Paradise reborn
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Paradise reborn

Sustainable tourism practices have made Koh Phi Phi a model for eco-friendly travel

Paradise reborn
Maya Bay is famed for its pristine beach and turquoise waters.

Though the rainy season has officially started in some parts of the country, it appeared we were in luck when rain clouds drifted off Phuket. The Sun was shining and the sky was clear when we arrived at Visit Panwa Pier, where a fleet of speedboats and catamarans were cruising the water to pick up passengers.

The tour operator Love Andaman offers a check-in area with breakfast and beverages and a team of passionate guides give a safety briefing. Reaching Phi Phi Leh by speedboat takes around 45 minutes, and the main pier is now located in Loh Sama Bay, accommodating a maximum of 4,100 tourists per day.

To preserve coral reefs, a top-quality plastic-based pier, bridge and 500m-long walkway have been made to enable traffic flow to Maya Bay. This is the outcome of changes in tourism management following many years of overtourism.

Focusing on one-day trips to Koh Phai, Koh Phi Phi Don and Maya Bay, tour operators are required to use the QueQ application to register e-tickets in advance and visitors are allowed to stay on the island for an hour. Peering out of our boat, I spotted a fleet of speedboats jostling for position as well as a swarm of people on a bridge.

I was unable to see any difference in the volume of visitors compared to my previous visit in 2018, which was the same year when Hat Noppharat Thara–Mu Ko Phi Phi National Park temporary closed Maya Bay to restore its ecosystem and cut the number of tourists to 2,000 per day.

The national park decided to permanently close the front of the bay after learning tourist boats scooped sand from the beaches and dropped it over the reefs as they entered and left. They also destroyed the coral reefs by anchoring underwater.

Though wave after wave of visitors still pour onto the island, they are aware to avoid the ground and instead wander down a maze of twisting wooden trails. There are trash bins for sorting rubbish, and there is a large dining area for light meals and snacks.

To keep the crowd in order, everyone has to take off their shoes before heading to the shore. Despite the fact that swimming in the ocean is prohibited, visitors are free to stroll along the 400m stretch of crystal sand beach and take dips in knee-deep turquoise water as though they're in the 2000 Hollywood blockbuster The Beach.

Following a three-year closure during Covid-19, the bay became a tranquil haven for marine life and early morning arrivals have the opportunity to witness a large school of blacktip reef sharks hunting for food. The bay is closed between August and September, while the monsoon season lasts from late May to mid-October.

"I've noticed an increase in independent Chinese travellers who prefer to reserve boat trips through Chinese travel platforms. Chinese tour companies have returned with their own fleet of tourist boats. The top five itineraries include one-day trips to Phi Phi, Koh Mai Thon, Koh Phai, the Similans, Phang Nga Bay and Koh Hong in Krabi," said Torphong Wongsathienchai, a founder of Love Andaman.

"A two-month shutdown of Maya Bay won't help anything in my opinion, travellers just relocate to other beaches. Like in Australia, Indonesia and the Philippines, I believe authorities should regulate the amount of tourist boats and restrict the number of tourists to certain diving spots. To protect the environment, we can lower visitor numbers and raise entry fees. The authorities should also establish rigorous standards for controlling tour companies."

Loh Sama Bay currently serves as the main pier to transport visitors to Maya Bay.

The 2018 closure of Maya Bay was one phase in the Phi Phi Set To Change Project. Initiated in 2016, Hat Noppharat Thara–Mu Ko Phi Phi National Park has worked with experienced marine ecologists, Thon Thamrongnawasawat and Thaithaworn Lirdwitayaprasit, and private sectors to transform Phi Phi into a model of sustainable tourism.

Closing Koh Yung and designating it as a Strict Nature Reserve Zone was one of the most significant steps taken to save coral reefs and halt bleaching in the Andaman Sea. Using reef propagation techniques, the experienced team controlled the number of boats and tourists in Koh Phai and Loh Ba Gao Bay in order to preserve and restore the marine ecosystem.

When it was time to leave the bay, we got to the boat and cruised through Pileh Lagoon where tourists can enjoy snorkelling and viewing coral reefs. As we floated in front of Viking Cave, we noticed islanders gathering bird nests and ancient murals of elephants and schooners on limestone walls.

After a quick five-minute cruise, we made a pit stop at Koh Phi Phi Don where we refuelled with dishes like khao man som tam (rice cooked with coconut milk and served with spicy papaya salad and grilled salmon) and khao pad tom yum talay (fried rice with seafood) that go well with blended mango or watermelon juice.

As the largest of the Phi Phi islands, Koh Phi Phi Don is home to fishing villages, boutique resorts, budget hotels and restaurants, making it a popular holiday destination where vacationers can spend the night and get a taste of local culture.

Set against a backdrop of emerald waters, the banks of Ton Sai beach is a lively walking street with hundreds of shops offering a wide range of vibrant beachwear, diving trip packages, handmade souvenirs and local food.

Pileh Lagoon is a popular snorkelling spot.

It took us 40 minutes from Phi Phi Don to reach our final stop at Koh Mai Thon. My travel companions had a fun ride down a huge slide, snorkelled to see coral and fish, and showed off their paddle-boarding skills, but I chose to stay dry and enjoy light meals served on board.

Back on land, we checked in at the Centara Grand Beach Resort Phuket, which spans 41 rai on Karon beach. Surrounded with a greenish tropical jungle, this pink luxury hotel boasts classic Sino-Portuguese architectural design, an extensive water park with slides and 262 spacious rooms, suites and villas, varying in sizes from 49m² to 209m².

Focusing on sustainable living and environmental conservation, it has an organic garden where customers, chefs and therapists can come and collect herbs and vegetables such as basil, lemongrass, aloe vera, sweet basil and pandanus leaves for cooking classes and spa treatments.

At the same time, 80% of wastewater is reused, more than 1,000 solar cells are equipped to generate 572kW of green energy, and a biogas machine produces organic fuel and fertiliser.

The Scholar of Sustenance Foundation receives food waste from the buffet and distributes it to the underprivileged. There are also daily beach cleaning activities to remove potentially harmful litter and plastic from the shore.

I stayed two nights in a 49m² Deluxe Spa room that seemed like a retro weekend mansion. Convenient and comfortable, it has a king-size bed, a flat-screen TV with satellite channels, and a jacuzzi bathtub on a separate balcony with views of the sea and swimming pool.

The following morning, we went to explore Phuket Old Town which is flanked on all sides by a collection of classic colonial-style buildings. Soi Romanee is still my favourite thanks to a wealth of beautifully decorated cafes, teahouses and fashion boutiques in vibrant shades.

Koh Mai Thon is a great spot for water activities like stand-up paddleboarding and snorkelling.

We continued our sightseeing tour to Wat Phra Thong, which is situated in Thalang district. Built in 1785, it houses a highly revered 200-year-old gold statue of Luang Pho Thong, whose half body protrudes from the earth and was covered with metal during the reign of King Rama I to prevent it from damage by the Burmese army.

According to legend, this gold Buddha statue was made by a Shanghai ruler and while being brought to Tibet, it sank to the bottom of the sea close to the town of Phangnga. Worshipping Luang Pho Thong is believed to bring prosperity and success to locals.

Our trip came to a conclusion at Baan Ar Jor as we travelled back in time to the late 19th and early 20th centuries when Phuket served as a major global centre for tin mining. Constructed in 1936 by Luang Anuphas Phuketkarn, this three-storey colonial Sino-style mansion underwent a massive makeover in 2016 and was turned into a living museum in 2019 by the fourth generation of the Hongyok family.

There are eight rooms adorned with antique furniture, old photographs, vintage electric appliances, musical instruments, jewellery and clothes that reflect charming Chinese traditions and everyday life. On the 1st floor, the welcoming area sports a painting of a flowering peony branch as a symbol of happiness, and the family room is a gathering spot to play games.

On the 2nd floor, there are five bedrooms for parents, children and babysitters. Visitors can also learn about Chinese wedding customs and the way of wealthy couples through a collection of intricate bridal costumes and priceless ceremonial items.

"This weekend residence was built in a simple style that looks like a flying bat, signifying abundance. It functioned as a stopover between our mines in Phuket and Phangnga," said Orasa Tosawang, who works at Thai Beverage and is responsible for designing a new look for Baan Ar Jor.

"We preferred utilising Western-style products because we would travel by boat to Penang or Singapore for one night. Compared to taking three days to get to Bangkok, this way was faster and more convenient."

Viking Cave, where islanders gather bird nests.

Travel info


  • Maya Bay is open daily from 7am to 5pm. Admission is 20 baht and 40 baht for Thais, and 200 baht and 400 baht for foreigners. For more details, call 075-661-145 or visit
  • Until Oct 31, KTC World Travel Service offers a range of three-day Phuket tour packages that includes a Bangkok Airways return flight between Bangkok and Phuket, accommodation and breakfast at Centara Grand Beach Resort Phuket, a day trip to either Koh Phi Phi-Koh Mai Thon or Koh Phi Phi-Koh Phai. Prices start at 23,990 baht and 25,590 baht per couple. For more details, call 02-123-5050 or contact Line @Ktcworld.
  • Baan Ar Jor is at 102, Thalang district, Phuket. Admission is 100 baht for Thais and 200 baht for foreigners. All proceeds will go to the Baan Arjor Foundation, which will be used to renovate Baan Mai Khao School. For more details, call 062-459-8889 or visit

Koh Phi Phi Don.

Phuket Old Town.

Centara Grand Beach Resort Phuket focuses on sustainability and environmental conservation.

Wat Phra Thong, built in 1785.

The Hongyok family's classic weekend residence is now a living museum of Chinese culture.

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