The Real Hippie Hideaway That Inspired “The Beach”

After the release of 2000s The Beach, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as an adventure-seeking tourist who joins a hidden community in a remote beach in Thailand, foreigners began flooding Maya Bay for a glimpse of those pristine sands stretching across Phi Phi Leh.

Now, most of us know that the film is based on a novel written by Alex Garland. But not many know that the book is based on a real hippie community living in Thailand since the early ‘90s.

Leonardo DiCaprio, Virginie Ledoyen, Guillaume Canet/ The Secret Beach / Leonardo DiCaprio.

Source: Moviestillsdb.com

Founded by two foreigners, Gill Beddows and Steve Sanders, the community, also known as “The Sanctuary,” began as a small, secretive group of not more than ten travelers, all seeking refuge from the commercial lifestyle that was trickling its way into Thailand.

Was it as cult-like as the one in The Beach? Let’s see.

They Wanted to Build Something of Value

Beddows and Sanders had been living in Thailand for several years, running a café in Haad Rin beach. “But one day,” Beddows shared, “Steve said he’d found the most amazing beach up the coast.” He suggested they try and create something of value there instead of just hosting more parties on the main shore.

A wooden hut by the beach.

Source: The Sanctuary

What Steve stumbled upon was a spot known locally as Hat Thian. The bay was owned by a Thai family whom Sanders had reached out to and befriended. They agreed to lease the land, and Steve and Gill built the Sanctuary.

A Real-Life Sal and Bugs

The Sanctuary’s original members began building their piece of paradise in 1990 in the corner of Haad Thian Bay. Much like the film, Gill Beddows was the brain, supervising the project as it advanced, and Steve Sanders used his building skills to bring their vision to life.

Guests and volunteers gather at the lobby.

Source: The Sanctuary

In the film, the secret beach is overseen by Sal whose carpenter boyfriend helps execute her plans. The difference here is that Beddows and Sanders are from the U.K., whereas Sal and her boyfriend are American and South African. The other difference is likely that Beddows was a bit friendlier than Sal. Less cuckoo. More reasonable.

Their Trip to India Shaped Their Vision

With the untouched beach at their disposal, Steve and Gill got to work. The two had spent some time at an ashram in India, and their experiences deeply shaped their vision of what they wanted the island to be: a place centered around wellness and spirituality.

An Hindu ritual ceremony by the Ganges River.

Photo by Frédéric Soltan/Corbis/Getty Images

“We wanted it to be a center for like-minded people to practice yoga and detox, and various other therapies and treatments that are well accepted now, but which were practically witchcraft back then,” Sanders explained.

They Kept It a Secret for Years

For the first seven years, they kept things on the down-low, fearing that if word of the island beach spread out, it would be contaminated with barbaric, drunken foreigners. They wanted their secretive spot to be a place where one could sit in stillness without having to worry about full moon parties and empty beer bottles rolling around the white sand.

A panoramic view from the secret beach.

Source: CNN

The only people alerted about the island were friends of friends through word of mouth. Any new guest who arrived did so with humility and respect for the ones living there already. The sanctuary slowly became a haven for those seeking a place to practice yoga and meditation and a real home for those uninterested in going back to their old lives.

One of the First Members

One of the Sanctuary’s first members, Michael Doyle, began making regular trips to Thailand in the mid-‘80s. He loved the laid-back lifestyle, the homey bungalows, and the peace the island offered him from his work as a psychiatric nurse in Australia.

The first guests to arrive at The Sanctuary.

Source: The Sanctuary

Eventually, he found his place in Haad Rin beach, where the hippie scene grew by the minute, offering everything from tai-chi classes to sunset trance parties. He was rolling in hedonism and spirituality. For a while, he couldn’t think of a better place to be − until he found the secret beach.

“It Was Pure Magic”

One sunny day in 1991, a member of the new community invited Doyle to celebrate the opening of a new area on a secret beach further up the coast. The beach, he was told, was run by a group called “The Sanctuary,” and it could only be reached by boat or on foot over steep and rocky hills.

Guests and crew share their evening by the beach.

Source: The Sanctuary

Never one to say no, Doyle gladly accepted the offer and joined his new friend on the strenuous hike. “As we came over the first hill, the sight of a crystal-white beach below, without anyone on it, was pure magic,” Doyle recalled.

Doyle Felt His Life Had Changed

The boys kept trekking between narrow paths enclosed by giant boulders until they finally made it. They reached “the beach.” “Walking down from there, I felt as if I were passing through some kind of invisible membrane and I realized, ‘well, my life has changed,’” Doyle shared.

A view to the beach from The Sanctuary.

Source: Facebook

At the time, the Sanctuary had nothing more than a few wooden bungalows and a humble cafe. The island’s opening party went on for three days and was brimming with laughter, joy, dancing, and good, healthy food cooked by everyone, for everyone.

The Best Years of Their Lives

Doyle was enchanted by the secluded beach and remained there for three fruitful months, where he, along with several other long-term stayers, built more bungalows. Doyle would travel back and forth for several years, involving himself in the community while keeping in touch with his old life back home.

The view of a terrace in The Sanctuary.

Source: Facebook

Those first years were some of the best and purest of his life. “We felt the place had the perfect vibe, and we didn’t want it spoiled,” he said. But the secrecy didn’t last forever, and eventually, the founders decided it would be better to “share the knowledge and skills [they] had developed.”

They Needed Money

In truth, the Sanctuary needed a source of income to keep things going. “We were living in the hippie belief that everyone could live together, and we didn’t need to let the outside world in and let money spoil everything. Gradually reality came in, knowing this wasn’t sustainable without income,” Beddows explained.

A Buddha statue sits at the entrance.

Source: CNN

In 1998, the founders took a leap of faith by going public and placing Doyle as manager. A self-proclaimed “organized, get-stuff-done Capricorn,” he up-leveled the small beach resort into a full-fledged 21st century attraction.

The Sanctuary Today

Today, the Sanctuary has sturdy facilities that can accommodate a large number of people at once. The beach resort offers yoga retreats, Detox retreats, “reshape your life” retreats, cleansing programs, and many more new-age kinds of things.

A guest is practicing yoga.

Source: The Sanctuary

Despite opening their facilities to the masses, the Sanctuary has managed to preserve the intimacy and respect that characterized the place from the very beginning. Mike Doyle insists that there are no drugs around and that “through the eyes, you make a connection with people.”

People Stay for Years

Doyle also enjoys taking people into the jungle for “ecstatic dance,” a type of dance which can’t really be considered “a type,” because of its free character. You basically move your body however you feel like moving it. It’s a “dance like nobody’s watching” kind of dance.

Guests are practicing yoga by the beach.

Source: CNN

Apart from the free flow, fluid, calming practices, the Sanctuary’s founders believe that what makes the place unique is the fact that many people stay for weeks, months, and even years. “There have been people who get to the airport on the boat, and they turn around and come back,” said manager Nolan Dalby.

So, When Did “The Beach” Come In?

Alex Garland, the author of The Beach, is said to have written the book after spending several weeks with the community. “I have a fuzzy memory of a guy hanging out in a hammock and just watching the flow of life for a couple of weeks in the mid-’90s,” Michael Doyle recalled.

Leonardo DiCaprio sits by the beach in a movie still.

Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: FOX

As soon as the book came out, Gill Beddows and Steve Sanders said they simply knew. “There were just too many coincidences,” Beddows explained. In the years following the book’s release, backpackers everywhere could be spotted on the beaches with the book in their hands.

From Book to Feature Film

Garland’s gripping tale of a small group of travelers who establish their own community on a remote Thai beach was reprinted 25 times in one year and, in 2000, was turned into a $40 million feature film directed by Danny Boyle and starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Richard, the wide-eyed traveler who is handed a map to the secret beach.

Leonardo DiCaprio at the film premiere.

Photo by Frank Trapper/Corbis/Getty Images

In the book, Sal (the Beach’s founder) tells Richard: “Of course, this is more than a beach resort. But at the same time, it is just a beach resort. We come here to relax by a beautiful beach, but it isn’t a beach resort because we’re trying to get away from beach resorts. Or we’re trying to make a place that won’t turn into a beach resort. See?” Precisely what the Sanctuary’s founders had in mind when they created their little utopian community.

DiCaprio’s Choice Was an Interesting One

The Beach was the first film Leonardo DiCaprio chose after Titanic, which was a surprising decision to many. Why would DiCaprio want to play some backpacker in Thailand when he just starred as the idolized hero of a captivating tragedy?

Leonardo DiCaprio in a movie promo shot.

Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: FOX

It took two full years and over 100 scripts until DiCaprio decided that The Beach would be his follow-up project. “I could tell after reading the script with him that he’d do it, but it took more than a month for a definite yes,” the film’s director, Danny Boyle told Time magazine.

DiCaprio’s Paycheck for The Beach Was Enough for a Lifetime

Titanic turned Leonardo DiCaprio into one of the hottest names in Hollywood and one of the most famous actors in the world. Whoever he agreed to act for needed to put forth a hefty sum for him to agree. For his role in The Beach, DiCaprio earned a whopping $20 million.

Leonardo DiCaprio in a scene in the forest.

Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: FOX

The paycheck was enough to get him to reject the movie American Psycho, which he was contemplating until its producers told him they weren’t willing to pay that much. The role of Patrick Bateman eventually went to Christian Bale.

The Lead Was Supposed to Go to Ewan McGregor

The Beach ended up causing a major rift between Danny Boyle and his go-to leading star Ewan McGregor. The two worked together in three of Boyle’s previous films and Ewan was terribly hurt when he didn’t land the lead role that DiCaprio snatched instead.

A portrait of Ewan McGregor.

Photo by Toni Anne Barson Archive/WireImage/Getty Images

Ewan was reportedly blindsided by the director’s decision to cast someone else. After more than a decade of not talking to each other, Boyle told McGregor: “I handled it very, very badly, and I’ve apologized to you.” McGregor accepted his apology, admitting that he was a bit arrogant when he was younger and that he could have responded better.

Leonardo DiCaprio Had to Shed Nearly 20 Pounds

Before they began filming, Danny Boyle asked DiCaprio to lost 18 pounds. Incredibly (and dangerously?) he did it in a little less than two weeks, according to his fitness trainer at the time, Cornel Chin. “He targeted abs, upper body, and lower body,” Chin reported.

A portrait of Leonardo DiCaprio.

Photo by David Lefranc/Kipa/Sygma/Getty Images

Chin told Fitness Black Book that Leonardo wasn’t in the best shape when he first met him. A knee injury had stunted his training regime, but he shed the unwanted pounds after intensive bodyweight exercises like press-ups, leg raises, and crunches.

A Traumatic Boat Accident

DiCaprio was shooting a scene with co-star Tilda Swinton in the Andaman Sea when their canoe suddenly capsized. The incident made headlines. “We did not underestimate the sea,” one of the crewmembers, Santa Pestanji, told BBC. “There were at least four security boats present and prepared for the unpredictable.”

Leonardo DiCaprio in a scene inside the sea.

Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: FOX

DiCaprio was in the water for 10 minutes, remaining calm as he floated with the other crew members. “He was a real gentleman, a hero,” Pestanji stated. If 10 minutes doesn’t sound like much, well, apparently the incident was enough to scar Tilda Swinton, who said that “all of us who were involved in it will find it hard to forget.”

Thais Weren’t Happy About the Portrayal of Their Country

Politicians in Thailand demanded that the movie be banned after claiming that it had wholly misrepresented their country. The film highlighted the crazy, free, reckless, “lawless” aspects of Thailand to create a sense of absolute chaos.

Leonardo DiCaprio stands before a big Buddha image.

Source: Moviestillsdb / Copyright: FOX

“The movie blasphemed Buddhism in a scene in which a big Buddha image is shown in a bar,” noted Thailand’s House of Representatives’ Arts and Culture spokesman, Kuthep Saikachang. Although Boyle didn’t intend on offending anyone, he definitely overlooked some cultural norms.

Thailand Sued Fox for Ruining Their Island

In 2000, several Thai organizations sued 20th Century Fox for damaging Maya Beach. But according to DiCaprio, no harm was done. “I’ve seen Fox taking meticulous care in their respect for the island. I consider myself an environmentalist. I believe that whenever we leave the island, it is going to be better off than it was before,” he stated.

A crowd from tourists at Maya Beach.

Source: Expedia

The case went on for years until, ultimately, a ruling found that filming The Beach had indeed harmed the landscape. But the shooting wasn’t necessarily what made the most damage. It was the aftermath that tore it down. After the film’s release, tourists flocked to catch a glimpse of the utopian paradise. They longed to see the white sand, the pristine waters, and the enchanting greenery. TOO MANY tourists longed to see it. In 2018, Maya Beach was closed so it could recover from all the tourism.

The Outcome Wasn’t as Expected

Thanks to DiCaprio’s role in Titanic, The Beach’s filmmakers assumed that the movie would be a box office success. Unfortunately, the result was light years away from what they had expected. The Beach was a flop, according to critics, earning just a meager 20% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Danny Boyle reads the script by the beach.

Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: FOX

With a budget of $50 million, The Beach made $39 million at the domestic box office. Ouch. And as if all that wasn’t enough, DiCaprio was nominated for a Razzie Award for worst actor. An utter blow to his self-esteem because his part in Titanic won him numerous awards.

An Alternate Ending

*Spoiler Alert*

The film ends with Sal, The Beach’s leader, wallowing in tears after she exposes her true colors in front of the whole community. She pulls the trigger on Leonardo DiCaprio, but luckily, the gun isn’t loaded. Still, seeing that she could do something like that was enough to get everyone running.

Sal sits alone in a room filled with candles.

Source: YouTube

The film’s DVD release shows an alternate ending, where Sal commits suicide as everyone sails away on a boat. Looks like the cinema version took it easy on the viewers. Suicide might have been a bit too harsh.

Boyle Believes He Could Have Done a Better Job

Reflecting on the movie in an interview, Boyle admitted, “I don’t think that I made the best job of it as a director. I’d make a much better film of it now. I was rather overawed by the money and the way the film was set up. It was huge, not really suited to what I’ve learned I’m better at.”

Danny Boyle arrives at the film premiere.

Photo by Frank Trapper/Corbis/Getty Images

What did author Alex Garland think about the film? He was fine with the result. Not too happy, not too disappointed. In 2018, however, he excitedly revealed that “someone very talented” was working on a possible adaptation of The Beach.

The On On Hotel

The film starts with Richard chilling at a guest house called the “On On Hotel” on Khao San Road in Bangkok. In reality, the On On is in Phuket which is a 6-hour drive from Bangkok and a 2-hour boat ride from the Phi Phi Islands.

A exterior view of the On On Hotel in Phuket.

Photo by Andre Malerba/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Unfortunately, the On On was renovated several years ago, and a new boutique has replaced it. The new hotel is more luxurious and isn’t too fit for backpackers anymore. The On On was truly the quintessential hotel for backpackers, so it’s a shame it no longer exists.

Fox Changed the Landscape

It is said that FOX wanted more palm trees and less vegetation to make The Beach seem more “paradise-like” in the movie. Allegedly FOX, replanted all the vegetation after filming wrapped in 2000, but many say a lot of the replanting never took, and the bay never returned to its former glory.

An aerial view of the palm trees at the beach.

Source: YouTube

The Lagoon Wasn’t Actually Closed

In the film, the enchanting lagoon leading to the beach was closed off from the sea. It was secluded from the rest of the world, a piece of heaven available just for the members of the secret community. In reality, however, the lagoon is open to the rest of the sea.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Virginie Ledoyen in a scene in the Lagoon.

Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: FOX

The area isn’t actually secluded. So, to create that sense of privacy and mystery, the crew used special effects. They shot DiCaprio from different angles and arranged it so it would seem like the place was fully enclosed. They did a heck of a good job!

The Waterfall

Most of the scenes were filmed in Maya Bay on Phi Phi Leh, one of the two Phi Phi islands. The other, and larger island, Phi Phi Don, is packed with big hotels, loud bars, and beachfront restaurants. Phi Phi Leh, on the other hand, isn’t inhabited at all because it’s a National Park.

DiCaprio and his friends stare at the waterfall.

Leonardo DiCaprio, Virginie Ledoyen, Guillaume Canet. Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: FOX

Garland’s book references the island of Koh Phangan several times. He writes that it’s not too far from the beach. In real life, though, Koh Phangan is on the other side of Thailand and nowhere near the Phi Phi Islands.

Fun Fact: The waterfall that Richard jumps off to get to the Beach is located at a national park called Khao Yai.

Why Leonardo DiCaprio Took the Role

The reason DiCaprio decided that his post-Titanic movie would be The Beach was because he felt that Alex Garland’s novel “spoke to his generation.” He told TIME magazine: “We’ve never had anything to fight for, so we’re constantly looking for things to believe in.”

A close-up on Leonardo DiCaprio as he sails away from the island.

Source: YouTube

He goes on to explain that his character, Richard, represents many young people out there looking for something different: “In a world where everything conforms to our comfort, the only valuable things are those that go beyond anticipation. I think that this is what Richard is looking for, a world beyond anticipation.”

“Paradise Is Eventually a False Concept”

When speaking to Playboy magazine in 2000, Leonardo shared his thoughts on the concept of paradise, and what the story is actually meant to teach its readers: “Richard [his character] goes in search of something real… He ends up finding this pirate-like utopia that seems to be the answer to all his problems.”

Leonardo DiCaprio as Richard in a still from the movie.

Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: FOX

“In the end,” DiCaprio continued, “he realizes that paradise is essentially a false concept. There is nothing out there that will answer all your problems.”

So too, The Sanctuary resort might alleviate some of the tensions in your life, but their “wellness package” (with a hefty price tag) will in no way solve all of your issues.

The Video Game Scene Was Leo’s Idea

The scene with video game graphics showing Richard running around, gaining coins and life experience, was DiCaprio’s neat idea. “I thought it would be a perfect idea to get into Richard´s sort of fascination with isolation and being out in the wilderness,” he told Playboy.

A still from the video game scene.

Source: YouTube

DiCaprio’s video game was a way of highlighting Richard’s experience as being “left to his own elements as this Rambo-esque character and him having fun with it the first time.” Danny Boyle was totally open to it, saying that he loves anything surreal and anything that will surprise the viewers.