Thursday, 6 November 2014

Parties Stopped in Koh Phangan

For years local residents in Baan Tai have been asking the police to do something about the noise being generated by the all-night parties in the area. Their pleas have fallen on deaf ears. Ever since the early 2000s when the Full Moon Party became a world-famous event, numerous other monthly parties have sprung up both small and fairly large. Most of these have been in Baan Tai. The combination of a military junta crackdown on illegal activities as well as the adverse publicity generated by the murder of two young Brits, Hannah Witheridge and David Miller on the neighbouring island of Koh Tao in September, 2014 has forced the police on Koh Phangan to shut down all the parties except for the Full Moon Party.

Until this point it seemed that every year a new regular party was added to the list. The Half Moon Party, Jungle Experience and Shiva Moon Party have been joined by Rhythm and Sands, Loy Lai Floating Bar, Ku Klub and Sramanora Waterfall Blue and Green Party. All in the Baan Tai / Baan Kai area and all going on all night. While the noise is not great for those trying to sleep, the legal issue is the selling of alcohol after the curfew of 1am.

Thailand is the land of the free and anyone who has stayed in the country for any length of time will notice that the alcohol curfew is only selectively enforced. This is true both in tourist hotspots and in less visited areas of Thailand. However, it is a law that gives the police the legal authority to shut down bars, nightclubs, street vendors and all night raves.

Pressure, no doubt, has been asserted from the top to do something about the parties. The interim government led by General Prayuth has been keen to enforce laws and curb the increase in corruption. They have been tackling all kinds of abuse such as Jet Ski scammers, illegal permits for sun loungers in Phuket and foreigners using tourist visas to work in Thailand. Those people who thought that the cash generated by the Full Moon Party made Koh Phangan immune to the clean-up campaigns appear to be wrong for the moment. Both Jungle Experience and the Half Moon Party were stopped by the police.

Their reasons were that the alcohol laws were being broken and that they didn’t have the man power to police the events. It cannot be ignored that these actions happened shortly after the double murder in Koh Tao. It has caught many by surprise that the tragic attack of two young Brits has attracted so much international press coverage. Thailand’s image has been dented by not only the awful crime but also the ensuing police investigation which been marred by allegations of framing two Burmese workers and ‘fixing’ the evidence. The British police observers in the area have not made any comments about the regime’s insistence that the case is closed to everyone’s satisfaction. However, a report from the British police into the affair due when they return might further embarrass officials in Thailand.

Meanwhile the plan is to limit the damage caused by the incident. All-night parties in Koh Tao and Koh Phangan are off until further notice. It is only the Full Moon Party that has been allowed to continue since it already has a large police presence. Some bars are still running DJ events but these are small gatherings.

Despite these measures tourist numbers are seriously down on last year’s figures on the islands. Tonight is Loy Kratong full moon party. Authorities expect 20,000 revellers. That remains to be seen; and anyway, these TAT numbers are generally pulled out of nowhere.

The question that remains is if the party curfew in Baan Tai and in Koh Tao will continue for very long. Those involved in the parties will no doubt be keen to get the parties back on. They make profits for numerous people and keep many ex-pats on the islands. The key moment will be when the current junta is replaced by an elected government. If the parties aren’t back with a change of government they are gone for good.

This will have a discernible effect on the demographics for Koh Phangan visitors as well as the number of ex-pats living semi-permanently on the island. The mood of Koh Phangan will noticeably change if party-goers come in fewer numbers. The Full Moon Party might continue to attract thousands but many just come for the party and many only stay a couple of nights. The other parties in Baan Tai kept a steady trickle of young people booking hostels and spending thousands of Baht on alcohol and banned substances. Time will tell if Koh Phangan has undergone a sea-change.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Thailand Tourism under the Junta

Even those people with a short memory will recall the military takeover in 2006 in Thailand. It followed a similar pattern to the present coup (2008). In that instance the establishment agitated for several months to oust the popular Thaksin government before the military finally stepped in to prevent the country falling into supposed ‘anarchy’.

It is a fair guess that the latest coup will continue to mirror the last one: namely, that the military will hold power for about a year before installing a royalist and democrat government. This government will fall at the first election (despite a raft of electoral reforms) and some form of Shinawatra government will seize power much to the chagrin of the Bangkok elite.

No doubt the present junta are aware of history, and are more determined than ever to stop history repeating itself. The electoral commission is looking to change voting boundaries to weaken the northern stronghold of Pheu Thai. At the same time they are conducting a vigorous enquiry into the rice pledging scheme to discredit key members of the last government.

The military government are also addressing the huge gap that exists between the written law and the way the law is applied. It is this grey area that has been a breeding ground for corruption and scams. This grey area exists in virtually every developing country; but Thailand now has a robust and growing economy. The country has aspirations to make it into the league of countries such as Singapore and Mexico that in many ways are the equal of their ‘developed’ counterparts.

MPs are being asked to declare their assets. Road rules are being enforced. Buildings that have been erected without planning permission are being torn down. The alcohol curfew is being enforced in pleasure centres such as Pattaya. The rule about foreign ownership of land is being scrutinised. Foreign nationals doing repeated visa runs to neighbouring countries to work illegally are being denied entry. Taxi drivers in Koh Samui are being forced to use meters. Those renting jet skis are under pressure to stop fleecing tourists. The list goes on. The message is that Thailand is cleaning up its act, and undesirables beware – they will be found and dealt with.

You don’t need to believe in conspiracy theories to see how many of these measures will ruin the income streams of important people in the country who benefit from bribes, drugs, illegal employment, human trafficking and cheating tourists. The military will do well to manage itself when surely several of its own ranks are involved in the corruption. Meanwhile the Shinawatras remain in the wings promising a return to a government that turns a blind eye to a wide range of rackets.

Thailand Authority of Tourism (TAT) has been busy in its own inept way to put a positive spin on events happening in Thailand. They have consistently downplayed the drop in tourist numbers and have never mentioned that those who did visa runs would also be part of previous dubious statistics. Their latest drive is ‘Thainess Year’. They are also hoping to lure the Chinese and Europeans back with 60 day visas. The incompetence of TAT has always made those who know more than a little about Thailand laugh. They seem the apotheosis of ‘Thainess’ as perceived by many non-Thais.

Many ‘respectable’ tourists and ex-pats applaud the junta’s efforts to curb the prostitution areas in Bangkok, Koh Samui, Phuket and Pattaya; to regulate the bars; and to deport foreign criminals. The high spending and short stay tourists that the authorities want to encourage are not as numerous as TAT imagined. They are the first to cancel holidays where there is political disturbance. This minority of visitors to Thailand have always borne the brunt of the unfair dual pricing system. Thailand is looking more expensive, less safe and less inviting than other countries in the region with beaches, luxury hotels, temples and shopping malls.

Such are market forces that the reduced tourist numbers mean that bargains are to be found in Thailand – rooms in 3 and 4 star hotels can be had for a big discount. Villas can be rented cheaply, and for those with a penchant for risk, villas can be bought for big reductions.

Backpackers over the last 10 years have consistently got a worse deal. For the same money a few years ago they would have got a room in a guest house or a bungalow, now they can only afford a dorm bed. Weed is still 500 Thai Baht but the bags are getting smaller – it is nearly cheaper to ‘smoke’ in Europe than in Thailand for those not buying large amounts. With the border visa being reduced to 15 days the average backpacker is discouraged from staying long in the Kingdom. They do Bangkok and the Full Moon Party and then are off.

Thailand is often called ‘The Land of the Free’. It is hoped that the worst examples of cronyism, nepotism, corruption and vote rigging are addressed; at the same time the profits to be had from tourism are wrested from the hands of the few and a better balance of high-end and backpacker tourism is established. If tourists were ripped off less, fined less, and small local businesses were allowed to compete with big tourist companies on a more level playing field there is a good chance that TAT could go back to the irrelevance it has always been. It is also necessary for voters in Thailand to cast their ballot responsibly and bring in politicians not bent on making a personal fortune and destroying the opposition.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Want to Try a New Beach? The Answer is Mae Haad

People often come back again and again to Koh Phangan. It is that sort of place. Initially people tend to return to the same places where they first found white sand, sunshine and friendly locals. They build an emotional attachment to a particular beach, and even tend to get quite possessive about that beach. During wet and cold Mondays at work it is comforting to know that your Koh Phangan beach is sunny, the sea warm and the beers cold and cheap. There is a hammock with your name on it waiting for you.

However, there comes a stage where horizons expand and the regular returnee to Koh Phangan thinks about other places and possible activities. I still haven’t climbed up Khao Ra; I still haven’t dived at Sail Rock; I still haven’t taken that trip to Ang Thong Marine Park I always wanted to do are all common thoughts from those who come to Koh Phangan to relax and escape the world for a little while.

One way to both relax and gain a sense of achievement is to opt for a few nights at Mae Haad beach. It is a place name that is infrequently used since most people are more focussed on the snorkelling around the small island of Koh Ma. Mae Haad is the beach next to Koh Ma. It is the entry point to the marine park and a great beach in its own right.

Whereas other west coast beaches such as Haad Yao and Haad Salad are famous for idyllic locations, white sand and cheap bungalows, Mae Haad remains a relatively obscure spot. There are boat tour groups that come to the beach but few people consider staying at Mae Haad.

That is a shame because the beach offers accommodation, bars and restaurants. And best of all it offers two beaches – the coastal beach and the beach created by the sandbank connecting Koh Ma to the headland. The geography of the area resembles Nang Yuan in Koh Tao. There is something special about a sandbank that offers ocean vistas from both sides.

And of course it is not only the spectacular beach scenery that is good about Mae Haad, it also has the best snorkelling in Koh Phangan. Just a short swim from the shore is a protected marine park where you can spot angelfish, banner fish and hermit crabs. If you spend enough time in the water you can possibly spot rarer marine life such as rays, turtles and cuttlefish.

Being right next to a great snorkelling location on holiday gives you the chance to pursue an activity without the hassle of catching taxis and having to dress up. No valuable time is wasted leaving the beach.

You can find a basic fan bungalow for about 300 Thai Baht a night in Mae Haad at Island View Cabana, Mae Haad View Resort, Why Not Bungalows and Royal Orchid Resort. There are also plenty of mid-range options in the 1,000 Thai Baht a night range. For those looking for luxury there is Mae Haad Bay Resort that features an impressive communal swimming pool as well as private pool and private Jacuzzi villas.

The nightlife at Mae Haad consists of a few local bars playing Bob Marley music such as Rolling Stone and Roots Corner. Entertainment here is laid back and a throwback to the 1990s. This is not a techno party beach, nor is it a New Age therapy beach, but it could well become your new favourite place in Koh Phangan.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Suratthani Airport

Surat Thani is a small regional airport. Most of the flights are to and from Don Mueang airport in Bangkok.

The airport is about 20 minutes outside of Surat Thani Town. There are 3 ways to make this journey: bus service by Phanthip company (100B per person), by Tuk-Tuk (200B per person) or by private taxi (600B). Do bear in mind that the Phanthip bus needs to be booked in advance and runs at fixed times (including 12 noon and 3 pm). Ask at your hotel or the Phanthip office on the Taladmai Road. This is the main road where the buses drops off and pick up for the ferry terminals for Koh Samui and Koh Phangan.

The airport has two storeys. Arrivals are on the ground floor and departures on the second floor. On the ground floor there are three coffee outlets and a counter for buying bus tickets onwards. Otherwise there is not much at the airport in terms of retail outlets in the arrivals section. Upstairs there are shops and two restaurants. The BB cafe is small and serves snacks and coffee. The other restaurant is larger and is run by the Sawasdee Group. They have a full menu range and serve alcohol and other drinks. The prices aren't cheap compared to the rest of Thailand, but fairly cheap as far as airports go. The noodle soup costs 100 THB, the American sandwich 110 THB, a fruit juice 50 THB and a small Singha beer is 100 THB.

Suratthani Airport is a small regional airport that is not big and not particularly busy. This is the main advantage of the airport – it is free of the stress associated with big airports. However, it lacks facilities. The good news is that it is relatively close to Suratthani City - indeed closer than the train station (which is in fact in another town!). The Air Asia flights between Suratthani and Don Mueang in Bangkok are only 2,000 Thai Baht and much better value than the Bangkok Airways flights from Koh Samui. Until Koh Phangan Airport is built Surat Airport will remain the best value airport for getting to and from the island.