Thailand’s most fabled cove has reopened with strict visitor rules in place. Will they be enough to safeguard its newly recovered ecosystem?
My first view of Maya Bay came in 1999, while I was following the cast and crew of Danny Boyle’s The Beach as they filmed around Thailand. Back then, no one had yet heard of this secluded cove at Phi Phi Leh, an uninhabited limestone isle in southern Thailand’s Hat Noppharat Thara–Mu Ko Phi Phi National Park. The setting perfectly encapsulated the titular beach of the Alex Garland novel on which the film is based: an idyllic hideaway cradled by sheer cliffs and fringed by a sliver of fine white sand, with water so clear you could spot coral and other sea life from the shore. Gorgeous.
Then came the film’s release. It wasn’t the blockbuster producers had hoped for, even with a post-Titanic Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead role. But Maya Bay’s star had been born, and the cove soon became a de rigueur stop on the Southeast Asian backpacker circuit.
At the height of its popularity in 2018, more than 5,000 people descended on the tiny bay daily. Scores of boats clogged its shallow waters, deafening eardrums and destroying corals. Throngs of day-trippers from Phuket, Krabi, and nearby Koh Phi Phi Don left behind rubbish and trampled plant life. It was an environmental disaster.
In June 2018, Thai officials pulled the plug. Maya Bay was closed to the public, initially for several months of study, and then, after the full extent of the degradation was revealed, for a further three years of restoration and recovery. Thon Thamrongnawasawat, a marine biologist from Kasetsart University in Bangkok and an advisor to Thailand’s national parks department, told me that coral cover in the bay was down to just two percent by the time the moratorium came into effect. He blames boats’ anchors and propellers for most of the damage; contaminants from washed off sunscreen lotions played a part too. “We had to close it to save it,” he says.
Following the closure, rehabilitation efforts focused on restoring Maya’s coral. With the help of volunteer divers and environmental organizations like Ocean Quest Global, some 20,000 coral fragments were planted in marine nurseries. Though it will take decades for the ecosystem to fully recover, a survey conducted late last year indicated that coral coverage in the bay had already increased to 14 percent.
According to Thamrongnawasawat, the forced convalescence has delivered miraculous results. “The waters are clean and clear, and reef sharks are back,” he says. “We have counted 161 sharks in the area! This has never happened. For many years, we never saw any at Maya Bay.
He adds, “It’s a huge success story — maybe one of the biggest in the world.”
Maya Bay finally reopened in January, putting Thailand’s ecological management skills to the test. Numerous restrictions have been implemented to protect the site from the depredations of the past. Boats are banned from entering the bay; instead, they now dock at a floating pier on the opposite side of the island, from where visitors make their way to the beach on foot along a newly constructed boardwalk over the forest floor. To limit traffic, admission to Phi Phi Leh is capped at 375 people per hour between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., with time slots reserved on a mobile booking app. And swimming in the bay is forbidden, a rule enforced by a cadre of park rangers.
Days after its reopening, I start my journey back to “The Beach” at SAii Phi Phi Island Village, one of the largest and oldest resorts on Koh Phi Phi Don, the main tourist island in the national park. It offers a promising look at how times have changed. When I first visited Phi Phi Don in the early 1990s, the resort was just a collection of rustic huts tucked into an old coconut plantation. As tourism in the area grew, it added niceties such as telephones and electricity, eventually expanding to encompass 201 thatch-roofed bungalows done up in what it bills as “down-to-earth luxe.”
During the pandemic, with tourism largely shut down in Thailand, the property was acquired and renovated by S Hotels & Resorts. Spearheading a group investment in sustainability, it built its Marine Discovery Centre, which hosts free educational programs and conservation exhibits. Longtime general manager Chao Treenawong details other green initiatives like breeding programs for bamboo sharks and clownfish, beach cleanups, contributing to coral regeneration at Maya Bay, and wastewater treatment for a neighboring village. “All of us need to pull together to protect our oceans and environment,” he tells me.
Helping with all this is a young resident marine biologist named Nantiphat Saechao, who joins me on the 45-minute longtail boat ride to Maya Bay. As we head south across the Andaman Sea, he’s buzzing with excitement about reports of shark and dugong sightings as well as the resurgence of a rare crab species called pu kai. This will be his first visit.
Not everyone is as enthusiastic about the prospects, however. Back in Phuket, I had spoken to Michael Bannick, the German owner of Sea Bees Diving, who recalls all too well the days when hundreds of boats mobbed the sea around Maya Bay. “Honestly, I’d prefer that they just keep it closed,” he said.
That sentiment seems validated as we approach Phi Phi Leh. Even during a pandemic, the island’s legendary cove exerts a magnetic pull: the new jetty at Losama Bay resembles an aquatic Bangkok at rush hour. Dozens of boats bob along the shoreline as others maneuver to the dock. Park rangers help tourists ashore, but nobody checks our bookings or logs arrival times, making me wonder just how visitor numbers are being controlled. Hopefully these are just teething problems that will be sorted out as the system matures.
The boardwalk provides a lovely nature trail to the beach, though it’s crammed with people. Five minutes later, the scrum surges across the sand. Selfie sticks rise, clothes shed, sexy and silly Instagram poses proliferate. Occasionally, rangers on loudspeakers bark at someone who has stepped too far past the waterline. It’s a bit of a circus.
And, still … the water is crystal clear, and the limestone cliffs are as enthralling as when I first laid eyes on them in 1999. Then Nantiphat interrupts my daydreams. He’s pointing out sharks in the bay, jumping up and down with joy. Like DiCaprio’s character in The Beach, he’s found his own piece of paradise.
This article originally appeared in the March/May 2022 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Testing the Waters”).