How the Phi Phi Islands Surprised Me
When I travel, I try to avoid “party” destinations at all costs. When I went to Las Vegas, I didn’t even go out on the Strip. When I was assigned to teach English in Ibiza, Spain, I spent all year trying to convince people there was more to the island than parties. A close friend warned me before I left for Thailand: “Don’t go to Phi Phi. Knowing you, you’ll hate it.” Why was it then that I didn’t hate, but loved Koh Phi Phi, Thailand, an island (the one where The Beach was filmed) with a reputation for being a touristy, crazy party destination for disrespectful backpackers?
A two day let’s-try-it-out-and-leave-if-we-hate-it trip to Koh Phi Phi turned into five days of bliss. Often, we expect a meaningful trip and are disappointed. Other times, we expect the worst and end up pleasantly surprised. On Koh Phi Phi, what I expected wasn’t what I found.
I expected to be surrounded by young, Anglo-Saxon backpackers with a spring break mentality. Instead, I met a diverse group of travelers, and not just diverse in the sense of what countries they came from. Travelers of all ages and backgrounds were in Southeast Asia for years, months, weeks, or short three-day trips. Because I was traveling on a budget, most of the activities I did in Southeast Asia were determined by cost. This meant that I often found myself with the same type of people. On Koh Phi Phi, because of the relatively small size, there were more opportunities for people traveling for very different reasons to mix. It was a refreshing to have different conversations than I had the previous months.
Travelers of all ages and backgrounds were in Southeast Asia for years, months, weeks, or short three-day trips.
I thought all of the nightlife on the island would be the same: bad loud music and drunk people. That existed. But there was more than just that. I found a variety of nighttime activities, and not all were only about drinking (one thing that did prove true, however, was the economic benefit of buying buckets!). Aside from the typical fire shows at the beach bars, there was a Muay Thai Reggae Bar (although I never heard reggae music there), where tourists can try their hand at the famous Thai combat sport, live music nightly at Kong Siam, and movie nights at the rooftop Banana Bar. Tourists who wanted a low-key night often grabbed beers and sat on the beach relaxing.
I was also dreading hearing Top 40s at every dance bar. There was a great diversity of music at the bars, ranging from Thai pop music to ’90s hip-hop and those 2000s emo bands you had forgotten about. The selection meant that there was something for everyone. Nervous that I had to dress a certain way, I found people walking barefoot through the tile pedestrian-only streets and wearing what was most comfortable to them. Fancy or casual, bikinis or long-sleeved shirts, nothing was off limits.
While the nightlife is a big part of the traveler experience, daytime also offers a range of activities. For a low price, tourists can join a group outing or barter a private boat to see different beaches (including the famed Maya Bay) and snorkel. A short hike to the viewpoint or kayaking are perfect morning or sunset activities. There isn’t a laundry list of options, but even so I was never bored by just going to the beach and chatting with people.
Nervous that I had to dress a certain way, I found people walking barefoot through the tile pedestrian-only streets and wearing what was most comfortable to them. Fancy or casual, bikinis or long-sleeved shirts, nothing was off limits.
In my travel experience, the more “touristy” the location, the more animosity from locals. On Koh Phi Phi, the opposite was true. As we frequented the same grocery stores and restaurants, the employees became familiar with us and we had friendly chats. Even the tattoo artists of the countless parlors started to say hello and converse with me as I passed by. Women promoting bars or restaurants at night brought their children with them. They were happy to talk to us and I often played with their children.
The more “party” the location typically means the nastier the accommodation. I stayed at Stones Bar Dorm Rooms, one of the bars directly on the wildest beach, Ao Lo Dalam. Despite the raging house music a few feet away, the rooms were pristine, air-conditioned, and spacious. There was high security and the staff was inviting and accommodating.
Visiting Ko Phi Phi reminded me that just because something has a reputation, it doesn’t mean it isn’t worth your while. Even if a place is “touristy,” you can still have a great time. What was different this time? My attitude. In fact, being aware of the “bad” about the island prepared me. Instead trying to make it something is wasn’t—Ko Phi Phi is a tourist destination—I made the most of it. It is now one of my favorite places I’ve been and one that I hope to return to.
How the Phi Phi Islands Surprised Me