Picture the most idyllic beach scene ever Nodding palms languorously dancing in balmy westerly breezes, casting ever-moving exotic shadows over a crescent-shaped white-sand beach. Got it? Well you've pretty much envisaged an archetypal idea of what most of Phuket Island's west coast beaches looked like 25 years ago. But fast forward to right now and you'll see exactly the same vista.
So just how come Phuket managed to hold on to its 90s appeal? To be honest it didn't and if you'd visited the island just a year ago you'd have been forgiven for thinking that west coast Phuket was Asia's answer to Benidorm without the high rises. Sure, the beaches still had their obvious allure but, largely speaking, for the most popular beaches of (from south to north) Nai Harn, Kata, Karon, Patong, Kamala and Surin, it was hard to see the sand for sun loungers.
Happily all that has changed due to a recent vigorous and impressively effective campaign to clean up Phuket's beaches - and that means ridding the sands of not only sun loungers but also many unwanted and ad hoc buildings, shacks, beach clubs, restaurants, bars, shops, massage parlours, and other land grabbing features. The island's coast has changed almost beyond recognition and most definitely for the better.
To understand this metamorphosis it's necessary to go right to the roots of the situation. By royal decree every beach in the Kingdom of Thailand is public land. It's difficult for sun-starved westerners to comprehend a certain indifference in the Thai attitude towards their beaches (adjacent beachfront land was generally allocated to sons of landowners who saw no future in them or the land). Thai folks in the past saw no practical use at all for their lovely beaches except to use them as construction sites for their fishing boats and for repairing nets. Other than that they were - to Thai eyes - relatively barren places.
Then of course over 20 years back the Thai tourist industry erupted and visitors made a beeline for the beaches, almost instantly creating a whole new and lucrative market for seaside vendors and entrepreneurs on the lookout for as much profit for the least investment possible. Little-by-little temporary, and sometimes charmingly shambolic, businesses such as sun lounger rentals and beach bars grew from fly-by-night enterprises to deadly serious money-spinners with a lot invested in the process. And there lay the rub. No matter how 'charming' or 'rustic' that favourite beach bar that you 'discovered' is, it's breaking Thai law. Beaches are public land and building or doing business on them in any way shape or form is by definition illegal (if your hotel claims to have a private beach let's just say that they're stretching the truth a little).
This is why recently the old laws were reinforced, causing a mass evacuation of the beaches leaving them if not quite pristine, totally changed. One question that has immediately cropped up is, 'who will clean the beaches now that the sun lounger people have gone?' The encouraging response to this is that locals - both Thai and foreign residents - have been organising 'clean our beaches' days out when hundreds of volunteers from all walks of life collect and bag up the storm-driven southwest monsoon detritus that washes up on Phuket's west coast every year between the months of April and November. It's a fun and worthwhile activity.
This is mighty good news for those who love beaches without any clutter and the resulting 'back-to-nature' feel to them. And of course for kids - who love the freedom of a wide-open beach on which to romp, build sand castles and do whatever they please - this is indeed a sandy Nirvana. But what about those who actually enjoy end-to-end sun loungers and the immediate availability of an ice-cold beer and a meal? Well, many of Phuket's west coast beaches have hordes of satellite businesses lining the roads immediately next to the coastline. In other words, as long as a business is not actually on the beach it is legal so you won't have very far to go to find the amenities you desire - and that includes massages, meals, snacks and almost anything else along that line.
It's safe to say that 'when in Phuket do as the locals' - who much prefer to take their own food and drink along, sit on shared straw mats in the shade of the beachside trees and let the kids frolic in the surf during the safe-to-swim months of November to April. Beach life here is still loads of fun - but with a lot more space in which to enjoy it. Vive la differénce!