The author on the beach as the sun sets at Maya Bay. (Photo: Erica Bray)
by Erica Bray
When Leonardo DiCaprio isn’t making movies, he can be found frolicking on beautiful beaches with beautiful women. But there’s one sandy stretch that he’s made famous above all others — Maya Bay on the Phi Phi Islands in Thailand, aka the beach in his movie “The Beach.”
While I was backpacking around the country, an American expat encouraged me to travel there: It is considered one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, and you can stay for less than $100 a night. Of course, I signed up.
Each day, family-run Maya Bay Tours takes 25 guests on a “Sleep Aboard” overnight visit to Maya Bay, located on Koh Phi Phi Leh — it is the only tour company allowed such access. At 3,000 Thai Baht (or $94) per person, including food and snorkeling equipment, it’s a major bargain. (As a result, you have to book well in advance: Trips are routinely sold out, especially during high season, which is from December-March.) The only thing that could make it any more exciting would be Leo himself!
Tourists day-trip to Maya Bay in colorful longboats. (Photo: Erica Bray)
With no hotels allowed on the island of Koh Phi Phi Leh, where Maya Bay is located, it has become a wildly popular day-tripper destination. Longboats, sailboats, and yachts dot the bay, and tourists scamper about the white-sand beach competing for photo ops. The noisy daytime scene doesn’t exactly evoke the remote paradise portrayed in “The Beach.”
That’s why Maya Bay Sleepaboard is special: You get to linger on the beach long after crowds depart, spend the night there aboard a boat, and wake up in paradise before the first wave of tourists arrives.
Maya Bay is one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. (Photo: Thinkstock)
My adventure began in the afternoon, when I boarded the boat in Phi Phi Don carrying a tiny overnight bag and a towel. Bringing anything more would have been silly. (I wound up wearing my bathing suit for the entire 19-hour adventure.)
Following a snorkeling stop and a slow float past the eerie Viking Cave came the hold-my-breath moment that I’d been awaiting: rounding the corner for a first glimpse of Maya Bay.
It. Was. Stunning. Cradled by towering green cliffs on three sides, Maya Bay shelters emerald-green waters, a powdery white-sand beach, and exotic vegetation. Though there were dozens of longboats and loads of tourists in the otherwise pristine setting, I knew my fellow Sleep Aboard travelers and I would soon have the place to ourselves.
Exploring Maya Bay on Koh Phi Phi Leh (Photo: Erica Bray)
The sun sets on Maya Bay, Thailand. (Photo: Thinkstock)
About an hour before sunset, a beautiful calm began to blanket Maya Bay. I could finally imagine myself a castaway on the island. I did cartwheels up and down the beach. I splashed in the water. I took in the near-solitude of the setting and soaked up the sunset. As the sun sank behind the giant cliffs, Maya Bay transformed into a silent dark that was a little frightening, albeit still beautiful. We stayed on the beach until about 11 p.m., enjoying food, drinks, and music under the moonlight.
The Sleep Aboard Boat. (Photo: Maya Bay Tours)
Shortly before midnight, we headed back to the boat docked in Maya Bay. The setup was far from fancy: I grabbed a thin mattress pad and a well-worn pillow and created a makeshift bed for myself on the second deck. The thousands of stars in the sky made up for the two-star accommodations, as the waves lulled me to sleep.
The next morning, I woke before most others on the boat. I gazed out at the white-sand beach, quietly drinking in one of the most magical settings I’ve ever experienced. Soon the gentle hum of boats carrying camera-toting tourists broke my trance. But for the fleeting few hours that I had this place nearly to myself, it was the most enchanting place on Earth — even without Leo.
WATCH: A Sneak Peek at “The Beach”