Over the past several years, Ko Phi Phi (pronounced pee pee) has grown from a peaceful little Muslim fishing-village to one of the busiest international tourist destinations in the country. Until the tsunami of December, 2004 it boasted of at least 10 diving centers, several expensive international hotels, and a variety of cheaper bungalows and guest houses (approximately 4,000 beds). The main island suffered considerable land damage due to the waves which rolled through, but they are rebuilding parts of the island, and luckily none of the dive sites suffered much damage.
Still, literally hundreds of people visit it daily, and next season it will turn into thousands again. Located about 45 kilometers east of Phuket, the Phi Phi Island group-precisely part of Krabi province-is composed of the islands Ko Phi Phi Don, Ko Phi Phi Lae (Phi Phi of the sea), Ko Yung (Mosquito Island), and Ko Mai Pai (Bamboo Island). Although the scuba diving is generally not considered to be at the world-class level-depending on your definition-Ko Phi Phi offers the keen diver a wide range of diving possibilities and occasionally some absolutely fantastic diving. It is a delightful place to spend a few days relaxing on its exquisite beaches, exploring its numerous coves and bays, climbing its steep vertical peaks, and enjoying some colorful and enticing scuba diving.
What sets Ko Phi Phi apart from other dive destinations in Thailand is two features: The first is the amazing limestone cliffs rising dramatically out of the sea and plunging equally dramatically straight down underwater. The second is the remarkable variety of dive sites that are concentrated in such a small area.
Nature has created the limestone rock formations and islands which are Ko Phi Phi that have become known the world over as one of the most stunning settings in Southeast Asia. These cliffs soar over 500 meters in some areas and beautiful green trees and bushes grow on the tops and sides of these cliffs. Swimming in a protected little cove at the base of one of these steep cliffs conjures up visions of an unearthly paradise, and no matter how popular Ko Phi Phi becomes the stunning scenery will always create the feeling that no one has been here before you.
Underwater, these towers shape a rugged, interesting environment for scuba divers, and over time the elements have created caves, overhangs, and swim-throughs in this soft rock. Some caves penetrate the rock as much as 100 meters or more which make for exciting dives-if they are well planned and carried out under the supervision of a professional diver.
Other types of environments include vertical walls that plunge from the surface to over 25 meters. On these walls grow a profusion of soft corals, large orange-colored fans, black coral and long stringy sea whips. Several types of unusual coral trees grow in the waters surrounding Ko Phi Phi, including a white coral bush that looks like a frocked Christmas tree-covered with ornament-like growth in the form of oysters and colorful crinoids.
In many places, the islands are fringed with hard-coral gardens, home to a wide assortment of resplendent tropical creatures. Most of the coral is healthy, although in the more popular shallow areas coral damage has occurred due to unscrupulous boat operators dropping anchor. However, in most areas coral growth and fish life is plentiful and most, but not all of the same fish species that live in the Similans can be found around Ko Phi Phi as well.
One of the most popular dive sites in the group is located at the Southern tip of the tiny island of Ko Bida Nok. The dive normally begins in a shallow bay on the Eastern side of the islet. Upon descending to about 10 meters of water, you'll find vast healthy growths of stag horn and star corals and incredible numbers of anemones and anemone fish. In fact this is one of the best places in Thailand to observe the rare and uncommonly aggressive little saddle anemone fish (Amphiprion ephippium). Observe carefully as they will make a harmless attempt to bite the unwary diver. Because of their aggressiveness, these fish are easier to photograph than their more common cousins the clown fish (Amphiprion percula) since they are constantly trying to bite your camera.
Continuing south on your dive, you'll reach a vertical wall that is exhilarating to sail over and continue your decent headfirst. You'll reach sand at about 22 meters, but there is a gorgeous little bommie off the wall, ending at almost 27 meters, that is usually covered with thousands of glass fish, large sea fans, and pink and purple soft corals. Swimming West along the wall, the terrain becomes less vertical and schools of blue-striped snappers (Lutjanus Kasmira) seek safety in numbers along the rocky bottom. Octopuses are repeatedly found here if you look carefully in the numerous nooks and crannies, and large green moray eels are almost surely spotted. Towards the end of the dive, you'll find a small cavern in the rock that makes a sharp right-turn just past the entrance. This cavern is a great place to spend a few minutes of your safety stop since the light filtering through holes close to the surface creates lovely patterns on the sandy bottom. Just be sure to leave the shallow cavern with at least 30 bar in you tank to avoid a messy out-of-air situation.
One of the least known-and one of the best dive sites in the group-is located just North of Phi Phi Don near Laem Thong (Golden Point) off a breathtaking island called Ko Yung (Mosquito Island). Although popular with snorkellers, most dive centers do not dive here due to the distance from Ton Sai Bay where most of the dive companies are located. Although there are several dive sites around the Ko Yung, the most fascinating is an underwater pinnacle near the northeast point. Hin Jom (sunken rock) begins about two meters below the surface and continues down to over 27 meters, making it one of the deeper dives on the island. Leopard sharks and sting rays are common here, and the schools of fish that feed around the rock are more abundant than at any other diving site in Phi Phi. Also, cobia fish-which are very similar in appearance to a shark-are sighted on many of the dives.
The most unusual aspect of the pinnacle is the presence of a unique type of sea fan that has black branches and pure-white polyps. These trees grow to over two meters in height and appear similar to frocked Christmas trees. Adding a few ornaments in the form of feather stars and oysters makes the holiday scene complete.
Other than that, it is one of the best sites on the island for pelagic and other schooling fish. Jacks, barracuda, and fusiliers swirl around the rock. As most divers know, it is difficult to match the underwater excitement of schooling pelagic fish.
The most common type of transportation available in Ko Phi Phi remains the versatile long-tail boat. For hire practically everywhere, these taxis will take you-for a modest fee-to any of the scenic areas around the islands. Many dive operators use these boats for diving trips and they are quite comfortable to dive from if you listed carefully to the pre-dive briefing. If nothing else, it is a cultural experience to spend the day watching your Thai captain (who usually does not speak much English, nor does he normally know how to swim) ply the waters of Ko Phi Phi expertly manhandling his long-tail boat.
Ko Phi Phi is one of the most dramatically beautiful islands in the world and the diving ranks among the best in Southeast Asia. Although visibility is often limited, averaging 5-20 meters, the amount of marine life under the calm waters of Ko Phi Phi should keep all but the most seasoned diver entertained for a number of days. The agreeable diving, along with beautiful beaches, fun exploratory cruises, and an easygoing way of life, will continue to make Ko Phi Phi one of Thailand's most popular destinations for years to come.
John Williams has written, co-authored, or contributed to four diving guides on Thailand, the Mergui Archipelago, and the Andaman Islands. These are the award-winning Lonely Planet Diving & Snorkeling series, Periplus Editions Diving Southeast Asia, Asian Diver Scuba Guides and Singapore's Times Edition Diving Thailand. He has lived in Phuket and dived in Thailand's waters since 1987.