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Andaman adventures exploring Thailand's Phi Phi Islands

No holiday to Phuket is complete without an island-hopping trip. Carolynne Dear sails off to explore an archipelago of palm-fringed islands.

Access to Maya Bay's 'The Beach' is strictly controlled these days.


The ocean stretches like a sheet of shimmering glass as far as the eye can see. Our speedboat gently tilts left and then right as it exits Boat Lagoon Marina on Phuket’s mid-east coast. It’s early, but the sun is already beating down and I’m glad I packed my cap as I perch at the bow of the boat, soaking up the sea views. We begin to pick up speed and a palm-tree fringed island appears in the distance on the port side. I spot a single white sailing boat bobbing at anchor in a deserted sandy bay. Oh, the bliss.


We’re on our way to the island of Phi Phi Leh, around an hour away, to visit Maya Bay, followed by a day exploring Phuket’s offshore network of tropical islands. Out on the sparkling Andaman, away from the bustling streets and car-choked roads of Phuket, I’ve been promised a playground of idyllic jungle-clad islets, secret beaches and hidden coves.

Phuket is blessed to be surrounded by hundreds of insta worthy islands, from the world-renowned Phi Phi Leh of The Beach fame (more about that later), to lesser known stretches of fine white sand and lagoons teaming with fish, dolphins, turtles and corals.


My day has been arranged by local tour company, 5 Star Marine Phuket, who manage a fleet of speedboats for island hopping tourists like me or divers looking to access some of the best dive spots in Asia.


“Visiting Phuket and not going island-hopping is like flying to Egypt and not visiting the pyramids,” says Shaun Stenning, a long-term Phuket resident and director of 5 Star Marine. “Swim with sharks, find Nemo, kayak through caves, discover hidden lagoons, watch the sun set behind Phuket’s rainforest covered mountains, no trip to Phuket is complete without an island-hopping experience,” he says. And as we slice through the water, the sun glinting off the gently rippling waves, I’m inclined to agree with him.


Top of my ‘to do’ list is Maya Bay on Phi Phi Leh, somewhere I’ve longed to visit since watching The Beach on a flight that was, rather unfortunately, carrying me home from my 18-month backpacking trip around Asia Pacific. By the time I was back in Asia two decades later, this time with a family in tow, the crowds put me off - at the height of its popularity Maya Bay attracted hundreds of boats and literally thousands of tourists. In 2008, the bay received around 170 visitors a day; ten years later, more than 5,000 people were descending daily on the area.


A new and improved Maya Bay after a three-year closure.


And so I was interested to hear of it voluntarily closing in 2018 in an attempt to save what was left of its ecology. The hordes of visitors had severely damaged the environment, with corals crushed by the thousands of boats dropping anchor and every inch of the beach was regularly covered in tourists. It was hoped that an 18-month ‘rest’ might reset the area. As it turned out, 18 months turned into four years as the rest period morphed into lockdown in 2020.


Finally, at the beginning of this year as Thailand relaxed its border restrictions, Maya Bay reopened; but this time with strict rules in place. No more than 375 visitors are allowed to visit at any one time and boats are limited to a set number each hour. Slots must be booked pre-visit.


No boat is allowed to anchor in the bay and instead a floating pontoon has been installed on the back side of the island and a boardwalk built for visitors to access the bay on foot. Swimming is prohibited.


But the result is well worth all the ‘cannots’ and the hard work of Hat Noppharat Thara - Mu Ko Phi Phi National Park.


You can paddle, but bewared the lifeguard's whistle if you venture too far.


We pull-up mid-morning and the waters are bustling with longtails and speedboats jostling for a position on the pontoon. But by the time we’ve found our way up the steps to the boardwalk, the crowds have thinned and it’s a pleasant stroll through the jungle until we’re rewarded with our first glimpses of the bay. We’re lucky to have nailed a blue sky day at a temperamental time of year and the emerald waters sparkling through the trees are dazzling. Down on the sands there are no more than a handful of tourists, spread along the beach as they snap away on their phones. We stroll the full length of the sand, drinking in the towering limestone cliffs and the crystal clear waters. Paddling is permitted, although the lifeguard perched at his lookout post at the back of the beach is quick with the whistle if he deems you to have gone in too deep.


After its reopening in January this year, Maya Bay shut again in August during low season to enable authorities to assess how the previous few months has affected the area. It opened again for this year’s high season on October 1, just a few days before my visit. The feedback is very positive.


“So far we haven’t seen the interim report,” says Stenning. “But the hiatus was really good for the beach. It gave the wildlife a chance to return.” Stenning says he and the team spotted more than 20 baby black tip reef sharks when they were first allowed back at the beginning of the year. “The national park team has done a really great job of creating pathways from the back side of the bay to the beach and they’ve been managing numbers really well.”


From Maya Bay we putter around the corner to a stunning lagoon and drop anchor for a swim. It’s busy but the cool waters are welcome as the full heat of the day sets in. A twenty minute ride later and our driver has found us a quiet snorkelling spot. We plunge down, mesmerised by the swaying seaweeds, corals and darting fish.


As lunchtime approaches, we sail to Koh Phi Phi Don. A beachside restaurant serves up welcome plates of chicken skewers, curries and salads and cold bottles of Singha beer as we sit gazing over the Andaman, bare toes wiggling comfortably in the sand. Afterwards, we wander to the far end of the beach where not a soul is to be seen and sink into the turquoise waters.


Longtail boats pull-up for lunch on Phi Phi Don.


A wave from our driver and we’re back on the boat, this time cruising towards home and a stop at what is really nothing more than a sandbar in the middle of the sea. We have another swim and then head to the shack on pillars over the water that passes as the bar. More Singhas are served and we sip sitting over the slatted floor watching the waves breaking on the sand beneath us. At one point I accidentally knock my beer holder off the wooden ledge and into the water. Before I can do anything about it, a bar man plunges in to retrieve it.


We cruise back into Boat Lagoon Marina late in the afternoon to find an afternoon tea laid out for us. The day has been hugely enjoyable and we thank our three boat hosts profusely.

Business is beginning to build back for Stenning and his team and he’s looking forward to a busy December and January.


“The tourists have slowly started to return,” he says. “We’ve been fully booked for the last few weeks and the high season, November to April, is looking really positive. The crowds tend to head to popular destinations such as James Bond island and Phi Phi.”


Barefoot beers at the beach bar.


Stenning offers private boat trips or group tours, covering deserted beaches, the tourist hot spots of Phang Nga Bay and Phi Phi, as well as dive sites. For family snorkelling, he recommends heading to the Khai islands off the east coast, or Coral Island a little further south which can be combined with dolphin spotting off nearby Mai Thon Island.


For more experienced divers, there’s Richelieu Rock an hour-and-a-half off the west coast which is considered to be one of the best dive sites in Asia. Expect an abundance of marine life as well as the chance to spot whale sharks in season, which is any time between November and April but most commonly from February to April. Richelieu is close to the Similan Islands, also a mecca for divers, but as these sites are a long way offshore, they’re not recommended for beginners. Speedboats for these areas leave from the very north of Phuket at Sarasian Bridge.


Good dive sites closer to Phuket include Racha Yai and Racha Noi off Phuket’s southern tip, which offer an interesting mix of marine life, coral and shipwrecks.


As for Stenning, he has his own itinerary. His favourite destination is the turquoise waters of Hong Krabi.


“It’s not too well known and it has a great mix of experiences, from snorkelling, to amazing view points, a great lagoon and one of the most underrated beaches in Thailand. When I want to head somewhere off the beaten track, that’s where I go.”


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