The full name for the national park is Hat Nopparat Thara - Mu Koh Phi Phi National Park which, besides being quite a mouthful, is located in Krabi Province, not Phuket Province as many people think. It's the 46th national park of Thailand and covers 387.90 km². The park stretches from the Thai mainland at Nopparat Thara Beach in Krabi, to the islands of Phi Phi, which are easy to reach by regular ferry from both Phuket and Krabi.
It's an area of stunning natural beauty with a relaxed feel, but it is under intense pressure from mass tourism and construction.
The park's islands and the coastal hills are composed mainly of limestone and are an extension of the mountain range running down from Phang-Nga Province. The main characteristics of these mountains and islands are their steep cliffs, large caves and dwarf trees that grow out of their rock crevice homes, similar to those of Phang-Nga Bay. The geology of this area is characterised by high, vertical limestone karsts (hollow, upright cylindrical islets), jutting from the sea in a northwest-southeast direction.
The animals in the national park can be classified as follows: mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fishes and other aquatic invertebrate animals, such as the sea slug. The important one in this group is coral such as a thorn coral, cub surface coral, leaf coral, tree coral, etc.
Vegetation in the national park area can be classified into 3 groups as follows:
Primary rainforest found in the high steep mountains: The limestone mountains have a thin layer of soil and are not very naturally fertile. Plants include iron wood, rubber and shorea, plus low level trees such as chanpha, rattans, banyans and many kinds of vines.
Mangrove forest can be found in the dry canal and Yan Saba Canal. Identified plant species include red mangroves, samae, white beans, black beans, etc.
Phru forest is the society of dominant plants which form the dense samet trees on Nopparat Thara Beach. Other plants include are shorea, jambolan plum, cogon grass, etc.
Phi Phi is hot and humid all year round, with peak temperatures around April time. The rainy season arrives in May and continues until October. High season is November to April inclusive, when it's a little cooler; the peak tourism period spans Christmas and New Year.
Formerly, the local people called Phi Phi 'Pu Lao Pi Ar Pi'. 'Pu Lao' means island in the local dialect, and 'Pi Ar Pi' is a kind of sea tree. The name was later shortened to 'Ton Pi Pi' and finally became just 'Phi Phi'. The area consists of 6 islands, Phi Phi Don, Phi Phi Leh, Bida Nok, Bida Nai, Koh Yung, and Mai Phai islands. The islands are approximately 42 kilometres from the Krabi coast and the same distance east of Phuket Island, in the southern Andaman Sea.
Phi Phi Don Island is the largest of the group and is the only island with permanent inhabitants. Its main tourist infrastructure is in Tonsai Bay, where most of the diving in Phi Phi takes place from. Phi Phi Leh is 2km south of Phi Phi Don and covers 6.6 km². It's uninhabited as it is mainly made up of steep cliffs that rise abruptly from the sea. The island was made famous in the year 2000 by the Leonardo Di Caprio blockbuster movie 'The Beach', which was largely filmed there in Maya Bay.
The island also houses the 'Viking Cave', a 3.2 km² cave featuring numerous drawings that seem to depict Viking ships. It is theorized that pirates paused here on their travels from west to east, sheltering in the cave to escape the monsoon winds, transfer cargo, or make repairs. As well as being a tourist trap visited by most tour boats to Koh Phi Phi, it is also a place much revered by the local people who come there to collect the swift's nests used to make Bird's Nest Soup, a Chinese delicacy. The ceiling is 15 metres high and the ledges all the way to the top are home to hundreds of birds, whose nests are collected to make the soup.
Koh Yung, an island to the north of Koh Phi Phi Don, has a stone beach on the east and small sandy beaches amid its valleys. The island is teeming with diverse, colourful coral reefs. Koh Phai, another island not far from Koh Yung, has spectacular beaches in the north and east of the island. The bank of coral reefs comprised mainly of antler corals stretches from the north to the south of the island.
On 26 December 2004, much of the inhabited part of Phi Phi Don was devastated by an Indian Ocean tsunami. The island's main village, Baan Tonsai (Banyan Tree Village), is mainly built on a sandy isthmus between the island's 2 long, tall limestone buttresses. On both sides of Tonsai are semicircular bays lined with beaches. The isthmus rises to less than 2 metres above sea level.
When the tsunami hit, it did so from both bay sides, and met in the middle of the isthmus. The wave that came into Tonsai Bay on the southern shore was 3 metres high. The wave that came into Loh Dalum Bay on the northern shore was 6.5 metres high. The force of the larger wave from Loh Dalum Bay pushed debris south-westwards into Tonsai Bay. The tsunami also breached low-lying areas in the limestone karsts, passing from La Na Bay to Loh Bagao Bay, and at Laem Thong (Sea Gypsy Village), where 11 people died. Apart from these breaches, the eastern side of the island experienced only flooding and strong currents.
At the time of the tsunami, the island had an estimated 10,000 occupants, including tourists. After the tsunami, approximately 70% of the buildings on the island had been destroyed. By the end of July 2005, an estimated 850 bodies had been recovered, and an estimated 1,200 people were still missing. The total number of fatalities is unlikely ever to be known. Of Phi Phi Don's residents, 104 surviving children had lost 1 or both parents.
In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, the island was evacuated. The Thai Government declared the island temporarily closed while a new zoning policy was drawn up. Many transient Thai workers returned to their home towns, and former permanent residents were housed in a refugee camp at Nong Kok in Krabi Province.
However, in late January 2005, a Dutch former resident of Phi Phi, Emile Kok, set up a voluntary organisation, Help International Phi Phi, and recruited 68 Thai staff from the refugee camp as well as transient backpacker volunteers (of whom more than 3,500 offered their assistance), and returned to the island to undertake clearing and rebuilding work. On February 18, 2005, a second organisation, Phi Phi Dive Camp, was set up to remove the debris from the bays and coral reefs, most of which was in Tonsai Bay. By the end of July 2005, 23,000 tonnes of debris had been removed from the island, of which 7,000 tonnes had been cleared by hand to help in the search for passports and identification.
On the Krabi mainland coast (but still part of the Phi Phi national park) is a fossilized shell cemetery called 'Susan Hoi' in the local dialect. It dates back 20-40 million years. Susan Hoi features a slab formed from a huge number and variety of embedded mollusks. This shell graveyard was once a large freshwater swamp. With changes on the surface of the earth, seawater flooded the freshwater swamp and the limestone elements in the seawater enveloped the submerged mollusks, resulting in a homogenous layer of fossilized mollusk shells 40 centimetres thick known as Shelley limestone. With geographical upheavals, the limestone layer is now distributed in great broken sheets of impressive magnitude on the seashore. The site is located 17 kilometres from Krabi Town at Baan Laem Pho.
It's also on the coast near Hat Nopparat Thara Beach, at Ao Nang Beach and Railay Beach, that Krabi's mainland tourist developments are. Ao Nang has developed into a small, modern resort centre for all kinds of tourists, whereas Railay Beach mainly caters for backpackers and travellers. Ao Nang is the main base for diving in Krabi.