A small island about 25 kilometers off the Andaman coast in Southern Thailand, Koh Phi Phi is one of the most beautiful places in the world, with calm blue waters and lush forested hills on either side. South of Phuket, west of Krabi, and north of Koh Lanta, the only to reach this little slice of paradise is by ferry.
We arrive to Phi Phi on the 4th of July. It's a choppy hour and a half boat ride from Koh Lanta, but nothing we can’t handle after our previous boat adventures. Throughout our visit, thunderstorms roll in daily as strong winds bring nearly horizontal rains, threatening to take down the surrounding trees.
On the morning we're set to leave, we wake up to the wind and rain in full force. Trying not to panic, we check online weather reports which are of no help. Each predicts storms and 20 mile per hour winds all day. Debating whether to catch the 9am or 2pm ferry, we look at the hourly forecast for clues. Finally we decide to head to the pier for the early ferry (maybe naively) assuming that, like Maui, the wind is stronger in the afternoon.
On the way to town, our decision is rewarded as the wind dies down and the rain completely stops. By the time we board the 400 passenger Andaman Wave Master, we feel confident that the two hour ferry ride ahead of us will be uneventful.
That feeling changes very quickly. With the upper levels of the boat already full, we find a seat on the lowest level (“steerage”) with small porthole windows at the water’s surface. As we move out of the protected bay and into the open ocean, the ferry starts to rock back and forth. Before we know it, the boat is colliding with 10 foot waves, water smashing against the tiny windows. Passengers begin screaming as the boat violently bobs from side to side and waves crash over the bow. Within five minutes, this has become the scariest boat ride either of us have ever taken.
Sea sickness aside, we work on an exit plan. If the waves get any bigger and something goes wrong we’re not going to be trapped in the bottom of the boat. Unfortunately, a quick Google search earlier that morning has provided some disturbing background on ferries in and around Phuket. In fact, just two years ago a massive storm capsized a very similar ferry and destroyed dozens of other boats. In 2014, another ferry from Phi Phi to Phuket caught on fire, forcing the Thai Navy to save hundreds of passengers from the ocean.
Mixed feelings about having done our research, we make our way to the center section near the back of the ferry, grasping on to the railings so as not to fall on the passengers beside us before climbing up the slippery stairs. As we reach the second level, we find that the suitcases and backpacks which were previously stacked in corners are now toppling to the ground. Taking turns sitting on a lone empty seat and nearby suitcase on the floor we hold on as the boat catches air and smashes into the ocean. It’s not long until people begin to throw up. First it’s the Australian girl sitting on the floor in front of us. Red plastic bag in hand, she doubles over with sickness. Next, a young Thai man two rows ahead starts to vomit violently. Before we know it, at least half the boat is losing their breakfast. The guy sitting in our row looks over at us in panic, before abruptly getting up and squeezing past, sprinting to the bathroom to hurl. We breathe deep, doing our best to ignore everything around us, clutching to the seat in front, hoping the boat doesn’t capsize.
Due to the tumultuous seas, the boat is taking even longer than normal to make the trip from Phi Phi to Phuket. Just over an hour and a half in, and we’re barely halfway there. By this time, the air conditioning has stopped working and the entire ferry smells like vomit. Bags of throw up are strewn all over the floor as the boat continues to smash into each wave it faces, threatening its seaworthyness. A few feet to our left something starts to fall to the floor. By the time we realize what it is, the throw up has covered four suitcases and the entire landing area at the top of the stairs. The man, looking a terrible shade of green, staggers to the bathroom.
We’re not sure it could get any worse. Trying desperately not to throw up like the rest of the passengers, and mentally preparing for an emergency evacuation, we agree that this is the definition of a nightmare. We inch closer and closer to Phuket, looking at one another, trying to block out the chaos surrounding us. About fifteen minutes further and the waves finally start to diminish, providing a small sense of relief. After almost two and a half hours on this horrific excursion, and we finally see land. As we get closer to the Phuket harbor, we pull our packs (free of puke, thankfully) from the pile of suitcases and head toward the back deck hoping to be the first people off the boat. Happy to be safe, on land, somehow (thank you Dramamine) avoiding seasickness, we make a vow to avoid ferries for a long, long, loooooong time.
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