Maya Bay. With its towering limestone cliffs, clear waters, coral reefs and white sandy beach, this is one of the most beautiful locations in Thailand. But beauty can come at a price and, up until the middle of 2018, that was the case for Maya Bay. The famous cove had become a poster child for over-tourism. At the peak of its popularity, up to 5,000 visitors a day descended on uninhabited Phi Phi Leh to take in the views enjoyed by Leonardo DiCaprio and his fellow cast members in the 2000 movie, The Beach.
Something had to be done to stop the overcrowding and damage to the environment. In June 2018 Thai authorities belatedly took the decision to close the beach at Maya Bay. The closure was initially meant to be for a few months, but was extended a number of times as corals rejuvenated and marine life, including black tip reef sharks, returned to the shallow waters close to the beach. To assist the rejuvenation of the bay, park officials have planted a new coral reef area with more trees also added to the beach area to help prevent shore erosion.
Out with the old Maya Bay, in with the new
On 1 January 2022, the new look Maya Bay was reopened to the public. Instead of dozens of boats landing haphazardly directly on the beach, a floating pontoon is now in place on the opposite side of the island. Passengers visiting Phi Phi Leh disembark at Loh Samah Bay where there is a National Park booth and facilities for the rangers together with public toilets for visitors. An elevated wooden walkway and nature trail leads visitors through from Loh Samah to the beach at Maya Bay.
There are a number of rules in place to protect Phi Phi Leh and Maya Bay from the excesses of tourism previously seen here. Signs politely warn visitors this is a protected site and people must keep to the pathways. Swimming is prohibited at Maya Bay, but most boat tours will include a stop in nearby Pileh Bay where swimming and snorkelling is permitted.
Daily visitor numbers will be capped and boats have to adhere to rules which only allow a limited number to dock at Loh Samah Bay each hour. It will be interesting to see whether this is maintained as Thailand fully opens up and more tourists return.
It was the stunning natural beauty of Maya Bay that attracted movie producers to its shores in late 1998 as filming commenced for The Beach. Based on Alex Garland’s book of the same name, the film version was directed by Danny Boyle and starred Leonardo DiCaprio.
Ang Thong Marine Park (near Ko Samui in the Gulf of Thailand) was said to be the inspiration for Alex Garland’s classic novel, The Beach. But after scouting different locations, the movie producers chose Maya Bay on the opposite Andaman Coast as the hideaway beach.
Produced by Twentieth Century Fox, the filming of The Beach attracted plenty of controversy. To fit their stylised version of a beach paradise, Fox cleared some vegetation from Maya Bay and added some palm trees. Small diggers were also brought in to flatten some sand dunes. These changes were made with the cooperation of Thai authorities, but environmentalists argued that the changes made would adversely affect the natural ecosystem of the bay. Once filming was complete, Fox said they restored the bay to how it had looked beforehand, but some environmentalists disagreed. As the arguments and counter-arguments continued it was, ironically, a natural disaster that restored the sand dunes to Maya Bay in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami.
How to get to Maya Bay
Boat tours can be arranged to Maya Bay and the Phi Phi Islands from Krabi and Phuket. If you’re a solo traveller, going on a joint tour can be cost effective, but even with all the new restrictions in place the beach can still get relatively busy. Although it’s a huge improvement on the previous madness, you are not going to have Maya Bay to yourself.
If you want to experience the beach at its quietest, you should travel on a private longtail boat from neighbouring Phi Phi Don. This gives you the advantage of setting your own schedule and avoiding the busiest times of the day when the tour boats arrive from Phuket and Krabi.
Best time to visit Maya Bay
On my most recent visit to Maya Bay in March 2022, I stayed on Phi Phi Don at the Panmanee Hotel, a budget choice with a convenient and quiet location close to Tonsai Bay. I was on Phi Phi Don for three nights and spoke with a number of different boatmen and tour offices on the island. They all offered more or less the same deal; a three hour private tour for 1,500 Baht. You can set your own schedule, but it typically includes an hour at Maya Bay, snorkelling/swimming in Pileh Lagoon, a slow ride past Viking Cave where birds’ nests are collected and then a visit to ‘Monkey Beach’ on Phi Phi Don.
My trip was on a weekday morning. Leaving my hotel at 7am I walked to the beach near Tonsai Pier and spoke with the first boatman I saw, the affable Khun Annas.
Khun Annas took me to Maya Bay first for a view of the bay and beach from afar before travelling round to Loh Samah Bay where boats now have to dock. We arrived at Loh Samah Bay around 7.30am and were one of the first longtails there that day. It is here where you pay the National Park fee and walk along the nature trail to the beach at Maya Bay. Arriving on the beach at around 7.40am, there were just a handful of people there. I stayed for over an hour and in all that time there never counted more than nine other people.
As I walked back to my longtail just before 9am, the first speedboats of the day were starting to arrive with group tours. The only slight disadvantage with such an early arrival is that the sun is still low in the sky, so if you’re a photographer the water at Maya Bay isn’t at its dazzling best compared to later in the day. But that is a small trade-off for more or less having the beach to yourself and being able to witness reef-tip sharks swimming in the shallows. Alternatively, you can visit Maya Bay later in the afternoon (the boatmen say after 3pm is quieter) when the tour boats from Krabi and Phuket have moved on.
A ranger sits in the lifeguard watchtower to make sure visitors respect the rules. On my visit he alerted us with a shout of ‘chalam’ (shark) and pointed to an area where there was a reef-tip shark swimming close to shore.
Good to know
Maya Bay is located on the island of Phi Phi Leh in Krabi province. The island is part of the Hat Noppharat Thara-Mu Ko Phi Phi National Park and visitors must pay an entrance fee. That fee (as of March 2022) is 400 Baht for adults and 200 Baht for children. Thai nationals pay 40 Baht for adults and 20 baht for children. The National Park booth opens at 7am.
If you are visiting as part of an organised tour, the amount you pay will normally (but not always) include the National Park fee and you won’t have to pay it separately. If you are hiring your own longtail boat, the boatman will typically charge around 1,500 Baht for a 3-hour trip and you have to pay the National Park fee separately when you arrive on Phi Phi Leh.
Notable rules at Maya Bay include:
- No swimming
- No single-use plastics
- If using sunscreen make sure it is reef-safe
- No drones without permission