Koh Phi Phi revisited

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Koh Phi Phi was initially put on Thailand’s tourist map by film maker Danny Boyle, who used stunning Koh Phi Phi Ley as the main location for the 2000 film “The Beach“.  Although the film wasn’t a hit, it’s notoriety provided backpackers with a new holy grail destination when “doing” Thailand. The rest of the world however may sadly remember Koh Phi Phi Don as one of the numerous locations devastated by the 2004 tsunami.  Here is one of the most famous pieces of video footage captured when the tsunami hit Koh Phi Phi Don’s Cabana hotel on the morning of 26 December…

When I backpacked around Thailand in 2005, I decided to spend one of my six weeks helping some of the tsunami effected areas, either by volunteering with the clean up or just spending my money to help restart their local economies. When I reached Phuket the clearing up was pretty well advanced, so I headed to Koh Phi Phi.  On arrival it was clear they had a long way to go rebuilding – here are some of the images I took of the destruction that remained seven months after the tsunami hit…

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My contribution was to help move this pile of rubble into wheelbarrows, taking it 300m to the shoreline, where a barge was beached and ready to take it out and dump it at sea…

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It doesn’t look much, but it took four of us two days… I spent a total of six days on the island and I have to admit, I did fall in love with Koh Phi Phi and really felt for those from the island.  Their stories of survival were moving, their losses incomprehensible and I greatly admired their resourcefulness in the face of adversity and personal grief.

Since living here in Thailand, I was obviously keen see how the island is now, as well as enjoy the wonderful scenery and laid back pace once more.  I also wanted to see how it had been rebuilt and to visit some of the places I remember.  So here are some then and now images, as they speak louder than words…

Koh Phi Phi hospital July 2005

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Koh Phi Phi hospital February 2014

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Ton Sai Bay July 2005

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Ton Sai Bay February 2014

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Phi Phi Cabana Hotel July 2005 and February 2014

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Loh Dalam Beach July 2005

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Loh Dalam Beach February 2014

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This is the area where I beleive the pile of rubble was that I helped to clear, although it was difficult to say as so much has changed…

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Apart from most of the dive shops, the only place that seemed the same was the Thai massage shop I used to go to – although I don’t remember this lady, who is known by her colleagues as “the master”.  She was indeed a great masseuse and took quite a shine to me as you can see!

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Another place I wanted to check out was the first bar to re-open after the tsunami in Koh Phi Phi Don’s Ton Sai area.  As well as being a super cool bar with fantastic sunset views, the re-opening of the Sunflower Beach Bar was also very symbolic at the time.  It was also the best example I had ever seen in resourcefulness and recycling – the owners had built this bar with the help of volunteer backpackers and whatever materials they could salvage, which included a lot of tsunami damaged long tail boats.  Here is the newly opened Sunflower Beach Bar in July 2005…

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The first time I wandered down Loh Dalama beach, I couldn’t find it and thought it must have been destroyed or demolished to make way for some of the new beach bars.  I persevered though and went back, truly believing it must still be around.  I asked a sun lounger vendor and he immediately directed me there.  It had been built up, reinforced with rocks and reconfigured, but the Sunflower Beach Bar was still in business! Here is what it looks like now…

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As well as the bar, they have also built an ark shaped Boathouse guest house…

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The rafters and some of the boat seats also have photographs of when they re-built the original bar…

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Mel is a very friendly Australian and was in the bar when I dropped by, so I told her how delighted I was to find the bar.  It turns out she arrived on the island just before me back in 2005 and is now the manager.  It seems the profile of the original customers they had on the island has shifted, with many preferring buckets of cheap booze and lively bars both on and off the beach…

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Call me an old fashioned romantic, but when I make the effort to go to beautiful islands like Koh Phi Phi, this is how I like to see the sun go down… first in July 2005, then again in February 2014..

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I was really happy to have found the Sunflower Beach Bar, but saddened that many visitors to this gorgeous island now seem to prefer more conventional bars.  The Sunflower Beach Bar has a compelling story and history, so is a living legend – and although rustic, it remains a very cool bar.  If you are going to Koh Phi Phi, please do visit it or stay. The cocktails have generous measures,  are delicious and are very good value – 180 baht ( $5.50/£3.30), or 120 baht ($3.70/£2.20) during happy hour which is 5 – 8pm.  And of course the view is amazing!  More details can be found on their Facebook page (no website) or on tripadvisor.

Apart from the photographs in the bar and the tsunami evacuation signs, the only other evidence of the 2004 tsunami on Koh Phi Phi was a small, peaceful and rather unkempt memorial garden close to the Sunflower Bar.  I couldn’t find the official figures, but according to wikipedia, on Koh Phi Phi approximately 850 died and 1,200 were unaccounted for.  Several nationalities are represented on these memorial plaques, the garden is obviously still visited by relatives and that black cat is the friendliest on the island!

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Diving in Koh Phi Phi

I also spent a couple of days of diving in Koh Phi Phi.  In 2005 I barely had 20 dives logged so was curious to see what I thought of the same dive sites now I had a bit more experience.  It turns out they have fallen victim to a combination of sheer numbers diving and coral bleaching a couple of years ago.  I remember all the dive centres before advertised “guaranteed leopard shark sightings”.  They have now gone, along with a lot of fish. I also remember lots of lion fish and moray eels. They were not so abundant – but I did see lots of cleaner shrimps in the rock, sadly with not a lot to do or clean!

From what I gleaned, Koh Phi Phi diving is the next stop for back packers who have learnt to dive in in Koh Tao, which apparently has the highest numbers of PADI divers being certified anywhere in the world. All dive centres on Koh Phi Phi offer the same prices for what is a basic taxi service out to the sites, plus guided dives.  If you are however looking to learn to dive or do a diving course on holiday, Koh Phi Phi is as good a place as anywhere.

Overall, it was good to be back in Koh Phi Phi.  The islands of Koh Phi Phi Don and Koh Phi Phi Ley are both stunning and really are worth seeing once in a lifetime.  Koh Phi Phi Don and around Ton Sai area is however getting over developed and no longer has that all round laid back desert island paradise feel that I remember. Ton Sai has most definitely been reclaimed as a nirvana and never–never land for youngsters on the popular back-packer path of postponing the inevitable – adulthood.

Koh Phi Phi remains one of the most naturally stunning spots on this planet and has recovered well from its devastating natural disaster.  It has to be visited at least one in a lifetime if you can manage it, as at least the view never changes….

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One thought on “Koh Phi Phi revisited

  1. Pingback: 2014 summary in pictures | The Coconut Times

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