Cats at sea, coral theft, shortening quarantine and other news from coastal Thailand

Island Wrap #31: February 26 to March 11, 2021

Welcome to the Island Wrap, your bi-weekly window to Thai islands and coastal areas. This jammed edition covers a heroic Navy rescue near Ko Lipe, mysterious coral destruction at Ko Thalu, a long-awaited sea turtle hatch on Phuket and a set of bizarre discoveries from around the region. Also covered is a proposal to shorten quarantine for international travelers entering Thailand.

Greetings to new subscribers and thanks to everyone for reading Thai Island Times. Earlier this week I published a detail-drenched story about one of my favorite mellow Thai islands: Ko Jum / Pu in the Andaman Sea. If you’re looking for an alternative to more popular islands like Phuket, Ko Phi Phi and Ko Lanta, but you also want easy access out of Krabi, do give this dueling name island a look.

For next week I’m working on an article looking into when and how Thailand might reopen to travelers from abroad without requiring them to quarantine. Also on the horizon is a pair of stories from the Trat coastline and much more.

Over on Couchfish, Stuart kept his virtual voyage around Southeast Asia going with dugong spotting on Ko Libong, an extra day in Siem Reap and a long ride in Cambodia. As always he sprinkled in thought provokers like a contemplation “on backpackers” and an interview about the recent coup in Myanmar. You also might enjoy this discussion on movies filmed in Southeast Asia.


Pick of the Wrap: BUSINESS

In my recent articles on Ko Jum / Pu I also mention Ko Si Boya, an island in the same group that gets less attention. Eventually I’ll devote a full story to this obscure island, but for now I want to promote one exceptional place to stay: Siboya Bungalows. The ever-sincere Mr. Chung offers inexpensive huts and individually designed beach houses which are rented out when the permanent owners aren’t around. More than a resort, the place is a true community where long-stay foreigners mingle with native islanders in a setting that makes Ko Jum / Pu almost seem noisy. Siboya Bungalows is sadly closed for now, but Mr. Chung plans to reopen in October and tentative reservations can be made through his website and Facebook page.


Weather and shipwrecks

In a rescue that Reuters described as “purrfect,” Thai Navy sailors bravely recovered four cats that were clinging to life on what was left of a capsized fishing boat near Ko Lipe in the Lower Andaman. The effort won seaman Tassapon Sa-ei hero status around the world and a certificate of appreciation from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The rescue team also brought all eight crew members to safety before returning to the wreck to look for the cats. Thairath published a video showing the felines safe and sound after their harrowing ordeal.

A 47-year-old technical diver sadly died after descending 79.4 meters deep at Talay Songhong, a body of freshwater that opens to a flooded cave system in Nakhon Si Thammarat. “When his friends arrived back on the surface they found him floating, motionless in the water,” reports Nujaree Rakrun for Bangkok Post.

Residents of typically pollution-free Phuket and other Andaman coastal provinces woke up to an “unhealthy” AQI reading earlier this month, with environmental officials blaming dusty haze from Myanmar and Bangladesh. The air at Phuket is now healthy again, but do spare a thought for our smog-choked friends up north. Chiang Mai recently ranked as the most polluted city on earth.


Wildlife and environment

Researchers assessing the state of a reef rehabilitation site at Ko Thalu near Bang Saphan in the Upper Gulf were alarmed to find that some 4,000 branches of staghorn coral had been chopped off, apparently by human coral poachers. The destruction covered 70 fragile clusters of coral that are officially protected under Ao Siam National Park, prompting an investigation by the Dept. of National Parks.

Better news came from the Andaman coast, where a multi-agency team of experts reported improved environmental conditions at 13 marine sites between Ko Lanta in Krabi and Ko Libong down in Trang. Some of their most exciting finds include hundreds of square meters of new coral growth at Ko Ngai and regenerated seagrass near the mainland at Pakmeng Beach. The next step is to figure out how such ecological improvements could be sustained well into the future.

On Phuket, locals “turned out in droves” to see the hundreds of sea urchins that washed ashore on Patong Beach. “I have never seen anything like it,” lifeguard Somchai Tiangnoi told The Phuket News. Marine Dept. officials later blamed the prickly phenomenon on nothing more than a strong king tide.

Footage emerged of an adult whale shark greeting a boat off Phuket’s Kata Beach, while Bryde’s whales continue to swim around the Ang Thong islands in search of the fish that spawn there at this time of year. Further north in the Upper Gulf, a Bryde’s whale dubbed Mae Thong Dee welcomed her third calf into the world after overcoming serious eye and fin injuries sustained two years ago. Here’s some terrific drone footage of the mama whale with her newborn.

You also might enjoy footage of 10 humpback dolphins off Ao Tanote on Ko Lanta Yai, and a pod of bottlenose dolphins delighting the Koh Kood Divers boat on its way to Ko Rang. Dwarf spinner dolphins put on a show near Ko Tao as well.

The first leatherback sea turtle nest found on Phuket’s Kata Beach in two decades finally hatched at 10:00 P.M. on February 26th — early enough that a crowd was still around to watch. Only 34 of the 80 eggs hatched, however, with 29 hatchlings making it into the sea that night. Here’s a video of the baby turtles emerging from the nest, which was laid by a 300-kg “supermom” in the very first hour of 2021.

A second leatherback nest on Phuket’s Mai Khao Beach produced only 24 hatchlings from 106 eggs, and only eight of those made it into the sea after nosing out of their shells in the wee hours of March 6th. The result was a bit better at Bang Kwan Beach in Phang Nga, where 42 tiny leatherbacks crawled forth from a nest on March 2nd. Collectively these pushed the season’s leatherback totals to 732 hatchlings from 12 total nests in Thailand. Three more nests have yet to hatch.

Sadly, most of the hatchlings that survived on Mai Khao Beach were far too weak to reach the ocean that night. Marine scientists are now nursing them with the hope of a release at a later date. (Source: Dept. of National Parks)

In serpentine news, eight gardeners managed to capture a six meter, 100 kg (!) python in rural Chonburi before posing for a photo with what appears to be the largest snake I’ve mentioned in any Island Wrap to date. Down in Krabi, footage emerged of a 3.5-meter king cobra being extracted from a pile of rubble, while two cobras needed to be gingerly untangled from a net. Closer to Bangkok, rescue workers shocked a three-meter crocodile to sleep on a street in Samut Prakan, though a second croc is still thought to be on the loose in the area. Watch your step.

Veterinarians in Phetchaburi are conducting a mass sterilization program to get the macaque population of Khao Wang under control. The monkeys often terrorize locals and tourists visiting Phraya Nakhon Khiri, a 19th-century Royal palace set atop a limestone mountain in the city. Stuart of Travelfish shares an account of his confrontation with Khao Wang monkeys some years ago:

“I was the only person in the area and a monkey came to take my water bottle. I resisted then a whole simian hit squad appeared out of nowhere. I fled, and from memory threw the bottle at them. Savages.”


Covid-19

While 30 to 70 cases of the virus continue to surface in Thailand each day, most of those are in Samut Sakhon province and the outbreak which began there in mid December 2020 is now considered under control. Samut Sakhon’s Central Shrimp Market — once the epicenter of the outbreak — finally reopened earlier this month, though provincial shrimp sales remain 50% below average.

The Health Minister became the first person to be vaccinated in Thailand when he received a shot of Sinovac on February 28th. Health workers and others in at-risk professions are now being inoculated in certain provinces, including Phuket and Surat Thani, but the general public cannot register for a vaccine until May.

Private firms have yet to be cleared to procure any Covid-19 vaccines, though the Health Ministry “suggested private companies be allowed to import another 15-20 million doses by the end of this year,” reports Bangkok Post. Tourism-reliant provinces like Phuket are currently vying for government-procured vaccines.

Freedom of movement has largely been restored nationwide, though anyone traveling as a resident of Samut Sakhon or any district with recent Covid-19 cases might want to check with provincial governments to see what’s expected before setting out. This is especially true if using public transport to reach the extra-cautious provinces of Phang Nga and Trang in the South.


Social media corner

With so many captivating posts recently, from drone photos of Ko Phi Phi Don to sunrise on Krabi’s misty Nong Thale Reservoir to excerpts about Ko Chang (Trat) from a 1998 Lonely Planet, this Wrap’s social media pick was a tough one. In the end, I’m going with a tweet by Lana Willocks sharing photos from a hike that remind us how Phuket still preserves its share of jungle. In addition to posting cool stuff on Twitter, Lana is a seasoned writer who has contributed to Travelfish, Window on Phuket, her very own Go Phuket site and many other publications.


Tourism and economy

Two big stories related to the future of foreign tourism in Thailand emerged over the past two weeks. It’s too much to unpack here in the Island Wrap, so I intend to devote a full article to these issues soon. For now, here are the broad strokes:

The Health Minister publicly suggested that the length of mandatory quarantine be reduced from 14 days to seven days for vaccinated travelers from abroad, and to 10 days for non-vaccinated travelers who test negative for Covid-19. While this is merely a proposal for now, a new quarantine policy could be enacted as early as next month if the Prime Minister and others are on board. It would be a start.

The other story which has been grabbing headlines is a petition from Open Thailand Safely, a group of tourism industry bigwigs who are calling on the government to completely do away with quarantine for inbound travelers by July 1st. While I think scrapping quarantine just over three months from now is unrealistic given Thailand’s cautious approach, ending it by October does not seem unthinkable.

Meanwhile, here are a couple of other tourism-related stories that aren’t directly related to quarantine lengths and the like:

Cabinet won’t extend tour schemeChatrudee Theparat and Dusida Worrachaddejchai for Bangkok Post
I’ve been griping for months about how the government dumped many millions of baht into this ill-conceived scheme rather than simply handing that money out to the tourism operators and workers who desperately need it.

Backpacker tourism faces a challenging landscape post-pandemic — Rashaad Jorden for Skift
Lots of food for thought in this piece on the future of backpackers in Southeast Asia and beyond. I disagree with one contributor’s view that Ko Phangan’s full-moon parties might never return, but the fact that Cactus Bar — which Phanganist describes as “one of the most visited and famous nightclubs on Haad Rin” — is now closed and reduced to a pile of rubble gives me pause. Some things will never be the same.


Video corner

Forget all of the heavy stuff for 15 minutes and take a boat trip with Ko Lanta’s indigenous Urak Lawoi fishers (aka Chao Leh or “sea gypsies”). Filming in October of last year, Raphael Treza joins an adept Urak Lawoi free diver to catch porcupine fish, a type of toxic pufferfish that’s delicious but also lethal if not prepared with great care. Do watch to the end for a glimpse of the cooking.

(You’ll find many other intriguing videos from Asia on Raphael’s Youtube channel. And thanks to @JeffO773 for sharing this video a while back.)


Food and travel

Passage to Pattani: Finding beauty in grief in a small coastal townPhoowadon Duangmee for Thai PBS World
This article shows how if the Thai government and local insurgents can ever negotiate an end to the armed conflict in the three Deep Southern provinces, Pattani is one place with loads of potential from a tourism standpoint. The former sultanate has a rich history, marvelous food, sleepy beaches and more.

Trang: The Thai city obsessed with breakfastAustin Bush for BBC Travel
Do allot yourself a full day or two to eat in Trang before or after visiting nearby islands like Ko Mook, Ko Kradan and Ko Libong.

King of the wavesAsian Travels with Simon Ostheimer
A profile of John “Caveman” Gray, an American resident of Phuket who has been offering fabulous kayaking tours in Phang Nga Bay and other parts of the region for decades, and always with an environmentalist outlook. For background on what he went through to establish John Gray’s Sea Canoe in the 1990s, also check out this fascinating Los Angeles Times story from 1999.

Amazing Maldives in Phang Nga77Kaoded (Thai language)
Though Maldivian is a stretch, a pair of islets known as Ko Pha disappear at high tide and emerge only when the sea level drops to reveal pretty white sand rimmed by clear sea. The islets near Ko Kho Khao had some trees and other vegetation until the 2004 Asian Tsunami tore them away, leaving only the sand to see today.

CBD by the sea: ‘Chi Samui’ is first on island serving cannabis dishesChayanit Itthipongmaetee for Coconuts Bangkok
The first cafe to cook with cannabis leaf on Ko Samui is one of many developments in the “green rush” currently sweeping the country. Still no decriminalization of THC or any cannabis flower, however.

Ko Lipe: A little Thai island that offers a lotChow Traveller
The author gushes about gorgeous Ko Lipe after a visit earlier this year. Great to see that some of my favorite eateries are still open for business.

Smoked squids in Ao NangAsian Itinerary
Meet Mr. Chom on Krabi province’s Ao Nammao to learn his signature method of preparing smoked squid in a bamboo-walled coconut-husk oven.

Bophut Beach, Ko Samui: A five point guide to the beautiful Fisherman’s VillageMark Burton for Thai Spicy
Find out why this north-coast beach on Thailand’s second largest island keeps drawing Mark back for repeat stays.

Snorkeling in Similan during the Covid pandemicKrabi Guide
Join Maya on a trip to the magnificent Mu Ko Similan group in this mini-guide, which has useful info and tips on visiting the “nine islands” nowadays.

See the sweet side of Nakhon Si ThammaratKarnjana Karnjanatawe for Bangkok Post
Visit a “bean to bar” cocoa farm and chocolate producer in Tha Sala district.


In other news

Forest dictatorship at Kaeng Krachan Sanitsuda Ekachai for Bangkok Post
This hard-hitting opinion piece recounts the history of repression that Karen people have faced for simply wanting to live on their ancestral land in the forest. The saga is now at another inflection point as Karen activists camp out in protest at Government House in Bangkok after national park officials arrested and removed 87 Karen people from their Bang Kloi village in the Kaeng Krachan wilderness.

Phuket’s Ko Maphrao highlighted for island developmentThe Phuket News
“The island has beautiful beaches, rich nature, good soil for agriculture and a calm and private atmosphere.” Now let’s hope authorities don’t doom this low-key island off Phuket’s east coast with their new “development” plans.

Vital to preserve city’s ‘green lung’Bangkok Post
This editorial explains what’s at stake with recently announced development plans for Bang Kachao, one of the last pockets of green left in metro Bangkok.

Ko Samui and Ko Phangan partially blacked out as undersea cable damaged by ship’s anchorThai PBS World
The two islands went more than a full day with minimal or no power thanks to a Navy crew tossing their anchor in the wrong place. Power has since been restored.

A father on Ko Kho Khao is asking for a bridge after his daughter couldn’t get to the hospital in time to be saved77Kaoded (Thai language)
A sad story of a woman who died of asthma complications as her father desperately tried to get a ferry moving late at night. Not far from the Khao Lak area, Ko Kho Khao is less than a km from the mainland and residents have been advocating for a bridge to be built ever since the 2004 Tsunami. This was not the first time, they say, that an islander died because they couldn’t reach Takua Pa Hospital in time.

Confusing traffic lanes blamed for frequent accidents on Ko ChangThai PBS (Thai language)
Locals are not pleased with how construction crews left roads in a patchwork of pavement and concrete, often at varying levels, without repainting yellow divider lines on an island that’s notorious for accidents. I’m not sure if the wonky design contributed to six accidents in one recent day, as shared by Ian.

Longtail boats go electric at Thailand’s famous floating marketAsia One
It’s great to see the country embracing electric boats, not only at Damnoen Saduak Floating Market but also in Bangkok, Phuket and beyond.

Monopoly: Phuket Edition tokens go on holidayThe Phuket News
After seeking input on what to include in the forthcoming Phuket edition of the board game, creators are now asking which objects should replace the usual “tokens” like the cymbal, sports car and top hat. Definitely a tuk tuk.

Sanook loey! Songkran given green light Khaosod English
It appears the Thai New Year festivities will go ahead this April 13th to 15th, albeit with social distancing and less water-splashing fun. Also, I’m sad to say this might be the last time a Khaosod English article is included in the Wrap after the edgy news publication announced its imminent disbandment last week.


Coastal oddity

These oddity picks are all about finding things where they don’t belong, for better or worse. Holidayers from Bangkok pulled into a gas station on their way to Ko Chang to find human body parts stuck to the bottom of their SUV. A squid fisherman hooked a plastic bag containing more than 50 ATM and ID cards near Pattaya. And on Ko Mak, officials discovered 17 kg of meth washed up on the seashore.

But not all discoveries were grim. A woman stumbled across a precious seven-kg lump of whale vomit, or ambergris, which is used in cosmetics and fragrances, on a beach in Nakhon Si Thammarat. Her $260,000 USD score was the third case in four months of a beach comber striking it rich in that Southern Gulf province, following a fisherman’s discovery of an ambergris chunk worth $3 million USD in December and a shrimp farmer whose sea snail came with a melo pearl worth $350,000 USD last month. Clearly, I need to spend more time wandering the sand of Nakhon. 🌴

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