Thailand: In Di Caprio’s footsteps

Calm washes over me as I listen to the soothing chants of a monk praying in the early morning sun. His voice echoes around the Buddhist temple, as he blesses water in a gold bowl and lightly sprinkles it onto the crowd of visitors that’s gathered around.

Long Tail Boats parking at the beach, Phi Phi Don.

A Buddha statue watches over me, as I kneel by the monk’s feet and present my ‘tham boon’ donation, a humble basket of teabags, washing power and biscuits. Giving such donations is a tradition that’s believed to be ‘merit-making’, and will hopefully bring me health, wealth, happiness and good future life.

“Light your incense now and pray for something you would like,” my guide instructs me. I’ve been on the island of Koh Phangan for just 24 hours but my wish is a simple one: To stay here forever.

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The tranquil setting of the temple is far removed from the turbulent political instability that plagued Thailand not so long ago. Political demonstrations flared into violence in Bangkok, and a military coup had forced tourists to adhere to a nightly curfew.But all that is in the past now, and island life has a unique vibe that even the most forceful army would struggle to spoil.

A dragon

Koh Phangan is famous for its full moon parties, and the legendary gatherings now appeal to both backpackers and wealthy visitors. But, right now, it’s hard to imagine how the peace could be disrupted by a monthly rave.

As I sip a passion fruit cocktail on a private speed boat gliding along the beautiful coastline, I can understand why the 2000 film The Beach was modelled on this paradise. Later, enjoying a spot of snorkelling in the warm, crystal clear Indian Ocean, I too feel like I’m part of an exclusive set of visitors, who have been lucky enough to find the secret hideaway.

This exclusivity extends to the five-star Anantara Rasananda Koh Phangan Resort & Spa, an elegant and romantic hideaway with luscious gardens and a floating bar by the seafront. Guests are encouraged to explore the premises barefoot, and I happily disregard shoes for the duration of my stay.

It feels like I’m walking on clouds, as I stroll along the soft sandy beach to a table set up for a private dining experience that evening. The entertainment matches the spectacle of the food, with a fire-thrower impressively juggling flames while we eat.

It would be easy to spend my entire trip lounging on the resorts’ beanbags on the beach, or enjoying a neck massage in the rainforest setting of the spa.

But a short walk to the nearby village provides added attractions, with a Thai nail salon, reggae bar and boutique shops to explore.

“Koh Phangan used to be a backpackers’ island,” explains general manager Markus Krebs. “There’s still a section that is, but we’re on the other side of the island, which is more about luxury.

“We have guests staying who are in their early 40s and used to be backpackers. They still want the experience of Thailand, but they also want luxury.”

The explosion of tourism though, has come at a price. On a day trip to Maya Beach on the Phi Phi Islands, where actor Leonardo Di Caprio marked his footsteps during filming of The Beach, I have to fight my way through crowds.

More than a dozen boats line up along the shore while their captains wait for snap-happy tourists to get enough shots of the famous spot.

“In the morning, there can be hundreds of boats here,” says our guide.

“There will be no room for you to sit on the beach. Do that, and someone can stamp on your head. It can even cause fighting.”

On Ko Phi Phi Don, a stunningly beautiful natural paradise, I flinch when I walk past an American 7/11 convenience store. There are also souvenir shops selling ‘I love Phuket’ T-shirts and beach bags.

Fortunately, the coastline is dotted with dozens of other spots that offer a more secluded island experience.

I snorkel in the turquoise waters around Bamboo Island and jump from the boat into Ko Phi Phi Leh lagoon, without worrying about needing to elbow another tourist out of the way.

After a long day exploring Phuket, I head to the Anantara Phuket Layan Resort & Spa, where I’m also made to feel like the only guest.

The resort benefits from being near to the island’s attractions yet lies just far enough away to avoid all the hustle and bustle.

The property is practically full at the time of my visit, but there are still hidden pockets of space – from the yoga stage by the vibrant lake, to the library overlooking the beach.

The dining here is also a delight. Chef Umburto displays an infectious passion for food and his presentation of snow fish under a smoked-filled dome looks like it has come straight from a theatre production.

“Will you marry me?” asks one delighted diner, after he is served up lobster artfully presented as a culinary spectacle.

Thailand’s identity has changed rapidly during the course of the last decade, to accommodate the needs of the Western visitor.

And there has been little compromise on what tourists hold so dear about island life: sunshine, food, beaches, sea and, most importantly, great hospitality.

Governments come and go, presidents are ousted and music tastes change. But Thailand’s holiday appeal will certainly never fade.

• Anantara Phuket Layan offers nightly rates from £159 per room, based on two sharing a deluxe pool villa on a B&B basis; Anantara Rasananda (Koh Phangan) offers nightly rates from £175 per room on a B&B basis (

Etihad Airways offers return flights from £550 (

Cherry Wilson’s day tour of Phi Phi Island – made famous as the film location for the Leonardo Di Caprio film The Beach – was organised by the Tourism Authority of Thailand. For more information, visit