Sad Times for Tonsai Beach
Unlike the superbly performed Ellen Burstyn film, this tragedy is a real life event. Finding an unspoiled beach in Thailand becomes increasingly rare as the years go by. Former unspoiled Eden’s along the Andaman Sea such as Phuket and Koh Phi Phi are now overrun and overbuilt with overpriced condos, guesthouses and hotels. During high season, hundreds of tourists are deposited daily shelling out $200-$300 or more for a nights stay in a mediocre room with unfriendly management and staff. During the day, they are harassed by the beach blanket mafia who want $10 for the privilege of sitting on “their” sand for a couple of hours, never mind the fact that beaches are legally open to all by Thai law.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love Thailand, and I enjoy visiting the Kingdom each year. Old timers are always plying me with the likes of, “Well, you should have seen it 20 or 30 years ago.” I always take such comments with a grain of the proverbial salt. I am sure it was different, less developed, less geared toward imagined foreign wants and needs. But I am here now. I can still go diving in pristine reefs and SCUBA with giant manta rays, requiring no wetsuit in the tropical water. I can still find paradise on Koh Lanta, Koh Jam and other lesser-known Kohs at reasonable and good value. I still love the Thai people, Thai culture, Thai weather, and of course Thai Food.
One of my great joys in spending the last two winters in Krabi has been the proximity of Tonsai Beach. I can be there in less than 30 minutes using a combination of shared taxi (songteo) and longtail boat ride. For a total combined round trip cost of 6 USD, I can have a fabulous day trip. For another US$8.00, I can stay overnight in a simple but comfortable shack a few steps from the sea.
Why do I love Ao Tonsai? Tonsai Beach is a throwback to the real (in my case) or imagined free-spirited past that lives and thrives deep in our cells. Tonsai and nearby Railay Beach share some of the most stunning views in the world. Railay gave itself over to the gods of real estate development long ago. Now populated by walled resorts with $500 a night villas and overpriced mediocre restaurants, most visitors to Thailand can only afford to come by boat for a few hours’ day-tripping.
Tonsai has no major development. There are a few small guesthouses well away from the beach. The most upscale one has a small pool and goes for less than $30 a night. The rest is in the $10-$20 range. If you can get here in the rainy season those prices are halved for you. Young adults and the young at heart are drawn here to rock climb the limestone karsts, learn to fire juggle and tightrope walk and to simply hang out and savor Xanadu without being assaulted by hordes of touts trying to sell you something you neither want nor need. Take a deep breath…relax…chill…appreciate.
Along the beach itself are a few shacks serving coffee, drinks and a bit of food. Some locals have a kayak rental concession. There is not much else besides the view and the tepid bath water of Andaman Sea.
Sadly, this is all about to change. I was excited to make our first trip of the season to Ao Tonsai yesterday. I looked forward to seeing old friends, catching up on the not-so-very-important gossip and having a non-event sort of day. I could not wait to get off the longtail, wade through knee-deep water and saunter up to Lek’s shack and have a cup of some of the best coffee in the world. Later in the morning I would swim and then perhaps have a beer or two while I just appreciated how perfect everything was.
As I hit the beach my first thought was that I was following in the wake of a Tsunami. There were a couple of large, uprooted trees and boards helter-skelter where friendly shacks had stood just a few months before. Okay, I thought. It could not have been a tsunami, I would have read something. Well, there must have been a really violent monsoon or two.
We continued to walk along the beach , detouring around fallen trees. To our right across the water was the familiar sight of towering limestone karsts. However, to my left was a beachfront I did not recognize.
“Let’s go to Lek’s and grab a coffee and see if everyone is okay,” said I.
“Lek’s was right there,” Anna pointed to a pile of boards and assorted debris.
I was in shock. We went further to the Chillout Bar. The platforms and cushions were not to be seen in front. The bar was still there but no one was around. After awhile, the proprietor showed up and was glad to see us again.
My queries were met with the following information: A major corporation has purchased the beachfront property. They are scheduled to begin construction of a large resort next month. Everyone has been kicked off the beach. The Chillout has to be gone in two weeks. They have almost finished a new Chillout Bar located back from the beach in the jungle [no ocean view] and they are relocating their few remaining overnight shacks to that location. My friend Lek, has left to open a tattoo shop on Railay Beach.
Well, I could have cried right then and there. We hung out and commiserated awhile. We bought some drinks and offered what compassionate support we could. After a while a German couple strolled up. They have been coming here on vacation the last three years. We shared memories of a happier time. I thought about going to visit Lek on nearby Railay Beach but just did not have the heart. I will do so soon.
After awhile, we caught a longtail back to Ao Nang. Farewell Shangri La. Farewell Xanadu. Farewell beloved hippy beach.
Ao Tonsai Photo Galleries: