What kind of fantasy does the mention of Phuket or Phi Phi Island or Maya Bay conjure up for any traveler visiting Thailand? It brings on the glorious image of white, sandy beaches; palm trees and a coast so aqua that it would make springâ€™s clear blue skies appear cloudy in comparison. Hundreds of thousands of visitors fly out to Thailand each year in search of that idyllic setting and the fact that it is somewhat affordable (compared to Europe) amplifies its attraction. Phuket is a must-go vacation, at least once in the lifetime.
The island hop, however, should come with a fair share of warning. We were a group of six, visiting Phuket during the recent Eid break, and while it was my first trip to the island, my friends were regulars. And they were hesitant to island hop as they had done it before. I was advised to take a ferry straight to Phi Phi and back in the evening but having heard so much about the island hop, I was adamant to check mark the experience.
We bought our tickets (at 1400 Baht per head) at a tourism kiosk on Bangla Road. Donâ€™t ask what we were doing on Bangla Road; it was also a trip that needed to be struck off the â€˜things to do in Phuketâ€™ list. So with â€˜lady boysâ€™ flaunting their merchandise around us, we booked our trip. It was a steal, we thought, since the hotel was charging almost 2800 Baht for the same tour. The brochure clearly outlined our itinerary for the day, which began with pick-up at 7:30, a drive to the pier and then several island stops including Maya Bay, the Loh Samah Bay, Viking Cave, Monkey Beach, lunch at Phi Phi Don and then Khai Island before heading back.
Starting out: An hour-long, winding drive took us to the pier where a hospitality booth offered free beverages to everyone waiting. Free coffee and ice tea? You can imagine how people chugged. Little did they realize that they would be charged 20 Baht for each trip to the bathroom; this was marketing and money-making at its best.
At around 9:30am our speedboat loaded around 25-30 passengers, a driver, conductor and tour guide called Toy, who turned out to be quite a character. The ride to our first stop, Maya Bay, was almost an hour long and while we struggled to keep our fluids down on the choppy waters, we were up for a bigger surprise when we were ten minutes away from the famous bay. Mr Toy informed us that we couldnâ€™t get off the boat since Maya Bay wasnâ€™t included in the program we had purchased; weâ€™d have to cough up an extra 400 Baht each or stay on the boat for the 50 minute stop. Smart. He couldâ€™ve informed us when we at the pier but he chose to wait till the very end, when we were feeling nauseous enough to have to disembark. So we paid, even though our brochure clearly marked Maya Bay as a destination on our route.
And hereâ€™s what we paid an extra 400 Baht for. A stretch of sand bludgeoned with over 1000 tourists of all shapes, sizes and ages. The water was the most mesmerizing shade of blue but with speedboats constantly mowing in and out of the Bay, there was hardly any space to swim, let alone allow the grandeur of the place to sink in. Maya Bay has been made famous by Leonardo DiCaprioâ€™s The Beach but we tend to forget that it was completely isolated in the film, not crawling with tourists.
The island hop continued. We stopped at the infamous Monkey Island, which really does look like something from Life of Pi. Up next, snorkeling was the one truly amazing experience. The gear â€“ surprise, surprise â€“ was free though the flippers could be rented for 100 Baht each before starting out. You didnâ€™t have to but a brief warning was given against the possible brush with sea urchins and the video looked painful enough to scare everyone into investing in a pair.
Though all locales around Phuket â€“ all those heavenly islands surrounded by aqua waters â€“ are idyllic, itâ€™s exhausting to have to hop on and off them all day. Eventually you even forget which is which. Our day had begun at 7:30 and six hours into the excursions we were ready to collapse. Another very quick stop for lunch (on the house and quite decent) was followed by the final stop, which was everything one could have wished for but unfortunately there wasnâ€™t enough time to savour that either. My friendâ€™s advice â€“ to go straight to Phi Phi rung in my mind â€“ and I wished we had listened.
It was just all extremely slap-dash; we were literally hopping from island to island and it was dissatisfactory and exhausting. This gorgeous place deserved to be absorbed at leisure, not hurried through. Our guide kept warning that heâ€™d leave us behind if we were late for departure and we learnt that tourists were actually left behind and then a search party sent out to all islands before sunset, bringing stranded souls back for an extremely premium price. With tourism as Phuketâ€™s main source of revenue, locals make sure they milk every opportunity they possibly can.
At the end of the day, with blue waters on our mind and a swaying motion that just wouldnâ€™t stop, we returned to our hotel, happy to have ticked off the island hop from the list but relieved to be back on solid ground and the comfort of Karon Beach.
What you need to know about the island hops
1Â Look for the official site and book online (this trip should cost between 1500-2000 Baht per person). Bookings made at the hotel will cost a premium and bookings made at Bangla Road kiosks are unreliable.
2Â Be prepared for motion sickness, especially if you arenâ€™t used to the sea. The waters can get rough and combined with the speed of the boat can make you feel like foamy waves crashing against a cliff. People with motion sickness should medicate well in advance.
3Â Rethink this adventure if youâ€™re unfit because getting on and off the boat can be tricky, especially as it keeps bobbing and the steps up are mid-water not ground level.
4Â Carry tons of sunblock and dress as beach-appropriate as possible. Donâ€™t worry about shoes because they will be taken from you at the pier, at the very beginning of this tour.
5Â Cold water and fresh fruit is served on the boat and a fancy lunch is served on one of the islands but you may want to keep candy and gum on hand, especially if it helps with the nausea.