The beach made (in)famous by Hollywood
Have you read Alex Garland’s “The Beach”? For those who are unfamiliar with the novel, there’s the Hollywood film with the same title, starring super star Leonardo Di Caprio. In my mind there is no doubt that Maya Bay is the best beach in the world, however during the writing of his novel, Alex Garland was inspired by some secluded place in Palawan, the Philippines; nonetheless, the movie based on Garland’s novel was filmed on Phi Phi Leh, a cliff-jugged island in Krabi Province, Thailand.
Before the shooting, Phi Phi Leh was a peaceful island off the coast of south west Thailand, and Ao Maya (“ao” means “bay” in Thai) used to be a beautiful white sand beach known only by small groups of backpackers who slept on neighbouring Phi Phi Don and hired local boats to take day trips to Maya Bay.
The Phi Phi archipelago, which is located between Phuket and Krabi provinces, were unknown to the general public until the release of the film. Ton Sai Village was the sole inhabited hamlet on Phi Phi Don, while Phi Phi Leh was a natural sanctuary where monitor lizards, tropical birds, and colourful marine animals were the only inhabitants.
I fell in love with the area in 1993, long before it became a film location and tourists began to flood in. After the first visit to Maya Bay, I couldn’t take it out of my mind. Every January or February, for several years, I kept going back, bringing friends of family: we would sleep in Ton Sai Village, spending countless lazy days in Maya Bay, a 20 minute boat ride away from Phi Phi Don.
In 1999, during the shooting of Di Caprio’s film, I was among the visitors who witnessed the beach being transformed by the crew: natural vegetation was cleared to make way for palm trees and temporary wooden structures were built to serve as the film’s major set.
I was concerned about all the transformations happening in the bay, and yet I don’t believe anyone really realised how bad “The Beach” film would be for Maya Bay.
When in 2019 I moved from China to Thailand to live and work in Krabi, the beach had already been closed for a year.
After over 20 years of over-tourism, it had lost all of its tranquil atmosphere, and most of its reef: dozens of speedboats and long tail boats would race back and forth every day, dropping off thousands of visitors. Most of the corals had been damaged by gasoline, plastic and sunscreen.
The indigenous fauna had been wiped out by the constant noise and pollution. Truth to be told, despite being under the supervision of the Hat Noppharat Thara- Mu Ko Phi Phi National Park, Maya Bay was an absolute nightmare.
At long last, park officials shut down the bay in 2018 so that a team of marine biologists and experts could begin to restore the reef and to plant new corals.
A new set of rules to ensure a long-lasting reopening
With an unexpected move, on January 1, 2022, the National Park supervisors reopened Maya Bay for the first time in over four years, assuring everyone concerned that restrictions had been put in place to protect the largely regenerated eco-system.
Visitors are now limited to 375 at any given time; boats are prohibited from entering the bay; and individuals are not allowed to swim nearby the beach.
Only a few days after the reopening, a speedboat company that operates out of Krabi invited Fantasia Asia on a day excursion to Phi Phi Islands. I was curious to see how the tour, which for the first time in 4 years would include a stop at Maya Bay, would be run, so I joined in.
At 8 a.m I checked-in at the Nopparat Thara harbour close to Ao Nang, and after meeting the guide, crew and other participants, I boarded the 35 seat speed boat and we drove straight to Bamboo Island, in Phi Phi archipelago.
The island is blessed by a fine white sand beach and it’s great for sunbathing and swimming: the water is crystal clear, ideal for snorkelling or soaking up in a mild current. Bamboo Island was once another tempting target for greedy tourists, but the pandemic’s impact on international travel has allowed it to take a well-deserved break.
After spending a hour and a half in Bamboo, we boarded our speed boat and made our way to Maya Bay, where we were allowed to enter between 11 AM and 12 PM (the access to the beach is granted at scheduled time that are decided by the National Park).
Nowadays, the only way to get to the beach is through the back of the island, where a new floating dock was constructed at Loh Sama Bay, a previously peaceful area of Phi Phi Leh with some excellent snorkelling opportunities.
My jaw dropped as soon as we arrived to Loh Sama Bay. The promenade looked like a madhouse, with long-tail and speed boats frantically dropping and picking up passengers. People had to squeeze past each other as they made their way towards Maya Bay on the island’s narrow floating dock.
My friends and boat companions weren’t exactly happy, too. “It looks like Tien An Men Square at rush hour,” my colleague Pluto commented. As a first time visitor to Maya Bay, our friend Giovanni almost decided not to disembark at all, startled by the crowd.
“This isn’t the approach to sustainable tourism,” I reasoned. How was this going to help the environment or being acceptable for those who had been dreaming of visiting a tropical paradise?
After leaving the boat, we walked on the inflatable mooring platform connected to a concrete walkway until we reached the path to Maya Bay, which is located on the other side of Phi Phi Leh, past the rangers’ living quarter, the restrooms and a few smoking spots.
The present-day state of Maya Bay
My breath was taken away by the first sight of the beach. It’s hard to believe Maya Bay scenery isn’t made up: the vivid shades of azure and turquoise waters look so unreal next to the lush green of the karst pinnacles, the deep blue of the sky and the beach powdery white sand.
I’d seen it before, and never less every time I’m there I can’t help but wonder whether it is real. I promise you: Maya Bay is the most gorgeous place you will ever see.
When I awoke from my daydream, though, I was startled to see 200 other people in the area: they were busy snapping pictures, chirping excited “ohhs” and “ahhs”, walking around in awe as well as sun bathing, drinking or wading in the water.
Swimming is now restricted in order to safeguard the marine ecosystem, and while this is a sensible move if we want to give Maya Bay a chance to recover, the urge to plunge in for a minute is hard to resist. That’s why rangers on duty had to whistle frequently to get swimmers out of the water as soon as the first person walked in a bit too far, or another one tried to have a quick dip.
I expected a tropical getaway, but what I got felt more like a summer camp for kids.
My opinion on the reopening of Maya Bay
When it comes to my opinion on the reopening of the beach, what I think in no uncertain terms is that although Maya Bay remains one of the world’s most beautiful beaches, the drawbacks of its reopening outweigh the positives by a wide margin.
Despite the fact that tourists are not allowed to swim, they still generate noise and waste, they still walk in the water wearing sunscreen, not to mention the devastation that is taking place in Loh Sama Bay, which is overtaken by the large number of boats and crowds.
Phi Phi Leh can’t handle 375 people an hour for six to seven hours a day, seven days a week, and while the epidemic has decreased the amount of international visitors, I feel that once mass tourism returns, the island will be unable to handle it.
I truly hope to be wrong, and I’d appreciate hearing from ecologists who have worked so diligently to rehabilitate the environment over the previous four years, but for the time being my reaction to Maya Bay’s opening is a concerned and troubled “No, thanks.”