“I feel like everyone tries to do something different, but everyone ends up doing the same thing.” When Richard spoke these words in Alex Garland’s novel The Beach, and in the film adaptation of a young Leonardo DiCaprio 22 years ago, no one realized how prophetic they were.
The protagonist of the novel spoke of the trap that backpackers like him fall into when traveling in Thailand: they all visit the same places, from Khao San Road in Bangkok and the 46-meter reclining golden Buddha in the temple of Wat Pho to full moon parties in Ko Samui. He decides to do “something different”, and thus begins a journey to find a secret idyllic island. Little did the filmmakers realize they were about to add the place to the tourist wish list and watch its popularity explode.
The film location for the fictional limestone-rimmed paradise that Richard discovers was an island called Phi Phi Leh. Until Hollywood came along, few people knew about it, let alone visited it. But after the success of the movie, it became the island that all day trippers wanted to visit, and as many as 6,000 tourists a day flocked to it from resorts like Phuket, Krabi, and Ko Phi Phi.
“We just weren’t prepared for so many tourists,” my guide Suree Pongnopparat Ka said as we cruised by longtail boat to the island from Zeavola Resort, seven miles north on Ko Phi Phi. “The whole bay was constantly full of speedboats, and you couldn’t even see the sand on the beach, there were so many people.”
In 2018, faced with the accumulation of piles of garbage, the disappearance of wildlife (on land and in the water), and dead coral (about 90% estimated to have been destroyed due to stray boat anchors, unintentional swimmers and chemicals in her sunscreen), the Thai authorities decided to act.
Despite opposition from local tour operators (in 2018, the location was estimated to generate around 400 million baht (£9.5 million) in revenue per year), authorities closed the beach, initially for a four month period. Working with conservationists and environmentalists, they extended this for another year. And just as the bay was rumored to finally reopen, Covid hit, meaning it was closed to tourists for almost four years in total.
“The pandemic restrictions actually came at a good time for the bay,” said Siriwat Suebsai, a forestry technical officer overseeing the reopening of the beach. We meet at the island’s new floating dock at Loh Sama Bay, on the opposite side of the island from the famous Maya Bay beach. “It gave time for further recovery – not having anyone here made a big difference.”
Less than six months after the beach closed, blacktip reef sharks, which had previously used the protected cove as a breeding ground, began to return in modest numbers; now, after several years without disturbances, there are hundreds again. Conservationists had time and space to repair and plant nearly 30,000 coral fragments, which have already flourished and attract myriad reef fish; and a rare Puu Kai crab (not seen for over 10 years) has even paid a visit to the bay.
Human visitors, however, do not have the same freedom of movement as before. The first change is the pier: not only is it far from Maya Bay, but only eight boats can dock at a time and they can’t stay for more than an hour. Now it’s also essential to book a one-hour time slot on an app or through a tour operator (it’s open from 10am to 4pm). They can’t visit more than 375 people at a time, which is still a lot, but authorities say it’s sustainable.
Leaving the boat, we walk along newly constructed walkways between two towering rocks, past a visitor information booth, and into thick jungle.
“We built the boardwalk to keep people away from the vegetation, which had been badly destroyed,” Siriwat said.
Before, there would have been no build-up to spy the mythical sands of Maya Bay, just an impolite speedboat rush to the sand. Thanks to this new path, I felt as if I had stepped into the pages of the book, following in Richard’s footsteps. The anticipation was palpable, and while other people were also walking there, they were not the crowds he had seen in the pre-2018 photographs.
I finally emerged through palm trees into a clearing and… a huge sign with a list of rules to follow: no littering, no drones, no boats, and most importantly, no swimming.
However, one woman was desperate to post a photo of herself in the water on social media. But with a high-pitched whistle, Siriwat’s team sprang into action and, embarrassed, the woman climbed out of the water and back onto the sand. I asked Siriwat how the tourists had adapted to the new rules.
“In the old days we focused so much on increasing tourism that we forgot what was important,” he said. “We have to protect these areas. Now that we’ve learned that lesson and made changes, it’s important that we continue on the same path no matter what. We have gone back to basics and put nature first. And if nature is good, tourists will come anyway.”
I looked out over the beach, its sand as soft and white as flour, its fortress of limestone towers covered in vegetation so green it looked like it had already been put through an Instagram filter, and I couldn’t help but agree.
I walked further, leaving my guides behind, and in five minutes I had left all the other tourists as well. Even on this, the most visited beach in Thailand, it seemed that I could, at least for about 40 minutes, enjoy my own little piece of paradise.
At the end of the film, Richard reflects, “Of course, you can never forget what you’ve done. But we adapt. We continue, “Hopefully here at Maya Bay, with these lessons learned and new initiatives underway, his words will once again prove prophetic.
The trip was provided by the Tourism Authority of Thailand.