"The first I heard of the beach was in Bangkok, on the Khao San Road".
The beach & The Movie
Have you read "The Beach" by Alex Garland? If not, perhaps you have seen the movie, starring a young Leonardo Di Caprio. Well, Maya Bay is The Beach.
Alex Garland was thinking of Palawan, Philippines, when he wrote his novel about a secluded, heavenly location which somehow attracts the attention of the neurotic American traveller Richard; however the movie based on Garland's novel was filmed in Thailand, particularly in Phi Phi Leh, a cliff jugged little island in Krabi Province.
Before the shooting, in 1999, Ao Maya ("ao" meaning "bay" in Thai language) was a stunning sugary white beach in sleepy Phi Phi Leh, only visited by small groups of travellers that slept in Phi Phi Don, the bigger island nearby, and rented local boats from the locals for day trips to Maya Bay.
Despite being located between Phuket and Krabi provinces, the Phi Phi Islands were almost unknown to mass tourism until the movie became a sensation.
A local village of wooden shacks and unpaved roads, Ton Sai, was the only inhabited settlement of Phi Phi Don, while Phi Phi Leh was simply a natural sanctuary where monitor lizards, eagles and colourful marine species were the only residents.
I fell in love with the place in 1993, way before Hollywood chose it as movie set and people started to flock in. Year after year, every January or February, I used to spend some lazy days in Maya Bay with my family and a few other lucky travellers: it was so stunning and quiet, so dreamy like, so tremendously marvellous that I couldn't kick it out of my mind and kept going back.
I was in Phi Phi Leh even while Di Caprio was filming the movie, and I witnessed some of the changes that the film production made to the beach: the removing of wild vegetation to plant palms, the construction of temporary wooden structures which were to become the main set for the film. It was bad, but I think that at the time nobody realised the devastating impact that "The Beach" would have on Maya Bay.
When I moved from Shanghai to Krabi, in 2019, the beach had already been closed for a year and for good reasons: after almost 20 years of over tourism, it had nothing of the placid atmosphere I remembered from the Nineties.
Despite belonging to Krabi's Hat Noppharat Thara- Mu Ko Phi Phi National Park, it was a nightmare: countless speed boats and long tail boats would dash back and forth dropping off thousands of visitors every hour, every-day.
80 per cent of its coral reefs had been damaged by gasoline and sunscreen or by hordes of tourists stepping on them. The noise and the pollution were deadly to the local fauna.
In 2018, park officials finally stepped in and closed the bay, putting a halt to the flora and fauna carnage: a team of marine biologists and rangers began to work on restoring what was left of the reef and the fish and to plant more than 10,000 new corals.
Here's my latest video of the reopening of Maya:
New Rules for a sustainable re-opening
Almost four years later, on January 1st, 2022, with an unexpected decision, the National Park department officially opened Maya Bay again, reassuring all those concerned that a set of regulations would be put in place and police would make sure to protect the partially regenerated environment of the bay.
Regulations include keeping the number of visitors down to 300 people at any moment; banning boats and ferries from entering the bay and people from swimming from the beach.
On January 3, I was invited to join a day trip to Phi Phi Islands by one of the speed-boat companies that operate from Krabi. Group tours and crammed speed-boats are not my favorite way of travelling, I prefer slower, bigger boats or a private long tail, however I was eager to see how the tour would be run to include the visit to Maya Bay, and so I joined it.
The departure and first part of the itinerary was one I already knew pretty well: check in at Nopparat Thara pier next to Ao Nang at around 8 AM, a quick stop in Railay peninsula to embark more passengers, then straight to Bamboo Island, belonging to the Phi Phi archipelago, for a swim and beach time. Bamboo boasts an incredible scenery: a soft white sand beach runs all around the island, the crystal waters are ideal for snorkelling or soaking in mild currents, and often there is a delightful breeze to ease the heat.
In the past, Bamboo Island was another piece of cake very close to be devoured by greedy visitors, but the subsiding in the number of international tourists due to the pandemic bought it some time to rest and heal.
After spending about 90 minutes in Bamboo, our 35-seat speed boat headed straight to Phi Phi Leh, since the slot we were allocated to enter Maya Bay was between 11 AM and 12 PM (yes, now the entrance time is fixed, tour companies can't show up in Maya Bay outside the allocated time).
Since the re-opening, the only entrance point for the beach is at the back of the island: a new floating pier was built in Loh Sama Bay, previously a quiet corner of Phi Phi Leh with pretty good snorkelling. As soon as we approached Loh Sama Bay, I was dumbstruck: the boardwalk looked like madness, a trafficked parking lot where long-tail and speed boats were taking turns to drop off and collect tourists in a frantic, noisy scenario.
Groups were queuing on the narrow floating pier towards Maya Bay, bumping into others on their way to leave the island. I started to get sad and upset, and I wasn't the only one: the other passengers looked worried and unhappy too. My colleague Pluto said: "It looks like Tien An Men Square at rush hour". One of our friends, who had never visited Maya Bay before, was so shocked by the crowd that he considered not to get off the boat at all.
How was all this to be beneficial to the environment or to the visitors who had been dreaming of a tropical paradise? I thought: we all loose here, this is not the way to sustainable tourism.
Finally our boat approached the pier (a floating platform connected to a concrete walkway) and we disembarked. Walking in a line, we followed the path that cutting across Phi Phi Leh heads to the opposite side of the island, where Maya Bay is. It's a 5 minute walk past the rangers' houses, the toilets and a few smoking areas.
Maya Bay today
The first glimpse of the beach stole my breath. The incredible shades of blue and turquoise waters blend with the green of the surrounding karst peaks, the bluest blue of a sunny day sky and the sugary white of the beach in a picture that is too stereotypical to be real. Not for the first time, I witnessed the unparalleled breath-taking view of the bay wandering if it was true. There's nothing more beautiful than this, I thought.
But then, of course, reality came into the picture: I became aware again of the 200 people around me, taking photos, chirping with excitement, walking around in awe, sunbathing, drinking, plunging their feet in the water.
To protect the marine environment of Maya Bay, entering the water is now prohibited, and while the decision is one that makes sense if we want to give Maya Bay a chance to continue healing, the temptation to dive in for a minute is hard to resist.
Therefore, it was just a matter of seconds before the first person stepped a little too deep in the sea while a few others tried to have a quick swim, and the rangers on duty whistled repeatedly to call them out of the water. Far from my idea of a tropical retreat, it felt more like a kids' summer camp.
My thoughts on the reopening of the beach, then: I still get the goosebumps from seeing Maya Bay, and I'm still convinced it is one of the most spectacular beaches in the world, but the downsides of the reopening far outweigh the benefits.
Sure, visitors are not allowed to mess with the marine life, given the prohibition to swim, but they still produce and leave garbage behind, they still walk in the water wearing sunscreen, not to mention what is happening to Loh Sama Bay.
300 people per hour, for 6-7 hours a day, everyday, is more than Phi Phi Leh can take, and while the situation is still somehow manageable with the number of foreign travellers being limited due to the pandemic, I believe that it won't be easily managed once mass tourism come back.
I really hope to be wrong, and I'd like to hear the opinion of ecologists who worked so hard to restore the environment in the last 4 years, but for now my reaction to Maya Bay opening is a troubled and pained "No, thanks".
Have you ever been to Maya Bay yourself?
Do you think that the beach should stay open to travellers?