"The Beach" -- Blissful Overtourism at Maya Bay
"Have you been to "The Beach" yet?" asked every drunken, youthful tourist romping around the streets and bars of Koh Phi Phi Don. Life on the island, one of the two twin islands of Koh Phi Phi on Thailand's western coast facing the Andaman Sea, revolved around days spent lounging on the beaches watching the tide ebb and flow; kayaking trips to eclectic beaches like Monkey (aka "rabies" beach); nightly bacchanals on the beach with booze, Thai spliffs, and a rowdy crowd of young internationals; and oceanic junkboat voyages to paradise, Maya Bay's "The Beach." Thanks to the rising star of young Leonardo DiCaprio's acting career, his follow-up movie to Titanic called The Beach, put the Thai Islands on the pop culture radar, especially Phi Phi Leh where his character's life transformed into a beautiful lie on a dream-like paradise. Maya Bay was indubitably a tourist trap, a most splendidly beautiful tourist trap. (It was more than worth it though.)With peer pressure on all fronts, my cousin-brother Raphael and I scrounged together the measly day fare of roughly $15 a head to go for a day tour of Phi Phi Leh with a few Brits from our hostel--some debaucherous boys from Bristol and two oh so fine and wild ladies from London.
On the day of our maiden voyage, the sun was shining, the air was warm and clear, an altogether perfect day for our voyage to paradise cove. From Phi Phi Don its about a 30 minute motorized junkboat ride to Phi Phi Leh, the uninhabited tropical paradise now serving as one of Thailand's, and the Thai Islands', hotbeds for commercial tourism. Approaching the cove I spotted other motorized junkboats, even tourist ships not too different from the one I cruised around Ha Long Bay on, anchored in Maya Beach Cove. Here I was, sailing right into paradise, a paradise both in real life and on the cinema screen.
All those photos of the celestial, crystal clear, emerald waters in Thailand don't do this place justice. May Bay was intoxicating. It was a lucid and tantalizing Eden. The lush forest green foliage of the island, towering limestone cliffs and hills, and emerald waters were a narcotizing delight. All those postcards of beaches in Thailand are probably based off "The Beach" here at Maya Bay. It was a most extraordinary afternoon spent taking shots of Black Hawk with our British comrades in debauchery, frolicking on the sand, and floating out in a sea so sublime even my imagination couldn't conjure it up.
Words utterly fail to describe my enlightened state of enchantment on Maya Bay, but my hypnotic phantasmagoria was marred by pangs of guilt. I was simply a fleeting traveler amongst the hordes that passed through this not-so-secret secret paradise. This place certainly felt like paradise, but I couldn't help but wonder what it would be like to be the solitary human walking along this dreamscape. What was made to be a secret paradise for the honorary and privileged few had become the backdrop for millenial's instagrams (like myself to my chagrin), tourist's hedonistic proclivities in paradise (again, like myself, to my chagrin), and a destination as opposed to a dream. How long before this escape from reality lost its magnetic charm, in small part due to my presence?
My time spent strolling through the sand and floating in emerald ecstasy was a fleeting moment of extraordinary beauty and joy. Just as Leo felt at the end of his twisted journey at "The Beach," the memory of my time in the sun would be trapped in amber in my memory, and it would be a memory no longer accessible thanks to the commercialization of paradise.