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Thailand: Life’s a beach and then you die


Thailand: Life’s a beach and then you die

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News that the strongarm mayor in Bang Saen was trying to rid his beach of vendors perpetually pestering the tourists plunged a rueful Rooster into reminiscing reverie about all those good, and not so good experiences on some of the beaches of the world.

I was brought up in South London and after trips to Brighton and Ramsgate as a child I thought that all beaches had stones, freezing water and overpriced ice-creams. A whirly “99 with a flake” only cost about 10p though I heard that Japanese tourists got a penny change from a pound. At the time it seemed only fair.

A trip to Eastbourne confirmed that the UK did have sand, albeit covered in tar. Annual family camping holidays to beaches near Barcelona were actually pleasant even if my father insisted on pitching the tent next to the toilets.

Most of my negative seaside attitudes changed in 1982 when armed with traveler’s cheques and hope I boarded Ariana Afghan air one way to New Delhi and soon arrived in Calangute. Thus began a love affair with beaches in Asia that only abated years later when I became Thai and feared the rays of the sun.

Goa was wonderful and my tan developed. I was not even put off by the pests on the beach, one of whom said he would clean all the gunk from my ears for 4 rupees, as it said on the card. I demurred. But thinking better of it overnight, I returned next day and agreed. Scraping around inside my shell-like, this scoundrel then “found” a stone and whipped out another card advertising stone removal for 10 rupees. Welcome to Asia!

After a trip across the Indian Ocean on a boat I found myself in Penang on Batu Ferringhi beach surrounded by five star tourists. Not bothering with that, within months I was in Koh Samui during the Falklands conflict. There were six bungalow operations on Chaweng and total daily costs were little more than a 100 baht. The mushroom omelets listed as “No Name” on the menu were deliciously memorable.

At Patong in Phuket a German restaurateur tried to charge me 150 baht for a plate load of crabs so my friend and I decided to eat in our 50 baht hut ordering a four baht plate of rice to go with tinned sardines bought in the market. The bungalow owner called us “Cheap Charlies” that I imagined was some form of compliment at the time.

Koh Samet in 1984 was idyllic even if the lady bungalow owner recounted how her husband had been shot dead in Rayong over a deal to sell up. We satisfied the munchies all afternoon long and washed our few clothes in the sea before sunset and the lack of a generator meant the only light was from the squid ships in the bay that gave Candlelight Beach its name.

In Indonesia, I visited the black sands of Lovina on Bali and more familiar white at Candidasa. Gili Meno off Lombok was perhaps the most beautiful island and beach setting I ever encountered. The Australians at Kuta didn’t put me off falling in love with their country and its beautiful beaches that were either full like Bondi or empty when one took a short drive out of Sydney.

In 1988 after a romantic upset I briefly emigrated to Brazil and found myself with a stunning pen-friend on Copacabana. She advised against wearing a watch and said if we asked people to take a photo they would run off with my camera. As extraordinary as it was, I was back in Thailand within a few months.

In 1990 I found more heaven in Koh Chang. Arriving with my first wife, we had to walk from the ferry drop off to White Sands beach through the jungle with a Thai man who later showed me how to fashion a smoking device out of a length of bamboo. There was only one set of bungalows and when we ordered dinner they said it would be served next day after they walked over to the market for supplies.

Years after spending Christmas 1983 at windswept Hikkaduwa in Sri Lanka, I took my growing Thai/UK nippers there for a look at the surf. They both got murderous sunburn as wily dad hid under a beach towel, now forewarned about the terrors of the Asian sun.

These days – preferring my white birthday suit and covered from head to toe in hat and clothes – I might venture onto the sands at Hua Hin after 4 pm with my latest wife and latest brood. In my job I’ll translate endless reams about the beach at Pattaya, the Chinese hordes (formerly) on Koh Larn, the jet-ski rip offs, the social distancing deckchair vendors and all the trash blown in off the Gulf all down the eastern seaboard.

For this columnist, the beach era in Thailand is a thing of the past. I’d sooner be home in Bangkok where I can protect my skin and ride my bike down to McDonald’s. My boss at Thaivisa initially thought he had hired a travel and gourmet correspondent after hearing my tales. Now they know differently!

“Tui” Khunpluem – son of Chonburi murderer Kamnan Poh – had inspired the reverie. He is doing an interesting job as the very vocal mayor of Saensuk district. His complaints about locals throwing trash and those who are trying to sell you sunglasses every five minutes are starting to bear fruit. Bang Saen has a lot of potential if the holidaymakers as well as the locals are reined in a bit.

His sibling in Pattaya, Sontaya, talks a good game but is under much more scrutiny especially as PM Prayut and his khaki-clad-crew are pushing the benefits of their pals’ Eastern Economic Corridor (a further death knell for the beaches I once knew) and the redevelopment of the city by the sea. Vested interests abound but one day it might, just might be safe to go back in the water though the sanitizing plans will never bring back the sauciness of Rooster’s first trip there in 1984. Even if my room cost a staggering 140 baht!

Now all it needs are tourists to take advantage of the 50% off.

Incentives are being offered to Thais to visit Pattaya but many may head south to Hua Hin and the area of coastline from Prachuap to Chumphon that has been referred to as the Thai Riviera. Having spent December 2018 playing Scrabble on the “English Riviera” at Torquay I would suggest another name!

Thailand was wrestling with how to get the tourists back in another spirited week of news on Thaivisa. The “travel bubble” plans were thrown into confusion as it was revealed that success depends on thinking things through and planning, commodities in very short supply among the elite.

The Covid-19 committee laughably thought that a 14-day quarantine would not put tourists off coming to Thailand. Sooner or later the country is going to have to bite the bullet and open up the country despite the threat of that fearsome second spike. Fortunately, there are plenty of bullets if the multitude of crime I translated this week is anything to go by.

One story in QUOTES had it all and Rooster got a rise from the forum by referring to Her Majesty on the Eastern Seaboard as a “Family Resort”. A drunk guy in a pick-up with a baseball bat had put a Chinese pillion passenger in hospital. Then after threatening the constabulary he was all but lynched while wearing only underpants outside 7-Eleven.

Not to worry. A Covid delegation that visited found everything was fine – presumably after Mayor Sontaya gave them a slap-up seafood lunch (with crustacea wisely imported from Bangkok no doubt).

It made me think of an adjustment to that phrase: Life’s a beach, and then you die!

Further lockdown release news came in the shape of the government announcing that 500 checkpoints would remain despite the fact there was absolutely no point in having them. Unless it is to intimidate the public and keep a tight rein on the proletariat who thought that lifting curfew meant freedom. The fools that we are!

Thailand was named the second best country in the world, after Australia, for its handling of the pandemic. My brother in Vietnam wondered why his address for the last ten years was barely mentioned in dispatches. It has a huge border with China and reacted very swiftly and decisively to the pandemic, more so than Thailand.

Whatever your views about the Thai response to the crisis and the truth of the figures, I must say I find it extraordinary that much of the Western news media has virtually ignored the actions of Thailand and Vietnam. They burble on about lessons to be learned in South Korea and Singapore, perhaps, but they don’t seem to have heard of anywhere else.

The latest death toll from Lombardy or London, the idiotic pronouncements of an out-of-control president or loony Tory and endless stories about facemasks and NHS heroes sell more advertising space, I guess. Here in Siam we made do with a story about an online doctor condemning the practice of stuffing a facemask into an air vent on a bus. Dr Sherlock said it could spread the virus. You don’t say!

In related news, 75% of Thais apparently are in favor of keeping foreigners out. One wonders how many of those surveyed rely on tourism. With the industry making up a large chunk of GDP that three quarters need their collective heads examined. Foreigners who are married to Thais and those with Permanent Residence look like getting back in first. This and the quarantine arrangements should be prioritized as much as a humanitarian gesture as something of economic consideration.

The AOT brought some much needed realism to the debate about the return of tourists with an assessment that flights into Thailand would not return to 2019 levels until at least 2023. More of this kind of sensible practicality is needed to counteract the often absurd comments of those in charge of tourism and public health. Pipat at the former and Anutin at the latter are still in their jobs though one wonders how.

Then the penny drops – they are both billionaires of course!

One politician who quit his party, though not the cabinet, this week was MR (that’s mom ratchawong, a great grandson of Rama IV not mister to you) Chatumongol Sonakul. The labour minister and pal of Suthep, was quoted as saying:

“No reason. It’s like a husband and wife getting a divorce”. Such an absurd statement masks a myriad of reasons.

I encountered the man called “Mom Tao” on the banks of the Chao Praya after he was appointed Governor of the Bank of Thailand. We were there to see a practice for the Royal Barge Procession. He went to shake my hand, I wai-ed, he wai-ed and I went to shake his hand. So we never really met. He probably thought Rooster was a complete fool. Fortunately, when our paths crossed subsequently, I was able to smile and inwardly confirm that the feeling was mutual.

In international news this week former national security advisor John Bolton put the wind up the Trump administration as the POTUS tried to gag his new book. Maybe they are the ramblings of a disgruntled employee, though Trump has so much “previous” from dealings with those he has sacked that no smoke without fire blazes in the White House.

In England the first game back in the football premiership featured a goal that should have stood. Hawkeye said it was their first goal line technology cock-up in 9000 matches. It harked back to a gentler era when a Swiss referee and a “Russian” linesman, rather than technology, thankfully handed England a path to victory in the 1966 World Cup Final (Tofiq Bahramov was in fact from Azerbaijan….).

Scientists in the UK said they had made a breakthrough in Covid-19 treatment with the news that “dexamethasone” – a steroid treatment – could help the sick. That rings a bell, I thought. It was one of the principal ingredients of eye drops that had been prescribed to me just hours earlier for a nagging complaint that my doctor says will likely require expensive endoscopic surgery. Oh well, I’ve had a good run.

Finally, the icon who was known as the “forces’ sweetheart”, Vera Lynn died this week. Though not really someone of my generation her death at the age of 103 inspired memories. She featured in a fabulous documentary about her life that revealed the lady behind those lyrics about bluebirds, white cliffs and Dover as a woman of great compassion.

My weary eyes welled with tears as the tributes and reminiscences of those who knew her poured in.

Especially as my own late parents would have cried buckets at her passing.


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