a beautiful and clean place if a few simple things were done by everyone.

  • Krista
    Posted at 13:54h, 29 November Reply

    I’m glad you guys had some good weather because I’m here now and its rain, rain, rain. They even cancelled my diving trip because no one wanted to go out in the rain?? Seems a bit strange to me. I also had to switch hotels after getting attacked by bed bugs at my bungalow. Other travelers beware of Phi Phi Ingphu Viewpoint – bed bugs galore! Stay far away. This is a beautiful place, minus the rubbish that is scattered around the beaches. They just need to serious improve their hotels.

    • Andrew
      Posted at 14:19h, 29 November Reply

      The best bit about my time there was the weather, I can’t believe that they didn’t want to go diving because it was raining! So sorry you had a problem with bed bugs too, that is one of the worst things that can happen, really ruins your memories. Krista, you’re so right about the island being beautiful if it weren’t for the rubbish. I hope the weather gets better for you!

  • Katie
    Posted at 21:08h, 19 February Reply

    I just got back from a 20 backpacking adventure across Thailand with Koh Phi Phi being our last stop before we headed back up to Bangkok. We visited Phi Phi for 4 nights after staying in Railay… Before heading to Thailand – Koh Phi Phi was the destination I was most excited for, mainly because of its popularity due to ‘The Beach’… but after one night – I could have headed right back to Railay! I didn’t expect it to be so busy, SMELLY, and loud. During my stay I saw 3 Gibbons used as a photo prop, as you called it…and it broke my heart! None the less – Koh Phi Phi still is an amazing spot to hit while you’re in Thailand – it’s just very unfortunate that it has been over taken by tourist industry. BUT the best part about Koh Phi Phi – Scuba Diving! Once your underwater you’ll forget about the nonsense of the backpackers and get to see the real beauty the area has to offer!

    • Andrew
      Posted at 06:47h, 20 February Reply

      Hi Katie, thanks for commenting. It is sad how touristy it has become (as in so many tourist companies) on the island but yes I agree you can still find a lot of beauty there – especially underwater. Let’s hope that it can get better in the future. 🙂

  • Arati
    Posted at 20:14h, 29 April Reply

    hi nice post. I visited Koh Phi Phi in 2016. Its sad to know that the island is shut down this year 2018 and that too due to pollution. I personally enjoyed my stay 2 years back but also noticed the commercialization. I hope the authorities will come up with environment friendly acts. And yes, I found phi phi little expensive

    • Amy
      Posted at 18:23h, 30 April Reply

      Hi Arati, yes, it is very sad. We also heard about the recent shut down, I hope this gives the island time to recover and it’s great to see that the government is focusing on conservation.

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