“The Beach” by Alex Garland is one of my favourite ever books. I was given a copy of it as a Christmas present when I was seventeen years old, and it enraptured me so much I had finished all 450 pages by Boxing Day. Reading the book’s enticing and evocative tales of overnight train journeys to Surat Thani and island hopping in the Gulf of Thailand awakened my own wanderlust. Not much more than a year later I went travelling to India and South East Asia, and I’ve been sating my voracious appetite for travel ever since then. A short time after I read the book, the film version was released. Although I’ve since grown to like it, at the time I hated it. Far too many changes were made to the storyline (Richard is ENGLISH not American!!) and one very important character was completely omitted. One thing that the filmmakers did get right though was their choice of locations. The idyllic Maya Bay on the island of Phi Phi Ley, in the Andaman Sea was an inspired choice for the principal location. Since the release of the film, Maya Bay has become one of southern Thailand’s most visited spots.
Prior to December, I’d visited Thailand twice before but hadn’t managed to visit Maya Bay. In 2007 I made it as far as Ko Phi Phi, only for it to rain the entire time I was there, making a trip across the bay impossible. In late 2013 an opportunity arose to return. Janey and I decided to spend Christmas on Ko Phi Phi, as the culmination of our three week trip around Laos and Thailand. As Christmas Day was spent relaxing hard on the beach, we decided we would head to Maya Bay on Boxing Day, which seemed very apt. Fate had other ideas though. Boxing Day came around and I found myself bedridden with a nasty bout of food poisoning. As we were due to leave for Krabi the next day, I cursed my luck. As beautiful as Ko Phi-Phi is, as third visit seemed distinctly unlikely. However, the next day I was sufficiently recovered to attempt to get to Phi Phi Ley in the morning in time to get back for the afternoon ferry to Krabi. So, nothing risky about that then……
Most visitors to Maya Bay choose to take one of the big tourist boats, for a fee of about 400 Baht, which takes them to Maya Beach, amongst a number of other locations. However, due to our time constraints, we decided to pay a local fisherman to take us on his long tail boat. There are loads of these guys scattered round Ko Phi Phi. We just had to find the dodgy one! The fact that he lit up a massive joint, just after embarking on the voyage probably should have told us that this wasn’t the most reputable of tour operators. In hindsight then, it wasn’t too surprising when, a few minutes out to sea, the engine gave a cough and a splutter and breathed it’s last. For about twenty minutes the stoned fisherman tried to fix the engine with his tool of choice; a machete, naturally. It didn’t take long for us to get a bit aggravated. Not only were we definitely not going to make it, we were adrift, with no guarantee of catching our ferry back to Krabi. Mercifully though, we managed to hail down another boat, to tow us back to land, where the stoner’s mate offered to take us back to Maya Bay. After rigorously inspecting the boat, and judging his level of intoxication we deemed it worth the risk. As we rounded the headland, and got our first view of Maya Bay, all the travails instantly seemed worth it. Despite the hordes of tourist craft, Maya Bay took our breath away. If it was this stunning in 2013, how must it have looked when the, presumably awestruck, location scout had first laid eyes on it?
After we disembarked, we only had an hour and a half to enjoy the island. Fortunately this was enough. After the obligatory face down on the sand photo, we quickly hiked up to a viewpoint where I ran into a friend of my brother. As one always does on islands in the middle of the Andaman Sea. The rest of the time was spent swimming in the impossibly blue water, thankful that we had finally made it to a place that I’d wanted to visit for years.
Like many such places, Maya Bay is a victim of it’s own success. It is crowded 365 days a year, mostly it seems by Russians taking glamorous / borderline erotic selfies. Furthermore, sadly a lot of the coral around the island has died out. It’s also true to say that there are more beautiful beaches in Thailand (Rai Leh Beach in Krabi is far superior) but if you’re a fan of the book or film, it is definitely worth putting the effort, and indeed a lot of it in our case, in to visit. You won’t regret it.
The restaurant where I got food poisoning, is called Ton Sai seafood. Avoid it like the plague.