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Phuket Days: Adventure at Nai Harn Beach    Patrick Campbell

Extract from Phuket Days: Life in the Island Fast Lane by Patrick Campbell


There were some places that had, early on, convinced my ageing psyche that they really were the place to be. Nai Harn Beach was one such location. Today, Wan and I were going to picnic on the beach. We had been doing it for so long , it had become a sort of ritual. We knew from past experience that the best place to go was under the casuarina pines, where you could move your deck chair into light or shade, as the sun’s rays filtered through the high branches.

Wan, a model of efficiency, had packed the food in plastic boxes: a home-made chicken massaman curry with peanuts , boiled eggs, crisp stalks of Chinese kale, rice, a fresh coconut. Plus her own supply of nam prik. That wasn’t all. She also put a large carboy of fresh water in the back of the truck, conscious that I loved a shower after a sea-dip that left me feeling as salty and desiccated as an old kipper.

Wan sat, lotus-style on the woven mat she had brought, sprinkled powder around its edges to deter the wood ants, and dispensed food. Later, we would sunbathe on the beach and watch the world go by: prosperous-looking, portly couples on their daily constitutional from The Nai Harn, an eccentric Englishman exercising his three Jack Russell terriers, gay poseurs showing off their tanned, sculptured bodies fresh from a session in the gym, sinuous, bikini-clad Russian beauties, fully clothed Thai families, the childrens’ tee shirts still dripping salt water.

Over the past decade or so, Nai Harn Beach had undergone several transformations. Like a giant bulldozer, the 2004 tsunami had cleared all before it: every lounger, beach tent, drinks stall, all the money-making paraphernalia had gone. Only nature, in the guise of deep-rooted sea almonds and stilt palms higher up on the dunes, had resisted the inundation.

But slowly, perhaps inevitably, almost unnoticed, the man-made evidences had re-appeared. Unseen termites colonising a new site. The restaurants beyond the casuarinas, damaged but not destroyed by the flooding, had started to encroach, with tables and chairs set once again among the pines. More permanent structures had followed. Down on the beach itself, the march of loungers and parasols and massage tents had started again in earnest .

At a stroke, the new political regime changed all that. A massive “clean-up” of Phuket’s west coast beaches was ordered in 2016, and Nai Harn, along with Kata, Kamala, Surin and Karon, was returned, more-or-less, to its pristine state. The sunbeds and parasols, the massage shacks,the drinks vendors, disappeared once more. So far, so good.

Now it was time for a swim. It was a grand day for a dip. Red warning flags were stuck in the sand in the middle of the beach, so I walked along the sand, newly moistened by the high tide, to The Nai Harn resort end of the shore where the sea was always benign. Often I went snorkelling there, for the rocks that made up the headland still harboured plenty of coral. And where there was healthy coral, there were always reef fish in abundance – trigger fish, wrasse, damsel, angel and banner fish.

Today, however, I just wanted to swim. I waded out, dived through the breakers, into the calm, limpid waters beyond and swam. 200 metres out, I luxuriated in the calm of the moment. Hardly a sound. Ethereal.The people on the shore looked like Lilliputians, beyond them a dark green screen of casuarinas trees. Flanking the bay were gaunt rocky headlands, with stands of coconuts planted high on the hillside amid verdant trees. Looking seawards, I took in the arc of bay and blue, blue sea, the concave of a sky coming to meet the ocean.

I trod water, then decided to swim east across part of the bay. I counted four hundred strokes. Carried further than I had realised by the cross currents, I decided it was time to head in, to strike for home.

But as I approached the shore, I started to struggle. I was making no progress. The shore was not getting any closer. There were no huge waves, but the sea was agitated, almost boiling. I had been in the water now for half an hour and was beginning to flag, to feel the build-up of lactic acid in my legs, to run out of puff.

The tow had taken me all the way to the dangerous centre of the beach where twin tides met and collided. I was in the neck of a rip and I didn’t know how to escape its watery embrace.
“Don’t panic, don’t swallow water”, I kept saying to myself. “Stay calm. Try to save energy. Maybe, it will go away…”

Suddenly there was a cry. It was Wan, shouting and waving her arms. Just like her behaviour on the morning of the tsunami. Always vigilant, she had sensed I might be in trouble, and she had run off to alert the lifeguard. What a woman to have in an emergency!

The lifeguard came running out with a surfboard attached to a rope. He waded into the surf, and tossed the board in my direction. Thankfully, I managed to grab it and hold on. No more than 30 yards out, but it had still been touch and go. It had nearly been go...

“Well, said Cornish friend Jack over a beer. “You were lucky. You hadn’t swallowed any water – yet. But another time you’ll know what to do. Don’t fight it. Go with the outward flow until it weakens and then swim at right angles to the current.”

“The funny thing, Jack, is that I knew that part of the beach was dodgy, but didn’t twig that I had drifted so far towards it.”

“Appearance can be deceptive at sea. Good job the lifeguard was on duty. There’s a real concern, at the moment, over their role. Their budget’s been cut – by ten per cent – for the next three years. There have been literally hundreds of drownings in Phuket in recent years. The figures are getting worse, not better...” [Editor’s note: since Phuket Days was written, the lifeguard situation as worsened and become more confused. There is currently no uniform, trained, lifeguard service across all Phuket, often risky, beaches.]

“Yes, Jack, and I heard that ISLA –the international lifeguard organisation, has openly criticised the lifeguard service here, saying it does not meet required standards. Low salaries, not enough lifeguards, inadequate equipment and training, too many fatalities. Not good news.”

“But they can do ‘sweet FA’ if people don’t heed the warnings. It’s a sad fact that most Thais can’t swim, nor all those Chinese tourists, many of whom have never even seen the ocean before. Yet they still wade in and get knocked off their feet by a sudden wave. That’s all it takes.”

“Ah”, I replied.”‘The murderous innocence of the sea’ One my favourite quotes. WB Yeats, dear boy”.

Phuket Days is available at Seng Ho Bookstore, Julapan Stationery (Chalong), The Mangosteen (Rawai), Wine Lovers (Rawai), Asia Books (Central Festival), Lady Pie (Thalang) & 59 /84 Soi Saiyuan 13.

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By Patrick Campbell
Phuket Days is available at Seng Ho Bookstore, Julapan Stationery, Chalong, The Mangosteen, Rawai, Asia Books, Central Festival, Wine Lovers, Rawai & 59 /84 Soi Saiyuan 13.