ONE OF the most spectacular images of the Andaman region is a photograph of Panyee Island from the air.
Shacks and huts spread out from a small shelf of earth that juts from a limestone karst into the waters of Phang Nga Bay, about 20 minutes by boat from the mainland.
The ''island'' is actually a traditional fishing village, erected on stilts over water.
Once you see that photograph, you never forget it. It's such a glorious sight that it has most people catching their breath, and wishing they could go there.
They can. And indeed, that's what the people who live in the stilt village, where traditional life has flourished for centuries, would like.
But visitors need to know that the fairytale scene is not the whole truth. This is no classic fable with a surefire happy ending.
It's a modern saga of gritty reality, although you could say it certainly does still revolve around two main characters, the beauty and the beast.
The villagers who live in this enchanted spot want visitors to know that it was once a dirty, smelly place. And really, that was entirely to be expected.
Panyee was a fishing village over the water, with a traditional basic garbage disposal system. Human waste all went the same way, into the sea below.
Most boats would carry tourists around the sights of Phang Nga Bay and stop for lunch at restaurants on Panyee, where they would drop their garbage as well.
The restaurants also dumped their scraps into the water. As the village grew in popularity, so did the pollution problem.
Eventually, more than a thousand visitors were coming each day, adding their own waste.
The smell was just as memorable as the aerial photograph.
Each day the tides would wash the garbage away, then often return overnight with more. The beautiful village, a delight to the eye, turned into a stinking, water-bound cesspit, an insult to the nose.
Still spectacular in those photographs from the air, Panyee was no longer a pleasant destination to visit, or a fit place to live.
Now, things have changed. Visitors these days find the whole place is clean and wholesome. Fishing is still a daily preoccupation, so there are some natural smells.
But Panyee has come to terms with the modern curse of pollution.
It was not an easy task.
When 1300 people from 200 families live in homes above the water, what do you do to maintain public health?
Beneath the village, among the stilts, lives the beast. Over the years, generations of replacement piles have been used to prop up the huts and shacks.
Under the floorboards and boardwalks lie more than 100,000 wooden piles, a hidden maze that captures all the muck that the tides carry back and forth.
Every few days, villagers descend beneath the huts and shacks in a special canoe to clear away the garbage.
Up above, the community now separates its garbage into recycling and waste at purpose-built bins.
Bottles and cans are sold to benefit the local school, which also sits over the water, just like the village mosque.
Most of the six large restaurants that serve the tourists are now also acting responsibly.
Shifting the garbage to the mainland for proper disposal comes at a high cost. But the locals are now prepared to pay, because they realise it has to be done.
Living a traditional lifestyle on a stilt island in modern times is expensive. Electricity costs more than six times as much on Panyee as it does in Phuket City, not far to the south.
One policeman cares for the island and two others but he has to borrow a boat to reach them.
Water for drinking and cleaning comes by pipe from the mainland, but it costs three times as much.
Local authorities have paid for a central village toilet block with a large tank and individual homes are also having smaller tanks installed one by one.
The Muslim villagers are much more content now that Panyee is on the way to becoming pollution-free.
Some of the visitors who come these days are likely to return because the experience is a lot more pleasant, and the smell is no longer memorable.
Beauty still roams free. But the beast is leashed, if not quite muzzled.
Homestay visits and day trips to Panyee can be organised through most tour agencies.
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