The perfect trip: Thailand’s islands
There’s certainly something otherworldly about Phi-Phi’s improbably jagged geography. The second-largest island, Ko Phi-Phi Leh, is even more dramatic than its sister island. Ringed by coal-black cliffs and massive towers of rock, it’s home to one of Thailand’s most celebrated beaches – the glittering arc of Ao Maya, made famous by Danny Boyle’s big-screen version of Alex Garland’s 1996 novel The Beach. Once a closely guarded secret known only to a chosen few, the bay is now busy with snorkellers and day-trippers almost as soon as the sun comes up.
Phi-Phi’s best-known beaches may be firmly on the tourist radar, but seclusion is never more than a boat ride away. By longtail boat, it is still possible to uncover quiet spots where the crowds rarely venture – from the magnificent lagoon of Pilah to the remote atolls of Ko Mai Phai and Ko Yung, where the teal-blue waters teem with lionfish, leopard sharks and hawksbill turtles.
‘I love the simplicity of life here,’ Top says. ‘You can feel your worries melting away. I’ve been to many different islands, but for me this is the only one that feels like home.’ He looks out along thepowdery curve of Hat Laem Thong bay, as the evening sun melts into a sea the colour of butterscotch and torches flicker under the palms.
Several boats run direct every day from Phuket to Ko Phi- Phi, the journey taking around two-and-a-half hours.
Where to eat
Nearly all the resorts have their own restaurants, but for more local island flavour, head for Jasmine Restaurant on Hat Laem Thong. It has a lively beach-shack vibe and does spicy Thai standards such as pad Thai and green papaya salad to a tee. It’s also a great place to rub shoulders with the locals (mains from £6; 00 66 862 770 959).
Where to stay
Zeavola Resort is the most luxurious place to stay on Ko Phi-Phi, bar none. The wooden lodges are decked out in lavish style – glossy teak floors, floor-to-ceiling windows, handmade island furniture. Each has its own wooden deck overlooking either the neatly tended gardens or the sands of Hat Laem Thong (from £165).
Ko Lanta: Best for cuisine
‘If you want to understand Thailand, you need to understand how we cook,’ exclaims Bim Kanmanee as she begins a lesson at the Time for Lime Cooking School on Ko Lanta. It’s early evening and a breeze drifts in from Hat Khlong Dao beach. Nearby, punters sip cold beers and lemongrass margaritas in the school’s beach bar, illuminated by paper lanterns swinging gently in the wind.
Bim turns her attention to her worktop, stacked high with bird’s eye chillies, bulbs of galangal, bunches of sweet basil and kaffir limes. Picking up a cleaver that looks too big for her slender frame, she chops and blends the ingredients into a paste and spicy aromas soon fill the air. As each student takes a taste, their faces light up with grins. ‘You see?’ laughs Bim. ‘That’s the real taste of Thailand. You’ll never buy that in a jar.’
Established 10 years ago by Norwegian expat Junie Kovacs, Time for Lime was the first cookery school to be founded on Ko Lanta. Students come from far and wide to discover the secrets of the region’s cuisine, and it makes an ideal place to learn: seafood bars line the main beaches, and the streets of Ban Sala Dan and Ko Lanta’s old town are lined with shacks selling staples such as pad Thai (stir-fried noodles), tom yum (hot and sour soup) and gaeng pah (spicy jungle curry). Every day, fishermen auction fresh hauls of lobster, barracuda, king mackerel and langoustine on the island’s quaysides, haggling with customers among the pandemonium of crab pots and fishing nets.