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New red flags at Karon, but people still go swimming and die

Phuket Drownings: How Life Ebbs Away on Karon Beach

Wednesday, July 21, 2010
News Analysis

A LIFE is ebbing away, being swept out of its depth into the black zone. Two women stand by this bedside in Bangkok Hospital Phuket's Intensive Care Unit. They are both sobbing, crying large, mournful tears.

One woman is the man's partner of eight years. The other is a good friend.

Gheorghe Paulivc's chest moves, and his heart beats. The life support system gives him the appearance of being alive but both women know that Gheorge is brain-dead. So does the Thai lifeguard, dressed in yellow and red, who stands at the foot of the bed in the small room, between the two women.

It is only a matter of time before the life support system is to be switched off. Gheorge's brief, tragic holiday on Phuket will be over.

Then it will be a matter of deciding how to get him home: in a casket, or cremated, in an urn.

It's a decision that will be hard to make because his partner Gabriela Vassi, despite their eight-year friendship, has no official authority, and his family lives in a small village in Romania, a long journey from Thailand.

How does it happen that six friends enjoy their much-anticipated seaside holiday for 50 minutes, splashing and laughing, then a wave or two brings a calamity that changes all their lives forever? How does it happen that a tourist drowns on Phuket?

Karon beach has a growing international reputation as a long, lovely stretch of squeaky sand where too many tourists drown at this time of the year. Yet some resorts are still in denial, rejecting an obvious deficiency: that they must warn their guests about the potential dangers in the water.

Last night, Phuketwan called the Karon beachfront resort where the six friends had arrived on Monday night.

Were the six new guests warned about the dangers of swimming on Karon beach at this time of the year? ''They did not ask,'' the anonymous spokesman told Phuketwan. ''They ignored the red flags.''

But why does the resort not warn all guests when they check in that the beach can be dangerous at this time of the year?

''They did not ask,'' the spokesman said. ''It is the same at all resorts in Karon.''

That was his only answer, repeated several times. In the end, he slammed down the receiver.

The online site for this resort features an attractive sea, sky and beach panorama of Karon, a visual invitation for tourists to enjoy a ''summer'' holiday, any time of the year.

Local lifeguards are frustrated, undermanned and under equipped. They believe they are doing their best to protect swimmers along Karon's four-kilometre stretch of beach, but they say it is impossible without the help of everyone who wants the reputation of Karon to be that of a safe beach.

The lifeguards say they especially need the help of all Karon resorts to make sure tourists are aware of the risks, otherwise more deaths are inevitable.

And if there are more deaths, national travel alerts could soon follow, or the local authorities might even be forced to close the entire beach on danger days.

When the six friends arrived at the resort in darkness on Monday night, looking forward to a swim in the sea as soon as possible, one of them asked at reception as they checked in: ''Which way is the beach?''

They were told where the beach was - across the road, directly opposite the hotel. But that's all they were told. No warning about potential dangers, no account of the fate of other tourists who have ignored the red flags.

Given what happened the following morning, it is difficult not to conclude that had the six friends been told then all that they needed to know, Gheorghe Paulivc might still be alive tomorrow.

The resort spokesman was wrong - some Karon resorts do the right thing. They warn their guests. And it's time his resort and all the others began protecting Phuket's visitors - and Karon's reputation.
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Comments

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Well written article, thanks.

Posted by Lee on July 21, 2010 15:06

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very sad

Posted by sean on July 21, 2010 15:34

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Sadly this happens because nobody cares .
There seems to be total disregard for the life of tourists on all beaches . RIP

Posted by Lord Jim on July 21, 2010 15:41

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Well written it is. Too true, all resorts need to make the tourists aware I am sure its would not be difficult for the Phuket Tourism to translate an official warning leaflet into all the different languages and distribute to all the hotels and resorts
In Koh Chang, they have warning signs about rips in several languages along all the affected beaches, never seen any explaining about rips and what to do if you are caught up in them on any Phuket beaches

Posted by Michael on July 21, 2010 20:39

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Very good article. Now if we could only know the resort's name...that would be interesting!

Posted by DD on July 22, 2010 08:01

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And what to do then with those idiots who are warned but still choose to go swimming?

Posted by Antz Pantz on July 22, 2010 08:03

Editor Comment:

I don't regard people who are led to believe that Phuket is a year-round beach holiday destination as idiots. Mostly, they are not told the whole truth at the right time: on arrival at their resorts. Leave it until people are on the sand and desperate for a holiday swim, and some are bound to insist on going in. It's what they came to Phuket to do. Honesty at the right time would save lives.

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Even if it was translated in many languages would Romanian have made it on that list?
I work in a hotel on the sea and we do instruct guest when they check in, we have it on the welcome letter, we have a sign on the way to the beach and again another one EXPLAINING what the red flag is. Only in English which is why people are told when they check in not to swim. I still fear this is not enough.

Posted by Vfaye on July 22, 2010 11:35

Editor Comment:

One of this group of six Romanians understands English well. There is no excuse for not attempting to tell guests their lives could be in danger, especially when the resort is selling itself as being right on the beach.

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Hi! I am one of this group of friends. Me and my boyfriend wanted to go with them to this exotic place but we couldn't in that period. I am still shocked how tragic this trip ended and what happened with Gheorghe. He was such a measured person in everything he was doing.

I want to say that in a picture they made it was a red flag on the beach near the water but on that flag it was nothing written (like "dangerous no swimming")and also no sign on it.

I also didn't know that the reg flag signifies this. I know only blue flags' signification and these are the only ones I saw in the places I've been - sadly, now I know red flag signification. Also, almost all the persons in the group know english well; and usually, we romanians of this age had english as a mandatory language at school.

And by the way the name of the resort is Karon Princess Resort.

Hope the tourists that goes to Karon Beach will get the tip - of the dangerous and treacherous waves - so they will enjoy their dreamed overview and holiday.

Thank you!

Posted by cris on July 28, 2010 04:52

Editor Comment:

Thank you, Cris. We did not name the resort originally because we suspect there are many resorts in Karon that do not warn their guests. However, as you were almost in the group, you have the right to name it.

As you explain, there is confusion about flags. All of the resorts in the Karon region need to act to train their staff to educate all guests and offer warnings as a matter of course. Numbers of drownings are not huge, as some other reports suggest. But they are unnecessary and preventable, which is the important point. And the resorts must help the local lifeguards to try to prevent more tragedies. The red flags with 'dangerous' wording are probably new . . . a great idea, too late for your friend. Let's hope his death results in others being warned and saved by resorts at Karon.

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It is not that "no one cares." It is because for some reason, the people in charge feel that the news will adversely affect tourism. This myth needs to be dispelled. All a visitor needs is to be pointed in the direction of a safe beach during the monsoon season.
A note in each room, signage, flyers, whatever. People need to be informed. There will always be some that swim anyway. I have my own hard lesson learned, and I was strongly warned by my 400 baht-per-night guesthouse owner, not to swim at Karon. But, I made an informed choice. Just a very bad one.

Posted by Doretta on August 2, 2010 04:45

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I came across a very interesting old movie on the History Channel the other day called "Swimming to Cambodia." It is a one man show by a C-list actor named Spalding Gray. He revolutionised the one-man-show concept. The movie is his account of the time he visited SEA to take part in filming the movie "The Killing Fields" There is a section where he talks about nearly dying on Karon Beach. It's a very interesting movie especially if you live in SEA or Phuket. Spalding was known for airing his daemons publicly in his performances. Sadly his demons caught up to him in 2007 when he committed suicide.

Start at 5:00 for relevant sections on Karon. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LEL9m6qd1yQ

Posted by ScubaBuddha on August 2, 2010 19:08

Editor Comment:

I interviewed Spalding Gray many years ago. Amazing how lives intersect at different times. Spalding Gray (what a great name) would be intrigued. I wish he had that opportunity. Hope to catch his 'Swimming to Cambodia' monologue one day.

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Getting tourist informed is a good idea. Flyers in the hotel room might work.
It is essential to inform them what they are dealing with. A RIP CURRENT. And also how to react when they get caught by one. Because what they do, they try to fight the current. Sooner or later they are to tired, that's when they drown. My suggestion for all the hotels around Kata, Karon and elsewhere: sink every 50 meters some old concrete filled tires with a rope and a buoy on top where someone can hold on when he got dragged out. Because that's what you should do. Go with the flow. in the worst case you have to swim 25 meters to the next buoy. A stretch a 2 Km beach would require 40 buoys. I think the hotels can afford it. If it saves only one live it would be worth the effort.

Posted by Thinkabout on August 3, 2010 00:49

Editor Comment:

The idea of telling people to ''go with the flow'' is just right. Those who float and do not fight are going to survive. Trying to take the direct route back to the beach is the killer, as you say. The pressure eventually eases and people can then take their time to swim around the ''rip.''

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I sent a review to tripadvisor using PhuketWan as a reference guide. This is so that tourists may be able to gain better knowledge of Kata - Karon and west coast beaches and the dangers the sea is, during the low or monsoon season.
I wonder if they will have the uumph to actually put it on their site as a warning ? ? ?

Posted by Graham on August 3, 2010 13:09


Friday August 23, 2019
Horizon Karon Beach Resort & Spa

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