Ever since I watched Leonardo DiCaprio in the 2000 film ‘The Beach’, I have wanted to see for myself the glittering azure waters and majestic limestone karsts that epitomise the islands of Thailand.
In the movie (and not forgetting the book!), a young backpacker eschews the usual destinations to discover an unspoilt island. It is therefore ironic that the location where it was filmed has became so overrun with tourists that it has now been closed to give it chance to recover.
Maya Bay is just a short boat trip away from the bustling party island of Koh Phi Phi. The island was devastated in the 2004 tsunami but has now fully recovered and welcomes up to 10,000 visitors a day in peak season.
It’s not surprising that so many people flock to Phi Phi: the scenery is spectacular in its own right, but the trip to Maya Bay was the highlight of our stay.
To avoid the crowds, we opted for an early morning tour which saw us setting off from our hotel at 5.30am. The moon and stars were clearly visible in the dark sky as we weaved our way through the alleyways of Ton Sai village, passing cats scavenging for scraps and early morning traders setting up their stalls.
Taking a trip on one of the traditional long-tail boats was another item to tick off my bucket list, so it felt very special to feel the waves gently rocking me as we set off from the pier, the sea and sky turning a rosy pink. You could also take this tour by speedboat, but this felt much more authentic.
We arrived shortly after 7am and, although we were by no means alone, we were pleased to find the bay relatively quiet. The water was as clear as glass and a dazzling green, the sand a soft white powder and spotlessly clean. I plunged into the sea, lay on my back, and watched eagles and swallows circling the towering limestone cliffs overhead. It was everything I had hoped for, and more.
After about 40 minutes enjoying the scenery, we walked across the island to a look out point with fantastic views of the karsts jutting out of the Andaman Sea. By the time we came back, however, the beach was crowded, and that was before the booze cruises and party boats had descended.
Getting back into the long-tail boat wasn’t easy. I am pretty short, so the water was above my waist as I hauled myself back on board with very little in the way of elegance or grace via a small iron ladder. The speed boat might have been a better option after all!
The next part of the trip included snorkelling and swimming at some of the other bays around the islands. We passed Viking cave on the way back and our final stop was Monkey Beach. These were the friendliest macaques that we had seen on our travels thus far, but I still kept my distance. It was a shame to see such a small bay filled with tourists, giving the monkeys food and posing for selfies with them, with no regard for the fact these were wild creatures in their natural habitat.
We arrived back in Phi Phi in time for breakfast. As we made our way back from the pier, soaking wet and hungry, we passed another horde of tourists embarking on the same journey to this not so secluded slice of paradise.