There's so much more to Thailand than just beaches, yet prior to actually visiting myself, the only images that really ever popped into my head whilst daydreaming about my upcoming trip, were of crystal blue waters and heavenly white sands.
Despite not being the world's biggest fan of beaches, (I think that sand is pretty much the spawn of Satan,) one of the highest items on my 'Travel Bucket List' has always been to visit Maya Bay - the beach from 'The Beach.' Reading the book makes it hard to believe that such a stunning place actually exists - the movie makes it even more difficult again. It does exist though, and I couldn't wait to see it for myself - to peacefully walk along the stretches of white sand whilst taking in the views, furtively seeking out a younger Leonard DiCaprio.
Although quite predictable, I was still pretty dismayed when I actually did a little bit of research on Maya Bay, only to find hundreds, maybe thousands of photos and blog posts about how horribly crowded it gets; so crowded that a lot of people actually said not to bother visiting it at all. I realised that if I did decide to go, there was an extremely high chance that I'd arrive and spend my whole time there moaning about the sand and the people and the noise and the impossibility of being able to get any decent photos. Maybe it was just best to cross it off my list, and try to enjoy it's beauty whilst watching 'The Beach' for the four thousandth time.
You can't ever really appreciate something fully just through a TV screen though, and by the time I'd actually reached the islands of Thailand, on my trip, I knew that there had to be a way to see the bay without the masses of people. I'm fairly stubborn, and really didn't want to give up on my visit too easily. Luckily, after some more research, I stumbled upon the Maya Bay Sleep Aboard trip.
For 3500 Thai Baht (which equates to roughly 80 quid) you can buy yourself a lovely shiny space on the Maya Bay Sleep Aboard trip. The first thing I looked at was the price, and the budget backpacker part of me instantly said 'no, no, no.' There is never any harm in reading some more information though...
The further I researched, the more certain I was that I was going to book a space on the overnight trip - and the more confident I was that it was in fact great value. The Sleep Aboard company is the only company with a license to be on Maya Bay before and after the official opening hours, and they take full advantage of this by taking you in the evening as well as first thing the following morning. Entry to Maya Bay is 400 baht each time, (about £10) and I was quoted 600 baht for the boat to take me there. (about £15) Obviously if you go with Sleep Aboard, this is all included as part of your trip. If you were to hire your own boat to visit Maya Bay in the evening and the following morning too, (whilst all the crowds are there) then you'd be paying 2000 baht anyway! Spaces on the trip are limited to (around) 25 people each day, and because of the license, you'll literally be the only people on the beach. You get all your food included, as well as snorkeling and kayaking (both days) a free bucket when you have a BBQ on the beach, a visit to the monkey island and to top it off you get to go swimming with the luminescent plankton at night. (As a separate trip, this costs 1700 baht or £40.) I worked out that to do everything you get to do on the trip, but paying yourself for each individual activity, plus food and accommodation would cost you in excess of 6700 baht. (£155) Long story short, I was sold.
I got extremely lucky, and managed to get the last available space on the trip - it was fully booked up for the next two months aside from that one date. Along with the shining TripAdvisor reviews, I took this to be a really good sign, and I wasn't wrong.
The day finally arrived and at 3pm, along with the rest of the group I set off on the Sleep Aboard trip from Koh Phi Phi. I was initially a bit nervous about the fact I was going to be on my own on a small, overnight trip, but everyone on the boat was friendly from the word go. We visited the Viking Caves and then stopped off to kayak and snorkel. I (sort of) conquered my fear of jumping from the top of the boat a couple of times, for the purposes of a GoPro 'boat jump' shot, (compulsory in any travel video...) After a couple of hours, we made our way round to Maya Bay. It was absolutely heaving with tourists and I can't deny that as soon as I saw how busy it was, I was absolutely certain that I'd made the right choice by paying the extra to visit the bay this way! It was extremely satisfying to take a seat on the soft white sand, and watch the hordes of loud people get on their hired boats and buggar off, leaving just the 25 of us with the whole place to ourselves.
The island is nowhere near as big as they've managed to make it look in the film, but there is still enough to explore, that if you're lucky, you may at some point actually get the entire beach to yourself. I found myself completely alone for five minutes or so, as the others disappeared into the jungle behind the bay itself. It was a completely surreal moment for me, one of those moments that renders you a little speechless for a while, and will never ever leave you.
A few of us sat on the beach and watched the sunlight disappear before we made our way into the jungle where the Sleep Aboard team had set up a little campfire and had a whole lot of BBQ food ready and waiting for us. We were allowed to eat as much as we wanted and I ate so much I felt like I would never be able to eat again! Free buckets of vodka or rum and mixer were dished out, and we all sat around the campfire to play 'Ring of Fire.'
I normally wouldn't opt into a drinking game, but after the first round, I wanted to join in as everyone was having so much fun. Suitably tipsy, I managed to get myself temporarily lost in the trees when I went on a toilet hunt halfway through the game. The sounds of laughter soon brought me back to the group, slightly disappointed that I wasn't going to have to rough it in the jungle like a proper adventurer.
At 9pm, it was time to leave Maya Bay and head back out on the boat for a bit of night time snorkeling with the luminescent plankton. I was hugely skeptical that it would look even half as good as it does in the film, but I was blown away by how amazing it was. I've since re-watched 'The Beach' and it definitely looks much better in real life! The more force you disturb the water with, the brighter the plankton shine blue. We spent ages swimming under the water, it was like a whole new, magical world under there. It's a bit of a shame that you can't capture the magic on camera, as you need an underwater camera with a really long exposure, but it also makes it even more magical in a way, as to see it, you actually have to go and physically see it.
When we eventually got back on the boat, and had dried off, the Sleep Aboard crew produced a guitar. A few people went up to the top deck of the boat to get some sleep, but the rest of us stayed downstairs and sang all night. I'd go as far as saying that it was my happiest night in Thailand. I loved how there were so many people from all over the world, coming together as a drunken international choir - not everyone spoke English, but as soon as someone busted out 'Wonderwall' we were all singing together. I eventually went up to the top deck to get some sleep, and awoke just in time to see the sunrise, which was beautiful.
Everyone was awake early, and we headed back towards Maya Bay so we could have a bit more time there before the crowds of people arrived. It was just as satisfying to watch the reverse of the previous night, and go from being the only ones there to seeing other people arrive to crowded scenes. We stayed for a suitable amount of time before getting back on the boat to go snorkeling and kayaking again.
We docked back at Koh Phi Phi just after 10am, absolutely full of smiles. I had an amazing time at the Elephant Sanctuary in Chiang Mai, but I'd say that the Sleep Aboard trip just about takes the prize for my favourite couple of days in Thailand. I urge anybody who wants to see Maya Bay, to do it with Sleep Aboard!
The trip seems to book up quickly, so I'd advise booking in advance if it's something you really want to do. I booked via the website. The link to booking is here.