The pictures caught on their camera phones were not what they had been expecting to show off after a holiday in Koh Samui, one of Thailand’s most popular tourist destinations. Instead of golden beaches and romantic sunsets, stranded visitors were sharing photographs of flooded hotel lobbies and landslides.
Stephen Chun and Justin Smith, from the United States, showed me video footage of a taxi ride from their flooded hotel to local shops. “People were walking their mopeds and bikes through a metre of water,” Smith said. “You needed a pick-up truck more than a taxi.”
With confirmed seats on a flight to Bangkok, the pair were two of the lucky ones. On Thursday morning the standby queue at Koh Samui’s airport was snaking around the terminal. A week of torrential rain and strong winds has left at least 21 dead in the country’s southern region, and thousands of tourists are stranded after flights and ferry services were cancelled or disrupted. On Koh Samui there were power blackouts, fuel shortages, and increasing concerns about depleting food and water supplies.
Without mains electricity the Banyan Tree hotel had been operating on a generator for days and rationing supplies to guest rooms. “I have never seen conditions like this,” said Fredrick Arul, the hotel’s general manager. “Nor have my staff, some of whom have been unable to get to work.”
Andy and Catherine Browne, from the village of Crookham in Hampshire, had come to the hotel to celebrate Catherine’s birthday. “We had planned a banquet on the beach but it’s been cancelled nine nights in a row,“ Andy said. “I’ve been in a typhoon in Hong Kong and a hurricane in the US but I’ve never seen rain like this.”
Although there was severe flooding in Koh Samui as recently as November last year, wet weather in March and April is highly unseasonal.
“It is not what you expect when you come in the dry season,” said Lauren Allington, 23, on holiday with her boyfriend, James Marshall. “And we haven’t even had a phone call from our tour operator to tell us what’s going on,” he added.
A lack of information was the overwhelming complaint among stranded tourists. Michael Hancock, Bangkok’s British Embassy Consul who arrived on the island on Wednesday night, said they were trying to improve communication between the airport and passengers.
“The (display) screens are not working and airline staff are only holding up signs written in Biro,” he said. “They need a thick marker pen for a start.”
The British Embassy had set up a colourful stand inside the airport strewn in Union Jack flags and manned by six staff from Bangkok. Most people stopping by were only seeking advice or reassurances but Hancock said they had managed to find seats for a few desperate passengers, one with septic mosquito bites who needed hospital treatment and one family with a severely-handicapped son running out of medication.
As he explained the situation to me, a cheer went up in the terminal at the rumbling sound of an aircraft taking off. “I’ve not seen any signs of anger,” Hancock said cheerfully. “People are being very patient and understanding – and are resigned to wait.”
Latest Foreign Office (FCO) advice
The FCO is advising against all but essential travel to Koh Phangan and Koh Tao. Electricity and communication are disrupted in the provinces of Krabi, Nakhon Sri Thammarat, Surat Thani (including the islands of Koh Samui, Koh Phangan and Koh Tao), Phattalung, Chumphon, Trang and Satun. There is a continued risk of mudslides and flash flooding in these areas. Check with your airline or tour operator before you travel.
There are power cuts and food and water shortages in some parts of Koh Samui. Transport around the island is disrupted, and ferry services between the Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, Koh Tao and the mainland are not operating. Nakhon Sri Thammarat is currently closed.
See www.fco.gov.uk for more information