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How to avoid the crowds on island tours in Krabi

Following a recent quality inspection tour to Phi Phi with one of our operators (in the supposed “low season”), we were shocked to see how busy the place was. See this “real” picture, below of Maya Bay: beautiful, but with standing room only on the beach. It turns out we are not the first to remark upon this.

Maya Bay, Phi Phi crowds in August 2013

There are hundreds of negative customer reviews of island tours in Krabi on TripAdvisor and most tend to focus on the crowds, complaining of “too many people” and “hundreds of boats”. It’s true that, compared to 10 years ago – when most of the brochure pictures were taken – the islands in Krabi are now incredibly busy throughout the year and, due to natural restrictions on itinerary (tidal and sea conditions), almost all tour boats follow each other around on the same routes.

The islands in Krabi, it seems, have become a victim of their own popularity. Phi Phi, for example, once a hidden gem, is now well-known as one of the most beautiful places in the world, so it stands to reason that it will be mobbed. Remember, everyone else who is there wants to see it as much as you do! The whistle-stop tours cater to the vast majority of them and the proliferation of such trips is simply the result of a free market economy.

The best tip then, to enjoy your island tour in Krabi, is to revise your expectations: tourist brochures peddling the fantasy of a deserted island are responsible for a lot of the disappointment – nobody would bat an eyelid to find other famous places such as the Eiffel Tower, or the Taj Mahal heaving with people. And it is always still possible – by swimming a little further away, or by snapping your pictures at a certain angle – to block out the background hordes and enjoy the view.

Note that crowds on the beach when you arrive are not the same as crowds on the boat: you should not accept the latter under any circumstances. Due to higher demand and increased margins, most speedboat operators now use 4 – 5 engine, 50 – 90 seater boats for the Phi Phi itinerary. And there are sadly some unscrupulous tours – mainly from Phuket, but also in Krabi – that overload even these large vessels, making for an unpleasant and dangerous journey.

At Your Krabi, we are careful to work only with people who carry less than the maximum number allowed for a boat. Wherever possible, we will also place our guests on the smallest boat the operator has going out that day – usually a twin / triple engine, 20 – 40 seater (depending on the itinerary), which allows you to see outside, the main point of an island cruise! However, it is possible that you may be allocated a place on one of the larger boats, depending on which boats are available that day on your chosen route. In this case, be sure to grab a place on the side bench so that you can look out at the passing scenery.

(Speedboat seating tips: the very front of the boat has the only open air seating, and the only place you will get a decent view; but it is also by far the most bumpy part of the boat. For fewer unpleasant thumps, sit at the rear of the boat. Never choose to sit in the middle section of a large speedboat; you will see virtually nothing at all. The side benches give you the option of kneeling up and looking out, not the most comfortable, but better than nothing).

It is worth pointing out that, despite the crowds, all of the Krabi islands are still worth visiting. The locations are the very definition of tropical paradise, if you can imagine them without the string of boats. The scenery is majestic; the colour of the water, astonishing. It is like nowhere else on earth.

If there is anything to seriously complain about, it would be the detrimental effect of mass tourism on the marine environment: though the sea is still sparkling and vivid, many of the reefs underwater have been badly damaged by pollution from diesel engines and boats anchoring illegally in the coral. Serious snorkelers are advised to forfeit the beaches and go out with a dive boat to see more interesting fish.

To answer – finally – the condundrum in the title of this post: other than being very lucky (our tour operator is, for example, quite often the first boat on Bamboo Island which allows you to have the place to yourselves for a whole 10 minutes!), realistically there is only one way to avoid crowds on Phi Phi and the other islands, which is to go at a different time to everyone else.

You could get up very early, or go very late in the afternoon with a privately chartered boat. (See separate article on how to do this.) Or, during the high season months, join-in sunset tours to the local islands are available and there will be significantly fewer boats on each island you visit. Overnight camping trips to Maya Bay are also possible, departing from Phi Phi Don only, and will virtually guarantee a deserted beach (apart from your fellow campers) at sundown and sunrise.

Another option is to go out to sea on a dive boat or fishing boat. These have a primary focus of diving, or fishing (obviously) but are happy to welcome non-diving, non-fishing passengers on board. The main advantages of this are:

1) A far more comfortable boat, usually with a deck to sit out on and watch the amazing scenery.
2) Taking less travelled routes and visiting less busy locations, often with excellent snorkelling (due to less traffic)

The main disadvantages of this are:

1) No beach stops
2) More expensive

For more information, itineraries and prices for all of the options for island-hopping departing from Krabi, please see the individual island pages:

Phi Phi Islands Tour
Krabi 4 Islands Tour
Hong Islands Tour
James Bond Island Tour

These also include listings for alternative island tours (diving, fishing etc.)
See also our island-hopping overview page.
Please also visit our page on private boat charter in Krabi, if you wish to avoid the join-in tours altogether.

Last updated: October 24, 2016