Thai Days: Kao Phi Phi and the Islands of the Andaman Coast

Imagine this. You have been searching for the perfect beach. The sand has to be fine and white, the vegetation tropical, coconut palms growing next to the water. It must curve off into the distance, where seabirds wheel in search of their prey. The sea must be warm, clear and aquamarine where it meets the cloudless sky. Most importantly of all, it must be yours alone. That was the quest of Richard, the young traveller in Alex Garland’s 1996 novel The Beach, later turned into a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tilda Swinton.

 The problem was that when the filmmakers arrived at the Perfect Beach, filmed on the beautiful island of Kao Phi Phi Lee off the Andaman coast of Thailand, it just wasn’t beautiful enough for Hollywood. So, bulldozers flattened some dunes, the beach was widened and a number of trees removed. This did not please the Thai authorities and after filming, a long legal battle ensued, ending only after the 2004 Tsunami destroyed many resorts in the area but returned the beach at Kao Phi Phi Lee to its original form. It is now as beautiful as ever, although like the nearby island of Ko Khao Phing Kan filmed in the 1974 production of James Bond movie The Man With The Golden Gun, it is now a popular tourist destination in its own right and you will be very lucky indeed to have The Beach to yourself these days.

It is still possible to find deserted tropical beaches along the coast and islands of southern Thailand even in the high season of December to March, but you will need a boat of your own and a lot of determination to make it happen. It seems that many of us are chasing the same dream and getting in each others way in the process.

I spent a week at the end of December based in the town of Krabi, the capital of the region, where some eighty islands are strung out along the coast around Phang Nga Bay. The reason why so many film and television production companies seek out these islands is due to their dramatic appearance. Water percolates through the limestone out of which they are made, sculpting the porous rock, wearing away the softer elements and leaving behind tall columns that rise vertically out of the sea. These are then topped with chaotic, tropical vegetation. Some of the islands have been undercut at their bases by ceaseless wave action, making them look for all the world as if they were floating on the water’s surface. All in all, they are as strange as they are beautiful.

Entrance to the lagoon on Hong Island

Every hotel and guesthouse will be able to put you in touch with companies taking groups of tourists to visit the most popular islands in traditional “long-tailed” boats. These strange vessels holding ten or a dozen people were originally designed as fishing boats but in recent years have been equipped with massive diesel engines, balanced on pivots at the back of boat by a twenty-foot long stern tube, leading to a small propeller. Strange though they look, they effectively drive flotillas of tourists across Thai waters 

I stayed at the unassuming “P” guesthouse in Krabi, named after the owner’s six-year-old son. The boy’s mother cooked spectacularly good and modestly priced local food that was served in the small restaurant next door. I was most impressed by the delicately flavoured green Thai curry that she will teach you how to make, if you can be persuaded to spare the time away from the immaculate beaches and beautiful islands.

The tour I took consisted of visits to four of the most popular including Dun island, famous for the red colour of the limestone tinted by iron oxide. Here, we snorkelled with colourful reef fish in the clear, blue water. We also visited the famous Hong Island, where you can hire a kayak and paddle along the coastline to the shallow circular lagoon enclosed by tall walls of stone. Originally a massive circular sea-cave, the domed roof collapsed leaving the lagoon, that may be entered at high tide by shallow bottomed boats through the narrow opening to the sea.

Swiftlets whirl overhead, catching flitting insects while in the shallows ,mangrove trees grow out of the brackish water, their roots pointing upwards, as frogs chirp all around. Yes, here you may find Rana cancrivora, the South East Asian crab-eating frog.

Prayer flags on the front of long-tailed boats

We stopped at another small island where lunch of spicy chicken, rice and vegetables was served. The island is a nature reserve where four wardens live all year round to protect the swallow population from the depredations of birds-nest collectors. The sticky and glutinous salivar of the White-nest Swiftlet (Aerodramus fuciphagus) that holds their nests together, is highly prized and used to make birds-nest soup. Unfortunately, this practice has devastated numbers across South-east asia.

In the dense forest behind the beach, lay the remains of several fishing and tourist boats, swept there on Christmas Eve in 2004 by the Tsunami, a reminder that this coast was devastated by a natural disaster of gargantuan proportions only a few years ago. Our guide told us that there are now tsunami early warning beacons in place but only time will tell if they will be effective. Today, these sad pieces of wreckage are the only physical reminders I saw that the event took place but if you speak to people who were there at the time, the memory is still close to the surface. 

The next day, I decided to spend more time under the warm, inviting waters so booked a day’s diving with Scuba Addicts. The very professional company is co-owned by Thai and British partners, providing modestly priced dive days for tourists. For little more than $120, they will arrange for you to be picked up from your hotel and taken to the dive centre in the middle of the sea front at the resort of Ao Nang, a few kilometers away.

Richard, our dive master was working as a resort manager at the time of the Tsunami and remembered well the day of the disaster although his resort was not too badly effected, as it remained for the most part high above the waterline. His furrowed brow and pursed lips were eloquent indicators of things seen but not to be mentioned. 

Our dives, off of Khao Pei Pei island were superb. The water was warm, the visibility above 15 metres and what was more, we were buzzed by black tipped reef sharks that flitted into view then disappeared with a flash of their tails. The highlight of the afternoon was a dive through an underwater canyon, to see giant sea turtles feeding on coral, their tough beaks crushing the tough material as if it were a tasty biscuit.  

My week in Krabi passed pleasantly and though the splendid isolation that the evil Scaramanga in The Man With The Golden Gun sought out for himself has long gone, the stunningly beautiful coastline and islands of the Andaman coast remain and are well worth visiting if you get the opportunity…

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About stevehollier

Steve Hollier is the editor of AZ Magazine, an English language lifestyle magazine based in Baku, Azerbaijan. He began his career working for a firm of stockbrokers in the City of London then went on to attend the University of Essex where he was awarded an MA in Sociology in 1984. After a career in arts and cultural development work, he became a freelance arts consultant, writer and photographer.
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5 Responses to Thai Days: Kao Phi Phi and the Islands of the Andaman Coast

  1. magsx2 says:

    Hi Steve,
    Absolutely beautiful photo’s and the place just looks unreal, so unusual. I love the photo “Entrance to the lagoon on Hong Island “

  2. Julia Hawkes-Moore says:

    Superb photos, and good writing, too, Steve.
    You are Blessed.

  3. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about zeavola phi phi resort
    thailand. Regards

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