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.
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.
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.”
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 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.