When travel dreams die…our disappointing trip to The Beach

Posted on 06. Mar, 2012 by in Asia, Asia, Destination Tips, Destinations, Thailand, Travel Reflections, Travel Tips

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 “You hope, and you dream. But you never believe that something’s gonna happen for you. Not like it does in the movies. And when it actually does, you want it to feel different, more visceral, more real.” Richard, The Beach

Visiting the beach, or rather The Beach was a must for us while we were in Thailand. Few movies/books have played such a role in our wanderlust as Alex Garland’s novel-turned-Leonardo DiCaprio blockbuster The Beach. So we couldn’t have been more excited to see that jaw-droppingly gorgeous, secluded Maya Bay in person. It turns out, we almost wish we didn’t come here at all.

Look, we know that the scenery is truly breathtaking, and some people looking at the images might say they would give an arm or a leg to spend time in surroundings like these…We get that. Read on for why we found the situation to be pretty ugly…

maya bay phi phi lei thailand
After disembarking from our ferry from Koh Lanta, we weaved our way through the narrow streets of Koh Phi Phi, which, rather than any sort of tropical paradise, was cluttered with cheap hostels, overpriced guest houses, souvenir shops, dive shops, internet cafes, tour agencies and western/westernized restaurants. Where were all the Thais? And while we’re at it – where was anyone over 30? This isn’t what our experience was supposed to be like.

koh phi phi tourist streetWe’re not entirely naive. We came over on a ferry with at least 200 people, so we knew that Koh Phi Phi and Phi Phi Lei were not exactly undiscovered.

day trippers from phuketBut at least a small part of us both had hoped for at least a touch of the romanticism and escapism to remain on Phi Phi Lei, the tiny island where the actual film location is set. In the book, The Beach, Garland describes the hand-drawn map discovered in a cheap hostel in the backpacker ghetto in Khao San Road, Bangkok:

The island’s perimeters were drawn in green biro and little blue pencil waves bobbed in the sea. A compass sat in the top-right-hand corner, carefully segmented into sixteen points, each with an arrow tip and appropriate bearing. At the top of the map it read ‘Gulf of Thailand’ in thick red marker. A thinner red pen had been used for the islands’ names. Then, on one of a cluster of small islands I noticed a black mark. An X mark. I looked closer. Written underneath in tiny letters was the word ‘Beach’.

Now here we were on nearby Koh Phi Phi, experiencing the polar opposite of the description above. Dozens of travel agencies were ready to sell us tickets to boat tours to Maya Beach, posters with Leonardo DiCaprio’s face plastered on them urging us to experience ‘The Beach’.  But damn it we had made the decision to come here, and committed to seeing what The Beach looked like in real life so we booked a snorkeling tour around Phi Phi Lei, which included a mandatory stop at Maya Bay.

the beach toursThe first stop on our tour was Monkey Beach – one of the most disgusting real-life example of apathetic animal abuse either of us have ever seen. The beach is inhabited solely by monkeys, who, upon seeing our ramshackle wooden boat arrive, sprinted and jumped on board. Instead of some fresh fruit or other monkey-friendly food, our soulless tour guide opened up a bag of chips and starts tossing them over the side of the boat one by one to get these extras from Outbreak off our boat.
monkey on boatThe guide threw the empty bag right onto the beach, leaving it for the trans-fat addicted monkeys to tear apart.  Some people had jumped off into the water to feed the monkeys as well, and one man, let’s call him Big Fat Foreigner, complained of a monkey bite as he got back on the boat. Ah, yes, Monkey Bite, said the guide. 35 people got bit yesterday, too.

All we could think was – thanks for the warning, buddy.

monkey beach touristsSo now that our hearts have sunk into our stomachs, we were unenthusiastic about the snorkeling stop that came next – and we would stay that way when we saw over 20 boats lined up in traffic – yes, actual traffic, in the main snorkeling areas. The water smelled of gasoline, a Chinese tourist on our boat thought nothing of throwing his empty pack of cigarettes in the water, and though we saw small schools of tropical fish, the coral was barely surviving.

phi phi lei tourist boatsFinally, already entirely disenchanted, we arrived in Maya Bay. Those who know the film may remember that The Beach was closed off to the ocean by massive rock formations around the bay, and it was entirely isolated. In reality, that closed off feeling can only be seen from one specific angle, otherwise it is completely open to the ocean. And anyway, speedboats and mini-yachts lined up on side of the beach, long-tail boats on the other.

maya bay tourist boatsAll together, the boats took up two-thirds of the shore, leaving hundreds of tourists to float in the remaining stretches of warm, knee-deep water. Rather than that idyllic white sand beach where Leo and friends played beach volleyball, or where the Swedes emerged from the water trailing gallons of blood after that infamous shark bite, this beach resembled more Spain’s Costa del Sol in the summer. We were given an hour to mull about, take pictures, buy ice cream and gawk at the hundreds and hundreds of tourists – undoubtedly fans of the film or the book.

maya bay phi phi leiNot that we place any blame on the author Alex Garland. After all, he places the island in the Gulf of Thailand, not the Andaman Sea. The location scout who discovered Phi Phi Lei isn’t to blame either – he did his job amazingly well. This was the perfect location for the film (and yes, we know that these pictures reveal stunning sights. We’re not trying to sound spoiled here, it was just the antithesis of the romantic notions of travel in the book/film).
maya bay thailandTo be fair, there is no single person, no agency, no one to blame for the overrun beaches, polluted water and unhealthy monkeys. When tourism opportunities spring up for newly popular destinations, individuals jump at the chance to maximize profits and run successful businesses. We just hope that lessons have been learned from this and that in similar situations in the future, sustainable tourism is fostered, encouraged or even made mandatory. We know that we have certainly learned a lesson out of all of this…don’t expect reality to match a work of fiction.

maya bay with longtail boats

Have you been to The Beach? What did you think?

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52 Responses to “When travel dreams die…our disappointing trip to The Beach”

  1. Dave

    07. Mar, 2012

    Couldn’t agree more. I saw Maya Bay late in the morning one sunny day back in 2010, and it was exactly as you describe. I was doing a sailing course at the time, and our instructor asked if we’d like to throw out the anchor and take the dinghy ashore.

    One look at the dozens of longtails and cruise boats belching diesel and tourists into the water in equal measure gave us the answer.

    Not a chance.

    We sailed right on past.

    Having said all that, I was surprised when I spent a day on Phi Phi a couple of weeks ago. If I squinted my eyes just right (and held my nose as well), it wasn’t as terrible as I had expected. A million miles from ‘unspoiled’, but I actually thought it would be much worse…
    Dave recently posted..A surprising day on Phi Phi

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    • Dani

      07. Mar, 2012

      Dave, a sailing trip through the Andaman Sea sounds great – you can stop at all the unspoiled little islands and deserted beaches and sail right past the busy ones. Once our boat got close to the bay and we saw all the day trippers from Phuket (literally hundreds of people on several boats) arriving, we just wanted to do what you did: sail right on past :D

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  2. Patrick Hearn

    07. Mar, 2012

    This is one of the reasons I try to avoid setting too many expectations – the more I learn of travel, the more I realize my own ignorance towards the world. In a way, it’s a good thing; I can be pleasantly, or not so pleasantly surprised by what I discover, without having any preconceptions shattered.
    Patrick Hearn recently posted..Travel Fears: What if it isn’t fun?

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    • Dani

      07. Mar, 2012

      Patrick, you’re totally right. Whenever we had low expectations, we were usually pleasantly surprised, but most of the times when we have high expectations the place doesn’t live up to them. I must also admit that the longer we travel, the harder it gets to really impress us because we tend to compare everything to places we’ve been.

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  3. Terra

    07. Mar, 2012

    Although all you have said is true, I had a completely different experience. I credit this to many things but the main ones I think is likely that my expectations were significantly lower and also I had a great guide.

    When we arrived to monkey beach, or sailboat parked offshore and we swam in, avoiding monkeys jumping on the boat. Our guide provided bananas to feed the monkeys and we were warned that they may bite and if they did we were to blame… They are wild animals after all. We were also advised to stay away from the olr, larger monkeys or at least exercise more caution.

    As for the set of the beach, we parked on the opposite side and there was one other boat. To access “the beach” we snorkeled in and had a short walk thru the caves and a path. This almost never happened because again our guide warned us that it would likely be crowded and touristy… That may be a disappointment, but def not a surprise.

    Anyway while on the beach our small group (4 tourists, a guide and a captain) had a grewt time playing frisbee and a game of football… All with great scenery!

    Ps our guide was captain bob… So he gave us the real info and we enjoyed it much more because of it!

    Reply to this comment
    • Dani

      07. Mar, 2012

      Thanks so much for your comment, Terra. Your experience sounds so much better than ours – can’t believe what a difference a small group and a good guide can make.

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      • Terra

        12. Mar, 2012

        Hey it’s just called sailing booze cruise… Canadian captain bob… Their stall is along the street to the beach 2000 baht per female, 2200 for males. Less if u don’t want to drink.

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    • Mary

      10. Mar, 2012

      We are headed to Phi Phi for the day next week and figure what is described here is accurate. But Terra, your trip sounds much better. Could you give me the details so I can book through Captain Bob??

      So grateful for this post, thanks girls. We are also of the movie too but we also assume it will be tourist packed:)

      Reply to this comment
      • Dani

        11. Mar, 2012

        Mary – we hope you’re having a good time on the island – I bet the boys will still love the beaches & the snorkeling! We’d love to hear how you liked Phi Phi.

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  4. Lane

    07. Mar, 2012

    I think a good rule of thumb is: If the location has appeared in a book, TV or film, its long, long since been discovered. And, Hollywood can make anything pretty — cropping out shacks, special effects sprinkled across sunsets and CGI fairies working their magic.
    Lane recently posted..Los Angeles Part VIII: Dog Beach

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    • Dani

      07. Mar, 2012

      Very true! But while we found other destinations that appeared in a movie or book to be touristy, what bothered us in Maya Bay was how unsustainable tourism was – it seemed to be all about making the most money out of it without caring for the environment at all. There were just no limits as for how many people were allowed to be in the Bay at the same time, and we know of so many places that limit the number of visitors per day, etc.

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  5. Stephanie

    07. Mar, 2012

    At least it looks like they cleaned the BEACH. When I was in Thailand in November, everywhere was covered in trash and we started an inpromptu cleaning troupe.

    That’s exactly why on my next trip to Thailand, I will only go to places that are not in the guide books. They way tourism is destroying this wonderful country is heartbreaking.
    Stephanie recently posted..Shit my Argentinians say…

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    • Dani

      07. Mar, 2012

      Steffi – We were shocked how dirty some of the places we visited were – but nobody seemed to care. Maya Bay was clean when we visited, but we found several beaches on Koh Lanta that had not been cleaned up in a while.

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  6. jan

    07. Mar, 2012

    Looks pretty on a postcard.
    jan recently posted..THE GOOD OLD DAYS – NO?

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    • Dani

      07. Mar, 2012

      It is picture-perfect – if you cut out all the noise and the smell of gasoline ;-) We spoke to someone who actually did the camping trip out there and she said that it was well worth it because from late afternoon to early morning they had the bay to themselves.

      Reply to this comment
  7. Kelvin

    08. Mar, 2012

    This is kinda long article, but I enjoyed the photos. The views are awesome. I love the beach, the islands and the boats.

    Reply to this comment
  8. Rebecca

    08. Mar, 2012

    I’m horrified at how people seem to be tearing apart the beauties of this world slowly!

    Giving monkeys chips! Littering in one of the few oceans that don’t look like green vomit!

    Guess what you describe is the problems with having expectations!

    Reply to this comment
    • Dani

      09. Mar, 2012

      Feeding the monkeys chips was truly the worst! Just thinking about it still makes me cringe..

      Reply to this comment
  9. It’s good to hear about this kind of experience. I guess tourism is good for the local economy in some ways, but also kinda ruins the charm. I guess seeking out more remote spots may be the way to go!
    Scott – Quirky Travel Guy recently posted..Travel memory: Vacation in Orlando

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    • Dani

      09. Mar, 2012

      That’s true. Before they filmed the movie in Maya Bay, it was only filled with a few local fishermen, now hundreds of tourists every day.. not sure if the locals are particularly happy about it, even though it brings in quite a few tourist dollars..

      Reply to this comment
  10. Amanda

    08. Mar, 2012

    Unfortunately, when big tourism opportunities arise like this in developing countries, sustainability usually is the last thing on peoples’ minds. Tourism developers latch on to the promises of immediate economic gains, and kind of ignore everything else. Which is of course how you end up with unhealthy monkeys, dying coral, and a completely ruined atmosphere…
    Amanda recently posted..Photo Essay: Wild Alaska

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    • Dani

      09. Mar, 2012

      I agree, but you see in other places that they limit the number of visitors, for example Machu Picchu or Antelope Canyon in the U.S. In the case of Koh Phi Phi & Phi Phi Lei it was particularly disappointing to see how the islands were treated because they are both part of a National Park.

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  11. Yeesh, that monkey situation sounds horrible. Over 30 people got bitten?? And the monkeys are just thrown bags of chips? How incredibly sad.

    I’ve never seen the movie or read the book, but I’m sort of glad. It would be hard to see the “before” and “after” of such a serene place.
    Christy @ Technosyncratic recently posted..Learning to Cook Thai Food in Chiang Mai, Thailand

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    • Dani

      11. Mar, 2012

      Christy – yes, and it was the way he just threw the fact that over 30 people got bitten into the conversation, as if it was no biggie at all. Still makes me angry! Highly recommend reading the book though, it is a fantastic novel & I am sure you’ll enjoy it.

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  12. Jodie

    10. Mar, 2012

    We went there in 2006.

    We didn’t experience that amount of boats/tourists (maybe half a dozen max.). The monkeys were around but didn’t come near us, we were warned not to go into the bushes near them.
    I do remember the beach being really filthy, no one in our group would take their shoes off or go in the water. We basically just stood there and waited to get on the boat to leave again.

    Not a great experience, and doesn’t sound like its any better years later.

    Reply to this comment
    • Dani

      11. Mar, 2012

      Jodi – interesting that the monkeys didn’t come anywhere near you back then, they must be so much more used to the tour groups now (and the food that comes with them). Sad that the water was so polluted back then already – but with so many boats going in and out of the bay every day, it’s no wonder that all the gasoline and trash stay in there :(

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  13. Juergen

    10. Mar, 2012

    Gosh, last I was there was in 1992 = 20 years ago: it didn’t look this crowded, but already back then I felt it was unbearable and not attractive at all. Afterwards I heard from Thais on Ko Lanta about all the sewage problems on the tiny Ko Phi Phi, so it was clear to me that I would never return…
    It’s a shame how humankind always manages to spoil a paradise.

    Reply to this comment
    • Dani

      11. Mar, 2012

      Wow, 20 years ago! Would have thought that it was completely undiscovered back then. If they already had sewage problems then – imagine how bad it is now! At times the smell was unbearable.

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  14. Suzy Tyler

    11. Mar, 2012

    When people ask me where I have not been and really want to go I always say Ko Phi Phi. I knew it had to be different from The Beach, more touristy now, but still, I thought it would be respected!

    I am sad to here about this… gasoline smelling water, begger monkeys, and travelers who have not come to savor nature, but to exploit it. So unfortunate… it makes me completely reconsider going there.

    Reply to this comment
    • Dani

      11. Mar, 2012

      Suzy – there are much more beautiful islands in Thailand than Phi Phi. It depends on what you’re looking for though – if you’re into partying and hooking up hanging out with other backpackers Phi Phi is great, but if you’re looking for deserted, pretty beaches and tranquility, there are better places to go.

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  15. Nate @yomadic

    13. Mar, 2012

    Totally understand this feeling. Have you heard about Paris Syndrome? If not, look it up, it’s fascinating (to me anyway!).

    Couple of years ago, I *almost* went to “The Beach”, with my partner. I had my suspicions, so we went to Ralay Beach instead, not too far away. Ralay was a BEAUTIFUL beach, with few tourists (at the time we were there), I would recommend it to anyone. Although, due to the low number of accommodation options, it can be a little pricey.

    I really enjoy your writing style, personal, but matter-of-fact.
    Nate @yomadic recently posted..Tim Ho Wan Hong Kong – A Guide to the World’s Cheapest Michelin Star Restaurant

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    • jess

      14. Mar, 2012

      Thanks Nate! Yes we’ve heard about the Paris Syndrome – fascinating indeed!! We’ve seen pictures of Ralay and it really looks amazing, but since our disappointing island hopping experience in the south we haven’t been back there yet. We’ll visit Ralay for sure next time we’re in Thailand!

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    • LozinTransit

      17. Mar, 2012

      Thanks for putting a name to the syndrome. A Lithuanian had told me about it and I reveled in repeating the idea that people could be shocked into submission by reality. It played on stereotypes of Japan and France to be sure but I’ve always been fascinated by concepts of reality.
      I never fact checked it because I was drawn to the idea at its face. I’m glad its real :)
      LozinTransit recently posted..Coming Home from a year abroad. Beating the travel Blues: The Hurt Locker (2008)

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  16. For 91 Days Travel Blog

    13. Mar, 2012

    This looks like hell! This what we had in mind when we think of Thailand especially after the whole The Beach hype. But you both convinced us to put Thailand back on our list but making a big big loop around The Beach!
    For 91 Days Travel Blog recently posted..The New Town and Weekend Market of Anuradhapura

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    • Dani

      14. Mar, 2012

      Oh Thailand should stay on your list for sure!! There are so many more beautiful beaches and we found little towns where didn’t see any other tourists at all! And even in the major tourist destinations you still can get ‘off the beaten path’. The food alone is worth spending 91 days here ;-)

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  17. Dawn

    13. Mar, 2012

    You made me smile over your “extras from Outbreak” remark.

    I agree with you, what you see is the biggest thing I hate about making a scenic place get too commercialized. The people want money pouring in, they pay for it badly.

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  18. LozinTransit

    14. Mar, 2012

    After ‘living the dream’ traveling, sharing my own story and being drawn to art myself I realised its all fiction. In Keith Richards’ book ‘Life’ he drops in a line so casually that it resonates even more – “Memory is fiction”.
    The best way to hear a story, even if its your own is to hear a third party tell it. Our imagination is really great at conjuring up more than is really there. Its great at glamorising.

    That’s why its rewarding to experience more and more of life, to still enjoy the chase even when we know the prize might not be all it seems. Its the beauty of movies, art and dreams!
    LozinTransit recently posted..Maiden ‘Loz in Transit’ Wallpaper

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  19. Stu @ WheresMyPassport

    16. Mar, 2012

    One of my favourite films and I suppose the realism of the idylic place being ruined by tourists (hence the secret map) came true. Still it remeains on my list of things to-do and one day, I too will be one of those ‘tourists’!
    Stu @ WheresMyPassport recently posted..New Years Eve Sydney Style

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    • Dani

      18. Mar, 2012

      It really is the perfect example of what the book tried to say, Stu. Hope you’ll still have a good time when you get to visit The Beach – The overnight camping might be a good option if you want to have Maya Bay to yourself :)

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  20. All those boats. Awful!

    Experiences like this make you stronger, right :)
    Kent @ No Vacation Required recently posted..When Things Get Ugly, Commit

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    • jess

      19. Mar, 2012

      Hi Kent, yes, it does make us a bit stronger, and just a lot more realistic. Most the time we are not so starry-eyed, but it was only the second week into our first trip to Asia ever, and the Beach is one of our favorite books ever. Ah well. On to the next! :-)

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  21. Alex

    20. Mar, 2012

    Okay, I think I have the solution to this disappointment. Forget the place where the movie was filmed- and go to the place where the book was set. Ang Thong Marine Park (the seeing of “the beach” in The Beach) is a protected marine park. I’ve been twice now, once on a much more common day trip from Koh Samui and once on a much more unique overnight trip from Koh Tao where we actually camped in tents on the island.

    Once the day trips leave- it is paradise. There are monkeys- WILD monkeys howling and swinging from the trees. There are no bars, no lights, just a few cabins and tents on a stunning beach. There is decent snorkeling, some kayaks, and a hiking trail with the best view in Thailand.

    Basically, COME TO KOH TAO! We can hang out and I can hook you up with that tour!
    Alex recently posted..Travel Regrets

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    • Dani

      21. Mar, 2012

      I know I know, we have to finally make it to Koh Tao!! I still remember your post on the Ang Thong Marine Park and it is definitely on our list of places to visit – it sounds like paradise compared to Maya Bay!

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  22. Sabrina

    21. Mar, 2012

    Never been and don’t think I’m likely to go after reading this :) It sounds really bad. I’ve been to touristy places like that and usually go away disappointed. My happiest travel memories are of places that were positive surprises because I had low/no expectations. Sometimes I think I overprepare and that messes with my expectations… Also, I think I should read The Beach as I haven’t yet :)
    Sabrina recently posted..Popular Food in Germany: What This German Expat Sometimes Dreams of

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    • jess

      22. Mar, 2012

      Ooooh! Please read The Beach -it’s just so good. But yes, low expectations are the best thing to have when traveling, could not agree more!

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  23. Kim Wright

    03. Apr, 2012

    Totally agree with is post. You seem to have had an identical experience to us on our few days at Phi Phi and our snorkel trip to Maya Bay. We found Phi Phi ok during the day – not a cultural experience by any means but it was easy to navigate the island and the cheap pad Thai and shakes went down a treat. When the sun went down however we could not believe the way people treated the island – with absolutely no respect. We are a young couple who love a drink or two but the way many were acting when the sun went down was nothing but embarrassing.

    We didn’t have very high expectations for the tour to Maya Bay but even with low expectations we were surprised at how over-run the beach is and that nothing has been out in place to manage the amount of people visiting at one time.

    We couldn’t believe how many boats lined the shore! We didn’t even get off the boat at monkey island … Everyone else in the boat went ashore and there were people feeding the monkeys chips when the person freaked out as the monkey charged at her so she dropped the bag and the monkey collected it. We even had a couple who had brought along some pizza to feed them! It was sad to see and not enjoyable at all.

    Reply to this comment
    • jess

      03. Apr, 2012

      Wow, Kim, how similar our two experiences were. But you say it right – we’re young(ish), we enjoy a good time and a few drinks, but it was the utter disrespect some of the tourists had for the island coupled with the distinct lack of visitor management, especially out in Maya Bay. The fact that those two people brought pizza, though, that’s crazy – what were they thinking?!

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  24. Sam

    15. Apr, 2012

    This post fascinated me as I just finished reading The Beach last week. The book was great, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. We were actually on the Perhentian Islands in Malaysia at the time, and it was fascinating being in a place that has obviously grown a lot in regards to tourism over the last few years, but is nowhere near as back as Koh Phi Phi, Koh Phangan and the like in Thailand. Fingers crossed it never gets like that either.

    We were in Thailand a few years ago and as I hadn’t read the book or seen the movie, so we didn’t consider going to Maya beach. But, after reading this I am glad we didn’t, we did do a trip out to Ang Thong Marine Park and although some areas were beautiful the snorkeling was the same, dead/bleached coral, rubbish everywhere and boats as far as you could see. Tourism that exists without any regard for the environment or long term sustainability is sad to see.
    Sam recently posted..Becoming a fiend – a borek fiend

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    • Dani

      17. Apr, 2012

      Thanks for your comment, Sam! We’ve heard great things about the Perhentians but people advised us not to go there when we were in Malaysia in February, because it was still raining on that side of the country. So we went to Langkawi instead, which I believe is much touristier than the Perhentians – still far from what Koh Phi Phi is like though! Sometimes it’s better not to visit a place where a great movie was made – this was definitely one of these moments.

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  25. Rachael

    02. Feb, 2013

    Would you recommend the Andaman Sea as a better alternative? Or it that more of the same as well?

    Reply to this comment

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