Maya Bay: heaven or hell?

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Maya Bay, Thailand Longtail boats are iconic Thai transportation © Emma Sparks

Whether you’ve been to Thailand or not, the likelihood is that you are familiar with Maya Bay. Just a swift long-tail boat ride away from Koh Phi Phi, nestled among the islands and inlets of the Phi Phi archipelago, Maya Bay - of The Beach fame - is now one of the most popular attractions in Southern Thailand.

The problem is, when a landmark of such staggering natural beauty is revealed to the world - in fact, thrust upon it - the surge in popularity and influx of tourists often robs the attraction of all beauty it was originally praised for. Maya beach is a classic example.

I had expected the beach to be a little busy, but was astounded as we sailed into the bay to be met, not by a blissful Thai paradise, but a seething mass of tourists. Squealing sightseers systematically entered the luminous water as if on a conveyor belt; I could barely see the sand, so many foreign feet trampled the shore. A heavy knot of unease settled in my stomach.

Crowds at Maya Bay, Thailand The crowded shores of Maya Bay © Emma Sparks

There was no denying that the scene before me was beautiful; fluorescent turquoise water was framed by towering limestone cliffs, and the sand was smooth and warm underfoot. As I looked out over the bay from the shore, I was disappointed that the crowds of holiday-makers were ruining my view of paradise. Then it hit me: I was one of them.

Sparky and friend in Maya Bay A well-timed picture of paradise © Emma Sparks

A wave of overwhelming guilt washed over me as I realised that I was no better than any of these people; I was in part responsible for cluttering this resplendent scene with boats and noise and people. I felt like a parasite, eating away at nature’s purity. The laughter and joy of Maya Bay’s visitors failed to veil the sinister consequences of their actions.

I was pleased to note that there was no litter or obvious pollution occurring as a result of our invasion; the only alteration was the permanent installation of facilities for the masses. What disappointed me most (aside from the distinct lack of Leonardo DiCaprio) was how mindless the majority of people seemed. No one stopped to absorb the stunning vision before us; they were only rushing around, viewing paradise through a camera lens.

Maya Bay selfie Selfie, or selfish? © Emma Sparks

I believe this is the dilemma that all thoughtful travellers face. Ethically speaking, was it right for me to make the journey to Maya Bay? I know for sure that I would go back, given the chance. I’m not willing to sacrifice experiencing such beauty, especially when I know my embargo of such popular destinations would do little to save them from the ravages of tourism.

All I can do is travel thoughtfully. Responsibly. Appreciatively. But is that enough?

For me, Maya Bay looked like Heaven, but felt like Hell.

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