In June 2014, the unusual sight of army troops patrolling the sands of Phuket marked the launch of the newly-installed military government’s effort to clear up its beaches of illegal encroachment and profiteering. Since then, and nearing the end of the first post-coup high season, the beaches of Phuket are home to a limited amount of commercial activity and ongoing wrangling over what should or should not be permitted on them.
In the weeks that followed the initial clearouts, Phuket’s shoreline was subject to dramatic scenes with the removal of thousands of sunbeds and umbrellas with armed soldiers standing by, and beachfront restaurants being felled by bulldozers.
At first it appeared as though Phuket’s beaches would transform into commercial-free zones, but it soon became clear that the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of beach vendors and business operators were not all willing to leave quietly. Reforming and restoring Phuket’s beaches has proved to be a far more complex procedure than simply knocking down a few beach huts.
Much to the chagrin of beach-goers seeking peace and quiet, jet-ski and parasail operators somehow escaped being forced out, and on Patong beach especially they ended up with even more space along the sands to carry out their business.
Other shops and restaurants, mostly on Kamala and Bang Tao beaches, challenged the eviction notices and refused to leave, or else they hastily rebuilt and resumed business after being cleared out. The Reggae Bar just north of the Laguna Phuket resort was one such business that in late March was ordered to tear down – again. All the remaining beach clubs and dining spots along Surin beach, which were already forced back off the sands last June, have reportedly received eviction orders, too, but so far none have shut down.
Umbrellas and sunbeds, meanwhile, have been the source of some confusion, being micromanaged to an absurd degree on some beaches. At first, all rental umbrellas and sunbeds were banned, leaving visitors to bring their own items to the beaches.
Then came the “No Summer Dream” fiasco in February, where police wielding a badly-worded flyer suddenly descended upon Patong beach and told anyone with sunbeds that they’d have to pack them up and leave. Bring-your-own sun loungers were now banned, too. “No summer dream” was an ironic mistranslation of “beach lounger” from Thai to English.
This ban was part of the Phuket Governor’s new set of rules concerning commercial activity at the beaches. The new rules allow for umbrella and mat rental, massage service and drink selling along the sand, which are confined to zones taking up no more than 10% of the total beach area.
Visitors who wish to bring their own umbrellas may do so, but they are supposed to stay within these 10% zones as well. Sun loungers remain banned in all zones.
The new rules also ban smoking and the selling of food on the beaches, and the Governor said that visitors to the beach were no longer allowed to bring their own food aside from light snacks.
At the beaches we’ve visited since February, we’ve observed that all of the above rules have been ignored by vendors and visitors alike. The army no longer has a visible presence here, and the enforcement of the rules has been left to the local councils.
Predictably, enforcement has been spotty, with some beaches being completely left alone and others subject to over-zealous policing, most notably at Surin beach in early April when council “volunteers” clad in camouflage raided the sands and took umbrellas away from more than 50 apparent rule-breaking visitors.
The Governor said in news reports that these rules are on a three-month trial period, and may need to be adjusted, so it’s difficult to predict what rules might be in place for anyone visiting Phuket after May. The aim, he said, is to strike a balance between the needs of visitors and the need for locals to make a legal income.
Along with Hua Hin, Phuket is part of a pilot project for the Thai junta’s stated plan to clear up encroachment across the country, so other beach resort areas may be subject to similar clearout efforts in the future.
So what does this mean to the average traveller just hoping to enjoy a day out at the beach?
For now, visitors to Phuket can expect to enjoy a limited range of services, and they will see beaches largely free of the clutter of past years. Those soft sands that made the island world famous are still inviting, despite the sometimes uneven efforts to control what’s on them.
Lana Willocks is a freelance writer from Canada based in Phuket. Her love affair with Thailand began on a university exchange programme in Bangkok, then she returned to Phuket on the auspicious date of 9-9-1999 and never left.
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