“There’s a secret beach – on an island that no one can get to,” whispers a Khao San Road backpacker to a baby-faced Leonardo DiCaprio in the 2000 smash hit The Beach. Following a map nailed to the door of his Bangkok guesthouse, Di Caprio’s character, Richard, soon makes his way south to the paradisal isle, its jungly limestone ridges coiled in luminous green water like a sleeping dragon, bends and curves concealing secret lagoons and comet-tail beaches.
In the film, the beach in question is never named, but it was Maya Bay on the island of Phi Phi Leh, located between Phuket and Krabi in Phang Nga Bay, that was chosen as the spectacular set location. Within months of the movie’s release, the island was almost as famous as its Hollywood star. A generation of travellers added it to their bucket list – myself included.
So when I moved to Phuket in 2013, one of the first things I did was take an overnight trip to Koh Phi Phi, including an early morning tour of Maya Bay. Rising in the dark, I found myself on a long-tail boat as the sun broke over the Andaman Sea racing towards that famous crescent beach along with dozens of other vessels eager to beat the crowds. It was a fool’s errand. By 8am, the boats were anchored four-deep along the shore, spewing out petrol fumes and a deafening racket. By 9am, the island was busier than Oxford Street on Christmas Eve. Tour groups trampled through the vegetation, black plastic bags overflowed with rubbish, and a quick dip in the warm waters involved tackling an assault course of selfie sticks. It was a far cry from the Arcadia promised on the big screen.
Despite having little inclination to return, I ventured to Maya Bay a few more times with visiting friends, only to find myself increasingly alarmed by the environmental degradation. Daily visitor numbers rose from 2,000 a day in the Noughties to nearly 5,000, devastating the environment both above and below the surface of the water. One marine biologist I spoke to in 2017 told me that the combination of dropped anchors and careless swimmers caked in sunscreen had damaged 90 per cent of the coral around Phi Phi. Paradise had been well and truly lost.