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Fantasy Island? NOT! Leonardo DiCaprio and The Beach
June 21, 2000

Maybe you've seen Leonardo DiCaprio's latest movie The Beach. Leonardo plays Richard, a young backpacker staying in a cheap hotel on Khao San Road in Bangkok who learns about a mysterious island paradise from a creepy fellow traveler. Intrigued, Richard heads off with two other backpackers to help him find the fabled island. The rest of the story takes places on a remote beach where several travelers have set up a sort of commune, but their Utopia quickly turns out to be a special kind of hell. The Beach was filmed on Maya Beach in the Phi Phi archipelago off Phuket in southern Thailand.


archipelago - a group of islands
commune - a small, close-knit community of people who share beliefs about how to live
escapists - people who try to avoid reality
monsoon - heavy rains

The movie isn't very good, but the book, by British backpacker Alex Garland, is a fairly intelligent examination of what motivates a lot of people to travel - the search for "Fantasy Island." Thailand's economy depends heavily on escapists, both the high-end package-holiday tourists whose idea of paradise is to stay in fancy five-star resorts, rarely venturing into the "real" Thailand, and the low-budget Lonely-Planet backpackers who congratulate themselves for getting to know the local culture. And the hospitable Thai people, poor even in comparison to the student backpackers from more developed nations, understand this wish and play up to it. It's just good business to show everyone a really good time.

But the unceasing efforts to please the farangs (Thai for "foreigners") have taken their environmental toll on the country. Joe Cummins, the author of the Lonely Planet guide to Thailand, says that the area around Maya Beach, where Leonardo DiCaprio's movie was made, "has been under intense environmental pressure for many years. After the fishermen who used dynamite and cyanide, Phi Phi was overrun by greedy resort developers and tour operators who turned a large chunk of neighboring Ko Phi Phi Don into a trash heap. Perhaps thousands of snorkeling tours have visited Ao Maya in the last decade." Thailand is a developing nation, and pumping money into the economy has been the priority, not saving the environment.

Way back when The Beach's producers were negotiating with the Royal Forestry Department about filming on Maya Beach, he RFD's main concern was that coral reefs around the beach would be damaged by boats bringing in all the heavy equipment needed to film. According to a recent independent review by Reef Check, the producers did not damage the coral reefs. Take a look.
Ironically, though, when the producers of The Beach decided to clean up Maya Beach to make it look more like the Western version of a tropical paradise for the movie, they may have done more harm than good. First, they cleaned up the piles of garbage lying around - about three metric tons of the stuff. No one claimed that was a bad thing. But then the producers decided to "temporarily" remove some unattractive local plants, scrubby-looking bushes whose intricate root systems help to prevent erosion of the beach. They tried to keep these plants alive in nurseries over the course of the filming. They also temporarily planted about sixty palm trees along the beach. And, for purposes of easy access to the site, they brought in a bulldozer to shift two ten-meter sections of dune.

The producers of the film were careful to get permission from Thailand's Royal Forestry Department to make these changes, and they paid a bond of US$140,000 as a promise they'd undo these changes. They also donated US$108,000 to the RFD to spend on environmental projects.

Students your age at a private school in Thailand have been monitoring this controversy all along. Their site is an extremely comprehensive one, and has often been quoted in the international press. They've tried to report objectively and they've done a good job of maintaining a fair and neutral tone. Some of them even flew down to Phi Phi to check out the damage for themselves. Take a look. They've also got some interesting pages about other aspects of life in Thailand.
But once word got out that Hollywood producers were messing around with this beach, environmentalists got involved. A lot of small groups with a lot of different concerns spoke out against the producers in the Thai press, and it wasn't long before the story was being reported in the international press as well. At demonstrations in Bangkok, protestors wore Leonardo DiCaprio masks with fangs dripping blood. The producers felt that these protestors were just using DiCaprio's fame to get attention for themselves. And DiCaprio himself was very angered by these accusations. He's often spoken in the press about his environmental concerns.

After the filming ended, the producers tried to make good on their promise to return the island to its former state (except for the three tons of garbage, of course). They removed the palm trees and replanted the native scrubby bushes. Then they monitored the beach for a year. But a great deal of damage was done to the area by a few extremely bad storms during late 1999. Storms like these happen during the monsoon every year, but they were particularly severe this time. A large section of Maya Beach eroded away. It's hard to say for sure, but removing the natural vegetation and bulldozing the sand dunes probably hastened the beach's erosion.

What's not hard to say for sure is that Western visitors can have a negative environmental impact on developing nations like Thailand. And Leonardo DiCaprio's movie has certainly brought a great deal of attention to this issue.

The local government and several environmental groups have taken the RFD and the producers of The Beach to court about the damage to Maya Beach. No verdict has been reached so far.



Jasmine - Bangkok 101
Jasmine - The Oldest Profession, Alive and Not So Well in Modern Thailand
Jasmine - We're In Thailand, What's the Scoop?!?
Team - Missionaries: Making A Difference?

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