When novels or films dramatically evoke the landscape in which they are set, we can be inspired to go there. To retrace the steps of Leonardo diCaprio in The Beach, filmed on the island of Phi Phi Leh, was what I wished to do. I could travel with hundreds of tourists who arrive by ferry, or take an eminently more pleasant scenic route exploring the islands of southern Thailand onboard the Suwan Macha, a beautiful wooden schooner rigged with the sails of a traditional junk.

My eight fellow passengers were French from the Reunion islands. A mix of sophistication and exotic elegance surely. Shown to my cabin, several pairs of tiny legs dangled over my window and then the faces of two inquisitive girls peered at me. Five young children, carefree, barefoot and agile as monkeys. What delightful company they made, so curious about all that we saw.

We departed with the course set for the spectacular karst topography of Phang Nga Bay, a bizarre landscape in which limestone is weathered and moulded into unimaginably odd shapes. Massive sheer cliffs coloured white, grey and black, rise vertically from the intense turquoise water. Warrens of caves and patches of jungle clings suspended in crevices on the sides of cliffs. On a long-tail boat we explored coves with stalactite formations and passed cliffs where men climb twined bamboo poles hundreds of metres high to collect the nests of swiftlets prized by the local Chinese, a culinary delicacy for bird’s nest soup. As the sun set bringing the oranges and pinks of a tropical night and the waves slapped rhythmically against the boat, all worrisome thoughts were pushed far away.

Next morning we visited a Sea Gypsy Village passing women selling trinkets and children at play. At James Bond Island, depicted in the movie The Man with the Golden Gun, we were outnumbered by boatloads of Chinese tourists. We left for a small deserted island bordered by white sand beaches and went snorkelling in clear water the coral sadly showing signs of stress.

As we approached the mainland near Krabi the darkness of nightfall was punctuated by bright lights pointing down into the water belonging to the local fishing fleet making its way out into the night. The trip had taken several hours with the skipper appearing to hit the engine throttle hard. We had encountered large waves, it was the great wide open and the children squealed with joy.

We put the anchor down near a small island for shelter and after a windy night headed for Phi Phi Don, the larger of the two Phi Phi islands with cross currents causing the boat to rock from side to side. Relieved, we arrived at a beautiful white sandy bay with Chinese tourists splashing about in the shallow water. Long-tail boats passed by conveying tourists, narrow wooden vessels with an eggbeater propeller welded onto a long swinging shaft. I walked over the hill to reach Long beach, a beautiful deserted stretch of beach with several resort hotels tucked in amongst groves of palms and pandanas. Further along at Ton Sai Bay the narrow maze of alleyways struggles to cope. With bars displaying fairy lights suggestive of noisy evenings, restaurants, t-shirt and sarong vendors, hair braiders and tattoo artists all squeezed in, the crowds of skimpily clothed backpackers turned me back to the relative solitude of the boat.

We set off for Phi Phi Leh a small uninhabited island of white sandy beaches that juts out from the horizon, its craggy peaks and black cliffs rising dramatically. But choosing to travel during monsoon season has its risks. November to April may be high season but the sea has barely a ripple. Raindrops as big as hens eggs began to fall drenching us all. Isn’t that Phi Phi Leh that we’re passing, the reason why we’ve come here? I asked. Come on now all together let’s wish we can go there! But before the skipper could answer, a loud put, put, fizz noise from the engine was a sign of foreboding. As the waves grew in size, crashing and lapping at the base of the cliffs, the sky turned black and the skipper sped off to get a mechanic. The engine still would not start. The skipper announced that we would go in the rubber dinghy to Phi Phi Leh. And so it was that we landed rather excitedly on the very same beach made famous by the movie The Beach. Led to a thatched hut we were given delicious rice and curry by the resident ranger and his family. The storm intensified, we ran for shelter, ending at the ranger’s residence where we fell asleep. Next morning the skipper returned, and by rubber dinghy we were safely taken back to Phi Phi Don for our ferry ride back to Phuket.

After the ferry departed, I turned to take one last look at Phi Phi Leh. The rain had cleared and a spectacular rainbow appeared above it. The islands of Thailand are the stuff of castaway fantasies. Wishes do come true after all.

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