Phi Phi IslandBackpacking and families do go together, especially on the laid-back island of Phi Phi, says Erica Lyons.

boatingWe used to go on adventures, backpack, travel without an itinerary, carry only one bag between two of us for a month. We’d scout out second-hand bookshops and hike off concrete trails. In our late twenties this ended when parenthood began. Nearly a dozen Phuket resort holidays later, we finally decided it was time to try taking the kids on the sort of holiday we’d had in our former lives. We wanted to reclaim our spirit of adventure. My husband and I both loved Thailand, and one flip through Lonely Planet and it was clear that we wanted to be Phi Phi Island-bound.

Getting to Phi Phi Island is not quick, but is well worth the extra effort, even with three children under seven. We flew direct from Hong Kong to Phuket, where we’d pre-arranged a van to take us to the ferry pier – about a 30-minute drive. The ferry ride alone was an adventure. Though a bit rusty in this scene, having left our backpacking days long ago, we surprised ourselves and were still able to clamber up the boat’s ladder with the kids, make our way through throngs of tattooed and dreadlocked sunbathers, and find a small bit of shaded deck space with just enough room to set out a few toys. Our luggage was tossed into a pile of backpacks below. 

An hour and a half later we arrived at Phi Phi Island. We were then loaded onto a smaller boat to make our way towards the shore. It was not quite a door-to-door service, though, as the boat stopped nearly 50 feet from the shore. A truck was sent into the water to gather the luggage and we were sent wading.

There is something about the quiet and the lack of commercialism that transforms you right away. Without internet access, our hands were free. Blackberries and iPhones were immediately locked away in the safe. We were all in holiday mode. There were no kids’ clubs, no arcades, no Aberdeen Marina Club-style playrooms, no TV. Instead, we had a basic pool, perfect white sand and beautiful aquamarine, clear water. Every day became a family adventure.

We started each day with a simple breakfast overlooking the calm blue waters, and then we were off. We negotiated with a local boatman for a longboat for the day and the five of us would decide while on the boat what we wanted to do. From time to time my six-year-old would want to snorkel, so we would find a spot, stop and snorkel. When we tired of swimming, we’d choose a direction or select an island to explore from the small and crudely drawn worn map the boatman carried.

The goal was to find a private beach framed by jungle. Sometimes, as we pulled close to shore, we would find another boat had beaten us there so we would ride the coast for our own private spot. On the beach we would read while the kids explored, searching for shells, coral and crabs. We were surrounded by soft white sand, sunshine and azure calm water. The only movement was our longboat gently rocking and its brightly coloured ribbons waving in the breeze. When the best shells were collected and half a dozen tiny crabs were corralled, it was time to explore the jungle.

After our morning snack supply began to dwindle, it was time to pack up our bag and return to the longboat. Destination: the central backpacking haven on Ko Phi Phi, where an incredible and cheap Thai lunch awaited (with plenty of pizza and chips options for the kids).

Often, while we were on the boat en route to lunch, we would be side-tracked. We’d see a rudimentary rope structure, tied to densely packed palm trees, leading up through a steep jungle path. It would call to us, and we’d ask the longboat driver to stop the boat. We’d wade (or swim for the shorter ones) to the shore. Humming the Indiana Jones theme song we would attempt the rope-assisted climb. This sometimes meant one adult staying down below with our three-year-old, while my fearless seven-year-old led the way up.

After the hill was scaled and the descent was successfully completed, it was back to our boat. Low blood sugar meltdown time would be approaching, so we knew we had to stay on course and hunt down our lunch. Occasionally the azure water would sing to us like a siren and, despite our resolve, we would need to stop just one more time for a quick dip or snorkel.

When we finally made it to the bustling town, and had enjoyed our lunch and ice cream, we would stroll through the stream of tiny shops, and linger in the second-hand bookshops that dot backpacker central. After a series of purchases and exchanges of the books we had finished, we would make our way back to our longboat, with our late afternoon mapped out. Sleepy from a full day of sun, snorkelling, scrambling up hills and swimming, we would return to our hotel for a nap on the beach with open books by our sides.

For dinner, we had a choice of two quiet beach restaurants where sandy bathing suits and flip-flops were the dress code. Then we could start to debate whether tomorrow would start off with snorkelling, scrambling up hills, hiking across the island on barely worn trails or swimming. Decisions to dream of …

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