The lowdown: For those who aren’t keen on speed boats and / or prefer relaxing on deck to getting sandy on a beach, the Phi Phi by Cruise Boat trip is a good budget option to see these islands. It’s only available for large groups (which used to mean 10+ but is now currently around 30+).
The details: Trip taken on November 2, 2014 (and all pictures on this page are taken on that day)
This “tour” uses the daily ferry service to Phi Phi (which you can also book on its own as a one day return ticket) and then, when all the passengers have got off, the boat goes on a cruise around Phi Phi Leh island, before returning to Phi Phi Don where you have lunch and can explore for a couple of hours. The ferry passengers for Ao Nang then board and you head back to the mainland together.
The ferry part means that the journey to and from Phi Phi is done on a fairly crowded boat – though to be fair it is not actually full, it is just that most people shun the air conditioned interior cabins to sit outside on deck. You can’t blame them when there are beautiful islands to be seen along the way:
The first “stop” is at Railay Beach where we wait for more ferry passengers to join the boat. They come from the shore via longtail (the ferry can’t moor near the beach) and it’s amazing to watch the people and luggage being lifted on board from what looks like a fairly unstable little craft. Then we head off for Phi Phi, passing various fishing boats and the famous “4 Islands”:
There’s complimentary water, tea, coffee and hot chocolate on board so we grab a cup before coming back up to see our first glimpse of the Phi Phi group: Bamboo Island (Koh Pai). We cruise past at quite a distance – a few years ago the ferry would stop here, but no longer, which is a shame as the sand and water are astonishingly bright and definitely worth seeing. The camera zoom does not do it justice here:
After Bamboo, we reach the white-beach-dotted shores of Phi Phi Don. This is a long, narrow island and we must travel the length of its western coast before heading around the cape to Tonsai Bay, our ferry’s destination. This is the hub of Phi Phi and you can see it. There’s a big new pier with hundreds of boats lined up and we wait as the ferry passengers disembark to continue on their Andaman adventures.
When the boat has emptied out, our guide brings us a cold drink (it is boiling on deck when the sea breeze stops!) and explains that we are to set off for Phi Phi Leh immediately on our mini cruise. With less than a dozen passengers left on board, the boat feels luxurious with the whole upper deck to ourselves. Phi Phi Leh is an amazing island, filled with caves, lagoons and a semi-hidden beach. Although we can’t go onshore, this boat is a great way to experience the shifting scenery with an unimpeded view. The ride is also steady enough to take pictures: compare with the bumping and banging and the at best partial view of a speed boat.
After passing by the heavily guarded Viking Cave (the birds’ nests that are harvested here sell for around US$500 a kilo, according to our guide) and the Bileh lagoon, we head into Maya Bay. “The Beach” itself is at a distance but then so are all the other boats. We moor in the far corner of the bay near a tiny white sand cove.
For Phi Phi, which has sustained massive damage to its reefs, the snorkeling here is definitely above average – much better than on the speed boat tour. There’s a good variety of fish, giant purple-lipped clams, and some interesting corals. The crew toss bread and fruit to attract more fish for the children snorkeling near to the boat. I also see crew members towing some non-swimmers around with buoyancy rings and life jackets so they too can partake – a great level of service which again you won’t find on the speed boat tours.
To be honest, it is a bit disappointing that we can’t get to “The Beach”, especially as we can see it from the boat. Our boat is in a decent position for a snapshot, however:
We wolf down the fruit that is handed out – it’s way past midday now and we are getting hungry. Time to head back to Phi Phi Don for lunch. When we arrive at the pier, there is a boat unloading dozens of huge marlin (sailfish), presumably for the seafood restaurants on the island. There’s a 20 baht per person “clean-up fee” to be paid when we reach land, but the guide tells us she will take care of this.
We have opted out of the set tour lunch, but it is taken in Chao Koh restaurant (or sometimes in Arida, the day tour canteen as the speedboats use, the guide informs me). Instead we head over to Lohdalum Bay and set up in a beach cafe. There are plenty of things to do here during your two hours of free time: you can rent a kayak for an hour, go shopping, do a very quick walk up to the viewpoint, or just (as we did) hang out at the beach.
When we meet back at the pier at just after 3pm there are many ferry passengers already on board. It’s quite a long day and the vibe on the boat on the way back is much calmer, with more people choosing to relax in the indoor cabins. We hit a spot of rain as we near Ao Nang, which gives some beautiful dramatic skies.
The ferry arrives back at around 5pm where, tired but happy, we disembark.