After a couple of flights and a brief overnight at the very nice Phuket Backpacker Hostel, we boarded a boat for Koh Phi Phi, Thailand’s stunning tropical beauty in the Andaman Sea. Of course, the word about Phi Phi had long since gotten out. As we disembarked into the heat from the air conditioned deck, we joined throngs of people streaming down the pier and were immediately absorbed into a sea of backpacks, luggage, and Thai men hawking hotel rooms.

Tonsai Village, the heart of Koh Phi Phi Don (the main island) is a dense area of small shops, bars, and restaurants served by streets no wider than a city sidewalk. There’s not a car or scooter in sight. When the boats come in, they turn into rivers of tourists. It was all a little overwhelming, so the first thing we did was sit down and have a pizza.

With lunch finished and the crowds cleared, we felt fortified enough to look for a place to stay, so we slung on our backpacks, and headed out to see what we could find.

Miniaturized boats cruise by as we cruise in to Koh Phi Phi

Lunch at place formerly called “Mama’s Resto”

Sleeping

After walking past endless party pads, we felt a little disheartened. Then Lonely Planet came to the rescue. We read about Tropical Garden Bungalows, a mere 10-minute walk from the hustle and bustle but reportedly a world away. That was for us! We hoofed it and found the bungalows at the end of a winding path, in a lush hillside setting.

Visitors to Trip Adviser pan it but we were offered a very nice A/C room by the pool for 1000 Baht/night (about $33). In checking out their selection of rooms and bungalows we did see some we weren’t fond of, but our room was great.

The open air restaurant/bar at Tropical Gardens Bungalows

Our lovely room

Shopping and Tonsai Village

Opportunities abound for diving, drinking, and eating. There are also lots of nice shops on Phi Phi. Thing’s are a little more expensive than the mainland but they’re still really reasonable because it’s Thailand. You can get a cute dress for your girlfriend—I bought Natalie one that she had her eye on. You can have nice leather sandals custom made. You can get a massage at a hundred different places or, in a few places, get exfoliated by a hundred fish. No lie. Being nibbled by hundreds of tiny fish lips is quite the experience I hear.

The tourist-party vibe is off the hook though, a point driven home one night as we spotted pre-packaged booze buckets for sale. Available in sizes from medium to comatose, each one came filled with little bottles of alcohol. Was the idea to empty the bottles into the mix-it-yourself cocktail bucket and drink it two-fisted-style while walking along the shore? We never found out, but that’s when we figured that Koh Phi Phi might not be for us.

Then we wondered where all of that tropical beauty we’d been hearing about was hiding. We decided to spend one more day finding out—I booked an all-day snorkeling/sight seeing trip for the next day. (400 baht/person or about $13)

The view from above Koh Phi Phi Don

My crocs get mini'd

Uh, what kind of viewpoint is it...?

Longboat Tour

After a delicious breakfast in the open air restaurant we walked down to the shore with the rest of the tour group and ended up in a sandy back alley waiting to be fitted for swim fins. That sorted, we walked under an elevated building, stepped across some rusty rebar, and into an old wooden longboat. Natalie, always the optimist, said, “Oh, maybe they’re just ferrying us out to a bigger boat.” We thought, from a photo at our hotel, where I’d booked the tour, that we’d be on a more modern boat. “Oh, of course…” I said, until we put-putted past the last big boat in the harbor. Had that photo been for a different tour? We couldn’t ask our boatman since he was one of the few people on Koh Phi Phi that didn’t speak English. Oh well…

Then we arrived at our first stop: a beach full of monkeys.

All the other boats came prepared with monkey treats. This monkey is realizing that we didn't get the memo.

The human-to-monkey ratio was a little off.

I squeezed in to say hello.

Natalie poses near our well-decorated long boat.

OK—we were a little jealous of the people in speed boats.

Ahoy, farmer!

And so the day went, one gorgeous, funny, amazing surprise after another. We snorkeled with the most beautiful fish, landed on a far away beach, and had a tasty lunch (which was provided). And, later in the afternoon, motored into one of the most gorgeous coves I’ve ever seen.

The water sparkled like turquoise crystal. The surrounding cliffs stood five or six stories high. I picked my jaw up off the floor of the boat in time to hear “five-minute swim break” and wasted no time getting in. When I paused and stood in the water waiting for Natalie, something immediately started nipping my leg. Wha…? I grabbed my mask to see what was going on. Looking into the water I saw a little hole in the sand with two tiny, sand-colored fish poking out. Hovering above these little pups a full-grown fish made repeated lunges at my legs. It was a mama fish protecting her turf. Aw.

Heading around the west side of Koh Phi Phi Don

And on to Koh Phi Phi Leh...

...and into one of the most beautiful coves I've ever seen.

Boy in a boat

As if that wasn’t amazing enough, a couple of minutes later a long boat pulled up whose first mate was a monkey. We yelled across to one of the boat’s passengers, “Wow, you’ve got a monkey on board!” “Yeah!” she yelled back. Seeing that she was momentarily occupied, however, the monkey grabbed her camera. The woman, apparently not yet done taking pictures, went after him, cutting our conversation short. Having a monkey crew has its pros and cons, I suppose.

After short jaunt around the southern tip of the island and another stop in the warm waters of Maya Bay, we headed back just as the sun settled into the Andaman Sea. Well played, Sir Boatman. Well played.

What!? How did this photo get so awesome?

Here’s a map, in case you go! (And later we heard that a chilled-out side of Phi Phi does exist. Try the eastern side of the island.)

A map of Tonsai Village on Koh Phi Phi Don