It’s the warm welcomes and friendly smiles that Paul Rush treasures after his time in at Thailand’s Pleasure Islands.

"Welcome to Paradise." The hotel manager offers a broad smile as he guides me down the boat ramp on to the warm sand of the eastern shore of Phi Phi Island (pronounced "PP"). I know instinctively that this place is special.

I have come in search of the ultimate tropical getaway. The "Pleasure Islands" of Phi Phi are said to be the loveliest in the Andaman Sea and are Southern Thailand's most popular destination after Phuket.

The staff come to me with a welcoming smile and traditional wai greeting. They bow ever so slightly with their palms together in prayer mode, fingertips almost touching their nose. I reciprocate and marvel at the simple power of this genuinely charming, beguiling gesture.

Where else in the world would you receive such a warm welcome?


This "Land of Smiles" is quite disarming for the first-time visitor. You enter a very different world and by exchanging wais become part of an ancient and venerable custom with a much more profound meaning and symbolism than a simple "Gidday" conveys.

Inside my Holiday Inn beachfront bungalow I find more pleasant surprises: a bowl of fresh fruit, bottles of water and a decorative display of rose petals on my bed - so elaborately formed that I'm reluctant to move it.

My exploration of the main islands is by ubiquitous "speedboat", a 10m cruiser powered by twin 150hp outboards.

Phi Phi is the traditional home of the Chao Ley fisher-folk - the "Sea Gypsies".

Phi Phi Don, the largest and only inhabited island in the Phi Phi archipelago, is shaped like a lopsided butterfly, its abdomen a sandy strand of flat land on which stands lovely Ton Sai village, a mecca for day visitors from 11am to 3pm.

I stroll through the commercial centre, a narrow market lane with the ambience of a bazaar, then kayak around jagged limestone headlands to sandy coves. Landscaped gardens run down to the beach where the sun sparkles on a clear blue sea. Thatched-roof bungalows are discreetly sited under clusters of drooping palms.

Phi Phi Ley, 6km to the south, is a magical place where sheer limestone cliffs ring two shallow bays, Maya Bay and Loh Samah, plus a fiord-like inlet called Pi Ley. From the sea the cliffs seem impenetrable.

The Viking Cave (with bamboo scaffolding for bird's nest collectors to the left of the photo). Photo / 123RF
The Viking Cave (with bamboo scaffolding for bird's nest collectors to the left of the photo). Photo / 123RF

On closer inspection, half-hidden entrances appear, leading to Robinson Crusoe-type coves and idyllic beaches. The cliffs enclose beautiful sheets of turquoise water, so clear you can watch the antics of multicoloured fish from the surface.

Maya Bay is a scenic jewel with a shallow lagoon of placid water and a pure white crescent-shaped beach.

This is where Leonardo DiCaprio lived and loved with a disparate group of backpackers in the film adaptation of The Beach.

The trigger-happy guards and marijuana plantation have gone, along with the palm trees planted for the movie. It takes little persuasion for me to jump into the bay's crystalline water and snorkel over the cabbage coral heads alive with yellow-striped tigerfish, angels and demoiselles.

Viking Cave, named after its ancient rock art, which depicts boats, is famous for the edible nests of swiftlets, which are used to make bird's nest soup. Bamboo scaffolding provides access to the cave roof for intrepid collectors who earn $2000 a kilo for the nests.

I sample the delicacy in Phuket, paying $20 for a miniature bowl. The dried nests are boiled in chicken broth, which separates the strands of swiftlet saliva into thin noodle strands.

I would like to say the "white gold" was mouth-wateringly good. In truth, apart from the hint of a piping-hot, spicy tang, the actual taste is indefinable. Perhaps the sample was too small for a taste test. They say it's nutritious and prized for its aphrodisiac qualities, but I can't positively vouch for that.

My visit to Thailand is replete with memories of a gentle, smiling, wai-ing people who revere their monarch, take religion seriously, have strong family bonds and value foreign tourists very highly.

If you fancy a laid-back holiday where the sun is as hot as red chillies and black peppers, Phi Phi is the place to go.

The slogan "Life's a Beach" still holds true in these pleasure islands.

But it is still the warm, friendly and generous people that have left the biggest impression on me.

Long may they continue to smile, greet their visitors with the elegant wai and give expression to their national motto "Happiness on Earth".



Qantas flies daily from Auckland to Bangkok via Sydney. Return Economy fares start from $1136, all inclusive.

Phuket is a one-hour flight from Bangkok and Phi Phi Don is a 90-minute ferry ride from Phuket.