Leonardo DiCaprio’s The Beach drew visitors who damaged the Thai bay where it was filmed; pausing tourism has helped the ecosystem recover
- The 2000 movie The Beach brought harm to Maya Bay where some of it was filmed, with plants uprooted and the overtourism it triggered ruining coral reefs
- Closed to visitors for years, the bay has recovered, coral is being grown to restore reefs and trash collected. Phi Phi Leh’s future looks to be in good hands
It’s been 20 years since I first visited Phi Phi, an island in Thailand’s Mu Koh Phi Phi National Park, clambering off a speedboat under the watchful gaze of dreadlocked backpackers, some of whom looked as though they’d forgotten how to return home.
Fresh from watching Leonardo DiCaprio’s star turn in The Beach (2000) and eager for some downtime after an exhausting exploration of Cambodia, my trip was a cliché-filled rite of passage – I drank towers of cheap Chang beer, watched fire poi dancers light up the night sky and stayed in a cockroach-infested hostel.
I don’t remember how much the ferry to Phi Phi cost, but in 2022 I pay just 400 baht (US$10.60) for the two-hour speedboat ride from the southern resort town of Phuket, which is the gateway to many of Thailand’s most beautiful islands. The ferry, which takes a little longer, costs even less.
It’s depressing to see a McDonald’s at the end of the pier at which my boat docks, but little else seems to have changed, and the same maze of narrow, bar-lined alleyways fans out across the island’s centre.
I splash out 450 baht a night on a tiny, neon green, beach-view cottage. The neighbouring hut is so close that I can touch the walls if I lean out of the window, but as I prise the cap off a bottle of Chang and soak up the view, it feels good to be back.
Locals wielding fishing rods still wander home past Phi Phi’s beach bars and the most beautiful building remains the mosque in the centre of town, surrounded by bars and dive schools.
It doesn’t take long to feel like a local – by day three, the dreadlocked Thai shopkeeper near my cottage, who wears his pet iguana on his head like a hat, greets me like an old friend.
Around the same time, Thailand’s Supreme Court upheld a ruling that production company 20th Century Fox should contribute to restoration costs.
Prior to shooting, the filmmakers had allegedly uprooted native plants and introduced alien species, damaging an ecosystem that would suffer further when hordes of visitors flocked to Phi Phi and Phi Phi Leh after seeing the movie.
Twenty years ago, getting to the famous beach involved signing up for a boat tour, during which visitors would be dropped off at a floating pontoon on the eastern side of Phi Phi Leh before walking through an open-ended cavern to get to the bay.
But boats could still enter Maya Bay, and their many dropped anchors did catastrophic damage to its coral reef.
Maya Bay reopened to visitors in early 2022, only to close again in August and September for more rehabilitation work, with a focus on coral. The good news is that the closures appear to have worked as intended.
“Before the first closure there were too many tourists and too many boats,” says National Park warden Adisak Ngiamsanoi. “But now, the wildlife is coming back. I’m seeing many more pipefish and seahorses – shallow water species we hadn’t seen for a while. There are more crabs and lizards on the beach, too.”
New regulations are now in place. “Boats won’t be allowed to anchor there any more,” says Adisak. “Only 45 people will be allowed on the beach at one time, for just one hour. You won’t be able to swim off Maya Bay, either – you’ll only be able to wade in.
“There’s also a new coral propagation programme – there’s a nursery on Phi Phi island and we’ll transplant coral to Maya Bay and other areas of Phi Phi Leh.”
Aegatat Naweewong, a Phi Phi divemaster originally from the nearby island of Koh Yao Yai, says: “We’re seeing a lot more black tip, reef, leopard and nurse sharks. There’s such a great range of species here – during a single dive [in waters outside the bay] you’ll see turtles, sea snakes and sharks.”
But many creatures are still at risk. Aegatat shows me photos of injured sea turtles, many of which have swallowed plastic waste.
“The diving community does a lot to help,” says Aegatat, who adds that a huge number of turtles are injured by speedboat propellers.
“We send injured ones to Phuket, and organise turtle releases. But they’re hard problems to address. For example, a lot of the plastic washes up here from other places. We have regular clean-up days, and a lot of divers are involved in a waste collection scheme called Trash Hero, but not everyone appreciates the problem.
“Tourists have a big part to play. For example, visitors chucking cigarette butts into the sea is a big problem, because turtles eat them.”
British diver Andrew Hewett is general manager of Phi Phi’s Adventure Club dive centre. He also looks after the Phi Phi coral nursery created to boost the health of Phi Phi Leh’s reef.
“In 2006 and in 2010 we had severe coral bleaching events and lots of corals died. Now we’re starting to see a resurgence of the corals and better management is helping the reef. But more needs to be done.
“Visitors, as well as the people involved in restoration work, need to be better educated about the issue,” he says, because the value of the reef goes far beyond its worth to tourism.
“The coral reef is a nursery for so many reef species. These provide food for pelagic species [those found far from the shore] such as sharks and tuna.
“[Reefs] provide coastal protection and reduce erosion from waves and tsunami, and protect seagrass ecosystems and mangrove ecosystems. They also produce large quantities of oxygen for our planet.”
Twenty years ago, I took a sunset cruise to Maya Bay. Our boat pulled up to the islet and we hiked up stairs nailed to the cliffside before walking through the cavern to the sand.
On the short boat ride back to Phi Phi, the captain blasted All Saints’ Pure Shores – The Beach’s theme tune – through his speakers.
This time, I take a cruise only up to near the entrance to the bay, and snap photos from afar.
You don’t need to be a diver to see why these glass-clear waters should be treasured; peering over the side of the boat, I can clearly see huge shoals of multicoloured fish.
Phi Phi Leh’s future looks to be in good hands with the likes of Aegatat and Hewett, whose value lies partly in their ability to show visitors why this part of the world is worth protecting.
Progress might have been slow, but the sense is that the powers that be are finally taking the necessary measures to preserve this beautiful chunk of Thailand, and locals I speak with are keen to welcome visitors back to their spruced-up Maya Bay.
Whether that invitation extends to DiCaprio remains to be seen.