The Thailand islands are a travel badge of honor, made popular in part due to the book The Beach, by Alex Garland, and later the movie starring a young Leonardo DiCaprio. Much like the fictional story, real-life backpackers - and now luxury travelers - hop from island to island in a constant search of a pristine, uninhabited beach.
Thankfully for book, movie or simply travel enthusiasts, The Beach is real. From a national park in Krabi to the now well-known Haad Yuan beach in Koh Pha Ngan, here’s where the real-life locations are and how to get there.
"The book is always better than the movie." You’ve heard that said a thousand times and will hear it a thousand more. The reason, of course, is that it is true – The Beach, written in 1996 by a then 26-year-old Alex Garland, is a far superior story.
What surprised me was that the novel, based on a secret island a boat ride away from the well-known Koh Pha Ngan, was actually dreamed up on Koh Pha Ngan itself. Specifically the beaches of Haad Yuan and Haad Tien - only accessible via boat - served as the birthplace for the story. See pictures below.
The above is no disrespect to the movie – which, in my opinion, is a great story in it’s own right. Despite it’s stark differences to the book (no Jed??), I thoroughly enjoyed it – primarily because of the incredible settings.
Phi Phi Leh was where most of the movie was shot, and pictures of the area will look very familiar to those who have seen the film. True to the story, Phi Phi Leh is a national park without hotels or bungalows, although in real life camping is allowed within Maya Bay. Phi Phi Don is close and has hostels, and all of the locations can be accessed via ferry from Phuket or Krabi.
Other film locations include Haeo Suwat Falls, where Richard and company jump off the waterfall, located a three to four hour bus ride north of Bangkok. Phuket is also home to the beach bungalows, where Richard meets Sammy and Zeph, and the On On Hotel where he meets Sammy and the French couple. Although it should be noted that the exact beach bungalows used for filming were taken down, which is a shame.
How To Get There (To Bangkok)
The best places are often the hardest to get to, and here is no different. As I already mentioned, some of the beaches are only accessible via boat. Which means that miles are only going to get you close – not standing in Richard’s (or, perhaps more alluring for my female readers, DiCaprio’s) shoes.
American Airlines was our airline choice and only 25,000 miles booked a one-way economy ticket from Auckland to Bangkok (on Qantas Airlines, no less). Unfortunately this number increased recently to 35,000 from the mainland U.S., meaning a full 70,000 miles would be required for a ridiculously long round-trip journey in economy. For the luxurious ones, expect 110,000 or more for a round-trip business class seat.
United Airlines is another good option, offering round-trip awards at 80,000 and 140,000 for economy and business class, respectively. Besides that, the usual suspects have flights there - most notably Cathay Pacific and British Airways, both able to be redeemed using AA miles.
How To Get There (To Islands)
To visit Koh Pha Ngan and the beaches that the book was inspired by, you’ll want to get to Koh Samui. Bangkok Airways offers direct flights, often for as little as $50 one-way. So that’s an option. And because Bangkok Airways is code-shared with airlines like Cathay Pacific and British Airways, if you have miles on these airlines then an award flight is really, really cheap. This makes the British Airways Visa an interesting credit card to apply for.
To visit the beaches on the western side of Thailand, where the movie was largely filmed, your options are very similar. Bangkok Airways offers Bangkok to Phuket and Krabi flights, again for as little as $50 one-way. The same above note on partner airlines applies here.
One last note: public buses run from Bangkok all the way down to the ports of Koh Samui or Krabi, so that is an option as well. Expect a full day of traveling though. To read more about this method, I recommend this post.
One of the best travel books of this generation, The Beach has gained critical acclaim; later amplifying it’s popularity even more with the release of the movie. As often the case, reality is even better than fiction and the above locations are being traversed by all types of travelers.
Writing to you originally from the cozy haunts of The Sanctuary, in Haad Tien, I recommend you visit immediately.