• Andy Dorn

Eye in the Koh Samet Sky

Koh Samet is a popular island vacation destination for both domestic and international tourists. An island famed for its sandy white beaches, and easy accessibility from Bangkok for a weekend getaway. However, the recent COVID-19 pandemic has impacted tourism to the island: tourist numbers have decreased, but at the same time, it has returned the environment to its more pristine original condition. Drone photography shows us a unique perspective on the island, revealing details hard to see at ground level, and displaying an expanded view of the island itself and the impacts of tourism.

Koh Samet lies just offshore of Ban Phe in Rayong Province. It is only about 4km offshore, making it a quick boat ride away. Koh Samet is part of the Khao Laem Ya–Mu Koh Samet National Park. Most people don’t realise that a part of this national park is actually on the mainland, which lies to the west of Ban Phe township.

The island is wide at the northern section, but it thins out as you go south. In the southern section, it only takes several minutes to walk across the island. Most of the resorts and accommodation lie on the east of the island, while the Western side is mainly undeveloped rocky coast.

The main attraction of Koh Samet is the white beaches and clear tropical waters, making it an idyllic spot for relaxing and recreation. Most bays have resorts and restaurants, like Tubtim beach and resort seen in the image below.

The calm waters of Samet are ideal for a range of recreational activities, including swimming, kiteboarding, stand up paddleboarding, kayaking, and snorkeling.

On the east coast of the island, trails connect all the beaches, so it is possible to walk from the main pier in the North to the tip of the island in the South. This means it’s easy to experience a number of beaches during your stay. If you want an easier option, you can take a songthaew (a Thai truck used for public transport) to most beaches, or explore the island’s mountains by hiking or motorbike.

Because of the pandemic, speed boats no longer have any access to beaches to drop tourists off. All boats must now go via the main pier in the North of the island and take a songthaew to the resort. Although this may slow the journey down slightly, it helps make Samet a more enjoyable experience. Previously, boats created a lot of noise, water pollution, and hazards for swimmers when they were reversed into the beaches. Without the boats, the beaches have become a lot more tranquil. The photo below shows Sai Kaew beach, the longest beach on the island, and the most developed in terms of tourism accommodations and restaurants. Prior to the pandemic, Sai Kaew was a noisy place, dozens of boats would be moored along and several thousand tourists could be seen thronging the beach. The waters have now returned to pristine nature and the light-coloured sands are a much more peaceful place to relax.

Unfortunately, tourism and national parks are not always compatible, and inevitably there are conflicts and challenges. The number of visitors to the islands exceeds the island’s natural carrying capacity, meaning the resources available on the island can’t meet the needs of visitors. The images below show two manifestations of this. Firstly, the reservoir has recently been expanded, but even now most resorts still have to ship in water daily from the mainland to meet their needs. Secondly, the amount of waste has exceeded the ability of the local dump to support it sustainably. From the image on the right, you can see that trash is piling up, the two high-tech landfill pits were filled up quickly, now trash is dumped between them and is spilling over. Other waste is burned in an incinerator, which can produce toxic dioxins that are released into the surrounding environment.

It will be interesting in the coming years to see how Koh Samet will mitigate the challenges of sustainability and tourism, as it continues to attract more and more visitors each year.