Thai island and coastal news for January 29 to February 11, 2021

Island Wrap #29

Welcome to the Lunar New Year edition of the Island Wrap. In years past this has been an extremely busy time of year as tourists from China and elsewhere packed into Thai islands like Phuket, Ko Lipe and Ko Samui. Those memories make the countless deserted beaches and hotels of today seem all the more striking.

In this edition I look at how prominent business groups want to purchase Covid-19 vaccines for people of Phuket and other destinations rather than waiting for government-provided vaccines. You also get the latest on travel restrictions, sea turtle nesting, the environmental state of Ko Phi Phi Leh, a riveting pearl discovery saga — and plenty more. Also, a new video corner!

Apologies for the delay on the Ko Jum / Pu article that I promised in the last Island Wrap. It will be out next week, no doubt.

Over on Couchfish, Stuart dipped into coastal Thailand with a mini-rant on Surat Thani’s frustrating public transport and the start of a series on visiting Lower Andaman islands like Ko Kradan and Ko Bulon with kids in tow. Speaking of messes, he also dug into how beachfront land is (mis)used in Bali for a story with several points that also hold true for many islands and beaches in Thailand.


Pick of the Wrap: ISLAND

In honor of Lunar New Year I’ve chosen Ko Mak, a mid-size island in the shape of a star at the center of the Ko Chang archipelago. Its well-documented history starts with a Chinese aristocrat who, after rising to a prominent position in Siamese government, purchased every inch of Ko Mak in the late 19th century. Now part of five large families, his descendants still own most of the rolling terrain cloaked in rubber, pineapple and cashew farms. They’ve been careful to keep mass tourism at bay while allowing only small resorts, which, along with the close-knit community and pretty beaches, make the island a winner for low-key holidays.

GlobalGaz, iamKohChang and Travelfish offer Ko Mak guides. It’s possible to visit from any Thai province except Samut Sakhon now that travel restrictions have been lifted in Trat and the other Eastern seaboard provinces.


Wildlife and environment

Let’s start with the hazy air. In findings released by a UN commission conducting a study on air pollution in Thailand, researchers concluded that “smoke released by agricultural fires and forest fires are the main source of pollution and are related to unsustainable practices of natural resources management.” The article, which is only a synopsis of a much longer forthcoming report, ends by making a few suggestions that could get Thailand on a path out of that unhealthy smog.

The government signed a memorandum of understanding to test the Interceptor plastic-removing raft on the Chao Phraya River with a hope to permanently use this technology to sift out rubbish before it reaches the sea. Capable of capturing up to four tons of floating garbage without being unloaded, the solar-powered contraption was developed by the Dutch non-profit, The Ocean Cleanup.

Watch the Interceptor in action. (Source: The Ocean Cleanup)


A coastline study by the Dept. of Marine and Coastal Resources (DMCR) found that Phetchaburi province lost 30 meters of seafront land to erosion in the Ban Laem area of the Upper Gulf over the past six months alone. Researchers suggest installing bamboo sea barriers rather than concrete, which can exacerbate erosion.

While erosion is a problem in every coastal Thai province, its effects are especially damaging along parts of the Upper Gulf coast. One symptom is the brackish water containing unhealthy levels of salt that currently pours from Bangkok taps. This is one of several reasons why Bangkok faces as severe a threat from rising seas as almost any city in the world over the coming years and decades.

But fighting the climate crisis with renewable energy also has pitfalls. Reporting for Reuters, Rina Chandran cites a 25-megawatt biomass energy plant in rural Songkhla province as one example of how “the rush to adopt renewable energy to reduce carbon emissions is hurting rural and indigenous communities disproportionately.” Villagers complain of skin rashes, foul smells and adverse effects on freshwater fisheries, adding that they’ve gained no tangible benefits from the plant.

A survey of the coral rehabilitation site at Ko Yung, a small island in the Ko Phi Phi group that was closed to tourists in 2016, shows tremendous regrowth of mostly staghorn coral. After all but disappearing five years ago, the reef now extends all the way up to the beach. At nearby Ko Phi Phi Leh, a video displays a regenerated marine habitat filled with coral, black-tip reef sharks and sea turtles.

A DMCR assessment of some sea mammals found varied levels of health in pink Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins and finless porpoises off Don Sak and Khanom, not far from Ko Samui in the Mid-Southern Gulf. Over in the Lower Andaman, a rare Irrawaddy dolphin was spotted near Ko Phetra and humpback dolphins appeared off Ko Sukorn, an area where bottlenose dolphins are more common.

Another 81 leatherback sea turtle hatchlings emerged from a nest on Bang Kwan Beach in Phang Nga province, pushing this season’s totals to 464 hatchlings from nine nests. And an additional nine leatherback nests have yet to hatch. Having laid the first leatherback nest on Phuket’s Kata Beach in decades late last year, the “supermom” sea turtle dubbed Mae Tao Mafueng returned to lay her fifth nest of the season on Bang Kwan Beach after spending several weeks out of sight.

On the mainland, rangers photographed a rare, gorgeous blue-and-gold freshwater crab which is thought to exist only in the vicinity of Kaeng Krachan. This national park, the country’s largest, is also one of 17 Thai protected areas that join Myanmar forests to form one of Southeast Asia’s last stomping grounds for tigers and leopards, as explained in a terrific story by Carolyn Cowan for MongaBay.

Big snakes are staying active as they search for mates, prompting Phuket officials to issue a warning after finding four sizable king cobras in populated areas over recent weeks. Up in Phang Nga province, famous snake wrangler Bam Similan put on another cobra-catching display for the camera.

And the Samut Prakan Crocodile Farm and Zoo near Bangkok may finally be on its last legs after filing for bankruptcy late last month. It’s unclear what will come of the animals or the facility itself, whose owners have been widely criticized for mistreating the animals. For now, it’s still billed as the largest crocodile farm in the world.


Covid-19

Known infections in metro Bangkok have fallen to between a few and 20 per day as cases in nearby Samut Sakhon dropped to between 50 and 200 per day over the past two weeks — an improvement but far from an end to the outbreak that began almost two months ago. Up north, a separate spike recently included 23 cases on a single day in Mae Sot along the Myanmar border. Otherwise, with the exception of a single case in Rayong and a handful in Samut Songkhram and Ratchaburi over the past week, the rest of the country is looking largely clear of Covid-19.

On the vaccine front, Phuket made headlines when an alliance of business groups announced plans “to pool funds to vaccinate 70% of the island’s population above 18 without waiting for a government rollout.” Framing the proposed local vaccination drive as an issue of “survival,” they hope for vaccinated tourists to be allowed into the province from abroad, without quarantining, by October. Business leaders in Pattaya followed suit, announcing that they, too, want freedom to buy vaccines.

These moves to steer vaccine procurement into the private sector must have hit the Prime Minister and his cabinet like a slap in the face, so I wasn’t surprised when the government barred provincial administrations and private entities from buying vaccines for the time being. Still, the Phuket leaders’ underlying message of concern about the government’s vaccine strategy, coupled with desperation for foreign tourism to return by next high season, came across loud and clear.

Adding to the sense of urgency is an open letter by hotel mogul and Thai citizen William Heinecke which implores the government to consider all vaccine options and prioritize tourism workers for inoculation with an aim to allow vaccinated foreign tourists into the country without quarantine. However, regardless of where tourism-reliant communities get their vaccines, the government has shown no sign of scrapping quarantine for any vaccinated travelers from abroad.

It’s easy to see why some people are growing impatient with Thailand’s official vaccination plans. So far the government has ordered only enough doses to inoculate less than half of the population. Exactly when these will arrive and start to be administered is unknown. Domestic production of the AstraZeneca vaccine is “shrouded in mystery,” and entirely Thailand-made vaccines like the one being developed by Chulalongkorn University are thought to be a year or more away from clearance for mass production. The government declined vaccines from India, and “is reluctant” to join a World Health Organization vaccine program.

The Public Health Minister did release a distribution plan for the two million SinoVac doses that are expected to arrive from China by the end of this month. He insists that broader vaccination goals are on track. Let’s hope so.

Apart from being required to download a tracing app (if you have a smartphone), the process for entering Ko Phi Phi Don isn’t much different than entering a Bangkok shopping mall. (Source: Phi Phi Tourism Business Community)


Containment measures

Samut Sakhon is the only province where the strictest measures, such as public transport and school closures, are still in effect. No one is allowed to leave that province without official permission. Bangkok will be almost fully back to normal whenever authorities decide to allow diners to drink alcohol in restaurants again.

According to the TAT’s most recent restriction update on February 3rd, the coastal provinces of Nakhon Si Thammarat, Phang Nga and Ranong are still requiring some form of “self-quarantine” for travelers from the four “highly controlled” provinces in and around the capital (Bangkok, Pathum Thani, Nonthaburi, Samut Prakan). Surat Thani, including Ko Samui, Ko Phangan and Ko Tao, also has a self-quarantine rule, though a friend who lives on Ko Samui says it’s no longer being enforced. The situation is similarly murky for Trang and Satun provinces.

Overall, whether or not people from metro Bangkok should travel domestically is now more of a personal judgment question. Those doing so should expect to be asked to download a tracing app and possibly report their body temperature to health officials during their stay, and/or check in at an administrative or health office. If visiting Phuket, travelers from metro Bangkok should register at gophuget.com.


Social media corner

Six underwater photography pros share their enthralling work at Deep VI Photography on Facebook, making it worth a look if you enjoy images of manta rays, dolphins, hairy frogfish, shipwrecks and more. The talented six are also taking pre-orders for a forthcoming book, titled The 8th Continent.


Tourism and economy

Thailand gets SEXY to restore travelers’ confidenceTTG Asia
No, it’s not what you’re thinking. This acronym that some not-so-imaginative TAT official dreamed up stands for “safety and hygiene, environmental sustainability, extra experiences, and yield.” (Oh yes, I yield.)

Vulnerable communities hardest hit with second Covid waveThai Enquirer
“During the first wave, I had to use my savings and sell my valuables to make ends meet … This time around, I don’t have anything left to sell.”

How Thai mega-villa buyers have reignited Phuket’s luxury real estate market in the downturnBill Barnett for The Thaiger
“Expansive tropical island mansions with four, six or more bedrooms have struck a chord with wealthy Thais who have been unable to travel overseas and are fatigued by mounting air pollution issues in the nation’s capital.”

Thailand’s tuk tuks, tour buses and boats marooned at Lunar New YearJiraporn Kuhakan and Juarawee Kittisilpa for Reuters
The seemingly endless parked vehicles shown in this article’s accompanying video brings the extent of the damage to Thailand’s tourism sector into focus.


Video corner

In the first entry for this new section of the Island Wrap I’m featuring a video by Willy Thuan, the talented Phuket-based photographer behind Phuket 101. Enjoy footage of a nearly empty pandemic-era Patong Beach below; and whenever you could use a virtual beach break, check out Willy’s growing Youtube channel.

Never thought I’d see Phuket’s most popular beach deserted, especially in the heart of dry season.


Food and travel

How Bangkok’s Khao San Road evolved from a rice market into the world’s most famous travel hub — Joe Cummings for CNN Travel
A fascinating account of how Khao San transformed from a milled rice market to an everyday shopkeeper street to, well, whatever you want to call its flamboyant incarnation of the past few decades. Also check out this separate piece that Joe penned about an even older road in Bangkok for Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia.

Travelers discover Thailand’s ‘bay of pigs’Bangkok 101
Take a quick swing through Ko Matsum, a wee island near Ko Samui that’s grown in popularity thanks to some photogenic, beach-roaming swine.

A tiny historic town well worth a detourPhoowadon Duangmee for Thai PBS World
I’m always pleased to see attention directed to Takua Pa, a town that most travelers only see when passing through on a bus between Khao Sok and Khao Lak. This charming article takes you into the historic part of town.

7 most beautiful islands in ThailandDeer is Travelling
Though my top seven would only include a couple of the islands on this list, I can’t deny that every one of them is lovely.

The best seafood restaurants on Ko SamuiPhanganist
Fire up the barbie.

The roti kingAsian Travels with Simon Ostheimer
Meet the heart and soul behind one of Phuket’s most beloved roti joints.

Jay Fai wins the annual Icon Award from Asia’s 50 Best RestaurantsMegan Leon for BK Magazine
This Michelin-starred Bangkok street food chef fully deserves to add another award to her collection.


In other news

‘Can’t stay quiet’: Thailand’s Myanmar migrants rise up against coup back home — Pitcha Dangprasith for AFP
Spare a thought not only for the brave people resisting the Tatmadaw takeover within Myanmar, but also the millions in Thailand and beyond.

Locals voice protest against gold exploration in Chanthaburi provinceThai PBS World
“The 40 local organizations claim that the (proposed mining) plots are located in the Eastern region’s last forested area, covering about 192,000 hectares straddling the borders of five provinces.”

17 kg of crystal meth washes up at SamuiSupapong Chaolan for Bangkok Post
Can’t help but wonder if this had something to do with the British expat who went on a meth-fueled “shooting spree while riding a speedboat” off Ko Samui.

Opinion: The expats in Ko Phangan have overstayed their welcome — Cod Satrusayang for Thai Enquirer
And they didn’t even go on a meth-fueled shooting spree!

Patong electric bus tip of ‘green tourism’ campaignChutharat Plerin for The Phuket News
Extend it to the whole of Phuket and then they’ll be getting somewhere.

Ko Yao villagers are not pleased with the unfinished pier77Kaoded (Thai language)
Residents of Ko Yao Yai are fed up with the state of one of the island’s primary piers after a contractor charged 30 million baht and then disappeared halfway through the work in mid 2019. The article has footage showing the full extent of the mess to go with plenty of ranting and pointing from a community leader.

Pattaya Mayor plans to make Pattaya a world class tourist city like Dubai, Singapore and Miami after Covid-19Goong Nang for The Pattaya News
“The plans for this project are big, including a monorail, high-speed train, skywalk, cruise ship terminal, a refurbished and improved Walking Street, making the city a centerpiece for film and culture, and much more.”

Shutting down Hua Lampong not a bright ideaSirinya Wattanasukchai for Bangkok Post
“A large number of Thais living in the provinces still depend on train services (to Bangkok) as many find that third-class train fares, without air-conditioning, are the only affordable option available. After arriving at (the new station), they won't be able to afford the new electric train tickets to get around the city.”

Floatpanda: Deliveryman rows his way across river and into Chachoengsao’s heartCoconuts Bangkok
This boat-rowing food deliveryman is pretty cool, but he still has nothing on the Thai postal carriers who deliver the mail by longtail boat in Thonburi.

Thai shelter for disabled stray dogs threatened by pandemicAthit Perawongmetha for Reuters (photo essay)
Enjoy these shots of disabled dogs running on wheels, and do consider helping Chonburi’s The Man That Rescues Dogs Foundation if you’re able.


Coastal oddity

In a dream, an old man with a beard appears to 37-year-old Hatchai Niyomdecha and instructs him to walk down to the beach near his village in Nakhon Si Thammarat, where a gift awaits him. Hatchai obliges the next morning, collecting a few fresh sea snail shells that had washed up with the tide. Back home, his father cracks one of them open and discovers an orange-hued pearl inside.

Before long Hatchai knows he’s struck it rich, just like the fisherman who found a chunk of whale vomit worth $3 million USD on another Nakhon Si Thammarat beach a couple of months prior. The rare melo pearl weighs 7.7 grams. In the not-so-distant past, another melo pearl weighing 20 grams fetched a cool $3 million USD in Hong Kong. Hatchai secures his gem in a bank vault, and goes public.

Before long, precious stone traders are offering up to $350,000 USD if the pearl is genuine. What a miraculous stroke of luck for Hatchai, a humble shrimp farmer. He used to sell most of his shrimp via the seafood hub up in Mahachai — yes, the seafood hub at the center of Thailand’s recent Covid-19 outbreak. Times had been tough, Hatchai says. He’d been struggling to sell shrimp.

Word of his find spreads, prompting crowds of locals to go out and search for melo pearls or whale vomit or whatever other multi-million-dollar treasures might wash up. But another group also has its eyes on Hatchai — the Huai Sai district police. When Hatchai throws a noisy party to celebrate, the cops raid his property and make a find of their own: 16,000 meth pills. Or ya ba, to use the Thai name.

“Mr. Hatchai denies all charges from the initial interrogation,” reports INN. The pills are found outdoors, but the police say Hatchai’s fingerprints are all over the bags. As usual in Thailand, and for good reason, some people doubt the honesty of the police. Would they stitch Hatchai up for a piece of that melo pearl wealth?

Now Hatchai is in hot water. And to make matters worse, a prominent scientist is questioning whether his melo pearl is genuine.

A few days pass. Some 800 km across the Gulf of Thailand in Si Racha, a man goes out to buy seafood for his family and grabs a 50-baht bag of sea snails. His wife wants to try them for the first time. They boil them up and sit down on a mat with their young son for dinner. The child scoops into one of the shells, and finds something hard. By the looks of it, he almost bit into another melo pearl.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m heading to shore to look for tidal treasure. 🌴

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