Welcome to the 30th edition of the Island Wrap, your bi-weekly window to the islands and coastal areas of Thailand. This week we got another loosening of Covid-19 containment measures as cases fall below 100 per day. Also included is a limestone cliff collapse on Ko Khao Yai, a major ocean waste cleanup, a video on the Karen people of Kaeng Krachan, a bunch of wildlife news and more.
Stay tuned next week for the second story in a two-part series on Ko Jum / Pu. Why does this quiet island in Krabi province have two names? If you haven’t yet, find out here in the first part of the series.
Over on Couchfish, Stuart is simultaneously venturing to far-flung towns like Yasothon and Khong Chiam in Northeast Thailand and introducing his kids to islands in Trang province, including Ko Mook and its famous Emerald Cave.
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Much has been written about Ko Samui, Thailand’s second largest and second most popular island. But if you want to get the most out of this stalwart of a destination, from its hidden beaches to mountain trails and cultural sites, do consider picking up a digital copy of The Koh Samui Guide. Filled with maps, photos and details, this 393-page ebook joins a regularly updated website written by a pair of brothers who have been exploring Ko Samui and surrounding islands since 2003.
A chunk of limestone the size of a three-story house cracked and crashed into the emerald sea at Prasat Hin Pan Yod, a gorgeous lagoon that draws kayakers and geology enthusiasts to Ko Khao Yai in the Lower Andaman. Officials from Mu Ko Phetra Marine National Park and Satun Geo Park quickly roped off the 480-million-year-old karst shard and closed the site to tourists until geologists can complete a safety assessment. Thankfully no one was paddling beneath the rock in a now-clogged passage that used to be one of three ways into the lagoon.
The president of Reef Guardians Thailand told Thairath that while limestone fractures do occur normally, he thinks stronger storm surges caused by a changing climate contributed to the damage at Ko Khao Yai. It was the third time that sizable chunks of limestone have broken off Thai islands over the past year, mirroring the rock falls at Ko Mae Urai in Krabi and Ko Hin Taek in the Ang Thong group.
A severe storm brought flash floods and dangerous sinkholes to Pattaya last week, further exemplifying the erratic weather that has been hitting Thailand in recent years. Over on the west side of the Upper Gulf, five fishers were rescued and four others sadly drowned when their 40-ton trawler capsized 17 nautical miles off the coast of Cha-am. A fisherman also died near Ko Sukorn when his longtail boat overturned in unseasonably rough conditions in the Andaman.
The sea continues to eat away at shorelines throughout much of coastal Thailand. One of many recent examples of the erosion comes from Songkhla, where crashing waves felled a bunch of casuarina trees in a scene caught on video.
Wildlife and environment
Major coastal cleanup efforts took place in several provinces after the Prime Minister recently “called for action” on sea pollution. “About 59%, or 6.7 million of 11.4 million tons of rubbish from 23 coastal provinces were properly disposed of, while the rest was discharged into the ocean last year,” reports Bangkok Post. It’s great to see more awareness of this issue in Thailand, but a few words from government leaders will have little impact without a serious reduction in plastic use.
Dept. of Marine and Coastal Resources (DMCR) officials on Phuket are watching over nurse shark eggs that were found stuck to a discarded fishing net in Phang Nga Bay. When the eight-cm eggs hatch, scientists will nourish the shark pups until they’re deemed healthy enough for release into the wild.
Footage from near Ko Wua Talap in the Ang Thong islands shows a pair of Bryde’s whales feeding on the fish that spawn near Ko Samui this time of year. Over in the Andaman, a pair of rare pilot whales were spotted near a pod of bottlenose dolphins around the Similan islands. Bottlenose dolphins also thrilled a boat full of tourists near Ko Phi Phi Leh and beach goers at Chao Mai Beach in Trang.
A lonesome bottlenose dolphin wandered up the murky Khlong Dan waterway in urban Samut Prakan, not far from Bangkok, before being caught by officials from the DMCR and taken to a facility in Chachoengsao for treatment. Though bruised and weak, the lost dolphin was deemed healthy enough for release near Ko Si Chang the following day. I hope it finds its pod.
Three more leatherback sea turtle nests hatched on Bang Kwan Beach north of Phuket over the past two weeks, bringing this season’s total to 632 hatchlings from 12 nests with six still yet to hatch. If you’re on Phuket, you may want to keep an eye on the leatherback nest which is expected to hatch soon on Kata Beach. Here’s a video of the hatchlings that emerged from Hat Bang Kwan on the 22nd.
Olive ridley sea turtles nested on either Southern Thai coast last Friday, a remarkable coincidence given how rare this endangered species is in Thailand. It was the first olive ridley nest found on Phuket’s Mai Khao Beach in more than two decades; and the first at Ban Krut Beach on the Upper Gulf coast in more than a decade. Not far from Ban Krut, hatchlings from the fifth hawksbill sea turtle nest of the season delighted observers at Ao Siam National Park.
A large green sea turtle was freed from a fishing net off Phuket, and locals rescued hawksbill sea turtles that had washed up with debris near the Map Ta Phut industrial zone in Rayong and the Deep-Southern Gulf coast in Songkhla. All of these lucky turtles were taken into marine care facilities to recover.
A pet dog became a hero in Chonburi when it protected a child from an aggressive Siamese spitting cobra. “The dog jumped in front of the child and began barking at the cobra which caused the snake to spray venom directly into the face of the canine,” reports The Pattaya News. The dog, cobra and humans all survived the confrontation. Down in Krabi, footage surfaced of rescuers wrangling a five-meter king cobra that a five-year-old girl discovered in her bathroom. After finding multiple king cobras in recent weeks, officials on Phuket announced that any cobras found in developed areas will now be transported off the island to a forest reserve in Phang Nga.
A 50-year-old elephant barely escaped death when an animal rescue team found it emaciated and starving at the Chang Siam Park, a tourism-focused “elephant camp” near Pattaya. While this is an extreme case of neglect, many elephant camps and even non-profit wildlife rescue centers have struggled to care for elephants and other animals as income from foreign tourists disappeared over the past year. If you want to help, Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand is in dire need of donations.
Veterinarians are nursing a clouded leopard that was found staggering around with a gunshot wound in Surat Thani province’s Khlong Phanom National Park. The illegal hunter is still at large, though authorities did arrest a man in nearby Phatthalung for smuggling leopard pelts, hornbill beaks, deer antlers and other pieces of poached wildlife that unfortunately fetch high prices in the illicit market.
Though infections have fallen steadily over the past two weeks, the virus continues to pose a threat and Thailand’s total case count rose above 21,000 since the start of the pandemic. A doctor from Maha Sarakham sadly became the 83rd Covid-19 fatality in the country so far. Cases are still surfacing daily in Samut Sakhon, a seafood market in Pathum Thani and elsewhere in metro Bangkok.
The first 317,000 vaccine doses — 200,000 from Sinovac and 117,000 from AstraZeneca — finally arrived in Bangkok on Wednesday. The Prime Minister is first in line for inoculation and distribution to provinces with active Covid-19 outbreaks, like Samut Sakhon and Tak, is expected to begin on Monday. A handful of major tourist destinations, including Ko Samui and Phuket, are each set to receive a few thousand doses from these initial vaccine batches as well.
The broader plan is to provide domestically produced AstraZeneca inoculations to 10 million people per month starting in June, and a government spokesperson said “equal protection” will be offered to foreign residents. But as opposition MPs elucidated in a censure debate last week, many Thais remain worried about official vaccination plans. Writing for Thai Enquirer, Ken Lohatepanont explains why:
“The weaknesses here are obvious: procurement and projected delivery is undeniably slow, lagging behind many neighbors, and the vaccine supply is barely diversified. Private hospitals have yet to be given permission to independently conduct vaccinations. And it is unclear whether the government has secured enough doses to generate herd immunity.”
Earlier this week the government loosened restrictions in all but one province, allowing bars to reopen and alcohol to flow in Bangkok restaurants again. A new list of restrictions has the details on provinces now grouped into orange (“controlled”), yellow (“high surveillance”) and green (“surveillance”) zones. Only Samut Sakhon remains in the red (“maximum controlled”) category.
As for domestic travel restrictions, freedom of movement is now largely allowed except, perhaps, for those from Samut Sakhon. Beware however that travelers who live in districts with recent Covid-19 infections may need to “self-quarantine” after entering Trang and Phang Nga provinces. If you live anywhere in metro Bangkok, I suggest checking with local officials and/or lodgings before booking a trip to either of those places and, to be safe, others as well. Reliable info is hard to find.
Social media corner
This tweet captures the feeling of solitude in Thai islands nowadays. A rough translation of the Thai text: “Ko Wai is excellent right now. The water is clear and it’s quiet with only a few bungalows.” The various social media accounts from @Lostinmyway are also worth a look for drone photos taken recently on nearby Ko Chang as well as Ko Samui and other islands and beaches.
(Click here to view the full-size photos on Twitter.)
Tourism and economy
Thailand says near vaccine passport, hopes to welcome tourists in third quarter — Chayut Setboonsarng and Panarat Thepgumpanat for Reuters
To be clear, the government has not yet made any decisions on dropping or even shortening the 14-day quarantine requirement for travelers from abroad. Officials from the Tourism Authority of Thailand are calling for “a clear plan” on vaccinated travelers by June. The National Economic and Social Development Council downgraded its 2021 forecast of international tourists from five million to 3.2 million, clarifying that any recovery “depends on the government’s capability to arrange vaccine distribution.” So, we might have a clue by mid year.
Phuket’s first travel bubble ‘villa quarantine’ tourists arrive — Eakkapop Thongtub for The Phuket News
The 59 tourists from Indonesia were shuttled to a five-star resort that stirred up controversy last year when the owner bad-mouthed the Thai student protest movement and was accused of land encroachment. In any case, they join 41 South Korean tourists staying at a golf resort in Prachinburi as the first foreign tourists to undergo quarantine with more relaxed rules after entering Thailand. Spare a thought for staff who are perpetually locked inside these quarantine resorts.
It is time to end extractive tourism — Vijay Kolinjivadi for Aljazeera
While the author makes some valid points, he completely ignores the thousands of small, locally owned businesses that rely on foreign tourism at “Thailand’s beaches,” which he cites as one example of a “cycle of exploitation” perpetrated by “multinational conglomerates.” The fact is that many, many small business owners and workers are desperate for foreign tourists to return to Thailand.
Who wins? People without smartphone forced to queue up for ‘We Win’ subsidy — Khaosod English
Can’t say I’m surprised that the government’s long-overdue financial assistance program is rife with problems. Low-income and elderly people crowded into Krungthai banks all around the country to apply for 7,000 baht ($230 USD) in aid which can only be spent at a limited number of retailers. In Ang Thong, one bank had to close after a person in the crowd was diagnosed with Covid-19. And many of those who have been approved are encountering crashes and error messages when trying to use the payment app, which requires a facial scan during the application process.
How the pandemic has upended the lives of Thailand’s sex workers — Aurora Amendral and Allison Joyce for NPR
This is one of two recent articles on a sizable segment of the Thai economy that the government and most of society prefers to ignore. The other one comes from Thai Enquirer’s Pear Maneechote, and both are well worth a read.
Since the 1980s, Karen people have been resisting Thai governments that have labeled these indigenous forest dwellers “encroachers” for wanting to live on the land where their ancestors always lived. As the following video from Prachatai shows, the situation for some Karen people who thought they’d been spared from forced displacement was complicated when the boundaries of Kaeng Krachan National Park were redrawn in 2015. As the government touts this vast park for potential UNESCO World Heritage status, displaced Karen people continue to protest and reject court rulings aimed at keeping them out of their indigenous forest villages, like Pong Luk. It seems their resistance is finally having an impact, exemplified yesterday by the conviction of a former park chief for the violent eviction of Karen people in 2011.
You be the judge — should Ms. Wansao be forced to leave land that her and her late mother grew up on?
Food and travel
Khao Sok National Park named 50th ASEAN Heritage Park — The Phuket News
Southern Thailand’s most popular mainland national park has some of the highest karst mountains in the region and one of the largest flowers on earth. While ASEAN Heritage is a notable honor, Khao Sok will most likely never receive UNESCO World Heritage status due to its inclusion of a dammed river system.
Ko Panyi — Thos Major
The photos in this short but sweet post show off the life and scenery at a small island with a tight-knit community in Phang Nga Bay. The Thos Major account on Twitter is also worth a look for compelling sites and scenes from around Asia.
The Memory at On On Hotel in Phuket town — Phuket 101
Tour a heritage hotel with “a strong Sino-Portuguese personality” and a history that goes back nearly a century. The post includes an old photo of the hotel before it was renovated, back when Leonardo Dicaprio graced its halls for a scene in The Beach that, in the story, was taking place on Bangkok’s Khao San Road.
Krabi islands hopping: one day trip to Ko Hong, Ko Lao Lading and Ko Phak Bia — Deer is Travelling
Join the guys on a boat trip to these three dazzling karst islands in Krabi province’s Than Bok Khorani National Park.
Don’t miss rafting Ton Prae Thong in Phatthalung — INN (Thai language)
This serene river in the Ban That mountains looks to be worth a trip if you’re after an offbeat nature experience in the South.
Winners of the 2021 Underwater Photographer of the Year Contest — Alan Taylor for The Atlantic
No photos from Thailand made the cut this year, but I still have to share these marvelous photos. Enjoy.
Hotel threatens to sue after nightmarish quarantine review goes viral — Khaosod English
Moldy bedding and a cockroach in the macaroni were a couple of highlights from a Thai man’s stay at a government-provided quarantine hotel in Pattaya. Sorry, that’s the only food-related article I could find for this Wrap!
In other news
UN appeals for rescue of Rohingya adrift in Andaman Sea — Aljazeera
“Many are in a highly vulnerable condition and are apparently suffering from extreme dehydration.” I hope the governments of Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and India will cooperate and rescue these souls near the Nicobar Islands.
Raid halts illegal construction in Phuket national park — The Phuket News
Illegal land grabs seem to happen almost weekly in “the pearl of the South.”
Drunk police officer shoots and beats vendor on Bangla Road in Phuket — Caitlin Ashworth for The Thaiger
“Patong police chief Sujin Nilabodi says the statements made by the detained officer were confusing because Pornthep was still drunk.” An update from The Phuket News says the officer is facing an attempted murder charge. The victim is in critical condition with a punctured lung.
Trang man ready to sell his melo pearl if given a good price — 77Kaoded (Thai language)
Having found the rare orange pearl two years ago when cooking sea snails, the man didn’t know it was worth so much until media reported on the discovery of a similar melo pearl in Nakhon Si Thammarat, which I wrote about in the last Island Wrap. Meanwhile, a cook in Krabi who had possessed a melo pearl for three decades without realizing its worth also came forward. Melo pearls for everyone.
If you happened to notice what appeared to be a drive-in movie with no viewers in Chonburi this past Sunday, the lack of people was not due to Covid-19 containment measures. As The Pattaya News’ Adam Judd reports, a pair of grave keepers organized the “film festival” for the enjoyment of 1,000 ghosts, or “residents,” of the Hui Heng Cemetery. Three films — one Chinese and the other Thai — were shown “to make merit and to entertain ‘lonely spirits’ in the cemetery.” 🌴