Phi Phi Island Village Beach Resort Articles
A Snorkeler's Low-Key Idyll
Phi Phi Island Village Beach Resort
I discovered the Phi Phi Islands during a Google search for "snorkeling South Thailand." My husband, Laurent, and I were going to tour Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia in January, and we wanted to relax before flying home from Bangkok.
Snorkeling is our joy. Thus my specific Web search. Within a few clicks, I found a laughably paradisiacal photo of limestone cliffs rising from turquoise sea, bordered by white-sand beaches. "Come and Visit Phi Phi -- Thailand's most Spectacular Island Group" read the banner headline on phi-phi.com. "Yes!" I replied from my heart.
Nonetheless, I checked the place out with our travel agent. He warned me against Phi Phi Don, the main island, as a notorious backpacker hangout. But by then I had Googled my way to the Phi Phi Island Village Hotel, and he conceded it was "the nicest property on the island," remote from town and backpackers.
The flight from Bangkok to Phuket took an hour and 40 minutes. We were met at the airport by a van from the resort, and we rode 40 minutes south to a marina. There, after an hour, while others gathered, we boarded the speedboat that carries guests directly, twice a day, to the hotel. The ride took another hour and 40 minutes. Fortunately, this is not an easy place to get to.
We arrived at midafternoon. The 70 or so bungalows that made up the hotel, on a secluded and spacious beach, had thatch roofs and porches and looked out toward distant Bali Hais over water as turquoise as possible. We took off our shoes and climbed over the side of the boat to wade ashore, while hotel personnel transferred the luggage. There was no dock.
At the reception area, a smiling, bowing woman handed us cool wet washcloths wrapped around frangipani flowers. It was unthinkable that we be required to register before we'd refreshed ourselves and sipped some fruit juice. Thai hospitality is famous. All the harsh edges of travel are softened by it. We would find reality-tempering flowers and frangipani blossoms in many unexpected places -- on the doormat of our ocean-front bungalow; in the toilet bowl.
There are no roads, no cars on Phi Phi Don, the larger of the two Phi Phi Islands and the only one that's inhabited. (Phi Phi Don is Big Phi Phi; the other is Phi Phi Le.) You get around the island by boat, usually a longtail, a narrow wooden canoelike vessel with an eggbeater propeller welded onto a long swinging shaft. Some longtails hang out directly in front of the hotel, but the water there is extremely shallow and subject to big tides, so most often, to catch a boat, guests walk 10 minutes over an isthmus to the other side of the island.
Before setting out from the village, you discuss your plans with someone at the activities desk, who puts an X where you want to go on a map you give to the boatman, who speaks no English. There is no stress. Everything has been thought of.
We chose four snorkeling spots the first day, all on the western side of the islands, because the wind was blowing from the east. Our first destination was the farthest south, Maya Bay off Phi Phi Le. I had glimpsed its beauty, as I'd just learned, in the Leonardo DiCaprio film, "The Beach." In the movie, DiCaprio gets a map to the perfect beach from a dying man in a Bangkok flophouse and almost loses his soul in exchange for Shangri-La. But day-trippers in big boats from Phuket and Krabi flock to Maya Bay.
We preferred the more secluded Wang Long Bay, off Phi Phi Don, too narrow for more than one or two yachts, and Nui Bay, closest to home, our favorite, whose broad entrance is marked by a giant karst. (The spectacular limestone karst formations here are akin to those in Halong Bay in Vietnam.) The snorkeling is fantastic, the coral close to pristine, the fish abundant, the visibility perfect.
Access to the water is easy, either by jumping off the boat, or by having the boatman pull up onto the beach and swimming out from there. Longtails offer primitive comfort -- a homespun bimini rigged for shade and boards across the rugged hulls for sitting or having lunch -- and we found it delicious to have one to ourselves for the day, going wherever we wanted.
Back at the hotel, we napped and swam in the warm, shallow water in front of the bungalow, through which currents of cold run like ripples in vanilla fudge. Other guests -- most of them Europeans and Australians -- played cards, dice or dominoes or read on their front porches, in shade or sun (the front-row bungalows have one porch for each). This place attracts self-sufficient people with quiet tastes. There is no casino, no golf, and the TV in our room got only grade-B movies in English, French, Japanese and Thai -- no CNN!
I ended the first day with a massage, a 90-minute ritual to which I became addicted: a glass of herbal tea on a balcony at the resort's modest spa overlooking the sea, an outside shower, a sauna, a brief stay in a cold-water Jacuzzi, and then the massage itself. Massage is a Thai art form, and I've never had one like it. I felt squeezed rather than rubbed, from my toes up to my neck and fingers, all the bad stuff squeezed out of me. I could almost feel my exasperation leaving by my nose. On my growing list of places I would never have thought to put flowers, the spa offered another: under the hole in the massage table.
When I left the spa, the tide was out, turquoise water nowhere in sight. The ocean had simply rolled back. The beach was like a bed turned down for the night. Laurent and I went for a walk on the packed wet sand and enjoyed the fading light on the water trapped in sand ripples.
Then we went for a sunset drink. Of the resort's several watering holes, we chose the Coconut Bar, an open shed with a palm-thatch roof, decorated with the flags and cigarette packs of many nations as well as coconuts that patrons have had the leisure to paint with their national flags or other personally meaningful symbols.
We ordered Sawasdee mai tais, an extravagance of rums, curaçao and fruit juices, served in a pineapple and topped with orchids and frangipani. The bartender herself brought the drinks to our table, serving them with a bow and the hands-together gesture that signals respect and melts the heart of Americans. We sipped respectfully, but from then on, since the management had thoughtfully placed another tiki-hut bar right in front of our bungalow, we taught the barman there to make a simpler rum punch of Captain Morgan's and fruit juice and made it our headquarters.
We fell into a routine of hiring a longtail, snorkeling, reading on our porch, getting a massage at the end of the day, having a drink, then dinner, and retiring early. Dinner was pleasant. The hotel's two restaurants are open-air spaces close to the beach. The food, usually served buffet style, was good -- Thai and Western dishes in equal number. Often, there was live music, always incongruous, three Thai guitarists playing old rock songs softly, for example.
In our swimming and snorkeling, there were slight variations. We focused on Nui and Wang Long Bays, both off Phi Phi Don, and snobbishly avoided Maya. Amazing how quickly you develop fixed preferences in a small place. Also amazing how quickly time simplifies to high tide and low tide, desires to what you can do with the prevailing wind. When the winds from the east died down, we went sightseeing at Viking Cave, on the eastern side of Phi Phi Le, where men climb notched and twined bamboo poles hundreds of feet to collect swallows' nests, a Chinese culinary delicacy.
Another day, we hired a speedboat to go to Krabi, almost the same distance to the east that Phuket is to the west. We saw Railay Beach, whose cliffs are a magnet for rock climbers. We stopped on the way back to snorkel a reef called Hin Klaeng, which was, as the activities desk had told us, the best snorkeling place around, with an unbelievable variety of corals, including live branch corals, and other things, like sea anemones, that I had seen only in photographs.
On our last night, we went to dinner in town, corralling a longtail in front of the hotel just before sunset to run us down the coast to the town on Ton Sai Bay. This notorious lair of backpackers occupies no more land than you can comfortably explore before dinner -- a zone of T-shirt and sarong vendors, hawkers of day trips and live-aboard packages, hair braiders, tattoo artists, scuba instructors, rock climbing masters and dedicated teachers of fire twirling, mime or any other hippie trade someone might be willing to pay to learn. The harbor is dirty with debris and marine oil. But we found a waterside restaurant where we could choose our fish before it was cooked, paying by the weight, and had a lovely dinner.
Afterward, we walked back to the beach and picked out, with some effort in the darkness, our boat, the skipper asleep in a hammock strung up on deck. As we cruised back to the hotel, running without lights under the stars, I thought I had died and gone to hippie heaven.