About 40km south of Krabi, the island of KO PHI PHI DON looks breathtakingly handsome as you approach from the sea, its classic arcs of pure white sand framed by dramatic cliffs and lapped by water that’s a mouthwatering shade of turquoise. A flat sandy isthmus connects the hilly east and west halves of the island, scalloped into the much photographed symmetrical double bays of Ao Ton Sai and Ao Loh Dalum. The vast majority of the tourist accommodation is squashed in here, as is the island’s wild nightlife, with just a few alternatives scattered along eastern coasts. Phi Phi’s few indigenous islanders mostly live in the northeast.
Such beauty, however, belies the island’s turbulent recent history. By the early 1990s, Phi Phi’s reputation as a tropical idyll was bringing unfeasibly huge crowds of backpackers to its shores, and the problem worsened after uninhabited little sister island Ko Phi Phi Leh – under national marine park protection on account of its lucrative bird’s-nest business – gained worldwide attention as the location for the movie The Beach in 1999, adding day-trippers, package-tourists and big hotels to the mix on Phi Phi Don. Then, in December 2004, the tsunami struck. As a 5m-high wave crashed in from the north, over the sunbathers on Ao Loh Dalum, a 3m-high wave from the south hurtled in across the ferry dock and tourist village at Ao Ton Sai. The waves met in the middle, obliterating seventy percent of all buildings on the sandy flats and killing two thousand. The rest of the island was barely affected.
Volunteers and donations poured in to help the island back on its feet, and though the rebuild was dogged by much political wrangling, the Phi Phi of today thrives much as it ever did, firmly re-established as the destination to be ticked off on almost any itinerary in southern Thailand. Unfortunately, few of the pre-tsunami problems have been properly resolved – in part because tsunami survivors were desperate to make a new start as fast as they could. The island is now once again floundering under unregulated, unsightly and unsustainable development, with inadequate rubbish disposal and a plague of overpriced accommodation, at its most acute around the Ton Sai–Loh Dalum hub. There’s always more building work going on, while thousands of visitors from all corners of the world fight for space in the narrow maze of pedestrianized alleys in Ton Sai village, sometimes generating an unusually aggressive atmosphere for Thailand. The noise pollution from the untrammelled outdoor bars and clubs is an additional turn-off for some – though it is a fun place to party, and there are enough more remote escapes for a peaceful stay too.
All boats dock in Ao Ton Sai, from where it’s a short walk to the main accommodation centres – in Ton Sai village, at Laem Hin, the next little stretch of sand to the east, and on Ao Loh Dalum, the still attractive, deeply curved bay across the isthmus. Hat Yao, another fine beach just a short boat ride away, is also very popular. To escape the crowds you need to aim for one of the smaller bays further north: Hat Toh Ko, Ao Rantee and Hat Pak Nam are all good for moderately priced breakaways, while Ao Loh Bakao and Laem Tong are pricier and more luxurious.