Welcome to the first Island Wrap of 2021, which is off to a shaky start in Thailand due to Covid-19 spreading to thousands inside the country. While this issue is packed with details on the outbreak and related restrictions, it’s not all bad news. You’ll also learn about a new long-haul ferry, a newly discovered coral species, a mama sea turtle that’s laying more eggs than any in recorded Thai history, and plenty more.
I was thrilled to sit down with Greg Jorgensen of The Bangkok Podcast recently to discuss the 1868 solar eclipse that changed the course of Thai history, a subject that I wrote about last month. You can listen to that and other episodes of the podcast for free, though I highly recommend becoming a patron to gain access to Greg and Ed’s bonus shows. I learn something new from them every week.
My latest article here at Thai Island Times is all about Ko Chik (also spelt Jik or Jeek), a pair of small and obscure islands near the Welu River delta in the Eastern Gulf. I’m currently cooking up several stories about parts of Trat and Krabi provinces — look for one of them right here next Friday.
On Couchfish, some of Stuart McDonald’s recent travel stories that I found humorous and evocative cover a prickly motorbike guide in Vietnam, the unpredictable joys of “Nakhon Nowhere” in Thailand, and “a hole” where cell service ceases in Indonesia. Also check out Joshua Zukas’ look at Vietnam “beyond the stereotypes,” a thought-provoking story and the latest Travelfish long read.
Pick of the Wrap: WEBSITE
Beach Meter rates and shares beaches all around the world, from North America to Europe to India to New Zealand and back to Thailand, where founder Peter has a great deal of experience in travel and the tourism industry. Some of the Thailand-related articles cover terrific dive sites, the sleepy island of Ko Chang (Ranong) and marvelous Ko Tachai. Whether you seek info and advice for trip planning or could simply use some beaching inspiration, this site is worth a browse.
Over the past week, local transmissions in Thailand have been holding steady at around 150 to 250 per day. The highest single-day caseload over the entire pandemic, so far, came on January 4th, when 709 local transmissions were discovered. More than 3,000 people are currently being treated, some in controversial field hospitals. Nine have died from the virus in Thailand over the past few weeks.
The recent wave of the virus has reached 60 of Thailand’s 77 provinces after beginning last month at a shrimp market in Mahachai, a major fishing hub in Samut Sakhon province near Bangkok. Roughly half of the nearly 7,000 infections from this wave have surfaced in Samut Sakhon. Among them is the provincial governor, who is now recovering after being in a critical condition for a spell.
Other provinces with hundreds of cases from the recent wave include Bangkok, Samut Prakan, Chonburi, Rayong and Chanthaburi. Much of the transmission took place at illegal gambling dens, complicating the response as gamblers avoided seeking testing despite a promise from the police to not press charges. Foreigners were among 21 people arrested at an illegal gambling den in Chonburi province just last weekend. Cops who allegedly knew about the gambling are also in hot water, as evidenced by the removal of Rayong province’s police commander late last month.
Authorities imposed a range of containment measures on January 4th after allowing unrestricted travel over the New Year holidays. They held off however on imposing a curfew, a ban on alcohol sales, an interprovincial travel ban and other more extreme measures that Thailand endured last April. “This approach has unsettled some in the medical community, who warn that it puts Thailand at risk of repeated waves of infection later this year,” writes Tan Hui Yee for The Straits Times.
The government is still allowing travelers to enter Thailand from the United Kingdom after speculation that anyone from there would be barred due to the Covid-19 variant, which has surfaced in some of Thailand’s closely guarded quarantine centers. So far, it has not been found in any the local transmissions.
Vaccination programs are said to be on track, starting with two million Sinovac doses for medical workers next month. But as Thitinan Pongsudhirak explains in a Bangkok Post op-ed, Thailand’s vaccination plan remains murky.
In hard-hit Samut Sakhon province, an initial group of 292 migrants who were essentially jailed in their dorms for weeks were recently allowed to leave those confines, though many of them are now out of work. Over in Pattaya, a large hotel lit up its windows with the Thai word สู้ (su), meaning “fight.”
On January 4th the government declared 23 provinces “highly controlled areas,” while Samut Sakhon and all four of the eastern seaboard provinces were later re-classified as “maximum controlled areas.” Some are wondering why Trat province is on the “maximum controlled” list when it has recorded far fewer cases than several provinces in the generally less-severe “highly controlled” group. Others are questioning why Chumphon province, which has reported zero cases from the new outbreak at time of writing, was placed on the “highly controlled” list.
The main difference between “maximum controlled” and “highly controlled” is that anyone in those five “maximum controlled” provinces needs to obtain written permission from authorities in order to cross any provincial borders, a rule that is causing serious headaches for those engaged in cross-border commerce. The Pattaya News published an explainer on how to acquire the permission to travel.
Restrictions are lighter in the 39 provinces classified only as “controlled” or “under surveillance,” which includes Phang Nga, Phuket, Krabi, Trang, Satun, Surat Thani, Nakhon Si Thammarat and Songkhla. People who have not recently been to any of the “highly” or “maximum” controlled provinces are still able to travel freely in and out of those provinces. Elsewhere, travel is strongly discouraged.
For details on restrictions in provinces at all levels of Covid-19 control, see the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s updates. Or, if you read Thai, go straight to the horse’s mouth at the Ministry of the Interior’s website, where you can also download forms needed for traveling in and out of “maximum controlled” provinces.
Here’s a rundown of other containment measures that I’m aware of:
Around 30 provinces are imposing a 14-day home or hotel quarantine on travelers coming from any of the 28 “maximum” and “highly” controlled provinces. In Surat Thani, which includes Ko Samui, Ko Phangan and Ko Tao, a contact tells me that medical authorities are checking on a recently arrived traveler from Bangkok three times per day to take their temperature. Phuket has a similar requirement, as do Chumphon, Nakhon Si Thammarat, Songkhla and Satun. Those entering Krabi must register their trip, and the government is asking anyone traveling in Thailand with a smartphone to download the MorChana tracking app via Apple or Google Play.
Ko Larn is completely sealed off after Covid-19 cases were found at Bali Hai Pier in Pattaya. The same goes for nearby Ko Si Chang due to it being part of Si Racha district, where Chonburi province’s largest cluster of the virus is now located. Only locals are allowed on ferries to Ko Kood and Ko Samet. Limited ferries and tour boats are still running to the Lower Gulf islands of Ko Samui, Ko Phangan and Ko Tao; and to Thai Andaman islands like Ko Phayam, Ko Surin, Ko Yao Noi, Ko Phi Phi, Ko Lanta, Ko Mook and Ko Lipe, all of which are in provinces with minimal or no Covid-19. However, your mileage may vary.
U-Tapao Airport near Pattaya and Trat Airport are closed, and the frequency of flights has been reduced throughout the country.
Trains between Bangkok and Surat Thani, Hat Yai and Trang have been canceled, and many other routes are canceled or reduced. Many bus routes have also been scaled down. For example, only a few of the usual 40 daily bus departures between Pattaya and Bangkok are now operational. Still, this situation is a far cry from when virtually all public transport was halted during the nationwide lockdown last April.
At least 17 national parks are closed, including those in the four eastern provinces of Chonburi, Rayong, Chanthaburi and Trat. Examples of closed parks include Nam Tok Phlio and Mu Ko Chang, where Ko Rang is now off limits. Marine parks off the Andaman coast — including Mu Ko Surin, Mu Ko Similan, Hat Noppharat Thara - Mu Ko Phi Phi, and Mu Ko Tarutao — remain open.
Nationwide, some 10,000 schools are closed until February 1st at the earliest.
Though it’s cool and dry in most of Thailand, one of the roughest monsoon seasons in decades continues to hammer the Southern Gulf coast. The Deep Southern provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat are enduring the worst flooding in a decade, with some 18,000 homes partially inundated and thousands of residents evacuated. The situation is even worse on the Malaysian side of the border.
However, the floodwater did not stop one Yala vendor from providing free roti for kids on Children’s Day last week. Nearby, locals took advantage of water being released from Bang Lang Reservoir to catch some hefty catfish.
Rough seas have kept fishing boats docked along parts of the Southern Gulf shore. Four-meter waves slapped Prachuap Khiri Khan’s seaside road earlier this week, and villagers in parts of Songkhla rushed to pile sandbags up on the beaches to stop the encroaching sea from dragging their homes away.
More abnormal this time of year are the storms that have persisted on the Thai Andaman coast. Four fishermen were rescued near Ko Ma, about 20 km west of Ko Lanta Yai, after their longtail boat capsized in rough seas late last month. And marine police rescued four tourists whose small boat sank 13 km off Phuket earlier this week. With life jackets keeping them afloat, that group was lucky to have a cell phone sealed in a waterproof bag, not to mention a cell signal to call for help.
Environment and wildlife
Before getting into the wildlife, pop over to the Southeast Asia Globe for Wanpen Pajai’s nuanced look at the conflict between farmers who burn their sugarcane fields and environmentalists who are calling for a ban on agricultural burning to reduce the harmful smog that often hangs over much of Thailand. While her report focuses on Northeast, much of the pollution ends up in coastal areas.
Marine life lovers were troubled to hear of two dugongs — one of them a pregnant female within weeks of giving birth — found murdered in the Lower Andaman off Trang province. The culprits stabbed and beat the critically endangered “sea cows” and extracted their tusks, which are illegally used to make talismans and decorations. The pregnant dugong’s body was found floating near Ko Kradan on December 17th, while the second corpse turned up near Ko Lao Liang two weeks later. Both of these islands aren’t too far from the protected dugong habitat at Ko Libong, where the head of the Dept. of Marine and Coastal Resources asked locals for tips to help locate and punish those responsible. It’s also worth mentioning that crimes like these become more likely when few tourists are traveling in the region.
Another sad sea mammal story comes from Ko Samui’s Choeng Mon Beach, where an 11-meter-long Bryde’s whale carcass washed up earlier this week. Authorities used jet skis to tow the rotting whale to another beach for an autopsy.
Now for the good news. A leatherback sea turtle nicknamed Mae Tao Mafuang laid its seventh (!) nest of the season on Bang Kwan Beach north of Phuket on January 6th. Much to the delight of fortunate observers, 47 hatchlings emerged from her first nest on December 28th, followed by 55 more that were filmed as they waddled out of her second nest under a night sky a week later. All of Mae Tao Mafuang’s nests were laid close to one another on a relatively small stretch of sand.
Another exciting turtle development came during the first hour of 2021 at Phuket’s typically bustling Kata Beach, where a leatherback mama nested for the first time in decades. That is how to ring in the new year! The 14 leatherback sea turtle nests found over the past two months shatter Thailand’s previous record, going back to when scientists started tracking nesting more closely a decade ago.
Ko Libong also got in on the action when a green sea turtle laid eggs there for the first time in a decade. It’s thought to be the same turtle that locals helped back into the sea after it beached at low tide on January 5th. (Here’s a video of that effort.)
Meanwhile, researchers from Chulalongkorn University discovered two previously unknown species of soft coral near Ko Samae San, a protected island in the Central Gulf off the coast of Chonburi province. “The Sirindhornae species has distinctive pink color, like flowers, while Cornigera is yellow and orange and is shaped like a horn,” according to a Thai PBS World story with photos of the finds.
Thailand is getting tough on those who damage coral and other marine life. A Hungarian who lived on Ko Phangan and posted photos of himself handling several sea critters while diving last August was deported last month. His companion in stupidity, an Italian expat, is trying to stay in Thailand after posting bail of 50,000 baht. More recently, a Thai tourist boat captain was arrested for dropping anchor on young corals at a rehabilitation site off Ko Phi Phi Leh.
If those stories didn’t convince you that many Thais value marine life, consider how the public donated hundreds of thousands of shells for hermit crabs on shell-depleted Ko Rok after officials from Mu Ko Lanta Marine National Park put out a request last year. “Many hermit crabs came out to find a new house” after donated shells were placed around the twin islands, reports 77 Kaoded.
Slithering into the reptilian realm, locals at Ao Manao south of Narathiwat town are advised to stay out of the water after a crocodile was spotted swimming offshore. A little further north, a rare golden spitting cobra visited a family in Songkhla province’s Na Thawi district. Across the Southern region in Krabi province, a reptile rescue team wrangled a five-meter python from a road in Krabi town, and a five-meter king cobra from a house just outside of town — on the same day.
“When the baby elephant started to move, I almost cried,” said Khun Mana after reviving the calf. (Source: KiniTV)
A bull elephant with 40 bullets lodged in its body sadly died after it fatally wounded an official from Kui Buri National Park who was trying to help. The jumbo was found staggering far beyond the park in Pranburi district, and officials suspect it was shot by farmers. In more uplifting news, off-duty medical rescue worker Mana Srivate acted quickly to resuscitate an elephant calf after it was struck by a motorbike in Chanthaburi. Check out his heroic work in the video above.
Closing out this Wrap’s wildlife news is a New York Times story by Richard C. Paddock based on interviews with the people behind Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand in Phetchaburi and the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project on Phuket, both non-profit rescue centers. Find out why “rehabilitating a rescued gibbon and training it to survive in the wild can take years, and the effort is not always successful.”
Social media corner
A lot of good photos and valuable insights from Thai islands and beaches popped up over the New Year holidays as many people got their last travels in before the Covid-19 containment measures were imposed. But for this Wrap, I’m going with a tweet posted only a couple of days ago by @gogetMaya, showing off an almost-empty Ko Surin. In my opinion, this pair of twin islands in Mu Ko Surin National Marine Park near Myanmar ranks among the absolute most beautiful in Thailand.
(Click here to view the full-size photos on Twitter.)
Tourism and economy
Difficult roads ahead — Karnjana Karnjanatawe for Bangkok Post
This excellent recap of Thailand’s most consequential travel and tourism stories of 2020 comes with a stunning shot of the campground at “Knife’s Blade” ridge in Thong Pha Phum National Park near Myanmar.
10 takeaways from 2020 in Southeast Asia — Asia Travel Re:Set
This detailed region-wide wrap poses and, in some cases, answers pointed questions as the battered travel industry plunges into year two of the pandemic.
We are open: ‘Special tourist visa’ is still on despite outbreak — Khaosod English
Yes, you can still come to Thailand if you want to spend a bunch of money, jump through a bunch of hoops and spend two weeks in quarantine.
Thailand boosts unemployment benefits and cuts taxes to help citizens faced with Covid costs — Erich Parpart for Thai Enquirer
The government is also lowering some consumer bills and considering 3,500-baht handouts for some of Thailand’s many informal workers.
Private sector deems latest relief measures insufficient — Bangkok Post
So, about those benefits…
Household debt in Thailand highest in 12 years — Thai PBS World
The situation is getting increasingly desperate for millions of Thais.
Phuket hotels start closing again — The Phuket News
“Both small and big businesses are going to die in the same way this year.”
Phuket is hit with a triple crisis — The Thaiger (video)
This insightful video report takes viewers on a tour around Phuket to gauge just how quiet this former tourism juggernaut has become.
Jomtien Beach vendors suffering from Covid-19 pandemic due to lack of domestic tourism — Goong Nang for The Pattaya News
“I work fourteen hour days or more currently just trying to make a living to take care of my family as the government has not provided any official measures or aid yet for those who work informally,” says som tam vendor Mrs. Goy.
Thai women gold panners are rare winners in Covid-hit economy — Matthew Tostevin for Reuters
“The area’s name — Gold Mountain — indicates that mining has gone on longer than anyone can remember in Sukhirin district, on Thailand’s southern border with Malaysia.” Finally, a shred of good news.
Food and travel
Favorite beaches in Southeast Asia — Talk Travel Asia (podcast)
While my picks would have been different, I can’t fault any of the Thai beaches that Trevor and Scott discuss in this entertaining episode.
Sand, sea and lots of space in Chanthaburi — Yoteyord Klangsombut for Thai PBS World
Take a virtual trip through the mangrove forests, oyster-farming villages and sleepy beaches of the “Moon Province,” another one of my favorites.
Laying nets with local fishermen at dusk on Phang Nga Bay — Anothai Ngandee for 77Kaoded (Thai language)
Photos and a video from Phang Nga Bay at sunset? Yes please.
Camping on Ko Popcorn in Bang Lang Reservoir — National Geographic Thai (Thai language)
No, “Ko Popcorn” is not a translation. It’s the actual name used locally for a tiny island in Yala province’s mountain-rimmed reservoir near Malaysia.
Phuket’s Sirinath among six national parks to be proposed for World Heritage status — The Phuket News
Some surprising choices for proposal include Mu Ko Ranong and Laem Son national parks along with the much better-known Sirinath, Mu Ko Similan and Mu Ko Surin. To be clear, local officials are proposing these parks to a national board that, in turn, might decide to propose them to the UNESCO Committee.
A handful of beans — Asian Travels with Simon Ostheimer
Learn about the Chinese-Thai family that has a deep-rooted coffee tradition on Phuket, and a terrific cafe to go with it.
Thai food on Ko Tao — Phanganist
Find out which eateries made the cut on “Turtle Island.”
In defense of MSG: The seasoning that revolutionized Thai cuisine — Wanpen Pajai for Southeast Asia Globe
“But also among the white crystals is another essential ingredient, one that has been a fixture in Thai cuisine, and an ever present in Thai restaurants and street food stalls, for more than half a century.”
In other news
‘The sea is all we know’: Thai villagers fight industrial zone — Rina Chandran for Reuters
“Khairiyah, 18, is now something of a local hero having led protests against a proposed industrial zone (in Chana) that she and other activists fear will devastate the coast, their homes and their livelihoods and that is now under review.”
Benefits aplenty, and punishment rare, in the world of police ‘inactive post’ — Khaosod English
Given the transfers of police officers who allegedly allowed illegal gambling dens to operate in their precincts as Covid-19 spread, this is a timely report on what happens to officers who break laws. In short, real punishment is rare.
Thai survivor teaches tsunami preparedness — Pitrapee Chomchuen for NHK World (video)
More than 16 years after the Asian Tsunami devastated Thailand’s Andaman coast on December 26th, 2004, a survivor who was 10 years old at the time is dedicated to saving lives if another tsunami hits the region in the future.
Sattahip to Songkhla ferry preparing to open in early 2021 — Chill Pai Nai (Thai language)
The soon-to-launch service will employ a used ferry from Japan to carry up to 586 passengers and 100 vehicles from Sattahip (near Pattaya) across the Central Gulf to Pranburi (near Hua Hin) and then down to Songkhla on the Deep Southern Gulf. The voyage of 611 km will take 18 to 20 hours to complete, as compared to 1,130 km and roughly 18 to 20 hours if going by road. The revamped ship has comfy cabins to go with a cafeteria and playground. Fares have yet to be determined.
Yes, Khao San now has pine trees. Because that makes sense. — Coconuts Bangkok
The latest WTF story courtesy of Bangkok city officials.
Baby safe after roadside delivery — The Phuket News
“A newborn and his mother are both safe after the baby was born on the back seat of a car parked by the side of Thepkrasattri Rd.”
All at sea: Half a million seafarers stranded by the pandemic - in pictures — The Guardian
Not Thailand specific, but these photos of cargo ship crews that have been stuck at sea for as long as a year are worth checking out.
Whoever is placing the evil doll from the Annabelle horror flicks at once-bustling spots around Pattaya is capturing the mood in that city and others that rely on foreign tourism in Thailand. Indeed, 2021 is off to a chilling start. 🌴