Ten years after the release of the film The Beach, Michelle Jana Chan heads to Thailand to see if paradise can still be found. It is one of those rare films that you remember as much for the location as for the star – and that is something given the leading man was Leonardo DiCaprio.
Set on the coast of Thailand, the story of The Beach – based on the best-selling book of the same name by Alex Garland – told the tale of travellers' tireless quest for an untouched beach idyll. It also demonstrated how swiftly we can ruin what we find.
Paradise found: Thailand's best beaches
Thailand was an ideal location for the story because of its natural beauty but also because the country has a long list of lost paradises. Mass tourism has created hubs of tat and sleaze on once perfect beaches such as Chaweng (an island hop from where Garland set his book) and Koh Phi Phi (where the film was shot). Locals told me they were glad of the income tourism has brought but regretted the arrival of strip joints, drug-fuelled beach parties and cheap sex tourism, which had damaged their conservative, mostly Buddhist culture. The environment has suffered too, evident from murky waters, litter-strewn beaches and the whiff of stagnant drains from side alleys.
Yet in spite of the unrestricted development and crowds, there are seascapes in Thailand forever burnt in my memory for their singular drama: the karstic hills around Krabi, Phuket's sheer cliffs down to sandy coves, the limestone islands rising up from Phang Nga bay. North towards Burma are some of Thailand's finest reefs, offering first-class diving. Remote islands close to Cambodia still retain a traditional rural way of life. And down in the south along the skinny isthmus connecting the country to Malaysia are the whitest of sands – with no hotels in sight.
We might dream of a beach without footprints, but teleport us there and we would drop that idea as quickly as our clothes. The first hour would be bliss, but then we might have a hankering for a long cool drink and the clinking of ice cubes. There would be hunger pangs for a crisp crab salad or grilled squid with lime juice, while we slapped sandflies biting our ankles. After a dip in the sea, it would feel good to rinse under a freshwater shower and dry off with a clean fluffy towel. Then just as we would settle down to watch the sunset (no cocktail in hand), we might be greeted by an cloud of mosquitoes.
Few of us want a truly desert island-style experience. We like our paradises with pest control and pampering. But what has changed in the past decade is that fewer of us want to holiday at the expense of the environment or local culture. In fact, many of us hope our visit and money might support surrounding communities. Cynics will say we are trying to relieve a guilty conscience in a part of the world where the monthly wage is probably less than the price of a massage. Others will add that we are already harming the planet just by flying to our far-flung holiday destination. The latter is certainly true. Nevertheless, holidaymakers have the facts now and are increasingly able to make informed choices – about which kind of hotels we book and about whether to reuse towels and to eat more locally. The environmental and ethical credentials of our holidays increasingly matter. There is no joy in a trip if it ruins paradise in the process. There are too few left.
Since the Thai royal family started coming here 100 years ago, Thailand's original beach destination has been the smart weekend getaway for Bangkok's so-called HiSo (high society). At first glance it may seem ordinary, but the big draw is convenience; it is just a couple of hours' drive from the capital.
The beach Mediocre, and a dip in the sea is uninviting, but at low tide the beach stretches out to allow for a long walk. There is also plenty of local colour. At dawn (low tide only), Buddhist monks walk along the sand to their temple and locals come to give alms (spoonfuls of rice). At the end of the day, boys play football, children dig for shellfish and families bathe fully clothed.
The hotel Some of Thailand's best hotels are here, including Chiva-Som, the world's number one destination spa. It offers workouts on the beach including power-walking, running and biking. Yoga sessions take place in a beachside pavilion facing sunrise.
Who'd love it here Anyone wanting a quick jaunt from Bangkok (although Chiva-Som recommends at least a week for a spa break).
Paradise? Being rediscovered. Hua Hin is in the ascendant.
Out on the eastern side of the Gulf of Thailand, close to the border with Cambodia, Koh Kood, the country's fourth biggest island, is thinly populated and barely developed for tourism. Delightfully, the forested terrain retains a sense of the rural and antiquated.
The beach The coastline can be rocky, scrub-like and lined with mangroves but it is also dotted with unspoilt beaches. Be warned: in undeveloped areas, there may be sandflies and mosquitoes.
The hotel The luxurious Soneva Kiri, with its outsized and outstanding villas, an outdoor cinema screen and vast childrens' play den, has just opened on the northwestern tip of the island. Disappointingly, only the beach villas have direct access to the sea (which other guests cannot share), but come Easter the resort will open up South Beach, just under a mile away but an easy drive by golf buggy. Until then the boat captain can shuttle guests in five minutes across to the heavenly Som Chai with its floury sand, which squeaks underfoot.
Who'd love it here Anyone seeking something new and off the beaten track. Not good for snorkelling or diving, though; the area is sadly overfished.
Paradise? Newly found.
This is the island we landed on 20 years ago in search of The Beach Part I (it was close by at Koh Phangan that Garland set his novel). Samui has clung on to its charms in spite of overdevelopment, and although backpackers still make a beeline for the island, it is perfectly appropriate for grown-ups too.
The beach One of the few places in the Gulf of Thailand where you can view the quintessential karstic scenery (generally found on the Andaman Sea side). Beaches range from very busy – Chaweng – to the pretty and palm-fringed.
The hotel Langham Place has just opened on low-key Lamai Beach and has a fantastic 200 yard-long pontoon pier spearing out to sea with spurs of floating daybeds. At the swish pool it is all very South Miami, with a DJ at the bar, a poolside cinema screen playing cult flicks and cute staff offering to clean your shades.
Who'd love it here Flashpackers and anyone in search of a dash of nostalgia (nowadays, as well as full-moon parties, there are half-moon parties and new-moon parties).
Paradise? Lost, but still great fun.
"The Pearl of the Andaman", Thailand's largest island has become so upmarket it has been picked up by the "Luxe Guide" group which touts the "lush new developments… popping up like polka dots on a teeny-weeny". Of course, there is a seedy side (five million tourists come here each year), but the island is increasingly about fancy hotels, private villas, golf courses and award-winning spas. It is easy to reach, served by direct international charter flights.
The beach The beaches here run the gamut from horrific Patong to perfectly formed coves. The west coast has the better beaches but it faces the open sea, giving rise to big rollers during the rains (May to November). The more protected east has a longer season. Be warned: some cliffside hotels need to shuttle guests by car to reach the nearest beach.
The hotel If you can, Aman. The first Aman resort and flagship of the chain, Amanpuri snaffled up one of the island's best beaches, Pansea, which it shares with The Chedi. Snorkel along the right-hand side of the beach and swim to the pontoon for sunset. The downside is jet skis from neighbouring resorts buzzing about the bay.
Who'd love it here Anyone who can afford it.
Paradise? It can still be found.
Ao Phang Nga
A Halong Bay in the tropics, this sheltered sweep of coast between Phuket and the Krabi mainland boasts an unearthly collection of sculptured karstic islands. Used as a location for scenes in The Man with the Golden Gun (one outcrop is even named "James Bond Island"), this is about as beautiful as it gets.
The beach The views are phenomenal but the beaches are not outstanding. Occasionally between the limestone fingers there is a tiny sliver of sand (but no facilities). Best to explore by canoe.
The hotel Six Senses Hideaway on the peaceful island of Yao Noi has some of the best views anywhere in Thailand, especially from the blow-the-budget "hill reserve" villa. There is no communal pool, so many choose to hang out at the beach (which is average but offers glorious views) or hide away in their private villas (request sea-facing).
Who'd love it here Early risers; the sunrises are spectacular.
Paradise? Found. It feels positively pioneering to paddle around this seascape.
An international airport near Krabi town makes this another easy-to-reach destination and there are wonderful views on touchdown even from the terminal. The coastline varies wildly from unexceptional Ao Nang to the striking cliffs around Railay peninsula.
The beach Except for the gorgeous beaches at Railay, the rest are mostly rocky and suffer extreme tides, but the views are sensational (looking at the same cluster of islands as the Six Senses Hideaway but from the opposite direction).
The hotel The new Ritz Carlton Reserve at Phulay Bay is a luxurious resort with expansive villas, 24-hour butler service and the biggest bed I have ever slept in. The hotel makes up for its poor beach (beside an unsightly dredging complex) with a vast infinity pool and swish sun loungers looking across astounding Phang Nga bay.
Who'd love it here Honeymooners, who can gaze at one of the most beautiful sunsets in the world.
Paradise? Lost. It is too polished to be called paradise.
This majority-Muslim island has retained its laid-back culture and local traditions, and boasts the best beaches I came across on this trip. Hotels dot the coastline with views out to distant Koh Phi Phi, where The Beach was filmed (the tiny archipelago, sadly, should be avoided now, even for daytrips; it is ruined).
The beach Koh Lanta has long golden sands with lapping waves and aquarium-clear waters. Local laws bar motorised sports (jet skiing, for example) so the region feels serenely peaceful. Watch the sun set behind Ko Haa, a clutch of karstic islands on the distant horizon.
The hotel The Pimalai is a fantastic family-friendly resort spread over a hundred acres with accommodation from snug rooms to spacious pool villas. The property has more than half a mile of beachfront land, which keeps it tranquil. An excellent dive centre offers offshore trips where manta ray and a whale shark were spotted during my stay.
Who'd love it here The waters are safe, warm and child-friendly but absolutely everybody will love this island's beaches.
Paradise? Found – and the word is there are more paradises to seek even further south.