Diving Koh Phi Phi and Koh Lanta

by Elizabeth

Aside from chilling out, the primary purpose of our visits to Koh Phi Phi and Koh Lanta was to fit in a few scuba dives.  It had been over three years since we last went diving !  I guess we were too busy hiking on our last couple vacations to fit in any time under the water 😉  Getting in a few refresher dives when we finally got to Thailand took on new importance this last September when we finalized plans with my parents to meet them in January for a nine-day live aboard scuba trip to Raja Ampat in Indonesia.  We didn’t want to be fumbling around or hogging air on our first couple dives!

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Getting ready to head out with Phi Phi Diving.  Photo credit to Bill and his drone at Phi Phi Diving.

*A quick note on the photos included in this post.  We do not own underwater camera equipment and therefore leave the photography on dive days to others.  All photos in this post were taken by Bill at Phi Phi Diving when we dove Bida Nok and Malong-Maya.

After settling in on Koh Phi Phi we went out to find a dive operator to dive with the next day.  I’d read good online reviews about Phi Phi Diving that specifically noted that they were the first boat out in the morning.  That’s the best compliment in my opinion, since reviews of dive shops in areas like Koh Phi Phi are filled with excited five star reviews from newbie divers that aren’t really informative to more experienced divers.  We stopped by their shop (which was one of the few without a dive master hawking their trips), and learned that because they are such a small operation we would have to wait an extra day to go diving with them.

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Getting ready to jump in.

Still wanting to get in a couple dives the next day, we signed up for a two-tank dive trip with Island Divers.  Our decision was largely based on their shop’s proximity to our hotel since there is a cartel agreement amongst the dive shops on Koh Phi Phi setting prices to avoid price competition (antitrust bells ringing…).  Interestingly enough, Phi Phi Diving actually charges more than the set price (extra fee to leave early?).

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The folks at Island Divers were nice enough, but the half-hour difference in “start” times between them and Phi Phi Diving turned out to be much longer than 30 minutes.  After much waiting and organizing, when we finally arrived at our first dive site (Bida Nok) the next morning there were already at least a dozen dive boats at the site 😦  We ended up completely avoiding the cove at Bida Nok because it was already filled with groups of newbie divers doing their certification.

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The Bida Nok cove (I think…).

Our two dives were nice, with Bida Nok having more pristine coral formations than the second site (Palaya).  We saw huge schools of yellow snapper — swimming into the school was fun but disorienting because everything became much darker and I couldn’t see a few feet in front of me to figure out if I was about to swim into a bunch of coral.

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Other sightings included a turtle, butterfly fish, moray eels, pufferfish, a porcupine fish, yellow box fish, and some cool nudibranch.

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Michael stares intently at turtle.

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Nudibranch are the celebrities of macro diving 😉

Overall, we had a couple pleasant dives with Island Divers and were luckily paired with a couple other experienced divers.  Their dive masters were fun to talk with, but ultimately we were unimpressed with their operation.  We were super slow getting out of the dock and our dive master (while nice) was fairly unexperienced in the area (she’d only been there two weeks).  I got the impression that the dive shop focuses much more of their attention on selling PADI courses than trying to attract experienced divers.

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Puffer fish.  I love these guys.

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I’m also sort of obsessed with these guys — yellow box fish.  With their short little fins they really aren’t built for swimming.

The next day we joined up with Phi Phi Diving.  The operation there runs so smoothly — in stark contrast to our slow start the day before — and there were still dive boats showing up at our first dive site as we were getting out after a 74 minute dive.  The French dive masters (they are all French) have a lot of experience with the Koh Phi Phi dive sites, which shows.  Of course, their constant need to compare themselves to the other dives boats was a bit over the top, but they weren’t necessarily wrong to be proud of running a solid operation.

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My favorite photo that Bill took.  I swear that clownfish purposefully pose for these photos.

We dove with Bill, who was really into his photography and making sure that he had plenty of pictures of us (too many in my opinion, but oh well).  We again dove Bida Nok as our first dive, since this is supposed to be the best dive site near Koh Phi Phi.  Since we were the first boat, we started with some time in the cove and were treated with sightings of a few black tipped reef sharks.

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Shark!

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More black tipped reef sharks!  These guys were sure to disappear as soon as the rest of the dive boats showed up.

Between the two dives (Bida Nok and Malong-Maya) we again saw large schools of yellow snapper, a couple turtles, lobster (yum!), grouper, puffer fish, moral eels, and a large peacock manta shrimp.

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It took me awhile to realize that this little guy was missing a front fin.  He seemed to be getting along pretty well without it!

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Peacock manta shrimp peeking out of his hole in the sand.  These little guys can throw a punch so lightening fast that they can break your finger with a hit!

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Another shot of the peacock manta shrimp.

After two days of diving, and hearing that we’d already been to the best local dive site, we opted to conserve our diving dollars and move on to Koh Lanta.  While scuba diving prices on Koh Lanta are higher overall than on Koh Phi Phi, it is easier (and therefore cheaper) to access the dive sites at Hin Muang and Hin Daeng from Koh Lanta.  We’d been told that both sites were excellent and not to be missed.  They are also more “advanced” sites in that they are deeper and can have strong currents, whereas our diving off Koh Phi Phi never went deeper than 60 feet/18 meters and was nice and easy.

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On Koh Lanta, we opted to dive with Blue Planet Divers due to a combination of their good online reviews, use of a catamaran to get to the sites (reducing overall trip time by a couple hours over slow boats), relatively inexpensive price for a three-tank boat dive (they include a third dive at Koh Haa, which not all operators offer), and date availability.  They ran a solid operation with a relatively quick start in the morning and close attention to our dive profile, especially on the third dive, to avoid decompression sickness.

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Christmas tree worms.  I love trying to touch these guys before they quickly retract into their holes.

Koh Lanta may be closer to the Hin Muang and Hin Daeng sites than Koh Phi Phi is, but it’s still a long boat trip.  Even with a fast catamaran, it took about 90 minutes over somewhat rough waves to get to Hin Muang.  I was feeling super queasy by the time we arrived, although luckily I started to feel better immediately upon descending.  It was immediately clear that the site was superior to Bida Nok.  The visibility was great, the soft corals were amazing, and there was tons of fish life — lots of parrotfish, angelfish, clown fish, giant moray eels, puffer fish, and lots of little wrasse that attacked my mask and bit at my ear!

Hin Daeng, located within throwing distance of Hin Muang, was similarly impressive.  Lots of stripped barracuda and oriental sweet lips in addition to lots more of the same fish and beautiful soft corals that we saw at Hin Muang.  One notable difference is that the soft corals at Hin Daeng (translates to “red rock”) are red and those at Hin Muang (translates to “purple rock”) are purple.  Both were awesome dive sites and were worth the bumpy boat ride (and both of us puking between dives #1 and #2 from sea sickness)!  Luckily, the current wasn’t too bad for either dive even though it was a full moon.

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Lovely red and purple soft corals.

We stopped by one of the dive sites at Koh Haa on our way back to Koh Lanta.  The site had relatively less visibility than Hin Muang and Hin Daeng and was probably more on par with Bida Nok for corals and animal life.  We saw a white eyed moral eel, a couple scorpion fish, large table corals, a couple crabs, and lots of blue ringed angelfish.

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Awesome scorpion fish hiding out on the corals.

I was glad to have had a chance to see the Koh Haa site, since I’d heard it was good and I had contemplated a separate trip to the site another day, but ultimately we decided that it wasn’t worth another expensive day of diving to see again.

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Posing for photos underwater is hard when you can’t smile…

With an additional seven dives under our belts, we decided that we’d sufficiently brushed up our diving skills and would be ready to do some serious diving in January.  Although diving in Thailand is relatively cheap (starting at about $70 per person, including gear, for a two-tank dive at Koh Phi Phi), it is a budget buster for us on this trip.  For any divers interested in diving in Thailand, I’d advise that the sites that we visited were nice, but I wouldn’t necessarily plan a trip around visiting them (although if you’re in the area, they are worth it).  I hear that live-aboard dive boats in the Similans might be the way to go.

This blog post describes our scuba diving experience off Koh Phi Phi and Koh Lanta in December 2016.  As noted above, all photos in this post were taken by Bill at Phi Phi Diving when we dove Bida Nok and Malong-Maya.

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