Paradise Lost – the demise of Koh Samet
As you may know Koh Samet is a small island about 3 – 4 hours drive from Bangkok, depending up the bus driver/passengers bladders, amount of food breaks and cost of petrol – i.e. the more expensive the petrol the slower the bus tends to travel. As you also may know the island is supposed to be a National Park and due to this status foreign adults are charged 200 baht entry fee on arrival, foreign children slightly less, Thai nationals 40 baht and so on. Over the past 10 years I’ve had the pleasure of staying on Koh Samet many times and the island has acquired special significance to me. Things that make visiting it a pleasure are that it has remained a laid back backpacker spot with gorgeous white sand, clean beaches, crystal clear unpolluted water, low key bars and accommodation that blends into the surrounding forest.
Another of the island’s draws is the slightly batty or eccentric foreigners who visit on a regular basis or settle there. For example anorexic lady with dyed orange skin who power walks the length of all the beaches and back at least 10 times a day. On the final return trip she carries two bags of fruit which she uses as weights as she walks. Sadly, over the years she has become thinner and thinner and eventually disappeared off the scene for a few years. We feared for her but I am happy to report that she is back as thin and colourful as ever. I especially like the bright pink lipstick she has added to her ensemble. She was a firm friend of the Italian who set up a permanent squat on the island with his Thai partner. He built a shack and put up signs on the beach in front of it asking people not to smoke, drink alcohol, litter or make excessive noise. For a while he actually managed to preserve a pristine piece of beach from the developers and kept it clean as well. We were all amused by him but grateful. So after three years absence from Thailand it was a foregone conclusion that I return to the island to celebrate a significant birthday.
We landed on the island only to find out that is has been overdeveloped, the beaches are extremely dirty and the sea polluted. There was rubbish everywhere including bottle tops and broken glass and locals claim that the island is overrun with rats. Traffic in the water had mushroomed so that swimmers were in danger of getting limbs chopped off by speed boats, windsurfers or jet skis. New concrete hotels had been built right on the sand and the beach as a result was marginalised. What was left of the sand was covered in parasols and deckchairs during the day and tacky neon lights, dining areas, and fire shows at night.
The Italian squatter had lost the plot, deforested at least an acre around his hut and used the chopped trees to expand his domain. He’d given up cleaning the beach, the area he occupied had turned into a slum with bottles, containers and general rubbish littering the site and he had populated the beach with hundreds more wooden signs. Now apart from not being able to smoke, drink, make no noise, litter (a joke considering rat inducing conditions he lived in), the signs exhorted us not to light fires (because he wanted the wood for himself presumably), pitch tents or hang hammocks, make love not war, respect the laws of Buddha and not to bathe topless. If a hapless tourist should do any of the above he or his wife would harangue and intimidate them until they left. I felt like erecting my own set of signs on the beach in front of his shack asking him not to spit his saliva filled toothpaste onto the sand, not to chop down national park trees, to clean his rubbish dump up, not to erect permanent wooden shacks on the beach or litter the beach with catamarans/ wind surfs and not to bully or preach to the tourists and Thai nationals.
With the advent of the concrete jungle now threatening the extinction of the beach, I cite Koh Chang as an example of where this already happened, the prospect of the package tourist is raising its ugly head. However one good thing about the new market of Russian holiday makers is that they take no shit from the Italian or his signs as they litter, smoke, drink, and sunbathe topless on the only decent piece of beach left.
I was extremely disappointed that this commercial free oasis has been ruined and, according to the net, so are other travellers whose blogs are very vocal about the lack service provided by the parks and recreation services. In fact many advise travellers not to bother visiting the island at all. Far be it for me to tell the ministers how to do their jobs but something needs to be done to stop the further degeneration of this National Park into a tacky, grubby money- spinning monstrosity. Either do the job or drop the pretence that the island is a national park and stop charging a fee that is supposed to allegedly keep the island in a natural pristine condition. It’s a lot of money for not a lot of service.