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Maudie Jul 17th, 2009 03:12 AM

Phi Phi Paradise and a John Gray Kayak trip from Patong
June 26 to July 9 2009
10 Nights Holiday Inn Phi Phi Island, 2 nights Merlin Beach Resort, Phuket including a John Gray Starlight Hong Adventure.

Background: 2 couples in our mid 50’s who have been friends and travelling companions for 21 years. Fourth trip to Thailand so this time was just for rest and relaxation and to escape winter for a short time. We wanted a small resort, no high rise and out of the hustle and bustle, after considering 3 or 4 other places we were convinced Holiday Inn Phi Phi was the place for us after reading Leightravelclub’s glowing reports. We had been to Phi Phi Island 12 years ago for a day trip from Phuket.

We flew Singapore Airlines, Perth to Singapore then Silkair to Phuket, as usual we had no complaints with either carrier. Transferred to the Harbour for a 3 hour wait until the ferry left, we had some ideas that JamesA had given us to pass the time but in the end we just couldn’t be bothered moving. I guess we were adjusting to the heat and we had flown out at 1am so we were happy to sit and pass the time by reading and just people watching. Some young guys at one of the booths were eating a bag of Rambutans and must have seen me drooling, they beckoned me over and gave me a handful, then another when they saw how quickly I knocked them off. Thai people are so friendly.

We finally boarded the ferry to Phi Phi only to sit there for another 45 mins, we decided it would leave in Thai time, when they were good and ready. Were given stickers to wear to show which resort we were staying at. The ferry was fairly musty inside so we spent most of the trip out on deck. As we pulled into Tonsai (main tourist area on Phi Phi) we were amazed by how much it had grown since we were last there, considering the Tsunami had caused so much damage. Most of the passengers got off here, a lot were backpackers and we had the impression this town was “party central”. The next stop we lost a few more then we were herded to the back of the boat to see a flotilla of longtail boats bobbing around. The staff called out “Holiday Inn” and we were carefully transferred onto our longtail for the short trip into shore. First impression: WOW!

A landing platform was wheeled out to meet us (we christened it the Royal Barge) which we just stepped onto and down the ramp to the beach. Several staff members were waiting to greet us and we were whisked into the reception area and given a cold refreshing towel and a fruit drink. Passports handed over and within minutes we had signed the necessary forms as the graceful and softly spoken young lady sat down and explained all there was to know about the resort. Then it was off to our bungalows, this whole process took 10 mins maximum.

The bungalows numbered 100’s are seafront, 200’s sea view (basically looking out between the 100’s, 300’s garden view and 400’s which were raised up behind the garden view. We were quoted a fairly hefty price for the seafront so decided to just opt for the garden view and be happy with whatever we got. We had numbers 301 and 302, just around the corner from the reception area, bar and watersports and overlooking a nice park like garden area, we couldn’t have been happier. Each bungalow has a wooden slatted mat and an urn that was filled with water from a dripping bamboo pipe that you washed your feet in, great idea. Up two steps and onto a wooden deck that has a sort of wooden sun lounge on one side, there wasn’t a mattress or anything to put on it so it would have been fairly hard to lay comfortably on it. It became our bar area of an evening, very useful. Also 2 deck chairs and a towel rail.

Inside was an open room with a desk, king size bed (the hardest bed I have ever slept on, think concrete block and you get my meaning - I am now on anti-inflammatory drugs to fix my back – I kid you not), single bed and a two seater cane settee. Through an open doorway is a small dressing room with a wardrobe containing bathrobes, safe, umbrella on one side, dressing table, mirror, hairdryer, kettle with tea and coffee and the bathroom on the other side. The flooring is wooden parquetry so no problems coming in with wet feet but they really could have done with some sort of matt by the door, we used a beach towel most days. The rooms are not 5 star, they are basic, comfortable enough and very clean. Oh and no TV but a radio/CD player.

We quickly threw off our travelling clothes and changed in to casual wear just in time for happy hour at the bar, then it was up to the sunset bar for another cocktail or two before exhaustion took its toll. We just didn’t have the energy left to find anything for dinner so we had room service and shared Pad Thai and a club sandwich. The shower had plenty of hot water and was easy to use. Now a quick word about the bath towels, we had read a lot on TA about the state of the towels, well it’s all true! They are old, hard and scratchy, certainly not white, some are quite thin and fraying but always very clean. The hard bed (and I guess this is just personal preference) and the poor quality of the towels were the ONLY things that we thought they could improve on. I think they need to find money in their budget to replace the towels though, they really are sub-standard.

We had pre paid for breakfasts and were more than happy sitting in the casual restaurant area with our feet in the sand, the sea washing up on shore and interacting with the very pleasant, happy staff. We asked for green tea the first morning but they didn’t have any, the next morning they make a great show of putting out our cups and producing Pickwicks green tea, this then went on every morning without us having to ask and always done with a big smile. We also asked one morning if there were any bananas and next morning, yes there were bananas. We made friends with the delightful young waiter, Bao, and had many conversations with him, each learning about our cultures. In fact all the staff are wonderful and friendly, we were always greeted and talked to, wished a happy day. One day my DH was unwell and wasn’t up to breakfast but Bao insisted we make him up a tray which he delivered to our room, much to DH’s surprise. We all had a big laugh when Bao came back as he had realised that hubby wasn’t moving too far from the bathroom, we had tried to explain that he had the s**ts.

The beach is very clean with white sand and crystal clear water that is safe for swimming. Snorkelling is very easy to do right off the beach in front of the hotel. There are kayaks, snorkelling gear etc that are free of charge. Several large shade trees with deck chairs and hammocks doted along the beachfront. The tide comes and goes so at low tide it is really easy to snorkel. One afternoon when the tide was very low some of the staff, including the girls from reception in their Thai outfits, raked and tidied the beach area. They all seem to take great pride in their workplace. Another day a group of the guys were learning how swim and rescue people, they were having a great time with much laughter from everyone.

Apart from breakfast we only ate one evening meal at the hotel, pizza and salad, that was only for DH’s benefit as we didn’t want to inflict a curry on him. We become firm regulars at Jasmin Restaurant, just along the beach in the Sea Gypsy Village. The food was freshly cooked and just simply wonderful. The beer was icy cold and the fresh fruit juice to die for, mango or pineapple put in the blender with lots of ice, yum. We even had them mixing the two together which was the best. We all love Thai food so it wasn’t really a problem to eat there every night and some light lunches as well, I think we tried most things on the menu. Our hubbies thought it was great that they could walk down the beach in bare feet, shorts and t-shirts, sit right on the beach and have dinner. There are only candles used on the tables which made it even more relaxing.

We got to know the young lads that were serving quite well, they were very eager to talk to us as they were both trying to learn conversational English. We were treated like family every time we went there, we always had lots of laughs as they tried to get used to our Aussie humour. John’s Aunty started the restaurant some years ago, he is from Kanchanaburi and has come to Phi Phi to work while he studies. Dong was delightful, he is studying hospitality and is keen to improve his English. He has even written out new menus with some new dishes and asked us to read them, he was very proud to show us his work. There were lots of hugs when we left, I hope we can go back and see them again if they are still there.

Several times we hired longtail boats from the Sea Gypsies to go snorkelling at Hin Klang reef, Bamboo Island and Mosquito Island, we just asked at the restaurant and it was organised. They told us what time would be best to leave and even supplied snorkelling equipment. We just turned up at the appointed time the following day and off we went, we enjoyed being with the older men from the village as they seemed more laid back and easy going. Most days we were out for around 3 hours and we paid around 1200 Baht. One day we did a trip to Phi Phi Lae for sightseeing and some snorkelling at Loh-Samah Bay and paid 1500 Baht for a good 4 hours. We organised a picnic lunch from Jasmin one day to have on the beach at Mosquito Island but it rained and we didn’t get a chance to do it again. Basically they are happy to do whatever you want, just ask. When you walk past the village which is right on the beachfront next to the Holiday Inn the men would ask if you wanted a boat for the following day, if you said yes they would organise something with you or if you said no thanks we already have one they would just smile and say ok hope you have a good day.

There is a couple of small shops at the village selling beer, soft drink, water, nuts chips etc, no bartering just pay the price, its all very laid back. There is no other shopping, you can go into Tonsai if you wish, by boat or ferry. We really enjoyed watching the villagers go about their daily tasks along with the Holiday Inn staff, it felt like we were part of their community for the short time we were there. It was a nice feeling.

When we didn’t go out in the boats we pretty much spent our days relaxing, 10 days flew by. When the only things you have to think about all day are: what shall I eat for breakfast, which book will I read, will I lay in a deck chair or a hammock, which cocktail will I order and what do I feel like for dinner? Then you know you are on holidays! Most days started with a swim or walk, then breakfast before spending the day on the beach swimming, reading etc. We would then head to the bar for cocktail hour another swim then back to our deck, wait for an ice bucket to get delivered and enjoy a couple of Gin and Tonics. Usually another swim before showering and changing for dinner. We loved the casualness, we wore swimsuits all day long, covering up with shorts or a sarong for breakfast. In the evenings we wore shorts or capri pants and light cotton tops, the guys just shorts and t-shirts. We took clothes that never left the suitcase.

So in a nutshell if you want nightlife and to be kept busy all day then this isn’t the place for you. If you want a relaxing holiday to chill out and forget about the outside world for a while then this might be your little patch of paradise – it certainly was for us.

We left Phi Phi by the afternoon ferry then transferred to a larger ferry at Tonsai, I think it took us around 3 hours all up to get to Phuket. We had a driver waiting to take us to the Merlin Beach Resort on Tri Trang beach, again we were amazed by the development at Patong as we drove through but had no desire what so ever to launch ourselves into the fray.

Our only reason for going to Patong was to join a John Gray Starlight Hong tour that we had booked online. The Merlin was very nice but after the quiet laidback 10 days on Phi Phi we found this hotel too big and sprawling and just so many people. In hindsight we should have done this part of our holiday first then gone to Phi Phi. We went into the cocktail bar to have a quiet drink but there was a band playing and we couldn’t hear ourselves talk. I know some people enjoy this but I think we are getting more choosey as we get older! We know what we like and what we don’t.

We were expecting a message from the people at John Gray to let us know what time they would be picking us up in the morning as we had provided them with our hotel details as requested but there was nothing waiting for us. A tiny doubt crept into our minds, what if we had done our money? We had paid in full back in February as requested. Two emails sent to them in the week before we left didn’t get a response. Well surely there would be a message in the morning.

We had room service this night as most of the food looked too heavy and just too much food. We had a nice breakfast with a huge choice then made our way to reception to check for THE message, still nothing so we approached the guest services desk and asked the young lady if she would call and check for us. We had the paperwork and payment details but the staff at John Gray didn’t seem to know about us. Well you know that feeling in the pit of your stomach, it just got worse. We very carefully read out the payment details and receipt number and miraculously they found us and said we would be picked up at 10.50am. We are quite sure they didn’t have us on the books but nothing was said and we were picked up at the appointed time and delivered to the jetty at Ao Por Pier.

We were welcomed aboard John Gray’s boat along with roughly 25 other people and were immediately offered cold drinks. The trip into the bay area took roughly an hour, during this time we were given instructions by the head guide. He was very informative with an easy going manner. Every couple were given a waterproof bag for cameras and belongings then we were paired off with a guide who came and introduced himself and learnt our names. We were served a tasty light lunch of spring rolls, flat noodles with vegetables, salad, fruit and the never ending supply of cold drinks that we could help ourselves to at any time. They also took note of anyone that had special meal requirements for the evening meal.

When we reached the first hong we were directed to the back of the boat where all the guides were waiting in the water in yellow inflatable kayaks. As each guide approached the boat he would call out the names of his couple and we were helped into the kayak. I think we struck it lucky as our guide, Ibi, seemed to be one of the senior guides and was very knowledgeable; he has been with John Gray’s team for 8 years. As the guides paddled from the back, men in the middle and women in the front with a torch we headed into a very small looking opening in the side of the hong. Entering and leaving a hong all depends on the tide levels so you really wouldn’t what to be doing this on your own. We were asked to lie down and had to make ourselves at flat as we could. The opening was getting smaller and smaller and was pitch black apart from the light of the torch. DH and I were the 2nd kayak to go through, I just couldn’t see how we were going to fit. You have to think of the hard boiled egg getting into down the neck of the bottle experiment that we did at school, with might give you some idea. Ibi slowly let air out of different sections of the kayak and we had to wriggle to manoeuvre around the cave wall, seeing as I was in front it was a bit scary I can tell you. The cave roof was only about 6 inches from my nose! We think it was about 5 minutes of wriggling and deflating the kayak but it felt like forever, then all of a sudden we popped through into a bigger section and could see light at the end. We didn’t feel as though we were in any danger and Ibi kept talking and reassuring us the whole time but what an experience!

In simple terms a hong is like an island with a hole in the middle that is open to the sky, so you can imagine when we glided out it was just breathtaking. It was best to just lie back and enjoy the sights and sounds. Sheer cliffs covered in all manner of green plants, ferns, bamboo, palms, trees etc, the blue blue sky above you, birds and cicada’s singing, the stunning colour of the water, mangroves with mud skippers in their roots, well it was just magical. The guides paddled around pointing out different things and giving us plenty of photo opportunities. We were speechless and really that is the best way to be, quiet and just let nature do her thing. We were able to spend quite a bit of time in the hong but as we headed to the cave opening I was thinking “oh no here we go again” but the tide had dropped so much we just went straight through in a matter of seconds. Bliss.

When we rejoined the boat and caught up with our friends we were asking them about their experience in getting through the cave, they didn’t know what we were talking about as they were one of the last to go in so had just paddled straight through – what an experience they missed. We were in off season but just can’t imagine what it must be like in the hongs in summer when they fill up with all the different tour operators – you just wouldn’t get the same enjoyment.

We then travelled onto another hong which was much easier to get into though it is called the Batcave, for obvious reasons we had to keep our mouths shut as we went through. Again it was stunning as we paddled quietly around the twists and turns with Ibi showing us all the wonderful sights. I think our guide realised we enjoy nature by our questions and held back until the hong was completely empty, he just slowly paddled us around as we lay back savouring the peace and quiet watching the birds overhead. He was looking for a monkey that sometimes shows itself but unfortunately we didn’t see it.

As we headed to the next spot one of the guides was throwing out bits of chicken to the beautiful brown Kites flying around, it was great watching them dive for the scraps. The next hong was one that John Gray had discovered some years ago and had a BIG opening so no laying down for this one. Once inside we found a karst that looks just like James Bond Island only smaller. Once we finished exploring we had an hour free time, we could use the kayaks and paddle ourselves or swim off the boat. We have hard shell kayaks with backrests and rudders at home but we found these blow up ones too hard to paddle without the back support and all we did was go round in circles so we gave up and enjoyed a swim. The men decided to have a “bombie” competition from the top deck of the boat which involved lots of laughter and cheering. Even though some of the folk on board couldn’t speak English we all mingled and nodded and smiled.

After drying off we joined our guides to make a Kratong which would later be floated in a hong at sunset. Each Kratong was decorated differently but basically it was a price of banana tree truck cut into a thick disc, then we had to fold pieces of banana leaf into elaborated shapes which were pinned on then we added orchids, flowers, candles and incense sticks. After this we were served a wonderful Thai meal: Tom Yam Goong soup (yum), 2 types of baked whole fish, chicken masaman curry, tempura prawns, tempura vegetables, sweet and sour vegetables, organic brown steamed rice, chicken and cashews. There was plenty of food and it was just superb. All cooked fresh by a lovely lady down in the galley.

After dinner we waited for the sun to set then boarded our kayaks again and entered our last hong. Ibi lit the candles and incense and we launched our kratong, both making a secret wish. It was lovely to be in the hong at night with all the lit kratongs floating around and extra special for one couple on their honeymoon. This hong was also special as in the darkness we could see bio-luminescence when we disturbed the water. Back to the boat, kayaks loaded and we headed back to the pier. During this time one of the young guides entertained us with magic tricks which had everyone involved and again plenty of laughter. It made a happy ending to a wonderful day out. We thought the $160AUD per person well spent and it was a great way to end our holiday in Thailand and to put up with 2 nights in the Patong area.

The next morning we had another nice breakfast and a swim before packing and checking out for our flight from Phuket to Singapore, we only had 1 hour to make our connection to Perth but Changi is so user-friendly we had no problems at all.
We arrived home just after midnight to rain and thunderstorms – we just wanted to turn around and go back! We are already planning next year’s trip – it’s always nice to plan the next one on the plane home don’t you think?

I hope some of this information is useful, thanks for reading.

LeighTravelClub Jul 17th, 2009 12:20 PM

So glad you enjoyed H.I. Phi Phi.
Your trip report is enjoyed Laem Tong Bay. Your descriptions take me back, with crystal clarity to what we too consider....'A Little Piece of Paradise'.
Jasmins...The Sunset Bar...Bamboo Island...etc.etc.

Just Paradise!!

Maudie Jul 17th, 2009 04:47 PM

Thanks so much for your kind words Leigh and for letting us in on the secret of Laem Tong Bay. It was so much better than we ever imagined and we can't wait to go back.

We had better not praise it too highly though or everyone will want to go to Paradise.

Maudie Jul 17th, 2009 08:57 PM

Leigh, if you come back. A question if I may: do you use the ferry as transport to Phi Phi or is there another secret you can share? Speedboat seems awfully expensive, we might try looking into alternate means.


MaryW Jul 17th, 2009 11:56 PM

Hi Maudie,

Sounds like you had a great relaxing time. I know just how you feel with the hard beds - last year in Lao I ended up with a bad back from them too. Other times its been okay but must be getting old. This year I went prepared with a small overlay to break the pain! I guess we should just have stayed somewhere else but we liked the place and I have yet to find a bed in Lao that is anything other than a plank.

Glad you got the John Gray trip - its quite good isn't it.

We're back this week to - to lots of rain and cold!

Maudie Jul 18th, 2009 12:33 AM

Hi Mary,
So glad you can relate to the beds! Great minds think alike - I had the some thought about taking an overlay with me next time, can't let a dodgy bed ruin a perfect holiday. Did the overlay work out ok then?

And yeah getting older doesn't help but the guys thought the beds were fine, but us two girls didn't. We are blaming our womanly shape, damn those curvaceous hips!

It was bucketing down with thunder and lightening when we landed, what a welcome home after all that sun. I shall look forward to your trip report.

LeighTravelClub Jul 18th, 2009 01:38 AM

Hi Maudie, we always use speedboat transfer these days. From Phuket arrival hall to the ''Royal Barge'', takes under 90 minutes. 45 mins car, 45 mins speedboat. It's expensive, I know, but we feel it's worth it. Sorry, no secret tips for that.
My wife also has a little moan about the beds, thogh I don't find them too bad.
As for '' womanly shape, damn those curvaceous hips!''......I say God Bless these contours !!

Maudie Jul 18th, 2009 01:51 AM

Hi again Leigh, yes speedboat transfer seems like best idea, the ferry seemed like a slow boat to China and 90 minutes sounds so much better. Do you have any one in particular that you use so I can bookmark it for next time? Oh I am so glad to hear that I am not the only one moaning about the beds - see it is those blessed contours!!

sealstep Jul 18th, 2009 04:40 PM

Thanks for this report, some good info on the John Gray piece especially. Sounds like you had a really relaxing, wonderful time!

Maudie Jul 19th, 2009 12:57 AM

Thank you sealstep, yes we did.

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