A coral check up and resistance to industrial projects in the East and South

Island Wrap #38: Travel & Environment edition for April 23 to May 6, 2021

This edition of the bi-weekly Island Wrap addresses pollution in the Eastern seaboard provinces and resistance to major industrial plans on both coasts of the Kra Isthmus down South. Also covered is a wide-reaching coral check up, camera-trap photos of critically endangered wildlife and my usual picks of non-pandemic news and travel stories from the past two weeks in coastal Thailand.

Covid-19 has been dominating the news cycle as Thailand grapples with its worst outbreak to date. Check back here soon for an in-depth report on the situation — including targeted lockdowns, travel restrictions, vaccination registration, economic fallout, tourism reopening plans and more — in the Health & Tourism edition of the Island Wrap. For now, how about a break from all of that?

Since the last Island Wrap I published a story about sleepy beaches and villages on the long southeastern ‘tail’ of Trat province, and took a look back on the first year of Thai Island Times. As always, thank you very much for reading.

Stuart McDonald’s Couchfish piece on travel mishaps — including a shipwreck and a violent attack on Ko Phi Phi — make it clear why I’ve long called him ‘the Greek god of bad travel luck.’ He also reflected on the diminished importance of post offices to travelers before recounting a macaque attack in Phetchaburi.


Pick of the Wrap: BUSINESS

When on Ko Lanta, one of my favorite beaches to relax on is Hat Khlong Nin at the center of the west coast. And when I’m there, Horizon is a go-to spot for food, drink, sunset and good vibes after dark. A big crew of people operate this bar / restaurant / guesthouse and it can be challenging to decipher who’s working and who’s simply hanging out long term. Quality Thai food and cocktails are served, and a terrific blues band was on stage when I last made it there in 2019. Budget rooms are upstairs, with comfier flashpacker-style digs bagging you an Andaman outlook.


Weather

It had been a relatively low-key two weeks in weather until powerful storms blew through the upper Gulf coast provinces early yesterday morning. Strong winds felled many power lines and tore the roof off the city pillar shrine in Samut Songkhram, where several houses flooded as well. On the east side of the Gulf coast, significant damage was also reported in parts of Chonburi and Rayong.

Lighter storms hit many other areas as rainy season starts to settle over most of the country. Filmed from the Khlong Yai area in Trat province, footage of multiple waterspouts circling off the east coast of Ko Kood surfaced last Friday.


Resistance to EEC and SEC

Pollution from dozens of electronics recycling plants and factories appears to be killing crops and contaminating reservoirs in parts of Chachoengsao, Chonburi and Rayong provinces, reports Ryn Jirenuwat and Luke Duggleby for China Dialogue. Their important work details many failures in environmental oversight and a lack of community involvement in decision making related to the Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC). One example is a 70-acre plastic production and recycling complex, which residents of Chonburi’s That Thong village strongly oppose.

Locals recently floated for hours in the rain on more than 400 boats off the Rayong coast to voice opposition to the expansion of an already massive industrial complex with a petrochemical plant in Map Ta Phut. They claim that the factories damage fisheries and harm the health of residents. A local politician who supports their cause asks, “What do Rayong people get (out of these factories)?”

On May 1st, locals from Map Ta Phut gathered on socially distanced boats to say they are not happy about how EEC projects have turned out for them. (Source: Bencha Saengchantra)

Exactly one week after this boat-based protest in Rayong, the Transport Minister called for “agencies to expedite the Southern land bridge mega-project.” If approved, this ‘land bridge’ will entail construction of a roughly 120-km railway and highway linking deep-sea ports that are proposed for Chumphon on the mid-southern Gulf coast and Ranong on the upper Andaman coast to the southwest.

One of several projects currently being mulled as part of a Southern Economic Corridor (SEC), the ‘land bridge’ would, in theory, provide an alternate route to the Straits of Malacca for shipping cargo between the Indian and Pacific oceans. While some view it as a good alternative to a long-considered canal across the Kra Isthmus, many are concerned about environmental impacts. Others question if a ‘land bridge’ even makes sense given the tediousness of offloading cargo from ships to trains and trucks and then loading it back onto ships on the other side of the isthmus.

Comparing the proposed SEC to the EEC, well-known marine scientist Thon Thamrongnawasawat points out that the Thai Andaman and eastern Gulf regions are different animals from the standpoints of ecology and tourism:

“The eastern Gulf has relatively few coral sites, while the Andaman has hundreds. The EEC area has only one marine park (Khao Laem Ya - Mu Ko Samet), while the Andaman has 16 including three (Mu Ko Ranong, Laem Son, Mu Ko Surin) located in the vicinity of Ranong province … Also, three Andaman provinces (Phuket, Phang Nga, Krabi) had a tourism income of 6.44 billion baht the year before the pandemic. Therefore, careful consideration is advised.”

Given how destructive the EEC has been for Eastern seaboard communities, a similarly mismanaged SEC could be disastrous for people and the environment in Ranong. The same goes for Chumphon and its marine sites in Mu Ko Chumphon Marine Park. Even so, government officials are surveying potential sites for ports, land-transport infrastructure and industry in these parts of the South.

This map shows some of the SEC plans, including the proposed ‘land bridge’ route in red. Some observers worry that terms like ‘sustainable’ and ‘green & cultural’ are little more than cover for damaging industrial projects.


A coral check up

Potentially harmful algae was found growing on some of the coral at reefs between Ko Samae San and Ko Khram Yai in Chonburi province recently.

While some algae is good for coral, the symbiotic relationship goes sideways if there aren’t enough marine creatures to pick algae off reefs — a scenario that typically results from overfishing. High levels of algae attract microbes that deplete oxygen, suffocating coral and allowing the algae to overtake dead reefs. The problem was not found at the reefs around Ko Sak and Ko Si Chang, also in Chonburi.

Down in Satun province, researchers found dreaded bleaching on 5% of the coral at Ko Kwang and a few of the other islets found between Malaysia’s Langkawi Island and the far southern end of Thailand’s Andaman coast. The bleaching will hopefully reverse now that the monsoon has started to cool down the sea, but researchers will keep an eye on sea temperatures into June. Wherever reefs exist, coral bleaching and death is a constant concern posed by warming seas.

Though no algae or bleaching was found on reefs at Ko Khai, Ko Langka Jiao and Ko Ngam, researchers found that coral had been damaged by ropes and other discarded fishing debris around these islands in Mu Ko Chumphon Marine Park. A little further west at Ko Tao, a team of Thai and foreign divers deployed buoys and surface ropes to stop boat drivers from tossing anchors down on the coral.

Thai PBS’s footage of countless fish near Ko Rang in Mu Ko Chang Marine Park displays, according to the report, the “recovery” of marine life due to the decline in tourism during the pandemic. From the same archipelago comes this haunting footage of a free diver descending into the wreck of the HTMS Chang.


Jellyfish, dolphins, sea turtles

The Dept. of Marine and Coastal Resources (DMCR) is working on jellyfish safety by setting up vinegar dispensers at popular beaches like Hat Chao Samran in Phetchaburi, Hat Bang Saen in Chonburi and Hat Samila in Songkhla.

Box jellyfish have killed an average of one person every two years in Thailand over the past two decades, with the majority of deaths coming during rainy season in both the Gulf and the Andaman. The chemical properties of humble vinegar prevent the release of toxins from stingers that linger in the skin after a jellyfish attack.

A fisherman came across the corpse of a mature pink humpback dolphin floating in Sattahip Bay on Tuesday. No serious wounds were visible, but marine officials are performing an autopsy on the mainland in Chonburi province. The news was better out of the Ko Lipe area, where tourists were delighted to spot several healthy false killer whales during their recent boat trip.

A green sea turtle nest hatched late Monday afternoon in Thap Sakae, continuing a fabulous run of nesting along the Prachuap Khiri Khan coast this year. While 30 hatchlings made it into the sea, more than half of the eggs sadly did not hatch due to a mold invasion during incubation. Over on Phuket, officials stacked sandbags to protect a green sea turtle nest that’s yet to hatch at Laem Phai.


Tigers, elephants, cobras

Don’t miss these camera-trap shots of an Indochinese tiger, a black panther and a Siamese crocodile in the wilds of Kaeng Krachan National Park. These are a few of the most elusive critically endangered large species in the region — and capturing all three on a camera trap is quite a feet. Now is also the time of year when thousands of butterflies emerge in Kaeng Krachan, as shown in these photos.

Also in Kaeng Krachan, rangers discovered the skeletal remains of two young elephants alongside spent bullets last week. A patrol team “suspected foul play when they spotted what looked like a bullet hole in a skull,” reports Bangkok Post. Poaching is a serious problem in the area, even after one of Thailand’s richest men was charged for hunting panther, barking deer and other endangered wildlife in 2018.

In the reptilian realm, a hotel cleaner in Krabi was shocked to find a large monitor lizard hiding under a bed in Ao Nang. And in rural Chonburi province, a 40-year-old Ban Bueng man didn’t wait for rescue personnel to arrive before he single-handedly captured a three-meter king cobra that had been “resting” in his house. By the time rescuers arrived, the lethal snake was safely stowed in a large basin.


Social media corner

As most people stay home due to the Covid-19 outbreak, current travel photos from Thai islands are hard to come by online. That’s one reason why I was excited when @yummie_bangkok tweeted shots taken on Ko Kood during the island’s period of closure to tourism last week. The photos provide further evidence that Ko Kood ranks as one of Thailand’s most beautiful islands, now more than ever.


Food and travel

The story of Ko Phangan’s legendary retreat, The SanctuaryJoe Cummings for Bangkok 101
Travel back in time to the founding of this iconic, free-spirited resort on Hat Thian in 1991. While the retreat has evolved a lot over the decades, it’s still accessible only by boat or a long hike through the jungle.

Southern Thai food: Exploring the flavors of the country’s ‘spiciest cuisine’Austin Bush for CNN Travel
Venture into Southern cuisine via an article that, despite the headline, often leans into the not-so-spicy dishes with Chinese roots found in fabulous eating hubs like Phuket, Trang, Nakhon Si Thammarat and Pattani.

Finding bliss on a Bangkok motorbike taxiChris Schalkx for AFAR
One positive thing about the pandemic, perhaps, is how it forces us to seek joy in routine aspects of life. This entertaining story on zipping around with “the unsung heroes of the city’s social fabric” is one example of that.

Heritage along the tracksPattarawadee Saengmanee for Bangkok Post
Another option for a Bangkok adventure is the skytrain, which keeps expanding to make far-flung attractions easily accessible. Examples in this story include the jaw-dropping Erawan Museum and Wat Asokaram near the coast.

Exploring mangrove forest and taking boat tour at Tung Prong ThongDeer is Travelling
Find out why this spot in a corner of Rayong province is often cited as the most worthwhile of the many mangrove-forest walkways in Thailand.

Southern charmTales of the Orient by Simon Ostheimer
A few good reasons to allot a couple of extra days for towns like Songkhla and Trang before or after hitting the islands down South.

Khao Khuha, the magnificent mountain of SongkhlaSanook (Thai language)
This striking cluster of limestone massifs in rural Rattaphum district might be worth adding to your travel list if exploring outside of Hat Yai.

45 drone images of Thailand to inspire your tripInThailand.Travel
This post features dazzling aerial vantages of islands and beaches, including Ko Hong and Railay, to go with several attractions found upcountry.

The 15 best islands in the world to retire onInternational Living
Ko Samui was the only Thai island to make the cut. Other inclusions from our general neighborhood include Phu Quoc, Penang and Bali.

Slumber Party Hostels fourth largest globallyBangkok Post
Having reviewed five Slumber Party properties in Bangkok, Ao Nang and Ko Phangan for Travelfish over the years, I concur that this Southeast Asia-focused group does a good job. I hope to see their hostels get lively again soon.

Thai actress’ lavish holiday photos spark controversial ‘travel shaming’ debateJames Booth for DMARGE
Some folks were up in arms about Chompoo’s holiday at a super-expensive resort on Ko Kood when the island was otherwise closed to tourism.


Video corner

Give this 33-minute video a look if you’re feeling nostalgic for travel in Thailand before the days of cell phones and drones. While most of the 1997 footage was shot in Bangkok, the tail end has a few glimpses of Ko Phi Phi.

(Source: Joseph Reynolds)


In other news

Steady progress in construction of new airport terminals in provincesThe Nation
New terminals are going up in Krabi, Trang and Nakhon Si Thammarat.

Forgotten for more than 50 years, a village in Sadao still has no electricity77Kaoded (Thai language)
Some 100 residents still rely on oil lanterns after their requests to the Songkhla electrical authority went ignored for decades. Some villagers use generators and solar cells, but many continue to live the old fashioned way.

Tooth fossil in a Krabi cave indicates a great flood many thousands of years ago77Kaoded (Thai language)
The caves of Ao Luek are filled with ancient paintings and fossils, but researchers were surprised to find fossilized teeth several meters above the floor in Tham Khao Phueng. Thought to have belonged to a large boar that roamed the area 80,000 to 200,000 years ago, the teeth hint at a major flood that may have carried animals into the cave, according to the director of a local conservation team.


Coastal oddity

Discovering winning lottery numbers is a big deal in Thailand, be it in a dream or a visit by a snake or any other medium that the cosmos might use to deliver the right numbers to a fortunate soul. With this in mind, two big winners revealed what they think led to fortunes won from lottery tickets last month.

Panjani Bladee, a 41-year store clerk on Ko Samui, said that a portrait depicting Ai Khai (‘Egg Boy’) suddenly fell out of a miniature shrine in the shop where she worked. She interpreted this mishap as a sign that Ai Khai, the spirit of a young boy whose image draws millions to a shrine in Sichon, hadn’t been comfortable on in the shop’s existing shrine. She obtained a larger shrine for the Ai Khai portrait and, soon after setting it up, she bought a lottery ticket. Her winnings: 6 million baht ($192,000 USD). Ai Khai is believed to grant good fortune, and Panjani told Thairath that her luck may have been the result of satisfying this young and playful spirit.

Across the Gulf in Si Racha, 29-year-old Kotchakorn Norabut said a headless snake came to her in a dream and implanted the number 70 on her mind. The next day, she went looking for a lottery ticket ending in 70 — and it won her a whopping 12 million baht. “I’m a maid at a company while my husband is a trailer driver. We are not a rich family,” she told The Pattaya News. Well, they are rich now. 🌴

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