Monday 13 February 2012

Snorkelling the Oft-Snorkelled Seas

Taking the usual long tail transfer and crowded ferry ride (we're well on the beaten sea-track now) we said goodbye to the cliffs of Railay to dock at Koh Phi-Phi Don. Out in the middle of the sea, the Koh Phi-Phi Marine National Park is a stunning example of nature's sculptural talents - dramatically formed limestone karsts perfectly framing bay after gorgeous bay of bright sand and calm turquoise water. It is unfortunate that it is also a tourist mecca and Tonsai Village, on the hourglass-shaped isthmus joining the craggy hills of Koh Phi-Phi Don, was packed to the brim with mostly foreigner crowds heading straight for a spot on the sand, or a chair in the bar. We were mostly expecting this I suppose, and we greeted the change in atmosphere with enthusiasm at first - ATMs on every corner, plenty of sunscreen at the multitude of convenience stores, loads of nice clothing boutiques (hmm, I could do with a new bikini), and such a huge variety of food! - but for the first day we shied away from most of the temptations, Thai massage parlours included. I was especially wary of Ben being called at by a scantily clad proprietor who appended her usual "Massaaaaage!" call with some suspicious kissing sounds. We did however, have a craving for a change in food, so we tucked into a fantastic pepperoni pizza with gorgonzola cheese and the most amazing linguine ai frutti di mare on Loh Dalum beach. With the added bonus of free wi-fi at this laid-back cafe, we drained our laptop batteries followed by our Kindle batteries, to the soundtrack of Bob Marley beats drifting over the trees.

Pizza at Ciao Bella's - Koh Phi Phi Don

We thought to attempt a good sunset view over the island with a steep climb to the island's viewpoint in order to work off the Italian carbohydrates. Unfortunately we arrived to join another large crowd gathered to watch the sun set over the cliffs way before it set over the sea. We waited around optimistically, Ben hoping for a bit of colour and perhaps a nice silhouette, but we just got mosquito bites and a walk back in the dark.

Hanging out at the viewpoint - Koh Phi Phi Don

The next day we decided to join a day tour of Koh Phi-Phi Leh, the famous uninhabited island to the south, to see what all the fuss was about. We waited at the ticket shop for a man to walk by and pick us up. We followed him as he meandered through what seemed like the entire Tonsai Village, picking up people from other ticket shops as he went, and his ever expanding number of followers trailed him like the Pied Piper to the end of Tonsai bay. Thankfully, he didn't lead us off a cliff to our deaths; instead we climbed on to a big boat with even more people on it to head off on our first big group tour. Avoiding the young and (amusingly) flirtatious groups who quickly cracked onto the beers and each other, we actually rather enjoyed ourselves. We met a friendly couple from Bristol, lovely Ella and her partner Richard, an aeronautical engineer who is designing new A320 wingtips, and a Singaporean family with an outgoing three year old who showed us that a life of travel doesn't end with kids. They kept us busy with a full schedule of activities, including a decent swim to the shore of Monkey Beach after jumping from the top of the two storey boat, kayaking and snorkelling about Pi Leh Bay, a "meh" view of Viking Cave (although the bamboo "ladders" used for collecting bird's nest did look convincingly perilous), and a scramble from Loh Sama Bay to Maya Bay. The latter is the epitomic sandy beach surrounded by jungle clad limestone cliffs and the destination of nearly all Phi-Phi Leh island goers, so although we appreciated its beauty, it was just another tick off the list.

Maya Bay Beach - Koh Phi Phi Leh

Sunset was served anyway-you-like from the boat drifting beside the breathtaking sheer walls of limestone that make up Phi-Phi Leh's western side. Some people went snorkelling or swimming, while some continued drinking; I opted for bobbing about in a doughnut (tyre inner tubes) sipping Chang beer and watching boats cross the sea in the orange glow. And Ben, of course, got his camera out.

Beer in a doughnut on the sea at sunset - Koh Phi Phi Leh

Sunset from Koh Phi Phi Leh

The next morning we went shark hunting. Well, it was supposed to be another snorkelling tour, but when your guide is absolutely nuts about sharks, and all snorkelling spots are infested with jellyfish except for the one called Shark Point, all you end up looking for is sharks. It was exhausting trying to keep together as a group, to minimise splashing and arm movements while swimming through choppy waters and a strong current, but we were well rewarded for our efforts by spotting at least five curious black-tipped reef sharks that swam by to check us out. The diveshop owner also provided some excellent advice on good places to eat, which we happily devoured during our stay.

Lemon Fruitshake - Koh Phi Phi Don

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