May 12, 2021
Empty beaches, chained doors: Surreal scenes in Phuket as island pins reopening hopes on vaccines

Empty beaches, chained doors: Surreal scenes in Phuket as island pins reopening hopes on vaccines

Pre-pandemic, Phuket’s Patong Beach was not a place you’d go for peace and quiet. On any given day during high season, this popular Thai beach town would be filled with tourists from all around the world. Jet skis, longtails and speed boats roared through its bright blue waters. Some pulled parasails, their colorful puffs of nylon kites moving through the skies, keeping harnessed bodies afloat. Massive cruise ships could sometimes be seen anchored offshore.

In the evenings, the streets adjacent to Patong’s beach were packed with travelers till long after the sun slipped into the Andaman Sea horizon, the air filled with the shouts of taxi drivers, massage staff and restaurant workers, all in pursuit of the next customer. These days, Patong is unrecognizable. Its beach — a long, clean strip of beige sand — is free of crowds. Nearby, the majority of businesses are shuttered, some with “For Rent” signs. Door handles are wrapped in chains and padlocks, while closed hotels have put up rope fences blocking the driveways to their entrances.

Even American chain outlets like McDonald’s, Burger King and Starbucks are shut. Further south, similar scenes await visitors to the once popular beaches of Kata and Karon. “The areas of Phuket island that have been hit the hardest are most definitely Patong, Karon and Kata beaches,” says Anthony Lark, president of the Phuket Hotels Association. “These three enclaves were 95% reliant on international tourism. And it dried up.”

For the few who decided to stick it out, life has been incredibly difficult. “It’s very bad for us,” says Su Sutam, manager of Lobster & Prawn Restaurant on Kata Beach. “Not many people come. We have only Thai people but not so many. In one day, only one or two tables. Normally we are full downstairs and upstairs.” He says staff are only getting paid half of their regular salaries until international tourists return. For the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary, founded in 2016, closing shop till the tourists return isn’t an option. Whether visitors come or not, the facility’s 12 retired working elephants, which live in the sanctuary’s 30 acres of jungle, need to be fed.

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