Prida Chareonpak, 67, makes an improbable conservationist. Once the owner of a fleet of fishing boats, at the peak of his career Prida was plucking more than $20,000 worth of seafood a day from the Gulf of Thailand. When the fish supply started drying up, he had a change of heart.
“I could have gone overseas to catch fish, but I thought, ‘Why should I go? Why not try to restock the fish [in Koh Talu]?’” Prida said. A small island about 270 kilometres south of Bangkok, Koh Talu is known for its impressive reefs, which have provided a safe haven and spawning ground for pla tu, the ubiquitous mackerel, and other fish species for hundreds of years. One of the Kingdom’s handful of private islands, Koh Talu’s price tag was $1.3m in 1977, the year Prida started selling his fleet of 13 fishing vessels to buy the island.
A night at Koh Talu Island Resort will set visitors back between $200 and $550 nowadays.
With Koh Talu in one hand and a lot of determination in the other, he persuaded local authorities to declare the waters around the island a preservation zone. It was a moment that defined the beginning of his metamorphosis from fish slayer to fish saviour.
“We had to fight with big fishing boats that were trying to break the law, and with small local fishermen who were using dynamite to kill the fish,” Prida recalled. “It took a while.”
Nestled in safe waters, fish stocks and coral reefs gradually began to replenish at a time when waters in other parts along the coast were being decimated. In 1996, Prida’s eldest son recognised the tourism potential of the islands and built three bungalows on Talu’s Big Bay. A trickle of budget travellers made their way to the island, attracted by the $20 per night deal, which included accommodation, food and snorkelling. Sixteen years later, the resort has matured, and so have the prices. A night at Koh Talu Island Resort will set visitors back between $200 and $550 nowadays.
It’s a price that many are willing to pay. With Thailand attracting some 19 million tourists last year, much of the country’s coastline is suffering from the excesses of tourism.
Talu’s saved reefs are now becoming an alternative tourism destination and an increasingly popular stopover for tourists on their way to Thailand’s better-known attractions such as Phuket, the country’s most popular resort island situated about 600 kilometres south of the capital in the Andaman Sea.
“Most of our guests come straight to Bang Saphan from Bangkok, spend three nights here and then travel on to Phuket,” said Anirach Sunthathip, desk manager of the Hotel Coral Bangsaphan.
In keeping with its environment-friendly origins, Koh Talu Island Resort allows private dive boats to take tourists to two designated snorkelling spots on the reef around the island, but does not permit them to land.
“They are limited to two snorkelling spots, so if the reef is destroyed, it will only be in those areas,” Prida said
His battle to preserve the island’s environment has apparently shifted from fighting against fishermen to taking on dive boat operators and their passengers.
“The reef has improved a lot but now there are about 1,000 people visiting it every day,” Prida said. “For foreign tourists it is no big problem because they understand about conservation, but the Thai tourists wear life jackets, play loud music, step on the coral and want to take chunks of it home as souvenirs.
Looking out over his pride and joy, Prida has adopted a philosophical attitude to his ongoing struggle for the preservation of Koh Talu.
“We have to gradually teach people,” he said. “It may take 100 years, but we will eventually be able to rehabilitate this area.”