Episodes of adventure from the tropical Andaman island of Koh Phi Phi. Or, how to see the remoter side of this fabled party island, discover its hidden charm, and more off-the-beaten-track places.
The jungles sway around the wooden deck that fronts my cabin. Tweets of exotic birds echo through the canopy. The distant sound of the revellers on Tonsai Bay drifts and mingles with the sultry tropical air. I'm lazing on my bed just a stone's throw back from the sands of Koh Phi Phi Don. It's one of the most fabled party spots in the Thai Andaman, but I've had my fair share of fire shows and sloshing bucket cocktails filled with God-knows-what.
This evening is for unwinding. This evening is for soaking up the sounds of the forest; the squawks of green-orange geckos; the rustle of the palm boughs as they dance in the Indian Ocean breezes. This evening is for curing the hangover with a spot of rest and relaxation. (And if there's anywhere that does rest and relaxation better than everywhere else, it's Thailand's Andaman coast.)
I crack a cold Chang: Hair of the dogs taste better when it's chilled and consumed in Thailand. I recline on the crooked deckchair that sprawls across the rickety bamboo platform outside. I can see through pockets in the trees, down to where Carlito's Beach Bar is throbbing with backpackers; to where the bobbing longboats are watching, like an audience, the raucous nights of Phi Phi unfold on the shore.
I hear a wail of excitement echo through the air. It's probably the result of another twirling fire rope or conflagration juggler. Or maybe it's the gasps that resound every time one of the local Muay Thai fighters connects with a challenger's face in the legendary ring at Phi Phi Reggae Bar – they even pit travelers against travelers; fighters against would-be fighters. It's often not the prettiest sight.
I, for one, am glad I'm away from the fray. As I sit beneath the glowing stars, the hulking silhouette of Koh Phi Phi's great karst peaks looming on the horizon and the jungles breathing in and out all around me, I feel more connected to the place than I have since arriving here. I make a promise to myself: I will explore this place by day, not just drink Chang beers and buckets and laze on the powdery white-sand stretches, however enticing all that may sound.
Swapping the flip flops for the hiking boots
It's early. I've awoken now because I wasn't down on Tonsai Bay rollicking beneath plumes of fire last night. Some people are probably still there – the real hedonistic soldiers of the night. That's done and dusted for me though. I've made my promise to explore Koh Phi Phi's more hidden corners, and I'm sticking to it.
For the first time since I hopped off the colourful longboat on the jetties of Tonsai Village, I've left the flip flops in the corner and pulled out my dirty hiking boots instead. If I'm going to go off-the-beaten-track, then I want to be ready for it, right? I also pack my array of Bear Grylls necessities (read: what I think are Bear Grylls necessities)...
One map of the island, dog-eared and outdated. Check. One change of socks, holed like a Dutch Leerdammer cheese. Check. One scribbled map, hastily drawn by the local cocktail chef in the darkened hours last night (I'm sure he was drunk, too). Bottle of water. Check. Sun cream. Check. Bug spray. Check. Camera. Check.
Bag slung, laces taught, now I'm strolling down the dirt tracks that wiggle their way along the south coast of the isle. Bamboo bars and hostels, plush seaside condos and poolside hotels all pepper the edge of the lane. I'm passing a clutch of cocktail-touting tourists now, the early morning hours clearly no deterrent from the libations. Then I see the luxurious resorts, infinity pools rammed up right to the edge of the shoreline, creating that curious mix of chlorine water and the sea. 'Why not just swim in the Indian Ocean?' I think, as I move on.
Hopping the coves
It doesn't take long before the strips of Tonsai Village and the sloping boat jetties that pull crowds of folk across the water from Phuket and Krabi like magnets are in the distance. I've left them behind, hopping over large boulders, skipping over dirt tracks, to put a couple of little headlands between me and them. The crowds of people are gradually getting thinner, too. I see a couple romantically embraced and soaking up the sun on a rock. I see some backpackers swinging on rope chairs that dangle from the banyan boughs above. It's hardly the cram-packed sands that fringe the main town on the central isthmus of Phi Phi. I already feel like I'm leaving civilisation behind; even if just a little.
The path weaves inwards. It crosses a small ditch and runs over the gnarled stumps of leaning coconut trees. Coconuts pepper the track, too. And the concrete condos of Tonsai have been swapped for more rustic half-stone, half-wood shacks. I find myself a little jealous of the views the guys who are staying here enjoy. The sloshing Andaman Sea laps the rocky shore just meters from their windows. It must be a lovely wake-up call in the morning; the light wash of the ocean.
I push on, scrambling up and down over little crevices and dips. I stop for a drink in a small cove where a bar is dotted with coconut husks and curated by a smiling local. The tipple of choice is fresh coconut milk, of course. It's gone in a couple of seconds, but I take time to dig my feet into the soft patch of sand that's in front of me. It's getting warm as the sun rises, and soothes the tender skin that's come courtesy of my leather walking boots.
I glance at my hand-drawn map. The path I'm supposed to be taking looks like it leaves the coast soon. I turn my head 180 degrees. The jungle looms. The chirps of birds echo from there. The moment's like something out of Apocalypse Now; that foreboding second where you consider just staying and slurping from coconuts and sunning yourself on the sand all day. But no. I've made myself a promise to see Phi Phi, and I'm sticking to it.
Going into the jungle
Dutifully risen, the jungle consumes me. Behind a wall of thick trunks and stooping palms, I discover the trail is thinner. Less boots have padded the mud down here, and the surface is more uneven than before. I summon my inner Bear Grylls and push on. I push on past blooms of wild ferns and sea grasses, the light of the shoreline slowly fading into a musky haze behind as the gloom of the forest takes over.
It seems like I've been hiking for hours, but it actually only takes a couple of minutes for the dense jungles of Phi Phi's eastern karsts to become their primeval selves. It's a stark reminder of how humans are just visitors in these parts; of how it's Mother Nature that is still the real commandant of the Andaman. We might have managed to raise our luxury resorts and swimming pools elsewhere, but there's no taming this corner of the isle. There's no space, no light, no let up from the lush forest. It's lovely.
The trail narrows again, and begins to hairpin up and around the hillsides. Boulders speckle the ground; great teak trunks shoot from the muddy earth. Vines swing in the open, like hyperbolic graphs that droop to a lowly negative and rise to their lofty origins in the canopy. I hear sounds I'm not used to. A ringing, high-pitched squeak. Is that a macaque? A slithering slink. Is that a snake? The undergrowth rustles too. My shoes are responsible for some of it, but I could only imagine what curious exoskeletons and carapaces exist beneath the browning heaps of old leaves and decaying orchids.
Topping the karsts
As I scramble higher and higher over the ridges of eastern Koh Phi Phi, the jungle seems to get a little more manageable. As if rewarding those who venture deeper into its depths, it thins out, the trees get taller, further apart, more lanky and open to letting rays of tropical sun drift through. I can make out little motes floating in the sun shots. I walk through an arena of 10,000 shades of green, each reflected and refracted against the organic bark and woodlouse-crawling logs of the forest. It's beautiful. Beautiful in a wild, raw way.
Then the climb stops and the pathway evens out. Thick jungle vines twirl around the trees behind me, like barbershop candies made from moss. In front, though, there's a wide break in the woods. I can see out for the first time since I left the coast. The whole topography – the curious, curious topography – of Koh Phi Phi unfolds before me.
I can see the flat middle of the island – the only part we've managed to conquer with our buildings and shacks and bars and high-rise hotels. That's the so-called Phi Phi isthmus; the playground of hedonists, fire twirlers and Muay Thai fighters. Behind it is a great wall of rock. It's sheer and chiselled, like a giant's prehistoric tool wedged into the soft bed of the Indian Ocean. It looks much steeper than the one I'm standing on, and comes topped with rows of lanky palms; a sylvan crewcut hairstyle for a grand stone bluff.
I can also make out both coastlines. I imagine I can see the top of my own little cottage in the groves behind Tonsai Village. I can definitely see the colourful longboats native to Thailand, bobbing in rows along the harbour, the small red-white-blue of the national flag flapping in the soft, warm sea breezes.
There are glowing sands down there, too. And suddenly I'm aware of how hot I am, how humid the surrounds of the jungle have become. Sweat pours over my forehead and I feel hemmed in by the great branches that claw overhead like the gnarled fingers of long-forgotten witches. I decide to push on, to see if I can discover somewhere more untrodden beyond the jungles. Perhaps a cove or sandy beach for swimming on the far side of the island?
Emerging onto the Andaman Sea
I'm going down. Down past grassy patches where orchids peak above the ferns. Down past crooked palm trees. Down past packs of bladder cherry shrubs and spiny gooseberry bushes. The track is a little wider. I think I can make out the footprints of other walkers. I wonder where they came from – I've seen no one else on the trail all day.
I hop over hidden roots that cross the path, and land in a mixture of mud and sand. It's the first sign that the jungle is about to give way to the coast again. It spurs me on and I'm now walking faster, striding across dusty hillocks and swinging like a backpacker Tarzan with help from the occasional vine (only after tentatively checking that what I'm about to grab isn’t a snake, of course).
Then it comes into view: the Andaman Sea. Regimented rows of palm trees stand between me and it. A couple of hammocks are strewn amidst them, and there are even humans here. I spy a macaque, too. He's glowering down at the turquoise-blue water from on high. He looks full. I think that means there's somewhere to eat over on this "hidden" coast.
I skip over the dunes and drop my bag on the sands. The Andaman looks enticing. It's washing rhythmically against the beach. It drags its frothy sea spray back and forth and rises like lungs as swells roll in from the open ocean. There's nothing for it. My sweat-doused tee is off in a moment, my boots are left to de-odorise in the sun. I make for the water.
It's every inch the blissful refresh I was after. My head plunges under and the medium-warm rollers run through my straggly hair. Little rainbow-coloured fish dart this way and that between my aching feet. Energy floods back into my muscles and the sun is no longer a scorcher but a pleasant giver of warmth.
I linger in my cove for a bit. It's got a smattering of hotels and I can see groups lazing under sun umbrellas a little up the beach. It's nothing like the pulsing town of Tonsai on the far side of Phi Phi, but it's got its fair share of bamboo-built cocktail bars and eateries. After breathing in the salt air and snoozing on the sands for a spell, I decide it's time to fill up for the return journey. I devour a plate of pad Thai noodles, peanuts strewn across the top and a cold Chang beer to balance out the chilli. It's the perfect re-fuel before re-joining the trail.
Back at my shack and reality
That night, reclining on my bed as the cacophony of partiers and beer drinkers unfolds on the bays of Tonsai Village below, my muscles ache and my feet are pockmarked with blisters. I'm smiling though. I'm smiling as I think about the untamed side of Koh Phi Phi. I'm smiling to think that I ventured out there and away from where most people stay. It's one of the real enjoyments of spontaneous travel; discovering the little pockets of places where fewer folk tread and explore.
Perhaps I'll crack a Chang beer. Perhaps I'll even head down to Carlito's Bar for a chin wag with the backpackers. Perhaps I'll pull an all-nighter and watch the fire shows and the sunrise. After all, I made a promise to see this island's wilder side, and I kept it.
Koh Phi Phi is just one of the awesome places we travel on our Island Teaser West, YogaLife Thailand, Treasures of Thailand, and Western Islands itineraries. Join them for your chance to party and explore its karst-topped backcountry and golden bays this year.
"Rich is a traveler, writer and filmmaker who's always after somewhere new to go. He's been hopping around the globe since 2011, from Poland to Paris, Mumbai to Ho Chi Minh. He runs several travel sites of his own, from Ski Eastern to Live Krakow to Crabs Move Sideways. When he's not planning his next trip, he's usually listening to 50s jazz, surfing in Wales, skiing in the Alps, or just swigging (too much) great craft beer."
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