Sunday, November 11, 2007


This is an article I wrote about Ao Toh Koh Resort on the laid back east coast of Phi Phi for an Australian newspaper travel section after my August 07 visit.

Picture yourself swinging in a hammock under a tree at the back of a secluded beach so blindingly white it hurts the eye. Your $20 bungalow is a few steps away on the hillside and a nice coral reef with colourful clown-fish right out of Finding Nemo 30 meters off the sand. Folks, I’ve got just the place for you.
We are taking about Ao Toh Koh on the less visited east coast of Thailand’s most spectacular island, Ko Phi Phi.

Picture yourself swinging in a hammock under a tree --this guy's been coming to PP since the 80's. Dude can blow that old surfers' refrain - "You should have been here yesterday" - right out of the water.
With budget flights from Jetstar, Tiger and soon Air Asia from Australia into Phuket, this area of the Andaman Sea is becoming increasingly popular for Aussie holiday makers. Most stay in Phuket itself which is a pretty nice island with everything from Surfers Paradise type areas to way more relaxed beaches, but the more informed visitors are heading out to nearby locations like Krabi, Khao Lak and Ko Phi Phi. All are visually more spectacular than Phuket and have a good selection of very comfortable mid-range and high end accommodation. Prices are good value, particularly in low season where less than $50 will get you an excellent room in a lovely hotel, including brekka.
But hey, why not be even more intrepid and try one of the budget travellers’ destinations for which Thailand is famous? Pick the right one and you end up in locations the midrange travellers and package people can only dream of.
This is what I was keen to show Lady Tezza on her first visit to Thailand. After 5 days in a very comfortable air-conditioned bungalow on Phi Phi Don’s Long Beach, I loaded her into one of the local long-tail taxi boats for the short trip around to the sparsely settled east coast. As Toh Koh Beach Resort came into view, we could see it is the only outfit on its small beach, with bungalows of various shapes and sizes built beachside, on the steep hillside behind or perched over the seaside rocks to the south. Thick rainforest surrounds the resort.
Hillside cheapy, backed by rainforest

Owner Pon rushed down the beach and ushered us into the open sided beachfront restaurant for a welcome drink.
Pon is famous in the budget-travel community for her hospitality. She truly treats guests like family. Nothing is too much trouble and she is a fine hand in the kitchen. This provides a wide range of tasty Thai and western dishes at the same budget prices as the low-cost restaurants in town, not bad for a place with a complete monopoly. To give and idea, Thai curries with a side-dish of steamed rice come in at less than $4, a huge plate of mixed sliced fruit around $2, and a large bottle of supercharged Chang beer (6.4% alcohol) less than $3.

Then to our bungalow. I was tempted to take one of the basic backpacker style $11 jobs out on the southern rocks - these have bamboo thatched walls, just enough room inside for a double bed and two people’s luggage, a tiny attached bathroom, and a sensational wooden balcony overhanging the seaside rocks with the water sloshing underneath at high tide. But The Lady likes her comfort and I figured this may be just a slight bit too down-market from our previous digs.
So I opted for the biggest bungalow, a huge sturdy place front row on the lower hillside just behind the beach with sensational views across to neighbouring islands and the mainland. I knew The Lady would love lying in the one of the big comfy queen-size beds each morning watching the sun rise over towering Mount Pu on the island of Ko Jum 20km to the east. This $28 bungalow was huge, clean and beachside, but we are not talking luxury here. No aircon, just an efficient and quiet fan. No hot water, although with a minimum 24 hour temp of 25 degrees this is not really needed. Electricity runs 6pm to 6am only. Oh yes, and there was a periodic clang as over-ripe fruit dropped from the overhanging trees onto the metal roof. This is a wet season-only thing and did not seem to worry The Lady, a sensitive sleeper. Not so the awesome 4am thunderstorm first night, which machine-gunned the roof with a billion hydro-bullets. Pretty fantastic light-show though.

Chez Tezza at Toh Koh Resort
On reflection, the bungalows size was overkill. Neighbour Per from Sweden later invited us across to his balcony for a drink - his $18 bungalow was a two thirds sized version of ours with room to spare for two people. I later noticed some similar bungalows fitted out with two double beds, great for price-conscious families.

Ao Toh Koh is the perfect place to relax. There is not a lot to do besides grab some sun, snorkel out to the reef drop-off to check the Nemos, cruise around on one of the hire-kayaks, swing in the aforesaid hammocks or sit on your bungalow veranda and check the passing parade of fishing boats, ferries and daytrip long-tails.
Lady T checks the scene on the beach: "Hey Tezza, maybe you could interrupt that CPR demonstration with the Danish swimsuit model and jog over to Ton Sai, buy me a rolling pin. Or a baseball bat."

image ASL

Pon can arrange these excursions if you feel like checking some of the locations for which Phi Phi is famous. On the neighbouring sister island of Phi Phi Ley, 100% national park, you can visit Maya Bay, famous as the location for that stinker of a movie, “The Beach“. Okay, the movie was less than whelming, but Maya Bay, carved into the elevated limestone karst uplands which make up most of both Phi Phi islands, is certainly spectacular, with soaring cliffs, a drop-dead gorgeous beach and some pretty good snorkelling in the bay itself. A tip, start early to beat the day-trippers from Phuket - it can get crowded after 1100.
The birds-nesting Viking Cave caves on the other side of Phi Phi Ley is an added attraction.
Two other daytrip destinations, much closer to Ao Toh Koh are the deserted tropical islets, Bamboo and Mosquito, which also have gorgeous beaches and good snorkelling .
..There is not a lot to do at At Toh Koh. Surfing mecca it aint...

The Lost Patrol, looking for surf. They should have been here yesterday.

images ASL

Just kidding. The day Thailand gests surf like this will be the day antelopes learn algebra.

Maybe you are into trekking. If so, there is a similar beach, Ao Rantee, with 3 budget bungalow operations only 5 minutes rock-hopping further north, and a bigger and very lovely deserted beach, Loh Modee, 10 minutes south. More of a challenge is the hike up to the highland viewpoints and for the really keen, right across to town. The first 25 minutes is steep to moderate climbing through thick rainforest up the eastern side of the island. This is followed by 20 minutes of relatively flat bush-walking on the elevated plateau. As the track starts its steep drop down towards the village you come to the famous Town Viewpoint with a fabulous outlook over the narrow Ton Sai-Loh Dalum isthmus and its twin beaches, backdropped by precipitous limestone cliffs higher than your vantage point. Another 15 minutes of steep downhill gets you into Ton Sai village itself.
Alternatively, if you turn right at a signposted cross track about half way across the plateau section and head uphill towards the communications towers you will come to an upper viewpoint at the highest point of the island. There are 360 degree views here - Phuket to the north-west, the spectacular limestone karsts of Krabi on the mainland to the north-east and the sizeable mountainous island of Ko Lanta to the south-east. Plus a dozen other islands, including of course Phi Phi Ley, close-by directly south. An enterprising local has built a little restaurant with a nice viewing deck here - the perfect place for a nice cool drink after the uphill climb.
The town area at Ton Sai has pretty much recovered from the tsunami and is a maze of narrow lanes with dozens of shops, restaurants, travel agents, money-changers, dive-shops and bars. The nightlife here can be quite hectic, but getting back to Toh Koh at 3am would not be particularly easy. Sure, a long tail taxi will take you - but at five times the cost of Pon’s daytime boat into town.
All is not lost in high season however because Ko Toh Resort has its own funky bar operating. This is perched on the rocks amidst the backpackers’ budget huts and so is not a noise hazard to the main part of the resort. I have trekked over from Long Beach in previous Phi Phi visits for some bar time and things can become quite lively.
However low season sees the bar shut and the handful of guests are content to sit in the restaurant after dinner with a drink or two, sharing travelling stories and watching the fairyland of bright lights out in the deep channel as dozens of commercial squid boats attract their catch.

Beachside restaurant. How can anyone overexpose one side of a digital photo? Maybe too much Chang in said restaurant.

So what did The Lady think of her step down-market? This was maybe best illustrated when Ari from Canada asked where she will visit next Thailand trip. The spectacular Krabi landscape looks enticing, she opined. Maybe less time in Phuket. And definitely a few days back here at Ao Toh Koh.

Maybe too much Chang in said restaurant means photographer waits until least attractive low tide shot.

Jetstar has regular return fares to Phuket below $900 taxes paid. The big Phuket-Phi Phi ferries cost about $28 return including mini-bus transfers from your Phuket accommodation. There are no real roads on Phi Phi, no cars and few motorcycles. Most transport is by long-tail boat. The Ton Sai long-tail taxi mafia will charge over $15 to take you around to Ao Toh Koh from the pier, but if you ring Pon she will send her long tail around for less than $4 per person.
The bungalow prices I have quoted are low season - in high season expect to pay 20 or 30% more. Low season is wet season, but in 3 wet season trips I have found conditions much the same as January on the Gold Coast. Pack the sun cream.
For the nervous, the Thai tsunami early warning system is up and running. The sheltered east coast suffered relatively minor damage in 2004 - restricted to the restaurant and lowest bungalow at Pon’s. Nobody was hurt.
You will have no problem getting a bungalow walk-in low season, but Pon’s is pretty popular high season (Nov-March) so it might be a good idea to book ahead.
Phone 081-6789609, 081-5379528, email

Budget rockside backpackers' bungalows.
Normal Chez Tezza standard in Thailand.
Maybe a tad tiny for The Lady.

Okay, now fer the big sulk. The bastards didn't print it. Okay, it probably wasn't good enough, although I've had two other stories run previously. Both are on this blog - Nusa Lembongan and Whitsunday Islands Budget Sailing.
Thing is, most of the travel stories run these days in Aussie papers have at the bottom:
"The writer was a guest of Planet Holidays, Kiki Kiki Resort and Qantas" or similar - in other words an advertorial. Newspapers get paid by the travel industry to run the story rather than pay beer money to me and a living to more professional writers.
End rant.

UPDATE FEB 09 - The above visit was in August 07 and things can change in 18 months. Recent reports coming from Ao Toh Koh have been polarising - some praising but some suggesting standards have declined. Maybe you should check sites like travelfish for the latest feedback .
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