All the negative things you may have heard about Maya Bay are true. It is unequivocally touristy. It is expensive (for Southeast Asia) and time-consuming to reach. It is crowded, at times almost unbelievably so. And yet, I would put it at the very top of my list of “can’t miss” attractions for any visitor to Thailand. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that, other than playing with elephants, the day we spent here was my favorite part of the entire trip. This gorgeous stretch of sand, which had a starring role in the 2000 movie The Beach and has graced the cover of many a Thailand guidebook since then, is, quite simply, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.
Maya Bay has the brilliantly blue water and powdery white sand I imagine when I think of a tropical beach, plus it’s surrounded by stunning moss-covered limestone cliffs rising up out of the sea that make the whole scene that much more dramatic. This beach is regularly named among the most beautiful in the world and I can see why.
It’s actually not just Maya Bay itself that’s breathtaking. Pretty much all of the small, uninhabited island of Koh Phi Phi Leh is a photographer’s paradise. From Maya Bay, it’s just a short walk to the other side of the island for a glimpse of tranquil Loh Samah Bay. (Beware: even at low tide, you’ll need to wade through knee-deep water to make the crossing and when the tide is higher or the sea is rough, you may get completely soaked.)
Although most people who come to the island are there to see these two famous bays, boat tours typically cruise around Phi Phi Leh a little bit and visit some other parts of the island before heading home. After all, if you’ve come all this way, you might as well explore every nook and cranny while you’re there.
Pileh Lagoon is a shallow bay that’s almost entirely closed off from the ocean. A swim in the sheltered waters here is the perfect way to end a day on Phi Phi Leh.
If there’s one area in which Phi Phi Leh falls a little short, it’s the snorkeling. Maybe we happened to come on a bad day, but the snorkeling in Loh Samah Bay paled in comparison to the snorkeling in the Gulf of Thailand (which, while nice, wasn’t exactly mind-blowing itself). There were just a handful of fish, and they were far away. I wish I were exaggerating when I say this grainy shot of a moorish idol is the only semi-decent photo I got, but I’m really not.
At least I can technically cross “snorkel in the Indian Ocean” off my bucket list, since the Phi Phi Islands are in the Andaman Sea, which is part of that ocean. And while the sea life might have been disappointing, Loh Samah Bay – with its deep turquoise water and towering limestone karsts – definitely was not. I really enjoyed cruising through this part of the island and seeing this gorgeous area from a different perspective than I had seen it from before.
Looking to beat the crowds? I’d highly recommend staying overnight on Koh Phi Phi Don, Phi Phi Leh’s larger sister island. It’s true that you can take a day trip here on a speedboat from Phuket or Krabi, and that’s probably the easiest and most economical way to visit if you simply want to say you’ve seen The Beach. But you’ll spend a huge chunk of your day on a boat with no scenery in sight and by the time you even approach the Phi Phi Islands, Maya Bay will already be overrun with speedboats filled with like-minded travelers. In contrast, if you stay on nearby Phi Phi Don, you can sleep in, have a nice breakfast and still beat all the big boats to the beach. When we first pulled into Maya Bay, there were just a handful of longtail boats and less than 20 people (our group included) around and we had the chance to make some of the first tracks of the day on the pristine sand. Trust me, it looked nothing like this when we left (and our guide told me that, even at that point, the beach was far from as crowded as it would get).
Another plus of staying over on Phi Phi Don? You won’t have to cross open ocean the way the boats from the mainland do, so those who are prone to seasickness are likely to have a much more pleasant day (especially in the summer months when the sea tends to be rougher). Getting to Phi Phi Don is no small feat (you have to fly to Phuket or Krabi and take a ferry from there, plus you’ll need to get a longtail boat to take you from the main pier on Phi Phi Don to wherever your hotel is located). You’ll essentially lose the better part of two days just traveling to and from the island. Luckily, Phi Phi Don is itself a beautiful island with a lot to offer besides just easy access to Maya Bay (more on that coming up soon!) and staying on the island for a couple of nights is well worth the hassle involved in getting there.