Chances are, if you’re planning a trip to Thailand, a lot of people will ask you if you’ve seen The Beach. One of the most famous travel films ever made – possibly something to do with the fact that Leonardo DiCaprio spends most of the film deliciously under dressed – the film has incited a flood of tourism for the paradisiacal island film location on Maya Bay in Ko Phi Phi Lee, with both positive and negative effects.
The positives are obvious; the flurry of tourism generates more money for the relatively impoverished areas surrounding it. Koh Samui – the island from which Leonardo and his new French friends swim on their way to the mysterious location – is rife with tour operators travelling to and from the island on an hourly basis. This, however, threatens the natural beauty and state of Maya Bay’s environment. An increase in tourism equals more pollution, more litter and ultimately, more damage to the idyllic location. This is in addition to the controversial damage 20th Century Fox inflicted on the island in preparation for the film, which included removing trees, landscaping and bulldozing the location until it met their aesthetic standards. Scandalous.
Because of this, Thai officials have placed a tourism limit on the infamous beach, and aside from one company who are allowed to take groups of up to ten to the island for an overnight stay, no one is permitted to be there from 5pm onwards.
When I was in Thailand a couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to be able to book this overnight stay with the chosen company, and even now it excites me to tell people that I camped on The Beach. This is often met with jealous looks and the usual oohs and ahhs that accompany stories of travelling, but aside from provoking envy in my friends and family, when I really think about this experience, it didn’t live up to the hyped up reputation at all.
The setting is beautiful, and it is idyllic; I had an amazing experience. But was it all it was cracked up to be? No. But what was I expecting? A ten years younger, slightly mad DiCaprio, running naked around the place? Probably not. But I was expecting Ko Phi Phi Lee to be bigger, more majestic, and generally abundant in a certain magical quality that outshone all the other Thai islands. Although the place is beautiful, it was nothing more exciting than the other islands, and it is clear that the only draw for the thousands of tourists visiting every week is the excitement of being on the location of a famous film. I had a better time on Kho Phangan, the home of the notorious Full Moon party. Even though the Full Moon party is another aspect of Thailand that is probably just as hyped up as The Beach, the atmosphere lives up to expectations, and I definitely did not leave disappointed.
Despite the disappointment staying over on Maya Bay is still a very cool thing to do if you’re in Thailand. Camping on a beach around a campfire on an island on which you know you are one of only 10 people is a pretty unique experience. But if you’re going to go, just don’t let yourself build it up to movie proportions – you’ll only be left with an anticlimactic, slightly disappointed feeling in the pit of your stomach, and a distinct lack of Leo.