Tripping in Thailand - January 2011
Land-based Diving from Phi Phi Island
Okay, before I begin this second (and final) chapter of the 2011 Thailand tale, let me help with the pronunciation of our two Thai locations. Phuket is not F*ck-it (although whilst there, battling the traffic and trying to find a beach chair on a strand that is seriously infested with greasy sunseekers, it is tempting to feel this sentiment ;^), it is Poo-ket. And Phi Phi is not Fee Fee or Feye Feye, but Pee Pee. So when you go to Thailand, at least to these two locations, you get to be potty-mouthed ;^)
At the end of Part One, we and our dive bags had just disembarked The Junk live aboard vessel at Patong Beach pier, after a six day trip to the Similan Islands and (the glorious) Richelieu Rock. Toy (the manager at the Junk’s booking office) had kindly booked our return ferry passage to Phi Phi island for us, at my request. This is also something that you can find online and book from home, but I was more comfortable with it being booked locally. The fare was 900 Baht per person (about US$30). The price included a van pick up in Patong to shuttle us down to the Phuket ferry dock (Rossada Pier), return trip to/from Phi Phi, and van shuttle up to the Indigo Pearl resort (near the Phuket airport) where we would spend our last night before flying home. While on Phi Phi I saw advertised prices for the crossing for much lower than what we paid, but I am not clear what kind of vessel was being offered and I doubt land shuttle was included. There are some pretty sketchy looking boats plying the rough waters between Phuket and Phi Phi – booking on something seaworthy is definitely a consideration. I also found out that for not a ton more money, we could have hired a speedboat and driver to take us across – something I would definitely consider if I was to do this trip again, especially if traveling in a small group. Read on to see why…
So, a mini van picked us up at the appointed hour in Patong Beach. We were the final passengers boarding the bus, and then the chockablock eight seater sped down to Rossada Harbor. The place was total chaos. We and our bags spilled out of the van, our ferry vouchers in hand, and we were directed (actually, pretty much herded) in the direction of a raft of ferries all tied together side by side. Murphy’s Law dictates that of course it is the one furthest out that we must get to. Captain Safety was apparently on vacation, and so it appeared that the prescribed way of transiting from shore to destination boat is over a series of sketchy gangplanks and across the sterns of the intervening vessels. Falling down the crack between two ferries would be catastrophic. I looked at the series of skinny gangplanks and looked at our (heavy) rolling dive duffle bags and pretty quickly determined that there was no way no how to do it safely, much less gracefully. This is when it comes in handy to have a wad of 10 baht notes burning a hole in your pocket. Wave a few of those around and keen able bodies preternaturally emerge from the maddening crowds and quickly shoulder your bags to schelp them across the series of gangplanks and boats to your destination.
The ferry itself? Basic is the kindest word I can muster. A huge open top deck, behind the wheelhouse, and a large closed cabin on the main deck, replete with a coffee/snack bar (highway robbery on the costs of food and beverage). Basic toilet facilities were available on the small aft deck of the main level. Whether there were enough life jackets for the massive crowd that they shoehorned onto the vessel, I really can’t say, but I have my doubts.
Baggage was another boondoggle. Bags were stacked in a huge heap at the back of the main salon. Loading was reasonably orderly as people trickled onto the boat in a steady stream, but it was a veritable gong show on arrival at Phi Phi when several hundred sweaty and impatient people tried to extricate their bags from the pile, all at the same time.
The crossing typically takes about an hour by ferry, but somehow (and I really have no idea how it transpired) we ended up on a ferry that made a scenic circumnavigation around Phi Phi Ley (the smaller, uninhabited island of the group) before docking in Ton Sai Bay on the big island. It was a pretty tour that added about an hour to the crossing time.
Phi Phi Ley Island - 'The Beach' Bay.
Phi Phi Ley - the "quiet" side.
Typical Dive Site Terrain in the Phi Phi Islands
There is a small cash payment (20 Baht, equal to something like 75 cents) required on landing at the ferry dock at Ton Sai Bay on Phi Phi Don island. Unfortunately this means yet another line up in the hot sun as the ferry disgorges.
More minutae – Koh means ‘island’ in Thai. Although Phuket is an island (now connected to the mainland by a bridge) nobody seems to call it Koh Phuket. Koh Phi Phi Don is the larger, main large island of the Phi Phi island group, and Koh Phi Phi Ley is the smaller, uninhabited island, most notable for its now legendary ‘hidden’ Maya Bay (made famous by the Leonardo DiCaprio movie ‘The Beach’). People arrive in droves just to see it. Seriously. They made a (mediocre) movie there, but otherwise, folks, it is just another (beautiful) Thai beach, minus the usual beach vendors, eateries and bars. Nuttin’ there but sand, water, and the fact that Leo Wuz Here.
Anyhoo, once you come out of the line up for paying the park fee for Phi Phi (say that three times fast ;^), you end up on the main thoroughfare of the island. There are no cars on Phi Phi (and no airport either – which is why you’ve gotta sort out a water transfer of some kind), so getting to your hotel is either a bag drag or a porter with a wheeled cart. The main promenade is over a kilometer long, so it can be quite a drag (ar, ar ;^) getting to your digs. For this reason, I chose the Phi Phi Hotel for our three nights stay on the island – it is conveniently located less than two blocks from the ferry pier. It was nothing to write home about, other than a convenient location and reasonable price tag. We got lucky and had a room several floors up that looked out over the gorgeous Loh Dalam Bay. Note: no elevator in the hotel – so the price to pay for a nice view is a whack of stairs to tackle several times a day. Breakfast (pretty modest) was also included, and if I recall correctly free, or at least very inexpensive, WIFI is available.
A view with a room - the beautiful Loh Dalam Bay
To be honest, none of the hotels adjacent to town are very special looking – from what I saw, the really nice Phi Phi resorts are only reachable by long-tails (the Thai version of water taxis). If I was going back, I would definitely be looking at staying at one of those. If staying at one of the more remote, quieter properties, it would make sense to hire a speedboat to bring you across from Phuket – they would be able to drop you off directly at the resort rather than transferring from ferry to a long-tail in Ton Sai Bay.
Long tail boats in Ton Sai Bay, with main ferry dock in the background.
What can I say about Phi Phi? From a landscape point of view, with its vertiginous limestone karsts that soar out of the sea, its luscious green jungle, and the long stretches of white sand beaches lapped by azure waters, it is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. But sadly, its physical beauty is scarred by some really unfortunate development and a clientele that overwhelmingly appears to be comprised of bored, boozed-up, tatty backpackers and budget package deal vacationers looking for parasailing, cheap tattoos, beer and Thai massages. There is really nothing charming about the town – walking the main drag, it seems an endless series of tattoo parlors, massage parlors, sticky bars, tacky tourist shops, nondescript eateries, and a neverending stream of dive shops apparently gearing themselves towards inexperienced divers.
On Phi Phi, there is apparently something for everyone ;^)
There were a couple of standouts though - firstly, a really great beach bar that features nightly fire shows (I've already forgotten the name - but it has a Moroccan kind of flavour - rugs on the beach, open air bar, nightly fire shows, beautiful swaths of fabric draping from large wooden poles - it will be fun to find ;^). This is a place we discovered on our first visit to Phi Phi a few years ago. On that trip, we were on a two day liveaboard (The Greta) that had us overnighting on Phi Phi as part of the deal. It happened to be New Year’s Eve, and we went looking for somewhere special to spend it. More about that here. Anyway, P3 and I had fond memories of the place and so made it a mission to find it again. After peeking into numerous bars along the waterfront of Tonsai Bay, we were delighted to find it. We enjoyed it so much that we made it a nightly excursion after dinner.
The other standout (other than the diving – which I will get to momentarily) was the beautiful hike we did. There is a lookout on Phi Phi, way up high. Getting there involves a steep hike out of town, following a well-marked path, and climbing, and climbing, and sweating, and climbing some more. But the views from on high were well worth the effort, and there is a little concession stand at the top where you can buy cold drinks, ice cream and other snack stuff. We followed a footpath that meandered across a high ridge of the island and took us to another lookout a few kilometers away. It was a wonderful way to spend an afternoon – up in the jungle, above and away from the maddening crowds below. An added highlight...monkeys in the jungle!
Interesting translation of the island's name...
From up high it is not difficult to imagine why the tsunamis were so catastrophic at Phi Phi. A narrow, flat, sandy isthmus connects Ton Sai Bay with Loh Dalam Bay. The tidal waves came from both sides, funneling into the large bays that are flanked by steep rock formations, and then completely washed over the isthmus, taking buildings and people with them. The most populated part of the island is on the isthmus, and over the Christmas holidays of 2006, it would have been packed. The only escape would have been to follow the same vertical trail we climbed to get above the water, or be lucky enough to be several stories up in one of the few higher rise structures on the island.
And maybe that is partly why Phi Phi makes me wistful – the tragic legacy of so many lives lost (estimated 4000 people), and the ugly phoenix that rose from that devastation. The opportunity was there to rebuild the island with some restraint and with some consideration of the island’s natural, incredible beauty and tragic recent history, but sadly, despite statements issued post-tsunamis that this would happen, it simply never did.
Dear Reader, don’t be too discouraged by my wistful musings - I would rate the diving as very good to excellent (great biodiversity, interesting terrain, quality of boat and crew, pretty reef structure) – much better than one would anticipate for land-based diving from a crawling tourist mecca. As for the island, it is no more commercialized than, say, Cozumel, and physically it is much more beautiful. I just wish I had a chance to see it before it was spoiled by development.
There are plenty of dive sites around the Phi Phi Islands, as well as excursion diving to Anemone Rock, Shark Point, King Cruiser Wreck, and several other great sites. I think they might even run up to the Similans from Phi Phi (but that would be a long way - and why bother? the diving at Phi Phi is superior). If/when I go back to Phi Phi, I would plan for a week of diving, and I would look for accomodations out of town.
As I did in Part One of this saga, I am going to share some creature features from our dives at Phi Phi, but first I’ll get into some detail about the dive op we used in the hopes of helping others who might be interested in making the trek. Prior to our trip, I was not very successful in finding this kind of information on the web.
Before heading off to Thailand (at fairly short notice), I did some research to try to find a dive op that I hoped would cater to our needs – that is an op ideally with a couple of boats so there would be options on departure times and dive sites and the possibility of separating experienced divers from inexperienced and/or student divers, a dive op that does not limit dives to 45 minutes or first one low on air, offers small groups, safe equipment, and an op that was prepared to give experienced divers some latitude in dive depth and time. I thought I might have found such a place at Phi Phi Scuba Diving Center. My initial e.mail query was answered quickly by John, the manager. Rather than pre-booking our dives, he suggested that we come and see him on arrival on the island and he would get us set up.
Phi Phi Scuba Diving Center was easy to locate as it on the main drag of town (with a big yellow donut thingy on the roof ;^). We dropped in on the afternoon of our arrival on the island, met with John, and were introduced around to the rest of the staff that was hanging out. Everyone was very friendly and articulate. We chatted about diving, showed our credentials, signed some waivers, and were told where to be at what time the following morning for a two tank excursion. Oh yeah, and we ticked off what kind of sandwich we wanted from a short menu. A light boxed lunch was included in the deal. Sweet!
The dive op has gear rinsing facilities (floor treacherous when wet!) and a large secure area where gear and wetsuits can be hung to dry. It looked like they had a good supply of rental gear on site. My sense is much of the diving market on Phi Phi is resort divers and/or occasional vacation divers who just want to do a dive or two between bar hops. Resort courses are widely promoted - “Try Diving!”, yada yada, in numerous languages. Divers can also do their certification while visiting the island – Phi Phi Scuba Diving Center has at least 9 instructors on staff in high season (November to May), and in addition has a much sought after Divemaster training program in place under an Internship program. That could be a nice way to spend some time diving in Thailand, and I have no doubt that the diving at Phi Phi is far better than the diving at Koh Tao (which is in the Bay of Thailand).
Our gear was transported back to the shop after our first day of diving and rinsed for us, and then brought back to the boat the next morning in a loaner mesh bag. It was great not having to schlep the gear again until after the last day of diving. Our stuff was rinsed and hung to dry at the shop, and then we picked it up later in the evening to pack.
The call was to meet at 7.30 a.m. at the dock in Ton Sai Bay (remember how I mentioned I had chosen a hotel located near the main pier? – very handy when having to schlep our dive bags (and my bigass camera) down to the boat in the morning).
The op has five boats – the one we were on was at least 30 feet long with open upper deck, covered and partly enclosed main deck (with a head) and a good set up as a dive platform that looked like it could handle close to a couple of dozen divers if needed. On the boat we were introduced to JoJo, an expat German who lives with his wife on Phi Phi. He was our assigned dive guide for our days of diving, and we were delighted when we realized it would just be P3, him, and me in our group.
JoJo was great – he found lots of little stuff to show us, was totally mellow regarding the speed of the dive (read: he seemed content to let me poke along at a snail’s pace), and he had no apparent agenda about getting us back on the boat before we were good and low on air. That translated into some great 80 to 90 minute dives.
Surface intervals (which were spent on the boat) were reasonably generous at a one hour minimum. Fresh fruit, unlimited bottled water and (the previously mentioned) sandwich were provided. As P3 is not nitrox-certified we dove air. I don’t believe Nitrox was available anyway. Fills were ample and the tanks we dove were in good shape.
Day One Phi Phi Diving
Dive #1 - Bidoh Nok Bay to south wall
Notes: Start dive over sandy bay - several blue spotted rays, many anemonefish, tasseled scorpionfish, moray eels, many tropicals, porcelain crabs, mantis shrimp. Second half of the dive off a mini-wall. I remembered this site from our previous trip!
|Blue Spotted Ray - Taeniura lymma
Tassled Scorpionfish - Scorpaenopsis oxycephala
Posing in a sponge
Porcelain Crab - Neopetrolisthes sp.
Peacock Mantis Shrimp
Little Cutie - Juvenile Anemonefish
Map Pufferfish -
Surface Interval in “The Beach” bay. Crazy to see the number of boats running out for the day from Phuket to drop folks into a place where there are no food, beverage or toilet facilities. Some of the kids on the boat killed their surface time trying to outdo each other with outrageous aerial tricks off the top rail of the boat. P3 did a full layout back flip and earned some respect from the guyz. Mama was content to just watch ;^)
Dive #2 - Phi Phi Ley (west side)
Notes: Wall and reef dive - huge turtle, lots of fusiliers, baitfish, mating nudibranchs - blue dragon. phyllidia...
A Flock of Fusiliers
Not the most artistic shot - but I think this is nudi porn. A pair of Blue Dragon Nudis...
And now for something completely different...
Maledives Sponge Snail- Cariacella hibyae
This is a mollusc, and a relative of the nudibranch, that mimics being a sponge as a survival mechanism.
More Nudibranch Porn - a pair of Phyllidia Nudibranchs in Flagrante Delicto
Day 2 – Phi Phi Diving
Dive #1 - Bidoh Nok Wall
Notes: Lots of anemonefish, scorpionfish, eel, beautiful schooling fish and fusiliers, sharks in the shallows, nudis, a really beautiful, colourful dive.
Phyllidia Varicosa Nudibranch
Skunk Anemonefish -
Surface Interval spent in a gorgeous bay on Phi Phi Ley. Some day trippers there too, snorkeling, but it was much more peaceful than the gong show the day before at The Beach.
Dive #2 - Bidoh Noi Wall
Notes: Gorgeous wall, oysters, xeno crab, many nudis, shrimps, soft corals, schooling fish, gorgonian fans, sharks in the deep.
Xeno Crab on Whip Coral
Chromodoris Annulata Nudibranch
Sea Urchin Detail
Thorny Oyster and Tubastraea
A Herd of Hingebeak Shrimps
And that is all she wrote (and photographed) folks...
It was a great trip with many highlights - especially the three epic dives at Richelieu Rock, and all the dives we did in the Phi Phi islands. We also loved the few hikes we did (in the Similans, Koh Phi Phi, and a very long beach walk at Nai Yang on Phuket). I love seeing the views from up high...
Thailand is not a great dive destination for those in pursuit of remote, pristine, unpopulated dive sites. But for accessible, reasonably priced, critter-rich diving, both by liveaboard in the Andaman Sea, and land-based from Phi Phi, I give Thailand two thumbs up. The diving is not particularly difficult (although be prepared for some current on some sites).
From the west coast of North America, Australia, and eastern Europe, it does not involve a ridiculous (nor outrageously spendy) amount of travel. And once you are there - well it is not too tough on the budget at all.
The Parting Shot
Thailand 2011 Trip Report -Part One - The Junk Liveaboard
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