Return to paradise
Travellers have arrived at Phi Phi and Maya Bay as the dilemma that pits mass tourism against environmental concern and the never-ending pandemic loom
At Maya Bay, hawk-eyed park officials patrol the sandy stretch, whistles at the ready. It was a gorgeous morning last Thursday, just days after the fabled beach on Phi Phi Leh Island had reopened after three years of closure, and the 300 or so holidaymakers, masked or otherwise, were ambling or striking catwalk poses on the pillow-soft sand, awestruck by the emerald splendour around them.
Tourists admiring the wonders of Maya Bay on Phi Phi Leh Island last week, days after the fabled beach was reopened by the Department of National Parks. New rules mean visitors can only dip their toes into the water.
But look there. A group of shirtless farang men, carried away by the lulling waves, began to wade too deep into the water. One of the park officials spotted them (as I in turn spotted him) and quickened his steps. Eyes stern and telescoped on the group of excited foreigners about to transgress the new rule, the official shuffled towards the men, waved his arm and put the whistle to his lips. Preeeeet!!! "Please come up, only your toes! You can't go down to your waist!"
Two minutes later the same scene was repeated. Another preeeeet!!! -- this time the warning was directed at a little Thai boy splashing too enthusiastically and on the verge of breaking the "only your toes in the water of Maya Bay" decree. His parents quickly bundled him up and away. There's a "No Swimming" sign, but it seems superfluous. The whistle-blowers are watching you.
As they should. Nowhere else in Thailand could we witness the clash of as many pressing impulses as at the beautiful Maya Bay, the crown jewel of Noppharat Thara and Phi Phi National Park. The return of tourists on Jan 1 and the hope for economic revival slam head-on with conservation efforts and environmental concern, which gained strength during the closure of the bay. Blacktip sharks have returned to the shallows once trampled by as many as 8,000 tourists a day, a creepy-crawly swarm of humanity that illustrated the worst of over-tourism. In every promo material of Maya, there's also a mention that the bay was a location of the 2000 film The Beach -- an alluring, Hollywood-endorsed morsel of information, though the copywriter never includes the accompanying fact that vociferous protests by environmentalists nearly shut down the filming back then.
The no-swimming rule is strictly observed, with park officials patrolling the beach at all times.
Tour boats have to dock at the back of Phi Phi Leh. Visitors then make their way on foot to Maya Bay at the front.
Then there's the pandemic, breathing down everyone's neck like the invisible devil and further complicating the equation.
The Phuket Sandbox and subsequent border opening have swelled the number of foreign visitors, but as the New Year's fireworks exploded and Maya Bay reopened, the Omicron variant spoiled the party somewhat. Tour operators frown, conservationists rejoice (the sharks will keep coming!), while public health officials keep watch with wary eyes.
A park ranger stationed at the checkpoint told me that since the reopening, only 375 visitors are allowed on Phi Phi Leh per hour, or 4,100 people daily. That's half what it usually received during the peak period of the mid-2010s. The park people were strict with the headcount, as far as I could tell. A guide from the tour company told me her boat was held off from docking the day before, since the island had already exceeded its capacity for that hour. "So we had to go the another side of the island first and came back to Maya Bay later," she said. "The park people are serious about this."
Now all boats arrive at the back of Phi Phi Leh instead of entering Maya Bay from the front like before. That's a perfect policy: the dramatic sweep of the bay and its encircling limestone cliffs now open up to the beholder unimpeded, a bowl of wondrous geology with its jade-lime-turquoise seawater (you exhaust the possible shades of green) as sublime as poetry. The no-swimming, for-your-toes only rule also lends the beach a sense of order and calm. No splashing, no merry-making, only admiration. Is it possible for tourism and nature to negotiate a delicate balance? For how long? What will happen after Covid and the global horde returns?
A solitary bather wades into Pileh Lagoon, a giant bowl of emerald seawater sometimes called ‘paradise’s swimming pool’.
The Department of National Parks limits visitors to Maya Bay at 375 an hour, or around 4,100 a day. During the pre-pandemic peak, the bay received up to 8,000 visitors a day.
Earlier that day, we left a pier on Phuket on a speedboat with around 30 mask-wearing others, the majority Thai. The number of Covid-19 cases was rising steadily around the country then, and Phuket saw over 300 cases reported the night before (and climbing). The word Omicron hung in the air like smog, or like bad senators on a quest to undermine liberty. But the mood on the boat was jolly. The sun beamed down unhindered. We felt lucky to be one of the first visitors to return to Maya Bay.
Tour operators requested vaccination records from all visitors. That minimum protocol, as we all know, is exactly that: a minimum succour to make our beach holidays a little worry-free. Masks were kept on during most of the boat ride. But once our feet hit the beach and the air was tinted with the aroma of salty sea-foam and suntan lotion, we felt the urge to take a deep breath, again and again.
The tour followed the standard route I remembered having taken years ago. After 45 minutes on Maya Bay, we headed to a spot where swimming was not only permitted but prescribed. Now, the entrance to Pileh Lagoon is a visual drama worthy of an encore, as the boat rounded a towering cliff Phi Phi Leh and cruised, at leisurely speed, into another giant bowl of turquoise water backdropped by jagged, million-year-old outcrops. Sometimes Pileh Lagoon is called, quite theatrically, "paradise's swimming pool". Yes, only that humans always diminish the majesty of paradise, even earthly ones.
Not surprisingly, the breathtaking wonders of this emerald pond is inversely proportional to the number of tourist boats anchored there. On my visit, we were fortunate to see only six or seven other boats, yachts, and catamarans bobbing with their bikini-clad passengers. On its busiest day -- in the pre-Covid age when international travellers still descended en masse -- Pileh Lagoon resembled, in the word of my guide, "a floating market", with boats jostling deck to deck, propeller to propeller, and swimmers had to elbow for aquatic space while amateur swimsuit models and their boyfriends-photographers angling to find unobstructed shots.
We moved from the speedboat to small long-tailed boats captained by Phi Phi locals. Showing tourists around is their livelihood, and these men had to resort to fishing during the lockdown. When Phuket and Krabi reopened to foreigners last August, locals were concerned of imported Covid risks. "But now, it's better that more people have started coming again," the skipper told me as he steered us to a couple of secluded-enough spots to swim. He showed us grottos and beaches where we could have the best photos, where the water was so tranquil I thought I was floating in a sea-salted bathtub. The captain was eager to give us the full experience. The dilemma of mass tourism and public health will not go away soon, or ever, to tourists and locals alike. Ignorance is not bliss, but it's hard not to admit that Pileh Lagoon somehow managed to shun all worries to the backs of our minds.
We ended the programme with lunch on Phi Phi Don, the largest, most developed island-town of the Phi Phi archipelago with a Muslim community as well as hotels, piers and restaurants. It was a familiar sight seen at many island-towns in the Andaman or the Gulf of Thailand: long-tail boats anchored by the beach lined with eateries and guesthouses, while a few steps inland, we came to a small path winding through cafes, shops, roti vendors, tour booths and diving facilities, with mostly non-Thai tourists shuffling around. Tattooed bodies, suntanned backs, unmasked faces, whiffs of overheard conversations in the Babel of European languages; I drank the ocean breeze, devoured the salted air, brushed sand off my feet, then looked down at my newsfeed to see the world prepping itself for a new round of possible doom. What happens on and off Phi Phi islands matters, of course, but it also doesn't matter -- at least for a while.
Foreign travellers on Phi Phi Don, the archipelago’s largest and most developed island.
A long-tail boat waiting for tourists at Pileh Lagoon. Phi Phi locals make a living captaining boats for visitors. During the pandemic, some of them had to resort to fishing instead.