There are few things I’d get up at 4am for, but a trip to Koh Phi Phi is definitely one of them.
You can’t go to Phuket as a first-timer without paying a visit to the famous Phi Phi islands, and of course, to Maya Bay, which I’d always referred to as ‘The Beach beach’ before learning its actual name. Made famous in 2000 by Leo DiCaprio in his role as the backpacker who ruins the fun for a whole community of travellers, this 200m long beach is at the top of most people’s must-see lists, meaning it’s incredibly busy almost all of the time.
After a lot of research, I ended up booking a snorkelling day trip with the family-run, local company Simba Sea Trips, which organise smaller, more bespoke tours which avoid the crowds by leaving at silly o’clock in the morning. That’s why I’m up at 4:30 am on the last leg of our two-week trip to Thailand, as Simba has arranged to pick us up from our hotel just after 5 am.
When we arrive at their offices in Royal Phuket Marina, we’re met with a warm welcome and some breakfast pastries, before being introduced to Dae, our guide for the trip. She tells us a bit more about the day ahead before we all set off from the pier nearby.
The winds are strong this morning and the sea is really rough. As we head out into the open water, the boat goes faster and the waves get bigger – each time we hit one, the boat becomes airborne and we detach from our seats for a brief moment in time. I grip onto the handles as tightly as I can and brace for impact, feeling all of my insides shift as we slam down hard against the waves, and a splash of seawater hits my face – this was one choppy boat ride!
We sit at the front to make the most of the view during the hour-long journey, which was the perfect place to watch the beautiful sunrise over the Andaman sea.
By the time we get to Maya Bay, the sun has risen and every inch of this paradise was ready for us to enjoy. I was a little sceptical about how great it was going to be, having already visited a few stunning beaches during our time in Thailand, but I must say, Maya Bay was in a league of its own.
Even at 7 am, the water was the perfect swimming temperature, with a green-blue colour so clean and clear you could see to the bottom of. The white sand felt powder-soft against your toes, with 100m tall tree-covered cliffs perfectly framing the entrance to the beach – it’s easy to see why this place was chosen to represent a paradise island in the Hollywood blockbuster.
If you can tear yourself away from the beach, there’s a sand path which leads out into the forest behind, where you’ll find some public toilets (somewhat resembling the one from the film, too), a cafe selling snacks and drinks, a small campsite, and a viewpoint which overlooks a nearby island.
It was nice to see there weren’t any tacky souvenir shops here, like those you’d find on James Bond island – are there not enough on the mainland that we still have to build more on beautiful beaches?
We have some homemade banana bread on the beach while enjoying the sound of crashing waves, and watch as boats packed full of tourists start to arrive, one after the other. There are over a dozen boats docked on the shore by the time we leave, and I was grateful to have been able to enjoy this place without the huge crowds.
We make our way to the stunning Pileh Lagoon next, and enjoy some time swimming in the water and jumping off the front of the boat. The water’s not great for snorkelling here, and it was surprising to see such a big difference in clarity compared to Maya Bay just around the corner.
Our next stop is to monkey beach, somewhere I was really excited to visit.
Instead of going ashore, our boat pulls up alongside the cliffs where a group of monkeys are perched on the branches. They’re looking at us and waiting for us to hand over some bananas, but feeding is not allowed.
After seeing pictures of other tour groups giving out sweets and cans of sugary drinks, I was quite happy that we were only admiring these wild animals.
Next, we head to Bamboo Island for a lunch stop. As we approach the beach, we can see that we’re a little too late to beat the crowds here. But luckily, our guides drive around to the other side of the island and stop at a quiet spot, just for us to enjoy.
We sit in the shade of this beautiful island for a delicious picnic lunch, including sandwiches, marinaded chicken, curried rice, vermicelli rolls, salad, fresh fruit and so much more. Taking in the surroundings, this is one of the best meals I’ve ever had.
After some time to relax and digest our food, we head off for the best snorkelling spot by Koh Phi Phi Don, the largest of the six islands in the area.
Snorkelling at Koh Phi Phi
The amount of fish here was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, with swarms of them swimming all around you. They’re so close, it almost feels like they’re coming up to you deliberately to see who you are. Pushing my arms out to wade through the water, I could touch a few without even trying.
I mostly swim along with our tour guides, who occasionally dive down to point out the different species of marine life around us. Swimming near to the edge of the cliff, one of our guides spotted a shark in the shadow, which I stayed well away from. The rest of us were quite far away from the spot, but a few people in our group did see its huge figure moving in the distance as it swam away. I didn’t need to worry about it though, as apparently, it was a “friendly shark”!
Even with a life jacket and flippers on, snorkelling can be hard work! Feeling tired, we refuel with some snacks and drinks back on the boat.
This is our last stop on the tour, meaning it’s time to say goodbye to the beautiful Phi Phi islands, as we make the boat journey back to the marina – this time, in calmer waters.
Thanks, Simba Sea Trips for a great day out at Koh Phi Phi – I’ll be back!
Book your own island-hopping adventure around Phuket with GetYourGuide:
More ideas for your trip to Thailand:
Care for rescued elephants in Khao Sok
Visit Koh Panyee, the village on stilts
6 things to eat in Bangkok
See Bangkok’s unique markets
Visit the Grand Palace in Bangkok
Need to know
- Koh Phi Phi Sunrise tour, THB 4,200 each (approx. £84)
- Hotel transfers included (free from main areas), but be prepared for an early start!
- Soft drinks, lunch and snacks are included
- All snorkelling equipment is provided, including flippers!