The island utopia Hollywood ruined
It has been 14 years since Leonardo DiCaprio took armchair travellers from around the world on a tropical adventure to find utopia.
Starring in The Beach, DiCaprio represented the thousands of Western backpackers revelling in Thailand's sun and laissez-faire attitude to life before he washed ashore at the remote and jaw-droppingly beautiful Maya Bay, a gentle crescent-moon bay of snow-white sand nestled under the imposing karst outcrops of Phi Phi Ley Island.
Few had heard about Koh Phi Phi back then, the name given to a small archipelago of six islands nestled in the deep blue waters south of Phuket in Thailand's Andaman Sea.
Phuket was marginally on the map, attracting intrepid travellers and the odd package tourist to its gorgeous beaches, rickety old town and extraordinarily good food.
Then almost overnight, Koh Phi Phi was touted as one of the most beautiful islands in the world and its crystal clear lagoons and azure blue waters sheltered by mountain sides of razor creases and jagged tops sprouting emerald ferns became the postcard for paradise.
Development came swiftly and abundantly. In a few short years Ton Sai, the town separating two seemingly picture-perfect bays on the biggest island, Phi Phi Don, was buried beneath a mass of guesthouses, dive shops and internet cafés.
Critical water shortages and pollution followed. Most of the development was washed away when a six-metre wave from the 2004 Asian tsunami thundered across Phi Phi Don killing several thousand people, but it quickly returned, alongside the problems associated with it.
One resort trying to tackle the problem is Zeavola on Laem Tong Beach, at the island's less developed northern tip.
Touting the property as a luxury eco dive resort, Zeavola has joined with the Phuket Marine Biology Centre to initiate a rubbish collection campaign, cleaning up Phi Phi's beaches and reefs.
They also donate money and manpower to regenerate reefs damaged by El Nino and poor diving and snorkelling practices and run excursions with the children from the gypsy village of Chao Ley. "We want to raise awareness to ecological protection in the area," says Florian Hallermann, Zeovola's general manager. "To become the solution - not just the problem."
A clutch of stand-alone wooden cottages spread across the base of a hillside lushly vegetated with the plant that gives the resort its name, Zeavola opened to guests in 2005. The architecture is inspired by dwellings found in rural Thai villages, with large decks and open rain showers.
While Laem Tong Beach is miles away from Ton Sai, it also becomes a hive of noise and activity during the day when day-tripping boats from Phuket drop into the neighbouring resorts for lunch.
Mr Hallerman had already warned me about the crowds, while shrugging that there is nothing they can do about it. "It's not a matter of finding hidden spots on Koh Phi Phi any more - they no longer exist. Rather, it's a matter of timing to avoid the crowds."
I put myself in the capable hands of Noi, one of Zeavola's boat men, to find a quiet spot for a snorkel. We first zoom around the southern side of Koh Phai but there are hundreds of speedboats pulled up to the shallow waters and several more hundred people blanketing the island's snow white sands.
Instead, we keep heading north, where the water is alive with brain coral and schools of sunflower yellow butterfly fish and sergeant majors and the only noise is the occasional ripple from a speedboat passing us by.
The traffic on Koh Phai pales in comparison to Maya Beach. We have a bird's eye view of it from the empty adjacent beach the next day. A procession of boats disgorging day-trippers is packed so tightly we cannot even see the sand. There's no denying the bay's beauty, nor its capacity as a cash cow - tourists must pay a 200 baht (NZ$7.12) admission to set foot on the beach.
We had spent the morning diving against the 100-metre high sea cliffs on Koh Phi Phi Ley's western edge, with clown fish, Moorish idols, and fleets of hundreds of iridescent blue fish.
Back at Zeavola early that evening, I perch on a beanbag with a gin and tonic to watch the last of the day trippers speedily making their way back to Phuket as the sun slips down over the ocean, washing the Andaman sky in a dusty hue of pink.
Then, as fast as Koh Phi Phi became overrun with boats and tourists, they are gone, and paradise is mine again.
The writer was a guest of Zeavola.
THREE MORE THINGS TO DO
HIGH PHI Take a hike to the Phi Phi Viewpoint, the tallest mound on the island, for extraordinary vistas over the archipelago and aqua blue ocean. To get there follow the signs from the road heading east towards Ao Lo Dalam; the viewpoint can be reached via a 300-metre climb (15-20 minute walk) of steep steps and narrow jungle paths.
KITCHEN SCHOOL Impress the folks back home by learning a few Thai cuisine cooking tricks at Pum Thai Restaurant, a small outlet of the Patong-based school and eatery of the same name. A four-hour class includes a trip to the local wet market to stock up on herbs and veg, hands-on cooking and then a sit-down feast. See pumthaifoodchain.com.
LAID-BACK BAR Head to Jasmine Restaurant, a dinky cheap and cheerful bar on Laem Tong beach run by the local gypsy community that harks back to Koh Phi Phi's backpacker days. Pull up a plastic chair, sink your feet into the sand and order an icy cold Singha beer, fruit shake and plate of yum talay - piquant seafood salad made with the day's catch.
GETTING THERE Singapore Airlines together with sister airline Silk Air fly toPhuket with a stopover in Singapore. See singaporeair.com. Koh Phi Phi is an hour by boat from the Royal Phuket Marina.
STAYING THERE Zeavola has 51 villas spread out across a thick tangle of tropical vegetation; book a sea-facing room for more light. A certified PADI dive resort, it offers a range of underwater experiences around the Koh Phi Phi archipelago, from snorkelling trips by private long boat, to fully fledged dive courses with certified instructors. Villas are from THB7055 ($251) a night. See zeavola.com.