Phi Phi island Thailand – Paradise ruined
I almost wanted to cry when I saw what had become of Ko Phi Phi. When I first came here in 2001 all the hotels were bungalow-type operations on the strip of sand that made up Tonsai village. Coming in, you could barely make out the bungalows among the tall palm trees.The island was a lush paradise of palm trees, white sand, high cliffs and emerald water. There were no “paths”, walking around meant walking through sand. It was the most beautiful place I had ever seen. I came back in 2002 with a girlfriend and it was still gorgeous, we snorkelled for a few days on Long beach and it was just magical.
The Tsunami hit Phi Phi hard in 2004.
So I didn’t know what to expect when I came back in February of 2008. I was shocked. The palm trees are gone. The bungalows have been replaced by swanky 3 or 4 level concrete hotels and Tonsai village is now a mini-Phuket with massage parlors, bars, internet cafes, and tons of stores and restaurants. Backpackers have been replaced by young, package-tour travellers from Phuket. Tonsai village is PACKED. They even have a Muay Thai stadium. The scary thing is that only half of the isthmus connecting the two bays has been rebuilt, the rest of Tonsai is a barren landscape which the developers are only getting started on. Tonsai beach is no longer a beach between the new pier they are building – and it’s a big one – and the hundreds of longtail boats parked on the sand. I walked around, my mouth gawking and I must have said “I can’t believe it” about a hundred times. I felt like I was bleeding on the inside. I can understand that the tsunami would have wiped out the island – but instead of letting the vegetation grow back the developers further razed the place. There is no sand or trees left in the isthmus between the two coves. I caught a whiff of sewage close to the hotel, saw oil slicks from all the longtail boats and just thought of how they’ve ruined this place. Excuse my French, but it’s a fucking crime what they’ve done. The people who died here must be turning in their graves at what has happened to the island. I spoke to a local and asked her what she thought of the changes. She said it was good for the economy but that they all miss how it used to be.
Most of these pictures are from Long Beach which resembles what Tonsai used to look like. This is the place I would stay if coming back to Phi Phi. It’s quiet, has great views (that’s Phi Phi Ley in the background), a beautiful beach, some small family owned restaurants, and great snorkling. But I honestly doubt that I would ever come here again.
Don’t bother with the visit to neighboring Phi Phi Ley – it’s become a zoo. In 2001 I hired a longtail and the two of us bounced our way to the island over rough waves. I saw 3 tourists on the island that day. In 2002 I remember thinking it was getting popular because there were about 10 other longtails in the bay at the same time. This is what Maya Bay looks like now…they’ve even closed the Viking Cave because of too many tourists.
Somehow, through it all, the Thais here are still friendly and smiling. I just felt disappointment and anger at the greed that has transformed this place. A rare piece of paradise has been ruined probably forever.
Related: Ko Yao Noi, Thailand – a less touristy option to Phang Nga Bay
Addendum: I’ve gone back to some old video of Phi Phi. Sorry about the poor quality. You should however get an idea of what Phi Phi used to look and sound like.
This first one was shot in 2001. Can you hear the sounds of nature? Gorgeous.
I went again in 2002. You can already see that it’s getting a bit busier than the previous year.
Have you been to Ko Phi Phi? What did you think of it?
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Really sad to see whats happened to Phi Phi – I lived/worked there in the dive industry 2002-2004 until the tsunami hit.
Unscrupulous developers exploited the situation, moved long term residents off the island and took the land to develop hotels.
I returned in 2008 and again in 2012 and the island i remembered no longer existed. Where once a few restaurants were dotted along the beachfront, was now clubs banging out techno, with flaming rope jumps and shit faced teens everywhere! Meanwhile the centre, once narrow streets of wooden guest houses – was now a concrete jungle of commercialism. I wont even go into whats happened on the hill leading to the viewpoint. Crazy how overdeveloped the island has become.
Thanks for this. Sounds like we have roughly the same timeline and both got to see the best and worst of the island. And someone wrote that you now have to pay to get to the viewpoint. That’s terrible. What a shame it all is.
I first visited PhiPhi in the late 80’s when as a young ‘backpacker’ I got on a long tail to find ‘James Bond Island’ upon arrival it was beyond magical. I remember the amount of tropical fish in the water at the pier. There was no electricity and that first night there was nowhere to sleep – so me and my mate slept on a table in a small restaurant.
The nightly entertainment was a guitar and a small fire.
I actually returned in 2015 and I honestly have never been so shocked by anything. The utter disregard for absolutely everything was beyond astonishing – I walked up to the old viewpoint; that still had the same owner, – although I now had to pay a tax to pass through someones land to get there! I had a look at the view, walked back down, got on a boat and left as quickly as I could.
On my first visit I also saw Maya Bay, Phra Nang, Railay Bay, Koh Tao & Koh Nang Yuan – which were all incredible places. I have recently heard that the Tourism and environmental authorities have closed Maya Bay to tourists for an indefinite period – I sincerely hope that they extend this to other places that they are lucky enough to have in their wonderful country. I hope that this small action kickstarts some sustainable ideals on tourism, so that future generations can enjoy these magical places responsibly.
Wow, you beat me there by at least 10 years. It sounds very rustic. On my first visit I stayed in a wooden shack up the side of the hill, but I did have electricity at the time.
2015. A tax to get to the viewpoint!! Really. Incredible.
It sounds like we visited the same places. For me, it’s still the most beautiful island geography I’ve seen anywhere. But with all the tourists and the high prices these days it’s a region I would never go back to.
I was there in 2001 , travelling around the world , I stayed here for 6 months , it halted my journey like few places ever had. Breath taking , but even then there was an undercurrent of greed , gutted to see the pictures now. Another place to get face bombed, snap chatted …….oh take me back when a camera only had a film in it , RIP PHI
So true. So photos from the time also only had film. Now these young kids go there and think they’re in the trendiest place on earth without knowing they’re about 30 years too late…RIP PHI PHI exactly.
My bleeding heart. It was 1992. It was 4 pm. An old fishing trawler nears an unknown island whose name no one could even pronounce. I napped for a while, with no expectation, no google image, nothing but a paragraph in that all too ubiquitous lonely planet guide. Then like a leviathan, massive and magnificent cliffs jutted out of a flawless ocean as vertical shards of rock coated with green. At last the engine died and that trawler drifted in, those great rocky arms seeming to hug me with all the warmth of a thai sun. It was the grandest of rocky welcomes a 25 year old single woman could ever receive. And they never did let go. From that moment on I was in love.
I remember two thoughts. First, I going to like this. Second, people will come. It was to be an omen from which denial was futile. For every day since, I don’t ask if, I ask how many have stood on a boat and gazed upon her, falling too, and dreading the truth. For in truth we are loving her to death.
I’ve never forgotten the Phiphi. Her reefs, her sharks, her endless coconut forests that spoke to the wind on a still thai night, to be brutally interrupted by the thunderous crash of a deadly fibrous bomb as if the palms were having their own private joke. They really were the terrorists of phiphi. I remember too, the mosque, the goats, monkeys of course and an endless variety of fish painted in Warner Brothers technicolour. I remember never needing to wear shoes. I remember no cars, no cruisers, no light, just a single generator. And that perilous journey in total darkness back to my bamboo hut. It too, was victim to a coconut blitz for the roof of my ramshackly squat drop had transformed into a skylight. And I remember rain, rain and more rain. I remember too, Dengue fever, jungle tracks, and drag queens and the freshest feed of marlin in thailand. I also remember walking along a rocky beach completely alone coming across a fresh water stream meeting the sea and finding there half buried, a good sized nautilus shell. I remember also thinking how rare, one of the last, I must keep this. And keep it I did. It sits by the bath, as a reminder of what is fast disappearing.
In truth I am the lucky one. Phiphi gave me more than many who have come since. It is an honour to be indebted to such a glorious of hosts and a tragedy that the debt will never be repaid.
What a beautiful comment Sonja. You’re a poet.
You beat me there by about 10 years and I can only imagine how it must have been then. By far the most beautiful island I’ve seen anywhere and I have the greatest memories from my two visits there.
Your comment brought back the nostalgia and sadness of a place that will never be the same. We can count ourselves fortunate for the experience.
Thanks Sonja. I read it to Lissette, she was moved by your beautiful words.
And to think the land developers probably took advantage of the earthquake to look like the ‘good guys.’
“We’ll help you fix your village out of the kindness of our hearts.”
Yes, and to replace those dangerous wooden shacks with large concrete structures.
They totally razed the place and started over. Unrecognizable.
Hi everyone… I’ve found your page while browsing here in the hotel where I’m staying in Phi Phi, because I am so sad, maybe like you were when you came back in 2008… I heard a lot about the island and I was expecting to see a natural paradise. I started to be suspicious when I’ve seen on youtube some videos taken around the market (well, let’s define them SHACKS!), but I still believed it was a small piece of touristic area on its own, with still noce beaches and natural beauty. Well, it’s not. I even had to change room in my hotel and move to the other side as there is a club playing loud music until 2am. Now I am in my quite room, but I feel surrounded by chaos. You go out and you walk through these smelly alleys, smell of shit (yes, literally) and you don’t even see the beach until you are 10 meters away from it. I feel sad, I know the island itself is bigger and there are areas that are still beautiful and immaculate, but right now I feel so let down by people that I even hoped for another tsunami 🙁 I know it is bad to say it, but to be fair it would clean this mess. I am angry at people, why coming to paradise to drink and party all night, why ruining the place… I don’t know, so far I am angry and the only thing I know is that next time I’ll go on holiday somewhere else. To relax now and see some paradise I will have to take the boat to leave this sewage dream every day, hoping not to find a created zoo type paradise (but I think I will be let down, like Maya Bay). Maybe I am just negative now as me and my girlfriend have just arrived and we are staying in Tomsay, maybe tomorrow with new light and moving away during the day from here I will feel different…
Hi Alex. So sorry to hear. It is very misleading, all over the internet I see ads on Phi Phi that use photos over 10 years old when it was completely different.
Try Long beach. I don’t know what it’s like now but it was still nice in 2008. The rest I’m afraid has gone to shit (as you have well described…)
I have to admit I was quite angry yesterday because of the loud music and having to change room. I wouldn’t like any disaster to happen or people to get hurt, but I still believe the place has been ruined, that for sure. I’ll try to walk around today and possibly get a boat or walk to long beach and see how it goes, maybe also take some boats to other islands. Sad anyway, because I am sure this would have been paradise for real… Humans are usually the cause of their own problems eheheh
Youre exactly right, I had the same impressions… Unfortunately more and more places are getting ruined like this. There are a few left, like Albania, but there is a lot of development there on some beaches, so Im afraid it wont last long…
Ko Samet is also seriously overdeveloped.
Is it? I went back in 2002 and loved the place. Of course Phi Phi was totally different back then too…
Phi Phi was bad 10 years ago. Too small to cope with mass tourism and now the Chinese have increased the problem. Even Phuket I find overpriced and not worth it. Krabi and Trang are much better value and far less tourists.
Yup, totally agree.
Just found your post – very interesting. I first visited Phi Phi in August 2004 when backpacking, and my overwhelming feeling then was that it was just full of people going there to party too hard, it was too expensive, and too built up. Then after the tsunami hit, I returned to volunteer. I was still on the same backpacking trip, and as had lots of time to spare, I volunteered on the island with the clean-up operation, this was early 2005. As the people on the island were mainly volunteers, there was a lovely community feeling, everyone there to help the island. However, after this, clearly the island went into a spiral decline. I visited in 2006, hadn’t changed that much more, and then in 2007, and more recently in 2016. I remember in 2005, talk of helicopters flying overhead, allegedly looking out for volunteers, to threaten with arrest for ‘working’ without the proper visa, as the authorities allegedly weren’t happy with locals being helped to rebuild their simple buildings, rather, it was said the authorities favoured concrete structures for safety reasons, but I wonder how much of this was so they could sell off the land to larger companies?.. Anyhow, in summer of 2004, this place was certainly no untouched paradise, but I do wish I had visited it in the 90s!
Hi Simon. I don’t know what it must have been like in the 90’s. It must have barely been known. When I first went in 2001 it was known but was totally underdeveloped and not a party place at all.
Really commendable that you went to volunteer. You must have seen a lot and it can’t have been easy. I think your suspicions may have been correct.
Thanks for taking the time to comment!
Celeste said how crowded it was. Seriously avoid the tourist spots if you dont like crowds.
Got it! Totally agree, its a damn nut house.
Visiting at xmas time is a bad idea due to peak season .Go May to July. Less tourists and cheaper hotels. They are many uncrowded spots if you avoid the tourist traps. Just do some reading.
I’m not quite sure what you are referring to. Are you talking about Phi Phi? We didn’t go at Christmas time. And many uncrowded spots? I don’t know if we are talking about the same place.
I think I love you:) your views are exactly the same as mine and I only just got back from my first thailand visit. I was so disappointed at the commercialism and overcrowding.
It was like living inside an open air club for a few nights… Drunk people everywhere, people everywhere, very loud music everywhere, etc. It really made me so sad to see. I envisioned phi phi to be the way you described it pre tsunami. And my friends couldn’t understand why I was so unhappy there.
Natural beauty totally ruined:(
Isn’t it nice meeting people who share the same opinion?? 🙂 And that post was in 2008, I don’t want to think what Phi Phi would look like today. What a horrible shame.
Thanks for much for your feedback Celeste.
Sorry to hear the less than ideal experiences that you had at Koh Phi Phi. Honestly, I was quite keen to venture to Northern Thailand, such as Mae Hong Son, Chiang Khan and Pak Chombut but I am quickly realising that I might be better off skipping the beaches in Thailand and going straight to East Malaysia, Indonesia or Philippines for a secluded island getaway. I know this sounds like an added hassle but unfortunately, it sucks when islands like Phi Phi are ruined by the hordes of tour guides, boats and tourists. I heard similar stories about the issues of over-development and a marked increase in tourists in islands like Koh Samui and Koh Lipe. I would much prefer the experience that I recently had at a private B&B beach resort at Redang island in Malaysia, it was just perfect. Honestly, it was such a nice place to stay, very Robinson Crusoe like. I had an amazing beach view from the chalet that I stayed in and I saw the powdery white sands and the crystal clear blue waters from a close distance. The beautiful thing was that the beach that I saw and swam in was nothing short of amazing, it was lukewarm and so clear with stunning underwater visibility. The beauty of it was that you had the beach to yourself (no tour guides, or abundance of boats and tourists on the beach) and it just felt….amazing. For a moment, I even agreed with one of Richard’s quotes from “The Beach” and said to myself “trust me, it’s paradise”. I just hope that these places will last the test of time, but sadly, once a paradise is found, people will find ways to exploit its beauty. Truly tragic!!!
Great tip. Malaysia often falls off the radar for travellers. We ourselves haven’t gone in a very long time…Redang island huh? Just googled and and looks beautiful.
Ko Samui was a huge disappointment for me and I could never understand why people go there. Haven’t seen some of the other popular islands like Koh Lipe, Ko Tao, or Ko Lanta. Ko Samet near Bangkok was a surprise favorite though and as far as geography goes Railey and Ko Yao Noi are beautiful (I wrote about Ko Yao Noi – not many people are aware of it).
Thanks for the comment!
Phi Phi Ley certainly is a circus. I visited for the first time last year. Maybe it’s a blessing I don’t know what it was like before. Despite boat after boat of tourists pouring onto the beach, it’s still a gorgeous place. That lagoon over there is stunning. One of the highlights for me.
This is so incredibly sad. I have wanted to visit Maya Bay and Koh Phi Phi for many, many years. A trip throughout Thailand from Bangkok to Chiang Mai to the islands has been at the top of my wish list for nearly a decade. Alas…I have not yet made it. I know that there are still many other beautiful Thai islands to see but I have always had my heart set of Koh Phi Phi. Can someone please provide a list of their favorite islands on both coasts? That would be a huge help! I think I will finally make it to Thailand next year for my honeymoon and any advice would be greatly appreciated.
Lots of beautiful islands but favorites always subjective. I’ll give you some of mine as well as others that seem to be favorites among blogger friends (which I’ve linked):
Around Bangkok: Ko Chang near the Cambodian border a favorite. A smaller one, closer to Bangkok is Ko Samet (went there 10 years ago and loved).
Lower Gulf of Thailand: Ko Tao, Ko Samui, Ko Pha-Ngan are popular. I personally didn’t like Ko Samui (touristy) but thought Ko Pha-Ngan was beautuful (when you get away from Hat Rin). Ko Tao from what I hear though is fantastic, especially if you enjoy diving/snorkling.
Andaman Sea: Ko Phi Phi off my list. I was in Railey near Krabi and the beauty knocked my socks off. That was 10 years ago and was more of an upmarket resort scene than what Phi Phi has become. Gorgeous. Ko Lanta seems to be a new favorite down south and many backpackers rave about it. Its a place we want to check out. If you want totally chilled out and few tourists see Ko Yao Noi.
Lots more islands but these are some of the more popular ideas.
I went 12 years ago now and in some places it was still idyllic. But I’ve heard it’s much more developed now 🙁 .
Couldn’t agree more. Maya Bay has become a boat parking lot, I’m surprised no swimmers have been hit! Good luck finding a space on the beach, let alone some peace and quite. Such a shame, hopefully one day it will return to it’s former glory.
You’re right actually about the safety aspect. One thing I remember – in 2002 when I went with a girlfriend we decided to swim from the longtail, which stopped about 100m out, to the beach. The water was crystal clear, it was gorgeous. You could never do that now between the traffic and all the fuel that must be in the water…
That’s a shame. It’s on my list to check out the Thai beaches. May have to look into Long Beach like you recommend.
Hi Britnee. If you’re going at least you know what to expect – I find its always worse when you expect one thing and get something totally different. It is still a beautiful place however, just nowhere close to what it used to be.
Savi of Bruised Passports
I can’t believe Ko Phi Phi used to look like that. The transformation had already taken place when we visited and we hated it. I know tourism brings in the money, but it’s sad to see what it can do to the place.
I’m sorry to hear that. I’ve never been to Kho Phi Phi, but I completely understand where you are coming from. Judging by your photos though, the island is still so beautiful.
This is so interesting. I completely understand your sentiments as I have seen this happen in other places, but it’s strange because I have a completely different opinion about Phi Phi. But it’s because I went for the first time in Jan of 2013, much later than your serene paradise that you discovered in ’01. I LOVED it. I thought it was so beautiful. We stayed at a quiet end of the bay on the opposite side which helped I’m sure, I definitely didn’t appreciate the big city club sounds at night, but I think I was able to see through it all. It’s such a beautiful place. We also went to maya bay, and it was actually a highlight, simply because te place was incredibly beautiful. I think it’s a must see. Yes it’s busy, but so gorgeous. I’m glad I went. I’m sorry the paradise is gone, that’s so sad really. It’s interesting what perspective can do. You know what it was, and I’ve only seen how it is. Still beautiful, I think 🙂 great post though.
Thanks for the comment Jackie. You’re right, all about perspective. But having seen the place as it was, and seeing it now, I could never go back – in my mind it just wouldn’t measure up to how it was. Glad you had a good time though!
this is a beautiful beach!
Shame that the island is so touristy! I was quite surprised at how tourist Koh Samui was, which I really wasn’t expecting. But the real pleasant surprise of our Thailand trip was Koh Phangan, which wasn’t touristy at all! Perhaps because it is harder to reach…
Oh yeah, Ko Samui really touristy. It was my least favorite island in Thailand actually. We also really liked Koh Phangan; Hat Rin is the only place on the island that is touristy. We were in a really tiny village called Chalok Lam on the northern end of the island, staying in a $3 shack for 4 nights (discovered it by accident – girlfriend at the time got simultaneous diarrhea/vomiting after bouncing around the island in the back of a pickup truck..)
I haven’t been to Phi Phi yet. It was a place i had looked at longingly for ages, but as a young teenage girl i never got the chance to go before the tsunami hit. It’s a shame that tourism has ruined another place – i don’t think many people realise that people travel to these places to see them exactly as they are. Undeveloped, quiet and… Pure.
This is why i like visiting the smaller islands such as Koh Samet, Koh Chang etc. Much less foot traffic and still places of untouched beauty!
Thanks Amy! You mentioned Koh Samet – I went there back in 2001 and really enjoyed it. It kind of gets forgotten when people mention Thai islands. I heard something about an oil spill there though, don’t know what the situation is now…
Completely agree! Phi Phi is Paradise Lost!! Theres no doubt in my mind that back in the day this place was the best thing since sliced bread. I think it’s become a victim of its own success. The more people know about a place, the more stories people tell of how amazing it is. the worse it becomes..
.. there are many many more places in South East Asia which are exactly like phi phi was years ago.
Koh Rong in cambodia is one of them.. What an Amazing place!! I went last year but I am going to write a post regarding my time there in the next few days.
If you follow my travels then you will see some of them.. http://www.adventure-backpacking.com
I set off for the Philippines and Indonesia in less than a month
… but shhhhhhh. some of them will remain always remain secret 😉
Thanks Sam – those places are all on my list and I’ll definitely check out your site. Hmm, Koh Rong, interesting!
honestly.. an island the size of Samui. No roads. A handful of fishing villages. and the most amazing beach i have ever seen. 7km of untouched, footprint-less, white, powdery sand!!
So pretty. I would love to visit some day.
Val-This Way To Paradise
I have to agree with your views on Phi Phi…so sad…
I prefer Koh Lipe now. There’s not even a 7-11 on that island!
Thanks Val – good tip, never been to Koh Lipe. I promise to keep it a secret 🙂
Beautiful photos – (well, except for the crazy, over-packed party boats)
I’m in Ko Phi Phi right now and after reading so many posts along these lines (meaning: “the place is now spoiled”) I honestly thought it was going to be way worse. I obviously don’t have anything to compare it to, but it’s not as trashed nor as packed as I have read. I think a person just needs to get away from the centre of Tonsai (the Bay is for boats, yes, barely a beach as such) and explore a little further. Also, the fact that it’s not high season right now probably makes a huge difference too!
Might not be what it used to be once upon a time, but this island is still beautiful!
Thanks Zara. Everything is relative and if you’re coming from Patong for example you might find it a relief. But for anyone who was here prior to 2004 the place is unrecognizable, and while some of the views are still beautiful the natural beauty has (mostly) been destroyed by overdevelopment. I’m working on getting video on the site, I have a short clip on Phi Phi prior to the tsunami and it would shock you. You hear the insects and the water, see the palm trees all around. Incredibly peaceful. And if I sound like I’m denigrating Phi Phi it’s only because it makes me upset to see this raping of the island by greedy developers. I wish everyone would have had a chance to see the island prior to the tsunami – maybe that’s what it takes to comprehend what they’ve done here.
Ugh, that’s one of the downsides of more people traveling these days is that all of the “hidden” places have become known. It’s getting harder and harder to find the off-the-beaten-path, secret places….but still, at least you have the memories and are on the move towards the next hidden treasure 🙂
Yes, yes, yes, you are right one hundred times! My impressions was the same: awfully.
It is pity, but seems this is a destiny of all good places of this word. You find a paradise, then another man, another and another, and during your second visit you see the big commercial center instead of “your” place.
I have been to Thailand several times and plan on returning again in January. Ko Phi Phi was on my list of things to do this time, but I may think twice now!! It’s too bad that Maya Bay is not ‘The Beach’ it was!
Thanks for your comment Constance! Yes, I agree about Maya Bay. Actually, all of Phi Phi was beautiful, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. Long beach is still very nice if you are curious about coming here – but there are a lot of islands in S. Thailand that are a lot more pristine and I would recommend exploring some of those instead.