Discover THE BEACH: Exploring Thailand’s Mysterious Island of Ko Phi Phi Leh

Longtail Boat

Finding THE BEACH in Maya Bay, Thailand: Exploring Thailand’s Mysterious Island of Ko Phi Phi Leh is Not Without Its Risks. (Trust Me.)

In This Thailand Article You Will Discover:

  • Where the Best Beach In Thailand Is
  • How to Find THE BEACH
  • The Dangers of Longtail Travel
  • A Secret Entrance to a Not-S0-Secret Beach
  • Costs to Expect & Pitfalls to Avoid

Three kilometres offshore of Ko Phi Phi Don, a resort island in Thailand’s Andaman Sea, it hits the four of us. The longtail boat we hired for the day is little more than a glorified canoe, totally unfit to breach the swells now reaching two metres in height. My travelling companion Brady and I, along with our new friends — two well-tanned Brazilian girls and an Irishwoman as nervous as she is pale — stare back at our captain with similar anxiousness. He flashes white teeth, and moves his hands in a manner that ridicules the rocking of the boat before pointing to our destination: Ko Phi Phi Leh, Phi Phi Don’s undeveloped sister island, treasured national park and home to near-mythical Maya Bay — the Thailand of our dreams.

Longtail Ride

My travelling companion somehow finds time to sleep in the storm.

Flashback six years, and I am sitting in a Victoria movie theatre, entranced by The Beach, a film which credited Leonardo DiCaprio as the star — although to me, the main player was Thailand’s white sand beaches, limestone cliffs and water too emerald to be real.

I would go there one day; I would find The Beach.

The Beach would turn out to be Maya Bay, a location chosen by Fox productions because of its implied secrecy; an emerald lagoon enclosed in 100-metre-tall limestone cliffs. It was not long, though, until the secret got out. Tourism to the twin islands of Ko Phi Phi increased tenfold in the years following the film’s release, with the expected accompaniment of garbage and development.

Of course, December of 2004 changed all that, when two 15-plus-metre-tall waves collided atop the low-laying sandy isthmus that makes up most of Phi Phi Don, killing more than 2,000 people on that island alone, decimating 70 per cent of the island’s buildings and shutting down the tourism industry for months afterwards. Even two years following, Phi Phi Don is riddled with the tsunami’s legacy: barren foundations, construction efforts everywhere and bizarre tsunami shelters — boats on stilts, the idea to climb onboard upon sighting the wave, and hope to simply float away when it arrives.

Anadaman Sea Rock Formations

The rock formations in Thailand’s Andaman Coast are spectacular.

All of this turmoil, I admit, is far from my mind as another wave crests over our bow. Still our driver laughs — mocking seas that would cancel passenger ferry sailings back home. Against the grey clouds, the island seems fortress-like, less a paradise of sand and sun, more the home of a vengeful Thai god, perhaps angry at any farang (foreigners) who might seek to desecrate the crown jewel of the Andaman.

We draw closer to Phi Phi Leh, and the waves ease. Our boat passes the Viking Cave, a spectacle of rock-formation, swift’s nest and crude artwork faithfully painted by local Muslim fishermen over the past 400 years. Moments later, we pull into a shallow bay, and our captain anchors in a relatively mild, one-metre chop. He explains how the waves are much too high to motor around the backside of Phi Phi Leh and into the narrow passage leading to Maya Bay. But there is another way in, he says — if we are brave enough.

With a bony arm he points across 200 metres of water to a tiny sea cave etched into the limestone, half visible above the ocean’s surface. Amidst crashing waves, a faint light at the end of the slim tunnel illuminates a secret entrance to The Beach.

Our captain speaks one more word: “Swim.”

Swift's Nests & Cave Paintings

A cluster of swift’s nests and paintings done my local Muslim fishermen.

No need to ponder meaning — if we want to see our Maya Bay, we would have to work for it. After some discussion and disbelief, four nervous farang leave the safety of the longtail, gasping and splashing across the choppy water toward a sea cave that would lead us to Maya Bay beyond. That is, if the waves didn’t dash us to pieces against the rock. And the less we thought about the prospect of the tide flowing in and totally submerging the cave with us trapped on the other side, the better. Still we head for shore, like ships lured by a siren.

At the sea-cave’s entrance, one-by-one we allow the surf to propel us over sharp coral, up and through the 1.5-metre circular rear opening that leads to dry land. Then we hike — careful to tiptoe past a solitary park official asleep in a grubby hammock a few hundred metres into the damp palms. No one had mentioned the entry fee to Maya Bay is 200 baht; and none of us had thought to tuck cash into our swimwear.

The Secret Cave

The entrance to the “Secret Cave” was a risky swim away…

The jungle opens up into bone-white sand, which in turn gives way to a calm, secluded lagoon of water more emerald than the hills of Ireland — or so I hear whispered behind me. Limestone cliffs, sheer and smooth, shoot up in all directions as if to hide Maya Bay from crude invaders; saving it for travellers like us four — those who, like Leo in The Beach,would work for their prize, who flew around the world just to see if it really exists and, of course, were privy to the secret cave.

All we would have to do now is make the swim back.

Offshore Ko Phi Phi Leh

The author poses for a snapshot offshore of Ko Phi Phi Leh.

Also Read: Information for Visiting The Location of the Movie THE BEACH

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About the author: David Webb is a Vancouver, BC-based travel writer, photographer and magazine editor.

11 comments… add one

  • Indochina Tours Oct 20, 2014

    Thanks ! Best tours in Vietnam. Including Indochina Discovery, Cambodia on a Shoestring, Essential Vietnam & Cambodia

  • Travel Infographics Dec 19, 2012

    I loved Maya bay!!! One of my favorite places on the planet by far!!!

  • alexander benjamin Oct 12, 2012

    Phi Phi Leh – rock solid against a monsoon of visitors

    Phi Phi Leh is surely Phi Phi Island, Krabi, ThailandThailand’s toughest tourist attraction, well armed to fight off the ravages of the mass tourism that is degrading so many natural attractions in this tourism-obsessed country. It’s all due, of course, to this island’s make-up of solid rock, all rising vertically out of the sea while affording man only the tiniest patch of flat land on which to wipe his shoes and plant his flag. And even though that tiny patch of flat land is barely 100 metres square, men have managed to wage battles over it.

  • David Webb Nov 21, 2011

    Ha ha – very true, very true!

  • beach holidays blog Nov 21, 2011

    well as long as i don’t get shot at by farmers it’s all good

  • Phuket Hotels Thailand Sep 17, 2010

    nice phitos ,water very clear!! Thanks so much for sharing informative post.

  • Steve May 2, 2010

    I had the option to go to the place where they filmed the Beach when I was in Thailand several years ago. I weighed the options, but then I decided to go to Koh Samui instead. I really don’t know if that was the right choice, but I had a blast there. It looks like you had fun there though.

  • David Webb Apr 15, 2010

    Dave & Deb, yes, of course, the book takes place in Thailand, as does the movie… to clarify, I understand the author was inspired to write the book after visiting the Philippines, even though he set it in Thailand… whew… this is getting confusing. Thanks for reading!

  • Dave and Deb Apr 15, 2010

    I read the book awhile ago, but I am sure that it is based on Thailand (I even remember it starts out in Kho San Road, that’s where he acquires the map.) and I know for a fact it was filmed in Thailand. Just thought I’d share my two cents:)
    Anyway, excellent article. I am not sure that I would ave been brave enough to make that swim. It sounds quite scary. But it certainly sounds like the payoff was worth it!

  • David Webb Apr 4, 2010

    You’re absolutely right, Steve, the author of THE BEACH was inspired by the Philippines, but the movie was filmed in Maya Bay (at least part of the movie), Thailand.

  • steve Apr 4, 2010

    That’s where they filmed it? Are you sure, I heard the book was based on the Phillipines…

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