Diving the Phi Phi Islands, Thailand

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Top on my list of things to do while in Krabi–other than lounge on a gorgeous beach with David and drink mai tais–was to dive the Phi Phi Islands (amusingly pronounced “pee pee”). The Phi Phi Islands consistently get top marks as a world class dive site. All dive shops I’d found going to the islands were in Ao Nang, and that was a 20 to 30-minute ride from our hotel, Tup Kaek Sunset Beach Resort. I’d made some inquiries prior to leaving the U.S., but was frustrated by their requirement that we come into Ao Nang at least a day before to “show our dive cards, sign forms and try on equipment.” This sounded ridiculous to me and I had no desire to take time away from a coveted beach day traipsing into a town I’d deliberately avoided and back…Not to mention the pointless expense added insult to injury.

I tried emailing the resort to see if they worked with any dive shops that would pick up at the resort, but got no response to either my emails or my attempts to message them on their Facebook page until they miraculously responded to the FB message nearly 6 weeks later. Oh well, better late than never. They informed me they could book a 2-tank dive trip to the Phi Phi Islands, including pick-up at the hotel and we wouldn’t need to go in ahead of time.

Sure enough, when we got to the resort and asked, they could book us the dive trip we wanted with Local Diving and they’d pick us up. The price was exactly the same as with the dive shops I’d found previously which did not include pick-up, i.e., 3500 baht ($100) per person, including equipment, lunch and the 2-hour boat ride from Ao Nang.

We had time for a quick breakfast before our ride arrived at 7am on our second morning at Tup Kaek. Our Local Diving “limo” was quite a sight: a battered red “SUV”/station wagon sort of vehicle with a red leather interior and red leather facing seats in the far back. The driver’s seat was broken so that it leaned a good 6″ back from the level of the front passenger seat (and into my knees). Hand cranks rolled down the windows…except on David’s side where the crank had broken off. Hmm. A questionable start, but the vehicle seemed to drive OK.

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The “limo” in front of Local Diving
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Driver’s seat “reclining” into me
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Rear seating

In twenty minutes, we were in Ao Nang. We made a quick stop to pick up a Norwegian sheep farmer, Per, who would be the only other diver to join our group. A few minutes later, we arrived at the Local Diving shop. Small and not impressive, they quickly produced qood-quality wetsuits and fins for us to try on. No one cared about seeing our dive cards; they just had us sign statements that we had them. So much for that other dive company wanting us to come a day early to present cards and try on gear!

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Local Diving in Ao Nang

Our guide then led us on foot across the parking lot and through a park to where a fleet of long tail boats were docked. We waded out to one, full of other divers, that tendered us to a larger, two-story dive boat anchored just off shore.

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It turns out that Local Diving and several other dive shops share large boats so that there were 3 or 4 groups of divers on our boat. Everyone did basically the same dive, shared the same fruit snacks, the same lunch, same everything. There were several of these larger boats operating in the area and this is apparently the same system for dives at the Local Islands as well as at the Phi Phi Islands. I seriously doubt whether it makes much difference which operation you pick so long as the equipment is good and the dive master attentive and knowledgable. (Big items, I understand; I just mean that the basic set-up will probably be identical so–once you verify reviews re safety and quality of equipment–it makes sense to choose by price.)

The trip to the Phi Phi Islands from Ao Nang takes 2 hours, but that’s only because the boats go incredibly slowly. We kept waiting for our boat to kick it into gear, but it never happened. Our dive mate, Per, said he loved the boat ride, but we were a little impatient going out and bored going back. It’s beautiful, but I could have enjoyed the beauty in an hour rather than two…and been back on our gorgeous Tup Kaek beach.

A dive master on board was pushing seasick pills claiming some “magical” properties to Andaman waters that induce seasickness. The water was very calm and we ignored his advice with absolutely no ill effects. If we could survive 3 hours crossing the Sea of Japan just above a typhoon without feeling sick, the Andaman held no threat at all for us.

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Relaxing on the upper deck of our dive boat

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We reached Hin Klai, just east of the Phi Phis, for our first dive right at 2 hours out of Ao Nang. A preliminary check of my gear revealed a damaged octopus so our guide quickly changed out the whole first stage and attachments. The new first stage set-up was in good condition, but surprisingly we had no depth gauge. We made our first descent into a curving school of silver and yellow fish that numbered in the thousands if not tens of thousands. Breathtaking! The sheer numbers of tropical fish were the most remarkable thing about this reef. We saw squid, lionfish (which we’re very familiar with as an invasive pest in the Caribbean), mantis shrimp (like small lobster with “wings” instead of claws…and very, very powerful front “legs”) and more, but it was the huge schools that really blew me away. They let me swim into their midst, so thick I could barely see out of the cloud of shimmering bodies. I felt like a kid playing among them, reaching with my hands to have the nearest dart just out of reach. We ventured off the reef into some pretty barren terrain where our guide later explained he was looking for black fin sharks. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any although Per told us he’d seen a lot of them on an earlier dive to a nearby reef. Next time!

After our first dive, we had a 50-minute break during which we moved to our next dive location, Koh Bida Nok, just south of Phi Phi Ley. We anchored near one of the under-cut rock islands that give the Andaman Sea its exotic and unique appearance. Upon descent, we found ourselves on another beautiful reef. More large schools of fish swirled around us and we also came upon cuttlefish, a large barracuda, a turtle and more lionfish. As at Hin Klai, we saw lots of clownfish tucked in among sea anemone as if they’d been pulled straight from “Finding Nemo.” I half-expected to see the large schools of fish form themselves into shapes and talk to us!

The only real negative to the actual diving part of this trip is that there are just too many other divers around. The Phi Phis draw multiple dive boats to each of their reefs and we frequently ran into other groups of divers below, both from our boat and from others. Newbies are particularly bad about stirring up the bottom and visibility suffered in places.

Lunch was set out in the galley of our boat after the second dive and people served themselves then sat wherever to enjoy the Massaman curry and vegetarian noodle main dish with plenty of steamed rice. More fruit supplied dessert. Then, we settled in for the puttering 2-hour ride back…except it was closer to 2.5 hours on the return trip. It’s hard to believe that’s all the engine power the boat could muster, but apparently so. Again, it was beautiful, but too long for David and me.

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Our dive master–and pretty much everyone else–crashed out on the long ride back to Ao Nang

Then, it was back on a loud, exhaust-spewing long tail boat for the tender back to shore and the walk to the Local Diving shop and our red leather chariot.

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On the long tail tender

 

Local Diving did a professional job (even though they didn’t check dive cards) and I’d dive with them again. I’m super glad we dove the beautiful Phi Phi reefs, but I’d have loved a faster boat. You can find out more about Local Diving at: http://www.localdivingkrabi.com.

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