The operators are quite clear: they don’t want people walking down to the largest beach on Phuket that is untouched by development. They want them to pay for the boat ride from Patong Beach, and they don’t care about the legalities. Their livelihood, they say, is at stake.
An expatriate who preferred not to be named walked down to the beach with two other foreigners and two Thais on Sunday (February 16). As he reported to The Phuket News, they had no problem walking down the hill above the beach, ownership of which is claimed by a Phuket individual.
But when they got down to the bottom, they were faced with a new barbed wire fence. Standing on the other side of the fence were three Thai boat operators.
“They were standing there shouting ‘Go back! You can’t go onto the beach!’ All three had an aggressive posture and they didn’t want us there. They kept saying that we must go to Patong and take a boat from there.
“We were one metre from the sand,” he told The Phuket News.
“My friend is Thai and tried to bargain with them but nothing worked as we were clearly not wanted on ‘their beach’.”
The party thought the final few metres were public land but after 5-10 minutes of pointless arguing they gave up and headed back up the hill.
“At the top of the hill was the ‘land owner’s’ caretaker. He had no problem with us walking down through the land to get to the beach. He was a very nice, understanding Thai who knew about the longtail people and referred to them them as ‘boat mafia’.
“We felt sorry for him as it seemed he was under pressure from the longtail operators to keep people from using the foot path to gain access to Freedom Beach.
“It was clear that the boat people only want paying customers to go there on their transport [boats from Patong] and by no other means,” he added.
The Phuket News visited the beach on Friday (February 21). There are two paths down to the beach. One is closed with an ominous sign stating, “Tourist Warning! Be careful of the people who doesn’t own this land to collect the entry fee to Freedom Beach. This land is private property. Not allow to pass this land to the Freedom Beach. The invasion is criminal, any violation will be prosecuted according to the law.”
The other way to go down the beach, however, is still open, apart from the longtail guards at the very bottom.
On Friday morning, the longtail operators said, someone had come at 8:30 am and removed the barbed wire. No one seemed to know who these people were acting for, but the longtail operators were visibly offended.
The Phuket News called the person who claims to own the land but she refused to comment.
One of the boatmen said, “The land to the Freedom Beach in the past used to be overgrown, steep land that no one could walk through. As time passed, however, people built paths down the hill and started charging entry fees for people who wanted to go down that way.
In fact, the group who contacted The Phuket News about the path being wired off and guarded said that they were never asked for money before they walked down the path to the shore.
But whether there is a charge or not, the boatmen argue, “We lose revenue. We used to be the only way for people to get to the beach.”
The boat men, members of the Patong Longtail Boat Association, told The Phuket News that their ancestors had fished the waters off the island’s west coast for at least 100 years.
But as tourism developed and Patong boomed, wastewater draining from the swelling town polluted the waters and reduced fish catches to unsustainable levels.
So the boatmen had to switch to providing water taxi services for tourists. Now they fear that the only beach not accessible from the land – and therefore their main source of income – is going to be opened up to everybody because of “rich people” who have managed to grab the land opening paths and allowing tourists to walk down the beach.
The longtail boat operators believe that the land cannot and should not be owned by private individuals. One said, “We would like to see the beach and the hillside stay natural forever.”
They have a point; in May 2012 the Parliamentary Committee for Anti-Corruption and Misconduct ruled that a chanote deed for 65 rai of land bordering Freedom Beach had been issued “through illegal process” and petitioned the Land Department to rescind the deed, with the land reverting to public ownership.
Yet it appears that has not happened and the land still has an “owner”.
Big money is at stake. Two years ago the 65 rai was offered for sale at B60 million a rai, or about B4 billion for the lot.
This makes the boatmen resentful – and worried. They remain convinced that even if the land owners are rich enough not to bother about charging entry fees, the gatekeepers may see an opportunity for enhancing their own income.
“My ancestors were working here for a long, long time,” said one. “Now, investors come and take advantage from the entry fee business. So how will we eat now? You have to understand our point of view.”
The boat operators admitted that they know it’s wrong to block the path with barbed wire but pointed out that they carry passengers to the beach only from December to March – the high season.
From April to November the heavy seas of the southwest monsoon are too rough for them to set out to sea. In those months, they say, the “investors” can make money from fees charged for using the paths through their land.
Ironically, although the action of the boatmen is illegal, it may also be the only thing keeping the issue in the public eye and slowing an insidious land grab that could result in the one remaining large pristine beach on the island being blighted by development.