Island paradise

About a month ago I got into my head that I needed to see a bio-luminescent beach. We had already planned our trip to Thailand, so I searched online and found an overnight sleep-aboard island tour that included glowing plankton. Well, all that was left was buy tickets and convince Jordan this was a good idea!

We left northern Thailand behind for the sun-drenched islands of the south. It took an overnight train and an all-day train to get to Surat Thani, then a bus from Surat Thani to Krabi Town, and a ferry from Krabi to Phi Phi Don (this was not all done in a 24-hour period–the trains alone took 22 hours).

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For those interested in logistics and prices, here’s an abbreviated version of what we did:

  • After getting off the train in Surat Thani we got on the public orange bus that took us to bus station number 1 for 20 baht apiece
  • The next day we got on a minibus that went to the Krabi bus station for 280 baht apiece (too much, I think)
  • We got a taxi to our hotel for 220 baht (overpriced, definitely)
  • We booked ferry tickets at our hotel for 300 baht apiece, which included a transfer to the Krabi pier
  • We waited until on the island to buy return ferry tickets (a smart decision, I think) for 250 baht apiece on the 10:30 ferry run by Andaman Wave

Phi Phi Don is a breathtakingly beautiful yet highly-touristy island off the western coast of southern Thailand, the largest island in the Ko Phi Phi archipelago. It’s the starting point of tours and party central at night. We arrived on the island a couple of hours before our tour began, and wandered through the streets, seeking a relief from the almost-oppressive feeling of tourists, overpriced flip flops, and beer cans. We hiked to the top of the viewpoint of Phi Phi Don and discovered that it costs 30 baht apiece to actually enter the viewpoint. They really should warn people before they climb the hundreds of stairs (though they would get less customers that way).

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After resting in the shade for an hour, watching lobster-red tourists frolic in the waves, we went to meet up with tour, Maya Bay Tours, on their boat. They are the only tour company that spends the night out at Maya Bay (made famous by the 2000 movie The Beach). We slathered on sunscreen and enjoyed the boat trip away from the crowded pier of Phi Phi Don to the jaw-dropping beauty of the island cliffs, emerald waters, and coral reefs.

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We snorkeled during the low tide of a full moon, which was a great way to get close to the reef. Unfortunately, it is also a great way to cut your foot on some of the reef (like I did). Our captain took us past the more famous tourist attractions afterward, and our guide explained the cultural significance of the area, as well as the food delicacy of bird’s nest soup. The birds that live in the crags of the cliffs make the famed nests, and during harvesting season Thai move out to the caves in the cliff sides to find the nests. This soup is usually very expensive, but the Chinese love it and will gladly pay whatever price is set.

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Finally, we reached Phi Phi Lee (or Ley) in the late afternoon and came into the bay. Although it was still crowded with many other tour groups, the beauty of the place was astounding. It really was paradise.

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Our tour ate dinner and drank on the beach, enjoying the sunset while everyone else left. Jordan and I strolled through along the small island, gazing at the full moon (we’d never seen a moon so bright–it was almost like daylight) and wading in the ocean. Because Maya Bay is part of a national park, there are rules against sleeping on the island, so we all headed back to the boat to pull out sleeping bags and mats (provided by the tour company). Before going to bed, however, we put our snorkel masks on and jumped back into the water. The bay is so clear and the moon so bright that we could still see far below to the coral beneath us.

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“Wave your arms! The plankton are motion activated!” our guide yelled to us.

I had envisioned glowing water, a sort of milky brightness that sparkled. I’m not sure if my expectations were too high or this wasn’t a good representation of bioluminescence. I’ll research more and get back to you (but I think it is the latter). Jordan and I kicked and splashed and wriggled in the water as much as we could, and were rewarded with what looked like tiny fireflies floating in the water with us. Beautiful, certainly–though only visible beneath the water, so we have no photos.

Sleeping with 24 other people on the deck of a boat in the wind isn’t a good way to get sleep. But we rested as best we could, because we got up early to sea the sunrise on the beach, where we breakfasted.

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The tour returned to Phi Phi Don at 9:50 am, just in time for us to buy ferry tickets back to Krabi so we could get our next night train from Surat Thani. We both noticed a distinct difference between southern and northern Thailand’s hospitality. In the north, we found, people were more laid back and easy-going with tourists, but in the south there are more scams, hawkers, and what we call “swarming.” So although Jordan and I loved the mountains and seas of southern Thailand, we were relieved to get back to Bangkok. The trouble of getting south and sorting through legitimate deals and scams was absolutely worth seeing everything, it was just a little frustrating. Still, our photos of the Phi Phi islands are my favorite of our trip.

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Morgan S Hazelwood

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