December 13, 2022—I huddled with my newfound travel buddies, all of whom purchased a Love Andaman Island Tourticket that would take us to seven destinations in one day, a good deal if you have only a few days in Phuket, Thailand.
Our first stop was Maya Bay, which may not ring a bell until someone tells you, “It’s where they shot Leonardo DiCaprio’s movie, The Beach.” This geriatric millennial writer saw this movie in the cinema the week it was released in the year 2000. It was no Titanic, but The Beach gave me a glimpse of a path I thought I would never follow—that of a backpacker, but much later in my life when I was considered too old to be one.
“The Beach” is a Hollywood adventure-drama film released in 2000. It’s directed by
Danny Boyle from a screenplay by John Hodge, based on the 1996 novel by Alex Garland. The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Virginie Ledoyen, and Guillaume Canet.
In 2000 I looked up to the cast as the older cooler kids who went on crazy adventures in a strange foreign land, something I thought I could never do, having been raised in a strict, conservative family. Thanks to the killer soundtrack that included All Saints and Moby, I was part of the following that made The Beach a cult classic.
Fast-forward to 2017: I went on my first trip as a solo female traveler and never looked back. Now the hostel culture makes more sense, and sadly, some ridiculous elements of the movie made this old backpacker laugh out loud. But hey, it was the year 2000, a completely different time.
One thing stayed true: The dream of every backpacker is to find a beach so secret and untouched that only you and a select few can happily inhabit, armed with the bare necessities and hopefully no looming danger.
Of course, I knew that the current version of Maya Beach is hardly any of that.
We stepped off our speedboat and onto the blue floating jetty. There was a long but controlled line up the stairs at the back of the island. We walked down a boardwalk, one of the sustainable efforts that will limit damage to sand and plants. It was a leisurely walk through the forest before we reached a wooden hut manned by Thai officials. We used the newly-built toilets in that area before we walked down another boardwalk that took us to the famous crescent-shaped beach on the other side of the island.
There, I spotted the quintessential “Welcome to Maya Bay” photo op area, which is thankfully made of simple driftwood, unlike other ostentatious tourist signs.
I looked ahead and finally saw it–Maya Bay in all its rehabilitated glory. We quickly realized that the rules posted by the entrance are strictly observed–no sunscreens (oxybenzone destroys corals), no eating, no littering, no polyethylene boxes, no feeding the animals, no drones, no touching the corals, and most of all, no swimming.
I ignored the droves of humans (now limited to 4,125 persons per day and 375 at a time) taking selfies and the loud whistles from park officials (a warning to those getting too far into the water), and for a brief second I could imagine what it’s like to be Virginie Ledoyen torn between Leonardo DiCaprio and Guillaume Canet while laying eyes on this pristine beach for the first time.
As I dug my toes into the fine white sand and squinted at the panoramic view of hundred-meter high limestone cliffs, someone screamed, “Look, baby sharks!” We rushed to the shallow waters to find blacktip baby sharks, which have returned and are thriving after Maya Bay’s closure and rehabilitation. I saw one baby shark swim away into the clear blue waters. Another loud whistle pierced through my ear. Someone had gotten too far into the water and the whistle serves as his warning. Was I at a beach volleyball game?
It’s a far cry from the Hollywood film moment we were all hoping for, but this is the best compromise between environmentalism and tourism.
The Leonardo DiCaprio Effect
Let’s review a timeline of Maya Bay.
About 40 years ago: Maya Bay was already a tourist destination, but mostly for the Thai locals. Located in Hat Noppharat Thara-Mu Ko Phi Phi National Park, Maya Bay is part of the uninhabited Phi Phi Leh, one of the two main Phi Phi islands in Thailand’s Krabi province.
1999: 20th Century Fox shot the film, The Beach, in several locations around Thailand, including Maya Bay. The production crew gave the beach a “makeover” to suit the film’s aesthetic, which included uprooting native plants. Local environmentalists filed a lawsuit with the Civil Court against then-Agriculture Minister Pongpol Adireksarn, Forest Department Director-General Plodprasop Suraswadi, Thai film studio Santa International Film Productions, and 20th Century Fox for reportedly ruining the landscape and ecosystem of Maya Bay during The Beach’s film shoot. How ironic as Leo evolved to become one of the biggest celebrity environmentalists in the world.
2000:The Beach was released worldwide. While it’s considered a flop commercially, it earned a cult following. People wanted to see the beach that inspired, well, The Beach. Through the years, Maya Bay’s tourists, both foreign and local, increased from less than 1,000 to 7,000-8,000 visitors per day. As dozens to hundreds of boats came in daily, the corals got destroyed, while sea creatures such as clownfish and blacktip sharks were driven away. Click here to see CNN’s photos of Maya Bay at the peak of tourism in 2018.
June 2018: The Thai government closed down Maya Bay for rehabilitation. Marine scientists, environmentalists, and volunteers worked on the restoration project, which included planting over 30,000 pieces of coral.
January 2022: Maya Bay reopened to tourists, with new rules in place. Boats are forbidden from entering the front bay. Boats may drop off tourists at the back, and only 4,125 persons per day are allowed to visit. The first slot is at 7am (although some reports say 10am; My group was there at 10am) and each slot cannot exceed 375 people. Each visitor is allowed a maximum of one hour on the island.
August 2022: Maya Bay closed once again, but this time for only two months to further tweak the improvements.
September 2022: Maya Bay is back in full swing, with stringent protocols in place. The Environmental Cases Division of Thailand’s Supreme Court also upheld a 2019 compromise agreement where 20th Century Studios (20th Century Fox) will pay ฿10 million for the rehabilitation of Maya Bay.
What would you do with only one hour in Maya Bay? First, take it all in. You’re not going to get the coveted The Beach experience, but Maya Bay is a sight to behold.
Second, catch a glimpse of the blacktip baby sharks, which are harmless to humans, and a sign that Maya Bay is indeed recovering. They disappeared at the peak of over-tourism in 2018.
Third, don’t be discouraged by the influencers in selfie sticks crowding the left side of the bay. Walk further to the right and you’ll find your IG moment without any photo bombers. Fourth, walk even further and find a quiet cove where you can take it all in.
Lastly, it’s okay to dip your feet in the shallow part of the beach. Just don’t go swimming or walk further than what’s allowed. An official will blow his whistle at you as a warning. And if you break the rules, you will get fined a hefty sum.
Remember: Environmentalists and marine scientists want Maya Bay to be closed for longer or for good, while the tourism sector contributes to Thailand’s GDP. Until we become more responsible travelers, those loud whistles and “no swimming” signs are part of the compromise.
Maya Bay is located in the Phi Phi Islands, Krabi Province, Thailand. It’s accessible via Phuket and Krabi. You may book an island-hopping tour through your hotel or book online via Klook.