By Cedric Arnold
Apr 15, 2021
THAILAND’S MOST FAMOUS ISLAND, Phuket, forms the western border of Phang Nga Bay, the stuff that countless Southeast Asian bucket lists are made of. Its iconic islands—believed to have been a continuous mountain range perhaps as much as 136 million years ago—are nothing short of breathtaking when experienced from above.
The photos here are from an ecological survey I joined: coral reefs and spectacular shades of emerald and turquoise slowly came into view as we approached each island. It was a truly unforgettable experience to float above such beauty. They were dream-like scenes that had me ignore any vertigo, even while strapped into a harness and leaning out of an open helicopter door.
Thailand’s borders closing due to the pandemic has had obviously detrimental repercussions for the tourism industry. But the silver lining is that nature has been able to begin healing. The last time Phang Nga Bay and its stunning marine parks went completely quiet and got a rest from the hordes of day-trippers was after the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004. There was a brief push towards mass-scale sustainable tourism back then, but it was short-lived; most of the islands saw very heavy traffic until early 2020, when Thailand shut its doors. The question now, as in many places: how to kick-start tourism again post-pandemic, while also protecting this unique natural heritage?
Known for its distinctive chicken-shaped rock formation, dramatic landscape and a long white-sand beach, Chicken Island, or Koh Kai, is the ideal spot to take your time and properly explore. As one of the less crowded islands, it has a pristine, peaceful beach perfect for a nice, long stroll, which is even better at low tide. The change in tide allows visitors to make use of a land bridge and walk across to Tup Island, a beautiful little islet at the back. It also helps that there’s very good snorkeling almost all the way around the island. Off-season, however, the currents in this area are known for being quite unpredictable and dangerous, so it’s best to do some careful planning before heading out.
Poda Island is one of the closest to Krabi, just eight kilometers from Ao Nang beach and one of the only small islands within Phang Nga Bay to have (basic bungalow) accommodation. The shoe-shaped island with its towering limestone cliffs, gorgeous beach, crystal-clear waters and large coral reef make it a very popular destination. It had at one point also become a hotspot for cliff diving and jumping, but local marine park authorities perhaps wisely cracked down on that.
But even if you can’t do your own climbing and leaping, you’ll probably encounter so-called crab-eating macaques on Poda. Despite their name, they are more likely to snatch a bag with food in it while you’re under the waves snorkeling than actually chase free-range crabs on the beach! So do mind the monkeys.
Halfway between the Krabi coast and the Phi Phi Islands, Koh Pai (Bamboo Island) is almost completely surrounded by a vast coral reef that in places stretches more than 400 meters out to sea. The reef is known as a perfect place to spot leopard sharks, sea turtles, lionfish and many other rare underwater wonders. While there’s plenty to see both on land and under water, you won’t actually find any bamboo on the little heart-shaped island—its name is the result of a linguistic mix-up.
Ko Phi Phi Le and Maya Bay
Koh Phi Phi Le’s Maya Bay (of The Beach fame) had already been closed for coral propagation since (2018) to repair the damage from mass tourism on its fragile reef. It is due to reopen shortly.
The first time I traveled to Thailand was in 2000, the year of the film’s release. Though I did not make it to the Phi Phi Islands on that trip, I did see plenty of backpackers reading the Alex Garland book from which the movie was adapted on pretty much every beach I did visit. I eventually got to the island and its iconic bay three years later with a group of friends. We got lucky with both the weather and the lack of tourists that day, and we certainly didn’t need the help of a book to feel like we’d been transported to another world.
To eventually see it from above felt even more surreal as we circled around the island, its stunning colors and rock formations. It’s easy to understand why Danny Boyle chose it as the set for the movie.