Jun 29 2014
You’ve heard about the Thai coup right? While news of the country’s political wranglings has largely focused on events in Bangkok, changes are also underway in Phuket with its beaches becoming ground zero in a military-led cleanup effort. Encroachment and private profiteering on the beach have been targetted. So what can those travelling to Phuket expect to find at the beaches now? We visited Kamala and Surin beaches this week to check out what’s changed on the sand.
On June 11, all Surin beach vendors and restaurants operating on the sands west of the small road that runs its 800-metre length were given orders to clear out within seven days. By June 27, the entire beach was clear of all tables, sunbeds and umbrellas and all structures west of the road were gone. No more beach club DJ stations, no cocktail bars, no sprawling sofa beds. Soldiers looked on as some trees planted on the sands in front of one restaurant were bulldozed down.
The only commercial activity directly on the beach that remains are a few roving snack and souvenir sellers and a group of masseuses who have been allowed to set up mats at various points along the sand. Catch Beach Club, Bimi Beach Club, Nok Seafood, Twin Brothers, Pla Seafood, Salt and a few smaller restaurants and shops are still open, but confined to the east side of the road just back from the beach.
Diamond Beach Club has shut down, said a woman who answered the phone listed on its website, while a woman at Zazada Beach Club said it was “open as usual”.
No official reasons were given as to why Surin was the first beach to get the army-boot treatment, but certainly it was home to a big expansion in commercial development over the past two years. New ritzy beach clubs, including one with an infinity pool, opened up and by early 2013 the beach was a forest of umbrellas. Some sections of the beach had rows of sun loungers covering the entire spread of sand all the way to the high water mark.
The Surin beach clear out may go further still, with debate among government officials ongoing about land titles and land usage issues. There’s talk that all the businesses may eventually be swept away to turn an even wider swathe of the Surin beach area into public space, but so far no shutdown orders have been issued.
On Kamala beach, the central section of the beach still has several restaurants and shops lining the sands and one row of sunbeds, which looks like a typical setup for the low season months of May through October. We saw one shop along this section being taken down with a police officer standing by but otherwise it appears, so far, to be business as usual.
At Kamala’s north end near the Novotel Phuket Kamala Resort the popular surfers’ hangout Skyla’s Beach House is already shut down and partially demolished. A bamboo shack restaurant, Fatima’s, was being taken down and burned in bonfire on the sand, with much dismay, by the family owners who said they had been there for 30 years. A surfboard rental vendor nearby, who has only a small rack of boards and a hammock, was the only beach business still going in the area.
Laem Singh, Bang Tao, Laypang (north Bang Tao) and Layan beaches are reported to be the next targets for army-supervised clear-outs, with some 70 businesses on Bang Tao alone sent eviction notices. A Tourism Authority of Thailand press release said that similar evictions will be rolled out at other beaches in Phuket including Nai Harn and Patong. Patong will certainly be the one to watch, where commercialisation of its three-kilometre beach is widespread and deeply entrenched.
The big unknown is how the beaches will fare after the army’s departed, and how these clearances will hold up through the high season months of November through April. One woman who was busy dismantling her shop told us, “In October we’ll be back.”
A grand plan for a sustainable Phuket has yet to emerge, but for now visitors to Surin beach especially will have plenty more sand to stretch out on to watch the changing tides.
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