BANGKOK: Thailand cancelled flights to a popular tourist island, battened down beachside resorts and evacuated offshore oil rigs as the first tropical storm in nearly 30 years menaced its southern shores on Thursday (Jan 3).
Tropical storm Pabuk approached southern Thailand with winds of up to 65kph, threatening to batter the southern part of the kingdom with heavy rains, wind and 7m waves ahead of its expected landfall on Friday.
Bangkok Airways, which has a virtual monopoly on the air route to Koh Samui, cancelled all flights to and from the popular holiday destination, potentially stranding tourists. Media also reported that ferry services to and from the island were suspended.
Authorities prepared shelters for tourists who decided to wait out the storm or who could not secure seats on ferries for the mainland before services are suspended late Thursday.
Some hotel operators reported a few early checkouts and said they were prepared.
"Since the morning we have prepared sand bunkers and we have barricaded glass windows. We have also prepared first aid kits, torches, water, food and fuel for the hotel's power generator," said Ampawan Taopheng, manager of Lub D Koh Samui on Chaweng Beach.
She added that other hotel operators had made similar preparations.
PTT Exploration and Production Pcl also said it had suspended operations at Bongkot and Erawan, two of the country's biggest gas fields in the Gulf of Thailand.
"Our immediate and urgent task is to do everything in our power to ensure safety and well-being of staff," the company said.
STRONG CURRENT DROWNS MAN
On Wednesday, a Russian man drowned after his family ignored warnings not to go into the sea.
"A family of three went swimming but the strong current caught a 56-year-old man who drowned," Police Captain Boonnam Srinarat of Samui Police told AFP.
"Island officials announced the warning and put up the red 'danger' flags ... but maybe the family did not think the situation was that serious."
Pabuk was packing winds of 104kph but was unlikely to intensify into a full blown typhoon, according to forecasters.
"But we expect waves as high as 5m or 7m near the eye of the storm. Normally in the Gulf of Thailand there are only 2m-high waves," Phuwieng Prakammaintara, director general at the Thai Meteorological Department, told reporters.
"It's difficult to predict the severity of the storm so people should comply with authorities' recommendations."
No official evacuation order has been given but tens of thousands of tourists have fled the neighbouring islands of Koh Phangan and Koh Tao in a mass exodus ahead of the storm, officials said on Thursday.
The islands, hugely popular with holiday-makers especially during the peak Christmas and New Year season, have emptied out since Wednesday as tourists packed onto ferries bound for the southern Thai mainland, with swimming banned and boats set to suspend services.
"I think the islands are almost empty ... between 30,000 to 50,000 have left since the New Year's Eve countdown parties," Krikkrai Songthanee, Koh Phangnan district chief, told AFP.
The acting mayor of Koh Tao, one of Southeast Asia's finest diving spots, said boats to Chumphon on the mainland were crammed with tourists, but several thousand guests were still on the island likely to brave the storm.
Pabuk, which means a giant catfish in Lao, is also expected to dump heavy rain across the south, including tourist hotspots in the Andaman Sea such as Krabi and the southernmost provinces bordering Malaysia of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala.
The Similan islands, home to pristine beaches and bays in the Andaman sea, has been closed until Saturday as a precaution as the storm bites hard into business during the peak season.
"I was supposed to stay on a boat and dive all day tomorrow (Friday)," Annick Fleury, a 29-year-old tourist from Geneva told AFP in Khao Lak near Phuket.
"If I can go to Krabi, I'll try to get there tonight. Otherwise I'll have to book myself into a nice hotel and just wait for the storm to pass."
Thailand's economy is heavily reliant on tourism. The kingdom is expected to welcome a record 40 million people this year, many bound for its southern beaches and resorts.