After being closed for more than three years to restore its marine ecosystem, Ko Phi Phi Le’s crown jewel Maya Bay has reopened with new sustainability goals. Travel+Leisure India & South Asia’s contributor dives heart first into its calm waters. By Natasha Patidar
When a friend called asking to go for a diving trip to Phi Phi islands in Thailand, I didn’t give it much thought. For a non-swimmer, jumping off a boat into the ocean isn’t exactly tempting. But it did occupy my mind enough to make me do a quick Google search: ‘Is diving dangerous for non-swimmers?’. The results were reassuring enough to make me say ‘yes’. I also had never seen that shade of blue.
So after four flights, a ferry, tuk tuk, long-tail boat, and finally a tractor ride, we arrived in Krabi. Located in southern Thailand, the province is between Phang Nga and Trang, and features stunning scenery both inland and at sea. With over 150 islands off its coastline, a jungle-covered interior, limestone cliffs, caves, waterfalls, and wildlife, Krabi has plenty to offer, and all of it without tourists thronging the sites.
Part of the Krabi province are the Phi Phi Islands, a group of six islands. Phi Phi Don is the largest and has no roads of its own, while Ko Phi Phi Le, the smaller one has no habitat. The islands gained attention and worldwide popularity after Ko Phi Phi Le’s crown jewel Maya Bay was used as a location for the British-American film The Beach (2000) starring Leonardo DiCaprio. It portrayed a fictional beach hidden from the rest of the world.
Welcome to Maya Bay
Now, I’d not heard of Maya Bay until I reached Thailand. But another spree of googling told me that because of the movie, the island shot to fame enough to have over 5,000 daily tourists, which damaged the marine life and coral reef to an extent that they had to shut it down for over three years.
Originally, officials said Maya Bay would be closed just for four months, but later extended the closure indefinitely, citing the need for more time to replant coral in the bay and expand the island’s visitor facilities. The destination became off limits to tourists in June 2018. I have always been that tourist who would pick up other people’s trash while on a hike, but until now, it had never occurred to me that our mere existence also affects life under the sea. For instance, did you know that the sunscreen we wear for a swim in the ocean is a big factor in killing marine life?
So, with my newfound awareness of the situation, I decided to enrol in a diving school that was working with the locals to help with the conservation project. Natalie Poole, our diving instructor who calls herself a ‘trash hero’ led weekly clean-up drives, had furniture made out of plastic bottles, and taught us how not to harm any marine life while diving. We practised first in the diving school’s swimming pool to get accustomed to the equipment and breathing process. After making sure we were ready and understood the risks, we got a green flag to face the big blue.
Hopping onto our long-tail boat Jorjee, with our oxygen tanks and dive suits in tow, we headed to our diving spot just around the famed Maya Bay. Jorjee ploughed through choppy waters, spritzing us with briny ocean droplets, leaving the land far behind. Nothing quite prepared us for the spot. Sheltered by limestone cliffs, the iconic crystal clear blue lagoon was serene and magnificent. “Ready? We are here, this is Maya Bay,” Poole said.
But how can one be ready? First, to absorb where you were, and second, to jump right in and go nine metres under. I surely wasn’t. But it worked like clockwork—oxygen tank, check. Masks, check. Fins, check. And with a thumbs up, I dove into the Andaman Sea with all my heart.
What I saw next was like tasting a summer fruit. You don’t expect much until you bite into its juicy flesh, and then the burst of flavour consumes you whole. Vibrant schools of fish, corals, and sea plants waved about; swarms of life around us were slightly puzzled with the intrusion. And all I could do is breathe in and out with my eyes wide open.
Once I came back to the surface, it took me a few minutes to process what I’d just seen and also to breathe again from my nose. The calm quickly turned into an excited banter as more divers joined us on the boat yelling, “Did you see THAT? That was amazing! There was a huge shoal! Electric eels, barracuda. Was that a turtle that we saw?”
We dove thrice, with a lunch break on the surface in the midst, each dive site more surreal than the last. Poole guided us to cross our arms in order to not harm anything, tell the difference between damaged coral and the ones that are not, coral grafting techniques and what the conservators are trying to do. Every surface interval prepared us to observe more keenly, spare a thought for what’s under. After dive three, we headed back to the land. The boat was awashed with a sense of calm, not only because of the exhaustion, but of also processing a whole new world. Luckily, our treat was mango sticky rice with Mai Tais in coconut.
But the best part of this story and the happy ending is that the conservators did it! After shutting Maya Bay to revive and restore it, it has now returned to a “good condition”, officials have said. And from January 1, 2022 the pristine cove started welcoming visitors again, but with certain rules and regulations.
The number of tourists is now limited to 375 per round and the one-hour tour must be booked in advance. Visitors are required to get off at Loh Sama at the back of the island and walk five minutes on a wooden trail to Maya Bay. They are only allowed to walk around the area and take photographs and are not allowed to enter the water, but the dive sites around the cove are still open. So get your dive suits on, get on a long-tail boat, and cross your arms under water. I for one, surely can’t wait to take a big bite of that juicy blue again.
Getting To Maya Bay
Phi Phi Cliff Beach Resort offers you views of the limestone cliff on one side, and the Andaman Sea on the other. Doubles from INR 7,800
Where To Dive
Blue View Divers in Phi Phi is an eco dive centre offering a wide range of PADI courses for beginner, advanced, specialty and professional levels.