Koh Phi Phi, off Thailand's western coast is basically one big frat party. Gross. For less than $US100, we rented a private long boat and escaped for a snorkelling and climbing adventure. You can do that too, here's how.
The last few months had been pretty brutal. I nearly died in Iceland. Barely made it down from a 20,305' peak in Nepal. I figured that Daniel Bruce Lee and I could use some time to defrost. In Thailand. Within a week of getting out of the mountains, we were on Thai Airways Flight 322 from Kathmandu to Bangkok.
My best friend from college, Orey, met us from the States in Bangkok and we all flew down to Krabi together. One ferry ride later; we were on Koh Phi Phi, a large island in between Krabi and Phuket.
Having just come from rural Nepal, Thailand was a bit of a culture shock; Koh Phi Phi was the pinnacle of that. It was like one giant frat party. We didn't stay on the island for too long. But we did stay long enough to take a private long boat out to do some snorkelling and sightseeing.
Why Go? Southern Thailand is beautiful. The oceans are incredible shades of turquoise, green, and blue. Lush rainforest envelops every square foot of undeveloped land. Limestone rock formations seemingly float on the water. The place was clearly an inspiration for James Cameron's Avatar. With some of the best climbing and diving in the world, it's an adventurer's paradise.
Thailand is also a relatively cheap country to travel to. You can eat delicious street food for 50 Baht (about $US1.50) a plate. Hostels can be found for less than $US10 a night. Nice hotels for $US40. Roundtrip airfare from New York or LA: $US800.
The people are generally very friendly; many speak conversational English.
A better question to ask is "Why wouldn't you go to Thailand?"
Longboats > Speedboats
Orey had never been snorkelling before and he really wanted to go. The typical approach would have been to stop by one of the hundreds of tour operators in Ao Nang where we were staying to arrange a speed boat snorkelling trip. It would have cost about 1,200 Baht ($US36) per person. The tour would have included round trip transportation between Ao Nang and a few different islands near Koh Phi Phi, equipment rental, and would have provided an hour or two of snorkelling in some of the area's best spots. Along with a couple hundred other people.
Instead, we took the ferry to Koh Ph Phi (800 baht/$US24 per person, round trip), rented our own snorkelling gear from a local dive shop (200 baht/$US6 for mask, snorkel, and fins), and then hired a private longboat from the main beach to take us out (1,500 baht/$US45 for four hours).
We told our boat driver, Sa, that we wanted to snorkel, so he took us to a couple of different coves where there were fish. We'd get out, snorkel around as long as we wanted, then get back on the boat and go to a new spot. Sa had preemptively brought a loaf of sliced bread. Every once in a while, he'd toss a slice out into the water where we were snorkelling; the brightly coloured fish would swarm. It didn't take long for Orey to realise what was happening, so he got the loaf of bread from Sa and would take it down into the water with him. Feeding frenzy.
Early in our trip, Sa's boat had some engine trouble; as such it took us a little while to get started. Sa generously hooked us up with an extra hour on him. We spent some of the last moments of the day swimming around Maya Bay (if you get off on the way-too-crowded Maya Beach, you gotta pay 200 baht). Sa took us to one more spot after that, a secluded cove on the other side of the island, where we basked in the golden hour.
Orey: "I sense a storm is brewing."
As we were heading back to Koh Phi Phi, a storm blew in just behind us. As soon as we beached, the sky fell out. We hung around on the boat till it passed.
I returned to Sa's boat later that night - interrupting a poker game - after realising that I left a pair of my PullWool underwear (I only own two pairs of underwear; the PullWools are my favourite) there that afternoon while changing into my swimsuit. It took a minute for them to figure out what I was looking for; then a boatman pulled them out from under a bench. "Yep, that's them." Another boatman tried to buy them from me. Weird.
The Panasonic HX-A500 has an LCD display so you can see what you're shooting, it's waterproof without a special casing; with the armband - it floats.
What You'll Need to Bring: Sunscreen. Sunglasses. A towel? Snacks. Water (Sa provided a couple of litres, but you may want more.) A waterproof camera/GoPro/LokSak for your phone.
How Do You Get There? From Bangkok, you can either take a tourist bus down to Krabi (takes about 14 hours; costs about $US20 one-way) or fly. The flight is 1:20 long; will set you back about $US55 (one-way) on Bangkok Airways (we just showed up at the airport an hour before the last flight of the night and jumped on-board.) You can fly down for $US20 on Thai Lion Airways - but they only allow 15 kg of checked luggage (Bangkok Airways allows 20 kg.)
There are several ports from which the Koh Phi Phi ferries depart. Easiest option is to book through one of the many tour operators that line the main streets in each nearby mainland city. We just walked up to the Ao Nang port before the 9:30am ferry left and jumped aboard.
Crystal Tan (@carvingsymmetry) craves 'dat mineral.
What Should You Do While You're There? There were dozens of tour operators on Koh Phi Phi that offered everything from SCUBA diving to Deep Water Free Soloing (unprotected rock climbing on oceanside cliffs).
Back on the mainland, we went sport climbing on Tonsai/Railay Beach (a 10 minute long boat taxi ride from Ao Nang.) There are tons of bouldering opportunities on the same beaches. Renting scooters or motorcycles was a great way to explore and get off the beaten path as well.
Still saw some cool fish though!
What We'd Do Differently: Honestly, we probably would have had better snorkelling on a speedboat tour. We didn't go to any cool reefs, there wasn't a ton of ecological variety, and the underwater environments that we saw weren't that pretty to look at.
However, our day was not dictated by the needs of dozens of other tourists; we got to enjoy some genuine peace and quiet while out on the water. The longboat experience was definitely a more cultural one too. Our driver, Sa, was awesome, and we got to know him throughout the day. Also, it was nice to know that our dollars went to support Sa's family, instead of some overseas tour operator.
Photos: Chris Brinlee, Jr.