Welcome to the Island Wrap, your bi-weekly window to coastal Thailand. This edition covers a loosening of Covid-19 containment measures as cases drop to zero or single digits in all but one badly affected province. Also included: a “ghost net” recycling program; how polluted seawater enables a dazzling whale gulp; a rare crocodile sighting; a huge array of floating solar panels; the fascinating “Egg Boy” phenomenon; a peculiar grandmother statue on the coast — and a whole lot more.
Coming next week I have a story on Ko Jum / Pu, a mellow island with dueling names down in Krabi province. It gave me writer’s block because the primary ‘activity’ for most visitors is doing nothing at all. I’m also working on a pair of articles about the mainland coast over in Trat province on the Eastern Gulf, an area that I’ve enjoyed exploring between jaunts into the Ko Chang archipelago.
Some of Stuart McDonald’s Couchfish articles that I’ve appreciated lately include an interview with Caroline Mills about her experiences running a beach resort with “the pirates” on an island near Hoi An in Vietnam; an ode to “things that float” in which Ko Lao Liang gets a mention; and a thought-provoking look at how travel writers should, or should not, write about “secret spots.”
Pick of the wrap: BEACH
One of the first beaches that comes to mind when I think about seclusion in the Thai islands is Ao Son on the west coast of Ko Tarutao. Backed by mountainous jungle with no development apart from a tiny national park station and campground, this five-km expanse of pinkish sand is the longest beach on Thailand’s fourth largest island. At low tide you can walk it for hours and see no other lifeforms apart from hornbills and sea eagles that glide above the umbrella trees. If you’re lucky, sea otters might show up as well. Ao Son — and Ko Tarutao in general — is a terrific place to find solitude after visiting the far-more crowded beaches of nearby Ko Lipe.
Environment and wildlife
Let’s start with an AFP story about how the Environmental Justice Foundation is gathering harmful “ghost nets” from the seafloor in provinces like Chonburi and recycling them into plastics, which are then used to make “protective gear like face shields to guard against the pandemic.” It’s great seeing these nets being put to good use, and the story by Dene-Hern Chen and Pitcha Dangprasith — with brilliant photos by Lillian Suwanrumpha — is well worth a look.
Officials from the Royal Forest Dept. are investigating an “influential” local official who recently cut a dirt road and planted durian and sator (stink bean) in the hills of Phuket’s Khao Nakkerd forest reserve. Sowing crops in this protected area is illegal, but an investigator hinted to The Phuket News that the actual purpose could be to illegally develop a hilltop to take advantage of the panoramic views.
In other environmental encroachment news, Marine Dept. officials paid a visit to one of Ko Phayam’s only upscale resorts to assess whether its villas set on concrete stilts over a mangrove forest were illegally constructed.
The Marine Dept. is also carrying out a widespread assessment of erosion control measures in the Thai Gulf, from Chonburi down to Pattani. One spot where erosion is now threatening roads and other structures is the beach stretching south of the Pranburi River near Hua Hin. Concrete barriers have not stopped the erosion there, but a beachfront landowner in nearby Cha-am documented how a staggered-log barrier increased the sand level considerably over the past year.
Recently posted footage shot for A Perfect Planet, a documentary series by the BBC, shows a Bryde’s whale (aka Eden’s whale) gulping up hundreds of fish at once in the Upper Gulf near Phetchaburi. Wildlife photographer Bertie Gregory explains, troublingly, what makes such a dramatic fish trap possible:
“This extraordinary behavior (where the whale treads water!) is thought to have developed because pollution has made the Gulf of Thailand a hypoxic environment. Sewage outflows from the land have caused all the oxygen in the water to be used up, except at the surface. This means the whale’s fish prey can only live in this surface layer.”
Researchers at a US carbon-dating lab working with Pathum Thani’s National Museum of Geology determined that the whale skeleton unearthed late last year in Samut Sakhon is 3,380 years old, give or take a few decades. The skull is similar to a modern Bryde’s whale but the genetic code is closer to the much larger Sei whale, a species that has not appeared in the Thai Gulf in recorded history. Of course, that does not ensure that Sei whales were not swimming around a Gulf that reached all the way up to what is now Lopburi thousands of years ago.
A confusing saga unfolded on the east coast of Phuket after two striped dolphins, thought to be a mother and pup, beached in a mangrove forest. Locals helped them into the bay and the dolphins were later seen struggling in the shallows, prompting concern among marine officials who expected them to head for deeper water. The next day, officials plucked a bottlenose dolphin from the bay and brought it to a care facility after mistaking it for the mother dolphin seen the previous day. After a closer look, they realized they were treating a completely different dolphin and let it back into the bay. But then it beached in the mangroves and was taken into care and released again. Officials now believe all three dolphins are alright. Phew!
Critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphins were photographed in two different parts of the Upper Gulf recently, first near the mouth of the Bang Pakong River of Chachoengsao province and then further west off the coast of Samut Sakhon. Down in the Thai Andaman, a video displays a pod of 20 bottlenose dolphins that put on a show for boat passengers near the Similan island chain.
Further down the Andaman Sea in Krabi province, three dugong carcasses were found floating over the course of two days near Ko Hong, Khlong Mueang and Ko Lanta, all of which are quite far from the province’s primary dugong habitat near Ko Si Boya. Initial speculation was that they were murdered for their tusks like the pair found late last year in Trang province, but autopsies found no evidence of foul play. One of the bodies did have wounds that probably came from boat contact.
Three more successfully hatched nests on Bang Kwan Beach north of Phuket pushed the number of leatherback hatchlings this season to 383, cracking Thailand’s previous full-season record of 351. (Here’s footage of hatchlings climbing out of their nest on Tuesday.) With nine known leatherback nests that have yet to hatch, including on Phuket and Ko Kho Khao, marine biologists think that 1,000 leatherback hatchlings could emerge by season’s end. And that does not include recently laid olive ridley and green sea turtle nests found on Ko Phra Thong, among other places.
Elsewhere in the reptilian realm, a critically endangered Siamese crocodile was caught on camera at a stream in Kaeng Krachan National Park. And a bunch of recent snake rescues include a five-meter king cobra that shocked a Krabi family into abandoning dinner in a chaotic scene. Experts warn that cobras are unusually active when seeking mates, which is typical around this time of year. Keep an eye out.
The good news is that the virus seems to be dissipating in all but one of the 77 Thai provinces. Case numbers in Bangkok dropped to single digits on Wednesday and Thursday this week, and only one to three infections surfaced in most of the provinces surrounding the Thai capital. Eastern seaboard provinces including Chonburi and Rayong, which were both reporting 100 or more daily cases in previous weeks, found less than five infections in total over the past week.
Now for the bad news. The outbreak in Samut Sakhon province southwest of Bangkok seems to be worsening as a mass testing drive uncovered 700 to 900 infections over each of the past few days. The vast majority of these are surfacing among migrant workers, most of whom are from Myanmar. Seven field hospitals are now caring for the sick. The governor of Samut Sakhon, who tested positive late last year, is back in critical condition with both lung and brain damage.
I’m troubled by how many people in Thailand — Thai and foreign — seem reassured by the fact that it’s mostly migrants now suffering from the virus. Very little reporting from either the government or news outlets has addressed how or why Covid-19 is transmitting so rapidly among migrants in Samut Sakhon. Reliable info from within the locked down province is scarce.
Meanwhile, at least 26 of the recent Covid-19 cases in Bangkok were linked to a birthday party thrown by a famous DJ, and some of his high-society guests have been criticized for withholding their travel history from authorities. So far, police have not charged anyone behind the party for defying containment restrictions.
Police did arrest 29 people — including several foreigners — who were congregating over drinks at a restaurant in Pattaya last weekend.
Also arrested were 89 foreigners and 22 Thais who were caught gathering at a bar on Ko Phangan in a raid on Tuesday that made international headlines. Police reportedly knew about plans for the party beforehand and let it take place rather than forcing its cancellation to stop potential spread of the virus, which was the point of the ban on gatherings in the first place. Allowing the party to materialize may have had something to do with the 436,000 baht ($15,280 USD) worth of fines collected from busted party goers. No Covid-19 cases have been reported on Ko Phangan since early 2020, and Surat Thani province has not reported an infection in two weeks.
On the vaccine front, Thai PBS World reports that inoculations using the AstraZeneca-licensed vaccine, which were expected to start on February 14th, have been delayed. Many questions about Thailand’s vaccination plans remain, notes Khaosod English. And Thai Enquirer wonders why the government did not take India up on its offer to “sell over two million doses of the AstraZeneca-licensed vaccine” to Thailand.
Questioning the government’s vaccination plans can be dangerous, as evidenced by the lèse-majesté charge filed against a leading opposition figure who proclaimed that the government is too reliant on Siam BioScience — a company owned by the Crown Property Bureau under the direct control of the King — to procure and produce vaccines for Thais. It was one of many instances of the oppressive lèse-majesté law being wielded by Thai authorities in recent months.
Authorities are loosening restrictions in many provinces, including all four of those on the Eastern seaboard that had been enduring the tightest measures. Only Samut Sakhon remains at the dark red “maximum and strict” level. In all other provinces, schools are expected to reopen on February 1st, alcohol can be served in restaurants, and many previously closed public places are allowed to reopen.
The Thai capital and three neighboring provinces remain in the “highly controlled” red zone, but many restrictions are being relaxed in metro Bangkok as well. However, several provinces will likely continue to impose 14-day quarantines on any travelers coming from the metro Bangkok “red zone” for at least the next couple of weeks, even if infections keep declining beyond Samut Sakhon.
Coastal provinces currently requiring quarantine for travelers from “red zone” provinces include Surat Thani, Chumphon, Nakhon Si Thammarat, Songkhla, Trang, and Satun. Though Phuket has officially scrapped its strict quarantine requirement, travelers from “red zone” provinces are still being told to self quarantine and stay in touch with authorities for two weeks.
Ko Larn ended its entry ban on non-residents and Ko Si Chang will likely follow suit soon given how Chonburi province has not recorded an infection for a week. Many national parks are reopening on the 1st, including Mu Ko Chang and Khao Laem Ya - Mu Ko Samet. However, Kaeng Krachan National Park in Phetchaburi will be closed until the 11th due to a single Covid-19 case in the area.
Overall the situation remains uncertain as far as leisure travel goes. Barring another wave of the virus, travel will likely be no problem for anyone based outside of metro Bangkok by early next month. But more trains were recently canceled and the frequency of buses and planes is still reduced. Most hotels are officially closing in Chonburi province, though not for the reasons you might expect.
Saddest of all, Trang province has canceled the annual underwater weddings near Ko Kradan for the first time since they began 25 years ago.
Social media corner
Today I’ve chosen a tweet by photographer Soe Zeya Tun offering rare glimpse of life among the migrants stuck in Samut Sakhon. Do spare a thought for all of the people living in this Upper Gulf coast province where close to 1,000 cases of Covid-19 have been reported for each of the last few days.
Tourism and economy
Covid a chance to realign tourism industry — Suwatchai Songwanich for Bangkok Post
“Independent travelers are also high quality. Without big bank accounts, they often travel slower and for longer, taking time to learn the language and customs. They spend time and money in small communities that are often overlooked by large tour groups or more affluent tourists.” Amen!
Thai hotel groups urge scrapping of quarantine rules for vaccinated tourists — John Reed for Financial Times (paywall)
This story quotes some hotel group moguls without including any input from doctors or scientists. For balance, read it in tandem with this Thai Enquirer article which quotes a leading immunologist. My take: don’t expect quarantine to be scrapped for vaccinated travelers from abroad until late 2021, maybe.
Government to charge foreign tourists 300 baht for ‘tourism development’ — Khaosod English
This provided a day’s worth of uproar among Thailand’s online expat community. While another small charge for arriving tourists doesn’t bother me, I do hope it actually goes towards what worthwhile causes.
9,000 people face tourism subsidy fraud charges — Wassayos Ngamkham for Bangkok Post
Hardly surprising in a country enduring an unprecedented economic downturn with close to zero foreign tourist arrivals for a year and counting. From the start, I argued that providing financial assistance directly to tourism operators and workers would be a far more sensible approach than the “We Travel Together” nonsense.
Thailand sold itself as a paradise Covid retreat. No one came. — Randy Thanghong-Knight for Bloomberg
“Just 346 overseas visitors have entered the country on average each month on special visas since October.”
210 billion baht hardship aid gets nod — Chatrudee Theparat, Wichit Chantanusornsiri and Mongkol Bangprapa for Bangkok Post
I’m filing the proposed two months of 3,500-baht handouts that can’t even be transferred into cash under ‘too little, too late.’ Why? Bangkok Post also reports that “2,598 tour operators quit the market permanently last year” and “around 1.5 million Thais were estimated to enter into poverty in 2020.”
34.7% of Thai tourist businesses closed down — The Thaiger
“A Tourism Authority of Thailand survey, conducted between January 10 to 12, indicates that more than a third of the country’s tourism-related businesses has already shut up shop and gone out of business. But industry players estimate the number is much higher.”
Despite low Covid-19 infections, fresh outbreak threatens Thai economic recovery — Saksith Saiyasombut for CNA (video)
‘Well duh’ was what I thought when I first saw this headline, but as always, Khun Saksith offers several insights to ponder in this video report.
Rice to be distributed to 4,034 hard-hit families in Phuket — The Phuket News
Similar charitable efforts are taking place in Pattaya and other areas.
Homeless former Pattaya motorbike taxi driver turns himself into street musician with his pet monkey — Goong Nang for The Pattaya News
“After I lost my (repossessed) bike, my life became more difficult as I had no job and no money to pay for my rental room. I tried to work some odd jobs here and there but could not raise enough funds and was evicted a while back … I am now living in abandoned buildings around Pattaya.”
Young businessman from Railay is fighting the Covid crisis by painting woven bags to earn money — 77Kaoded (Video / Thai language)
Another of the countless examples of creative Thais relying on whatever skills they can muster to get through these tough times.
A little help — Kankanok Wichiantanon for Bangkok Post
A rundown of charities that “provide assistance to those facing economic hardship and medical issues” in Thailand. Generosity is a virtue.
Food and travel
How Thailand’s ‘Egg Boy’ statue became a tourism phenomenon — Austin Bush for National Geographic
Enjoy this fascinating story about what’s behind the booming popularity of Ai Kai, or “Egg Boy,” at Wat Chedi in Sichon on the Mid-Southern Gulf.
A walk along the coast (in Samut Prakan!) — Ajarn.com
Join Phil on a seaside walk in his home province near Bangkok.
Four days on Ko Kood itinerary: what to do and see on this island in Thailand — Deer is Travelling
Along with this post about one of Thailand’s most beautiful islands, this pair of bloggers also shared their favorite beaches on Ko Larn recently.
Shit Mendy cooks: DJ on hiatus takes island cooking for a spin — Craig Sauers for Coconuts Bangkok
Speaking of cooking on Ko Phangan…
Villagers flock to Thai Mueang Beach to catch delicious sea cicadas — 77Kaoded (Video / Thai language)
Locals on mainland Phang Nga province are hitting the beach to catch these thumb-size invertebrates everyday. Delicious when deep fried.
In other news
As Thai forest aims for UNESCO status, Karen community pushed to the margins — Wanpen Pajai for Southeast Asia Globe
Excellent reporting on the conflict between the Thai government and Karen people who are indigenous to the vast and ecologically diverse forest complex that forms much of the border between Thailand and Myanmar. Having followed this issue closely for more than a decade, I’ll be surprised if UNESCO grants Kaeng Krachan National Park the coveted Natural World Heritage status given how poorly the Thai government and judicial system has treated Karen forest dwellers.
EGAT speeds up Sirindhorn Reservoir floating solar panels to strengthen Thailand’s clean energy security — EGAT (government)
Normally I don’t spotlight public relations articles from Thai government sources, but this project has been praised by leading marine and climate scientists and I think it’s worth a share. The country’s electrical authority now claims to have the world’s largest floating array of solar panels installed on the calm water of a reservoir in Ubon Ratchathani province near Laos. Reportedly spanning more than a square km of surface area, the array is set to join existing hydropower to generate clean electricity that will, according to EGAT, “reduce greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 47,000 tons per year.” Authorities also plan to install a 415-meter walkway for tourists. The array is one of several floating solar-cell prototypes being developed in Thailand, including a number of smaller ones set near Rayong in the Thai Gulf.
Considering construction of a second bridge over Songkhla Lake after more than 20 years of waiting — Narongsak Bunnoi for 77Kaoded (Thai language)
A proposed bridge over the southern part of Songkhla Lake moved a tad closer to fruition after a panel discussed a recently conducted feasibility study. The seven-km bridge project has considerable local support due to its potential to cut a two-hour drive between Phatthalung and Songkhla down to 15 minutes, but not everyone is on board with the idea. Marine biologist Thon Thamrongnawasawat fears that construction could be detrimental to wildlife in the lake, including the last five of Thailand’s freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins.
Hua Lamphong’s 100-year service to end in November, government says — Khaosod English
If possible, enjoy Bangkok’s iconic old railway station while you can.
Rescuers find missing Spanish couple — Surapong Chaolan for Bangkok Post
The pair were found after dark, hours after they lost their way on a hike up to 627-meter Khao Ra, the highest point on Ko Phangan.
Decades ago, an old woman by the name of Yai Sa would accompany her husband to his fishing boat each morning and await his return at dusk. But one day, her husband’s boat capsized in rough seas, taking him down with it. A distraught Yai Sa spent days waiting for her love on the cape between Ao Nang and Hat Noppharat Thara. Finally she ran out of energy, fainted, and drowned in the crashing sea.
Well known to Krabi locals, this story was the inspiration behind a creepily lifelike sculpture depicting a wrinkled, grinning Yai Sa at the seafront end of a drainage tunnel on the very same cape where she is said to have died. The sculpture by acclaimed artist Kamin Lertchaiprasert was slated to be removed by the end of last year, but it generated such a buzz among Thai tourists that authorities agreed to leave it be for another 12 months. How spooky is it? Take a look. 🌴