Surf’s Up: How This Khao Lak Club Rides The Waves To Serve The Local Community
Since last March, Khao Lak has been a ghost town, with the exception of a stretch of beach.
After vacant beach resorts and rows of closed restaurants in Bang La On and Bang Niang, Pakarang Beach is teeming with surfers. From dawn to dusk, tanned bodies glide over flowing water and green waves. A surf school rents longboards to beginners, who ride the swells or take photos for social media, and a lively beach bar supplies them, instructors and hangers drawn to Pakarang by the floating vibes.
With its steady swells, this small spit along 20 kilometers of almost uninterrupted beach has become an unexpected draw for domestic tourism, a hub of the latest Thailand lifestyle. But for the local community, the rapid rise of Thai surf culture could offer more than fun in the sun.
“The job opportunities here are really rubber, fishing, tourism or nothing – some do nothing at all,” says an American expat Matt blauer, 45, originally from Oregon and avid surfing enthusiast who has lived in Thailand since 2001, primarily doing development work along the country’s northern border with Myanmar. “I believe we can use surfing as a tool to empower people.”
In April, Blauer opened Salt surf club, cafe and surf school on Pakarang, opposite the popular Memories Beach Bar and Pakarang Surf School. More a social enterprise than a business, Salt Surf Club gives the young people of the region a chance to grow as individuals, not just to hone their surfing skills.
Alongside Blauer, his wife and their children, the club is run by teenagers from the local Moklan community, an indigenous group more commonly known as sea gypsies. Moklan surf freaks, all aged 12-18 , take orders, serve bowls of coffee and smoothie, and teach budding surfers how to ride the beginner-friendly waves of Khao Lak. Blauer believes that this job can improve their English, help them interact with people outside the community and, most importantly, keep them surfing.
âI try to keep the kids out of trouble,â he says, citing drug use and teenage pregnancy as some of the biggest obstacles young people face in secondary rural destinations like Khao Lak. . âFor most of the local population, parents don’t expect too much [of their kids]. Most barely passed high school themselves.
One of the Salt Surf Club employees, Pitcher “M” Natalay, 15, says surfing is already changing lives.
âMost of the kids in my house don’t really have the chance to dream big,â explains M. âThere are drugs, tobacco, alcohol. If I hadn’t been surfing, I probably wouldn’t have done anything right.
Put ghosts to rest
On Boxing Day 2004, a tsunami engulfed entire Khao Lak. Tourism has gradually recovered. An upscale resort was built from the rubble of destroyed hotels and uprooted trees, but the region’s underlying problems have gone largely unanswered.
Between 2005 and 2015, guest arrivals at registered accommodations in Phang-Nga province, where Khao Lak is located, quadrupled from 250,000 to nearly one million, according to data from consulting firm C9 Hotelworks and the Thai Ministry of Tourism and Sports. But this growth has been driven by international travel. By 2015, domestic arrivals had barely returned to 2004 figures as Thai tourists, perhaps frightened by spirits or fearing the might of the sea, stayed away. Without their attention, the local economy has failed to diversify.
Today, almost 17 years after the tsunami, many who were young when the seas rose – or, in the case of surfers like M, were not yet born – are looking beyond the ghosts of the past. Khao Lak. They also help create new opportunities.
According to a local businessman Pachara “Palm” Naripthaphan, 36, many Bangkok millennials are now based in Khao Lak. âI never thought this region would attract people from Bangkok,â he says. âThis is the first time I have seen urban-rural migration in Thailand.
Some have decided to overcome the pandemic by the beach, where they can surf between online meetings. Others have settled there semi-permanently, such as Srilak Kulnthomyotin, 43, director of the Area Management model agency based in Bangkok. Attracted by the gentle surf, open space and slower pace of life, she is now building a house in Khao Lak.
âI didn’t even know that surfing in Thailand existed until last year. [Now] I just don’t want Khao Lak to turn into Canggu, âshe says, referring to Bali’s hub for digital nomads.
Palm is an urban escapee himself. Coming from a family in southern Thailand but educated in Bangkok and the United States, Palm worked in politics until 2014, assisting officials in several government departments. (His father, Pichai, is the deputy leader of the opposition party Pheu Thai.) Last year, he moved his family to Khao Lak to be closer to his mother. Now he is playing an important role in the surf rebirth.
Seeing Blauer transporting kids to competitions in the back of his truck, Palm felt prompted to take action and asked how he could help. Soon after, he offered a vacant space: a vacant villa attached to the Grand South Sea Resort, the hotel his mother runs. âI’m lucky my mother supported me. Everyone [in business] think back per square meter, âsays Palm.
Now filled with surfboards and blond-wood tables, this once-empty villa attracts people like Srilak, who come to work, eat, or hang out after surfing the waves.
“The exhibition brings enlightenment”
Across Khao Lak, many hotels have closed and construction has come to a halt. As jobs disappeared, working-class communities came under increased pressure to put food on tables. Yet a blank slate, as devastating as it may be in the present moment, could benefit Khao Lak’s development in the long run.
âMost tourists come and go. They don’t see the growth, âsays Palm. The energy around surfing, however, is starting to transform the casual applicants and frequent flybacks. âPeople who try to surf and like it come back to get better,â Srilak says. And returning visitors could help Khao Lak develop a tourism industry that better serves all of its people.
According to Palm, surfers from Bangkok exchange ideas, languages ââand customs with local youth, making them active participants in the community. âThe exhibition brings enlightenment,â he says. Not to mention greater wealth. “The children [who work as surf instructors] can earn more in an hour than their parents in an entire day.
The former politician also sees the big picture, as well as the unique role Blauer plays in it.
âThere are still great inequalities here, of the language [fluency] to income, âhe explains. âSomeone like Matt, who is able to blend in with the local community and can engage with strangers as well – that makes a difference. The Moklan had never integrated like this before.
M, who started surfing just four years ago, is living proof of the possibilities these new opportunities present. It has won awards at events organized by the Thai Surfing Federation and it has expanded its network beyond Khao Lak. âMost of my friends are from Phuket,â he says. His excitement is so palpable that he already dreams of a future made for Roxy commercials. âI want to surf as long as possible. I want to be a pro, âhe admits.
Blauer, on the other hand, maintains a measured perspective, understanding that immediate returns are rare in development work.
In the future, he hopes to see one of the Salt Surf Club employees running the business – âEither my own kids or someone from the clubâ – and he says the goal is not to train people. professional surfers.
“Yes [these kids] you just have to get through high school without getting in trouble, âhe said,â we’re thrilled.
Additional reports by Veerabhatr Sriyananda
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