A young American man rushes through a grove of palm trees, his feet digging into fine white sand. The trees part and he encounters a vista so beautiful, so startling and so unique that it forces him to sit, stare and let loose a sequence of delirious laughs. That man was Leonardo DiCaprio and, as he gazed on in amazement, he was joined by millions of people around the world who were watching the movie, The Beach.
When I saw this famous scene as a 17-year-old in Australia, I was in shock. Despite coming from a country renowned for its phenomenal beaches, never had I seen a strip of sand as pristine and distinctive as the sheltered tropical bay on which DiCaprio was having his moment. I vowed to visit this place, Thailand's May Bay, as soon as possible.
As it turned out, so did many many other people. Due to its worldwide exposure, the wild paradise depicted in the 2000 Hollywood hit became overrun with visitors and was swiftly transformed. Over the following decade, it went from unspoilt to tainted to ruined. So rich was the stream of tourism revenue flowing from Maya Bay that Thai authorities turned a blind eye to its depressing state of decay. Finally, in June last year, they acted. Maya Bay was closed to tourists for four months to allow for the rejuvenation of its decimated coral reefs. That period was extended until 2021 after it became clear just how bad the damage was.
While this has been a long and disheartening sequence of events, the upside is that tourism in southern Thailand may now become less concentrated and more evenly spread across the region's extensive trove of natural wonders. Tourists need not veer far from Maya Bay to find a beguiling facsimile of the haven portrayed in The Beach. It is called Krabi. While the majority of tourists who made their way to Maya Bay did so via Phuket, Thailand's most visited island, the bay is actually located in Krabi Province.
Krabi is Thailand’s best beach destination and has been for a long time. It has dense jungle teeming with exotic wildlife, enormous caves stretching deep into karst mountains, empty beaches fringed with tilting palm trees and ocean water so translucent the eye can barely comprehend it. Go ahead and Google photos of Krabi right now, but don’t be fooled. Everything you see in those images will be unrealistic. In actuality, the vegetation is even lusher, the skies are even bluer, the light is even brighter and the water even clearer.
All of this will sound like rank exaggeration until you set eyes on it yourself and start giggling like DiCaprio. I've done just that many times in Krabi. My most recent moment came while sitting on Nopparat Thara beach on the northern outskirts of Ao Nang, the key tourist town on Krabi's mainland. A lofty Thung Fa tree was offering shade from the forceful sun. In its branches sat a group of colourful birds that sang cheerfully until they were scared away by a small monkey. Turquoise seawater lapped gently against the shore. Beyond that, a single Thai-style wooden long tail boat cruised past two small islands, each blanketed in dense vegetation, towards a horizon dotted with dozens more similarly small, beautiful, inhabited land masses.
On that trip, I decided not to hop on board one of these tourist boats bound for the nearby islands. Twice previously, I had done one of the island tours that ferry travellers from Nopparat Thara to the likes of Poda, Tup and Chicken Islands. Each of these landmasses is almost impossibly attractive, with sheer limestone cliff faces plummeting into the ocean alongside pristine, sheltered beaches. The waters there pulse with marine life. To get acquainted, you just strap on a mask and snorkel, and dive down into their world, where the water clarity renders schools of fish, plodding turtles and cruising manta rays in high definition.
The only downside to these particular islands is that, due to the popularity of those tours, they can get somewhat crowded during the peak visiting hours of 9am to 4pm. Even then, they are not exactly swarming with tourists. But the advantage of so many travellers joining these tours is that most of Krabi’s mainland beaches are left empty. Case in point, Nopparat Thara beach, which, despite being adjacent to a tourist jetty, attracts few swimmers or sunbathers. Even less visited are sublime stretches of coast like Klong Muang and Tub Kaek, both north of Nopparat Thara.
Further to the south, just past the lively Ao Nang area, are the secluded and spectacular Ton Sai, Railay and Ao Phra Nang beaches. Set against the towering karst mountains, these beaches boast astonishing backdrops. The fact that they are hidden away, only accessible via a short long tail boat ride from Ao Nang, just adds to their mystique. The lapping of the ocean at the foot of these peaks has created several caves that can be entered right off the beach. With a Buddhist shrine as its centrepiece, Princess Cave is the most interesting of these.
Tourists seeking more dramatic experiences can venture to the cave complexes of Sudet, Khao Khanab Nam and Khao Phueng, all of which are within 25 kilometres of Ao Nang. But adventure seekers need not leave Krabi's central tourist zone. The mountains that loom above Ton Sai and Railay beaches are among the premier rock climbing destinations in all of South East Asia. Not being a fan of heights, I've given this a miss. But every climber I've met in Krabi has raved about the extraordinary views this activity earned them across Ton Sai Bay to Ao Nang and beyond.
I keep referencing Ao Nang because, in terms of tourism, it is the hub of this region. Although it is growing at a frenetic pace and may in the years ahead become overdeveloped, right now Ao Nang is a very appealing beach resort town. Small, but not too small. Quiet, but not too quiet. Unlike Phuket, for example, where it can be hard to move 50 metres without being hassled by touts trying to sell you suits or tours or souvenirs, the atmosphere here is very “Sabai sabai”, the Thai phrase for relaxed.
Yet Ao Nang still possesses a range of accommodation, shopping and dining options. Tourists who want to sample some of the best Thai food in the area can visit restaurants like Rakhang at the Dusit D2 Hotel, which serves delectable versions of local favourites such as green curry, pad Thai, cashew chicken, massaman curry and a dessert of mango and sticky rice. Or if you're craving a Western meal then try the authentic cuisine prepared by the Italian chef at Johnny's Pizza. The impressive cooking techniques and fresh ingredients at Johnny's shine through in dishes like the tagliatelle porcini, ricotta and spinach ravioli, and the juicy yet crispy pizzas.
Ao Nang, and indeed Krabi province as a whole, is also swollen with street food vendors serving up Thai comfort foods like papaya salad, basil chicken, kway teow fried noodles and spicy tom yum soup. Its coastline, meanwhile, is lined with restaurants, from basic to luxurious, that specialise in fresh seafood plucked from Krabi’s clean ocean waters. My advice? Order some food, takeaway style, find an empty section on one of the region’s majestic beaches, and have your own DiCaprio moment. Maya Bay might have been lost, but Krabi is a paradise found.