Heaven on Earth – Ko Phi Phi Thailand

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Koh Phi Phi Thailand

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Getting from Israel to Bangkok was a bit of a challenge since (due to the lateness of booking this RTW trip) I couldn’t get a seat on the direct flight from Paris to Bangkok that I’ve taken the past two years.

The only way for me to get there on the date that I wanted to travel was to take an Air France flight from Paris to Moscow and then an Aeroflot flight (the Russian national carrier and recent Skyteam member) from Moscow to Bangkok. I was a bit nervous about the Aeroflot flight since there was some conflicting information online about whether I needed to obtain a Russian transit visa for my 90 minute connection.

All of the consulate information said that I didn’t need one but I’d read a few stories from other travelers who were held up by Russian immigration because they didn’t have one. The prevailing wisdom from the travel agencies was to get one just in case.

But there was no way I had time to do that as it would have involved sending off my passport for weeks so I just had to hope for the best. Further aggravating the issue, my Air France flight into Moscow was delayed and I was worried about missing the only flight out that night to Bangkok.

But luckily, when we landed, I breezed through the transit gate, and made it to my new gate just in time for boarding. What a relief.

Aeroflot turned out to be quite a nice airline after all. Though the seats in business class weren’t “sleeper seats” they were big and comfy and reclined far enough for me to get a little sleep on the flight. It helped that the cabin was almost empty and I was able to sprawl out into the seat next to me, too. I was also quite impressed with the dinner they served and the overall service. I would definitely fly Aeroflot again.

I’m sure that none of you who have been following my trips for the last two years were surprised to see that I was going back to Thailand once again on RTW 3. What can I say about Thailand other than I just really, really love it.

What’s not to love about a place where you can get an hour-long Thai massage for 250 baht (about $7) and a great Thai dinner for about $2? After all the lousy exchange rates I’ve had on this trip so far, I felt like a “baht-millionaire” when I took out 5,000 baht (about $150) at the ATM today knowing that it would be more than enough for my 4 days here.

The only thing that really does cost money is transportation, getting from the airport to your hotel will run you about 500 baht, and if memory serves, the departure tax that you have to pay at the airport when you leave the country is 700 baht (which I hadn’t saved money for on my first trip and had to go to the ATM again).

But once you are in the city, it’s difficult to spend more than 100 baht (about $3) on a taxi ride anywhere you want to go.

Wat Arun Bangkok Thailand
Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River

Once I arrived at the beautiful Millennium Hilton in Bangkok and spent a few minutes taking in the view of the Chao Phraya river from my window, I headed out in search of a little shopping and a much-needed Thai massage.

The hotel is located on the other side of the river from the main city of Bangkok but they offer a convenient boat service from their dock to the shopping center across the river where you can connect to the train or get a taxi or tuk-tuk to anywhere you want to go.

My first destination was the Chatuchak Weekend Market. I visited this market on my first trip to Bangkok and it was a lot of fun so I wanted to check it out again. Since it was Sunday afternoon, the market would still be open until 6pm.

It was quite easy to take the metro train there (and probably a lot faster than a taxi considering Bangkok traffic) and it only cost 40 baht – about a dollar. The Bangkok metro system is cheap, clean, fast and one of the best ways to get around this traffic-clogged city. 

The only down side is that the metro system is not very extensive. There are only two lines so there are lots of places you can’t get to (including most of the major tourist sites) on the metro.

Luckily, most of the major tourist sites including the Royal Palace and Wat Arun are located along the river and there are lovely and inexpensive tourist boats that pick up all along the river near many of the main hotels and take you right there. 

But since I had already tackled all of the tourist sites on my first trip, I decided to spend my two days in Bangkok shopping, eating and getting massages.

Chatuchak Weekend Market Bangkok Thailand
Food carts at the Chatuchak Weeekend Market

I did a little shopping at the market and finally bought a few gifts. Since I am planning to ship some things home from Bangkok tomorrow, I figured this was a good time to try to buy gifts and not have to carry them with me for the rest of the trip. (I am looking forward to finally being able to close my suitcase without having to sit on it.)

But the highlight of the market for me was the vast assortment of Thai street food that is available. I had heard great things about Thai street food before but I was a bit nervous to try it on my first trip since I was so worried about getting sick (especially after India).

But on this, my third trip to Thailand, it was time to give it a go. And I’m so glad I did, I really enjoyed the things that I tried. All over Thailand there are “roving restaurants” that serve great Thai food at extremely affordable prices.

After some shopping and a little food, I headed back into downtown on the metro to find a massage place. On my previous trip to Bangkok, I got my massage at a massage school near Wat Pho that I read about in my guide book. The massage was 250 baht (about $7) and it was great.

What I learned on this trip is that there is no need to seek out a massage school to get a good deal on a massage, there are professional massage places all over the city that charge the same 250 rate. This was news to me but I was very excited to discover it. I knew that was the case in Chiang Mai last year but I didn’t realize it was true for Bangkok as well.

The next day I spent the afternoon shopping at Siam, the mega-shopping center in Bangkok. I hadn’t been there before and it was a lot of fun walking around but the prices were much more of the “western variety” (i.e. high) so I didn’t buy much. I did however have a great meal at the food hall on the bottom floor of the Siam Paragon Center. 

And, of course, I snuck in another massage before heading back to the hotel.

The next morning, on my ride to the airport for my flight to Krabi Beach in southern Thailand, my cab was sideswiped by another cab on the highway. Even though I was wearing my seatbelt, I got a pretty good bump on the side of my head when I hit the door frame as the car was hit from the side. Ouch.

Not surprisingly, the cab drivers proceeded to get out of the cars and argue about who was at fault. I decided to ignore them, get my bag out of the trunk and try to flag down another cab as I had a flight to catch.

Unfortunately, it took a while to find another cab and by the time I got to the airport, they had closed the check-in counter for my Air Asia flight. Luckily, since this was a discount airline, I was able to get a seat on the next flight for $70 and ended up getting to Krabi only about 3 hours later than I’d planned. All in all, it definitely could have been worse.

A Few Days at the Beach in Krabi

Sheraton Krabi Thailand
My suite at the Sheraton Krabi

When I arrived in Krabi, I was in for more sticker-shock with the cab fare to the hotel, 700 baht! Yes, it’s only about $20 but still, that’s HUGE in Thailand.

Oh well, I was using points for my two nights at the Sheraton so at least I was saving money there. I ponied up the baht and was on my way to the hotel. When I arrived, once again it paid to be a Platinum Preferred Guest with Starwood as I lucked into another nice upgrade to a suite that was just beautiful.

I got settled in, then headed down to the beach to explore the resort a little. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised but there was an elephant getting hosed off down by the pool. He was pretty cute and seemed to really be enjoying the shower. Then he took off down the beach, stopping along the way for anyone with bananas.

After checking out the hotel’s facilities, my next stop was the concierge desk to try to book a boat ticket for the Phi Phi Islands for the next day. They had a package deal for 1,200 baht (about $35) that included a full day tour on a ferry boat of both of the Phi Phi islands and also included lunch and snorkeling.

That sounded like quite a deal to me since a taxi into town to catch the cheap boats would have cost 600 baht each way (not even including what the boats cost, etc.), so for the cost of a roundtrip taxi, I got a whole day tour. Not bad.

Elephant Krabi Thailand
A baby elephant walking down the beach in Krabi

Though the Sheraton was pretty far from the main town of Krabi, I was lucky that there were a number of shops, restaurants and (most importantly) massage places just outside the entrance to the resort. I’ve decided that cheap is always better when it comes to Thai food. The only times I’ve ever been disappointed with a meal in Thailand was when I paid too much at a hotel.

So, I wandered outside the hotel that evening for dinner and a massage before bed (on which I spent less than $10 total). I love this country so much.

Ko Phi Phi Thailand

The next morning I was up bright and early for my departure to the Ao Nang port at 8:00am to board the ferry to the Phi Phi islands. And I wasn’t alone. Since the only transportation to the islands is by ferry and there are a number of hotels on Phi Phi Don, my ferry was packed with tourists (and all their luggage) heading out to the islands to stay for a while.

Loading the ferry was kind of a comical process as it was low tide and the ferry had to stay moored out in the bay. To board we had to get in long tail boats at the shoreline that would take us out to the ferry. Each long tail held about 10 people and there were probably 300 people total on the ferry. The long tail boats pulled up to the ferry one at a time and unloaded both passengers and luggage.

You can just imagine how long this whole process took.

Maya Bay Ko Phi Phi Leh Thailand
Maya Bay, Phi Phi Leh

Finally, we headed out for the hour-long ride to the Phi Phi Islands. And it was a stunningly beautiful ride. Small islands of limestone cliffs dot the Andaman Sea everywhere you look.

When we arrived at the port on Phi Phi Don (the larger of the two islands that make up Ko Phi Phi) I was happy to see that 99% of the people on the ferry headed off into town with their bags. Turns out there were only about 15 of us actually doing the day tour to Phi Phi Leh for snorkeling.

Ko Phi Phi is made up of two islands, Phi Phi Don and Phi Phi Leh. The islands became immediately popular after the release of the Leonardo Dicaprio movie, “The Beach” which was filmed on Phi Phi Leh at Maya Beach.

Maya Bay Phi Phi Islands Thailand
The Phi Phi Islands

During this time construction soared on Phi Phi Don (the inhabitable island of the two due to the cliffs surrounding Phi Phi Leh) and tourist bungalows and other facilities sprung up along its shores at a rapid rate to feed the tourism demand.

Unfortunately, the tsunami of 2004 dramatically changed the fate of Phi Phi Don when it wiped out nearly every standing structure on the densely populated island. In terms of loss of life, Phi Phi was second only to the beach town of Khao Lak.

Since then, re-building has continued at a rapid pace and many hope that developers learned a lesson about sustainable growth on the island. Though, if they did it’s hard to tell based on what I saw. Fortunately, Phi Phi Leh is largely untouched by this development.

When we finally entered Maya Bay on Phi Phi Leh, it was like entering another world. The soaring limestone cliffs, turquoise water and stunning little coves of sandy beach are enough to make you think you’ve died and gone to heaven. It is quite possibly the most beautiful place I have EVER seen.

Koh Phi Phi Thailand
Longtail Boats in Maya Bay – Koh Phi Phi, Thailand

However, the secret is definitely out since there were a ton of other boats in the bay while we were there. It didn’t matter, though, nothing could diminish the unbelievable beauty of the area. We spent about an hour and a half snorkeling and marveling at the views before heading back to Phi Phi Don for lunch and an afternoon of enjoying the beaches there.

Phi Phi Don is actually two islands joined by a narrow isthmus separating the two gorgeous beaches of Ao Ton Sai and Ao Lo Dalam. This is where the boats dock and also where the tsunami wreaked the most havoc.

After an afternoon of enjoying the beaches and walking around the town a little, it was time to re-board the ferry (fortunately via a dock this time) and head back to Ao Nang. The ferry was once again packed to the gills with tourists returning from stays on Phi Phi Don and all of their luggage so it was close quarters on the way back.

It didn’t matter though, I had a wonderful day and even a sweaty, crowded ferry ride couldn’t spoil it.

I made it back to the hotel in time for sunset (after a quick shower) and then headed back outside the resort for dinner and one last massage. A marvelous two days in Krabi. I would love to come back sometime and see more of the outer islands. There are a million of them in the area, each allegedly more beautiful than the last.

Next up, Vietnam!