What to do with a day in Phuket – a question that arose the moment we saw our cruise schedule. A wide range of choices competes for a traveler’s attention in Phuket. There are beautiful beaches, easily accessible across the entire island. Excellent shopping abounds, from the best department stores in Thailand, to quirky handicraft stores in Old Town Phuket. Jim Thompson has several stores in Phuket, with their legendary luxury goods in silk and linen, for women and men. There’s even an outlet mall! But none of those options met the one overriding criteria: What can one do in Phuket that can’t be done anyplace else? For that, there were only two options: to visit one of the legendary nearby islands, to the northeast in Phang Nga Bay, or either of the two Phi Phi Islands to the south. Phang Nga Bay, with islands of vertical shafts of limestone, is an attractive destination. But for beaches and snorkeling, no choice matches Phi Phi.
Now, how to get there? The best choice was to charter a speedboat that operated as we wished. That lingered in a new discovery as long as we wanted, instead of adhering to a rigid schedule. With only a few passengers versus a boat load. We chose Giles Howle and Offspray Leisure, chiefly on their excellent ratings on Trip Advisor. Giles proved easy to deal with in the complex world of e-mails from a world away. We agreed on a price of 39,500 THB ($1110 USD), which covered the boat, the guide, park entrance fee, and ground transportation to and from our ship. The boat held 17, but we took 10. The $110 price was under what the ship wanted for their tour of Phang Nga. So we paid less for a limo than others did for a charter bus!
Our minivan from the ship to the marina was quick and efficient. Soon we were on the water, on our way to Phi Phi. Snorkeling in Maya Bay at Phi Phi Lei, the southern, smaller of the two islands was the first stop. The beach there served as the set for Leonardo DiCaprio’s movie from 2000, The Beach, and has made it a “must stop”, with large resultant crowds. Our crew recommended anchoring off to enjoy the wonderful sea life, and that proved to be the right choice. Sergeant fish abounded, along with other sea life. Small sea caves were there for easy exploration with the help of our cheerful British guide, Tony. But there was a need for a little beach time. The answer was around the island at Pileh lagoon, and a small secluded beach just inside the lagoon’s opening to the sea. It is a favorite spot for the Offspray charters, for good reason. The crew laid out mats on the beach for us to enjoy our box lunches and drinks brought from the ship. More swimming in the azure water followed lunch until we were ready to depart.
Now headed to the larger island, Phi Phi Don, we slowed as we passed Viking Cave on Phi Phi Lei’s northeast shore. The cave is the home of prehistoric paintings, but is better known today for the harvest of bird nest’s for the delicacy, bird’s nest soup. The birds live in the caves, and their nests are gathered from bamboo scaffolding precariously attached to the rock face, and only feet above the water.
Quickly crossing the open water between the two islands, we arrived at Phi Phi Don’s famous Monkey Beach. The beach there is beautiful, and a destination in its own right, with powdery sand and snorkeling to rival Maya Bay. But the real attraction are the dozens of monkeys that live on the beach. Despite the signs lining the beach asking tourists to not feed them, it goes on any way, in a weird transaction between the tourists and the wildlife. Both sides know their role, and the currency is bananas. Watching the monkeys is fascinating. The males rule the beach, with the biggest intimidating other males back into the foliage, while they strut the beach. The females are in complete submission to the males, and will sit obediently while the males groom them. They don’t move, even when the male leaves to chase off other interloping males. Sort of a “Fifty Shades of Monkey” vibe. After enjoying the beach, the monkeys, and the snorkeling, we needed to head back to Phuket.
The forty-five-minute return trip went by quickly and smoothly. The declining sun in the west forecast a beautiful sunset that would soon occur. After loading the minivan, we returned to the pier and were back on the ship as the sun dipped below the horizon. A beautiful and fitting end to a picture-perfect day in the unmatched waters of Phi Phi Islands.