How to Survive Phuket’s Rainy Season

2018-08-27T07:47:34+00:00 August 23rd, 2018|

Things to Be Careful of in the Rainy Season

There is a lot to be said for the rainy season in Phuket. In fact, if you don’t mind the additional humidity, it could be your favourite time of the year.

As either a visitor or a resident you might appreciate the fact that tourist numbers fall off, so the island becomes a little less crowded.  This translates to less traffic on the road, shorter queues at the supermarket, and fewer people on the beaches.

It’s even possible you may like the rain itself.

But low season also brings with it some lurking dangers (as well as some which are quite obvious). Flash floods are obviously more likely than forest fires, but there are a few other hidden hazards that may surprise you.

So by all means, please take note of the following, and take care not to spoil your holiday.

Phuket Beach Red Flag

Swimming When the Red Flag Is Flying

This is one of the obvious ones. It comes first on the list because, without fail, people still drown in the Andaman Sea every year during the low season.

If a red flag is flying on the beach, don’t go swimming.  It’s really as simple as that.  The rip currents can pull you under, and even the strongest of swimmers can fall prey.

It’s remarkable what films and television teach us to be wary of in tropical waters:  jelly fish, barracudas, shark attacks, etc.  But fewer than a dozen people worldwide die every year in the jaws of a shark.  The death toll as a result of ignoring rip currents, however, runs into the hundreds.

When waves strike a beach, that water must find a way back to the sea. If the water dissipates evenly along the shoreline, there is no problem. But the water will always seek the path of least resistance, so any uneven feature will channel it more quickly. A gap in a sandbar is the most common cause, and that faster-moving water becomes a rip current.

Rip currents are like a ferocious river within the sea flowing away from land. What makes them especially dangerous is that they can occur near the beach, in shallow water, where people feel safe.

Some reach speeds of up to 8 feet per second. Anyone or anything caught in that current will be swept away too. That includes people standing in shallower water. The strongest swimmer can’t fight against them. For weaker swimmers who panic, they are lethal!

Rainy season is especially dangerous. That’s not only because the waves are stronger, but because the rough seas distort the usual shape of the coastline.

Some beaches are more prone to rip currents than others. Kata and Karon beaches are renowned for the strong rip currents, but incidences also occur on other beaches in Phuket.

If, even after reading this, you still get caught in one, there’s one hard and fast rule:  Don’t Panic!  If you try to fight it and swim back to shore, you will remain in the rip current. Chances are you’ll be swept even out further out to sea.

Remember, it is usually only a narrow funnel of water which is pulling you. If you swim sideways – parallel to the coastline – you will leave the rip current.

Please note that rip currents won’t pull you the whole way to Sri Lanka, or even Africa.  When the funnel effect stops, so does the rip current, which is usually a short distance out to sea.

So if you are struggling to exit the current, just try to stay afloat.  The rip current will eventually stop, but you will face a longer swim back to the beach.  Just be sure to swim back on a different trajectory – away from the rip current.

Think that the odds are slim you can die from drowning in the sea? Think again. Drowning has claimed the lives of over 100 foreigners in Thailand in the last 5 years – 20 in Phuket alone. Many of those died because they ignored red flags.

Even if the sea does not look especially rough, the red flags are there for a reason.  Heed the warning!

 

Be Careful on the Roads

Traffic safety is another no-brainer.  Nevertheless, this little fact may shock you: Thailand has one of the highest death tolls in the world from road accidents.

Thailand is currently #2, behind only Libya, in the number of road fatalities each year per 100,000 inhabitants. On average, 80 people die every day on the roads in Thailand, and   tourists are not immune.

Things gets worse when the roads are wet, especially if you’re on a motorbike. So it shouldn’t take much persuasion for you to be extra careful during the rainy season.  It’s really quite simple:  the roads are extremely dangerous, and you need to ensure you don’t become another fatality statistic.

We have come to expect road tragedies here in Thailand, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to prevent them.  Nothing is as sad as seeing a whole family of foreigners driving around on a single moped. And with no helmets!

Our advice is plain and simple: do not ride a motorbike in Phuket.  We have seen even the most experienced bikers end up in either the hospital or the morgue.  Even if you know how to handle a bike, it doesn’t mean you can’t be involved in an accident.  One quarter of all accidents are caused by drink drivers, and you are extremely vulnerable riding on Phuket’s narrow roads.

You might be the best rider in the world, but that doesn’t stop someone else from crashing in to you. And the likelihood of that happening is far higher in the low season.

If you live on the island long enough, you’ll know countless people who die in road accidents. You’ll also drive past some pretty gruesome sights.  Young people, and the young at heart, sometimes think they are bullet proof. They thrive on adventure, and enjoy taking risks, but they don’t view renting a motorbike as either.

If you count yourself among those risk-takers you may be deaf to this plea, but is it really worth it?

Three quarters of all accidents in Thailand may involve motorcycles, but that doesn’t mean cars are always safe. In fact, the 25% involving motor cars are often lethal.

Many of the roads are narrow and winding, and even when it is dry, you can lose control. But when the blistering morning sunshine heats up the road, and the rain falls in the afternoon, you must exercise caution.

The overheated roads become covered in a thin sheen of water and oil, turning them into very slippery death traps.

Be especially careful over the mountain roads. The Chalong to Kata road and the Patong Hill heading east of Patong are both renowned for bad accidents. Both of these hills see multiple deaths every year, even when the roads are dry.

To a newcomer, the one rule of the road in Phuket seems to be “there are no rules”. People die regularly. As you drive around you will notice small shrines and spirit houses, paying tribute to the spirits of the dead.  The volume of offerings left at these shrines is a telling indicator of the number of dead motorists being remembered.

It is isn’t rocket science – be careful when you drive.  If you can afford a car, get a car.  But if you must rent a motorbike, then for goodness sake, as our resident radio DJ Jason Wilder loves to shout during his broadcasts: “Wear a helmet!!”

 Fresh Thai Food

Pay Attention to the Freshness of Food

If you enjoy nausea, stomach cramps, vomiting and frequent trips to the bathroom, then you may ignore this section.

If all of that sounds less than appealing, then by all means . . . read on.

Food poisoning is unfortunately common in Thailand, but easily avoidable. That fact is, if you are here long enough, and not consciously and carefully avoiding it, at some stage you will succumb.

Tourists are perhaps the most susceptible.  They are, after all, on holiday, and that usually means they are eating whatever they want. Alternatively, they arrive misinformed, and believe that tap water is potable, and all food is super fresh.

The rainy season is certainly the riskiest time because the restaurants do less business. They may not be selling out of their food stocks, but rather than throw it out, they continue to serve it.  Because Phuket is famous for seafood, you may encounter a dodgy prawn, cockle, mussel, oyster or bit of crab.

When things are quiet, make sure the restaurants you choose are in a busy area. Go where the crowds go. Restaurants with barely a customer will keep the fish for a few days, and it’s just not worth taking the risk. One way you can avoid this is to only eat at restaurants that have live fish in tanks.  You can select your dinner while it is still swimming.

Also, inspect the food close up to ensure it is fresh.  If you are eating fish, look it in the eye.  No, we are not saying you should have a staring contest with a dead fish. The eyes of a fresh fish look bright – almost alive – still bulging, with black pupils.  And the gills should still be bright pink.

Fish and shellfish are popular (and delicious), but they can be contaminated with either poisonous algae or bacteria.  Once the fish dies, which in most cases is shortly after being caught, the bacteria or algae proliferate and create toxins that are extremely poisonous to humans.

Unfortunately, many of these are “heat stable”. That means they remain just as deadly even when cooked properly.  Food poisoning from seafood is all too common, so you must make sure you are eating freshest seafood possible.

But bad seafood is not generally a problem in June, July or August. It’s when we head into the really rainy months of September and October when the island operates at minimal capacity that you need to watch out.

We’ve also had a particularly nasty bout of food poisoning from a yoghurt-like dish called Labneh in a Middle Eastern restaurant.  It had obviously sat around too long before it was served to our table.  The bacteria found in sour milk products could have been either E.coli or shigella.

Whichever one it was, that was an incredibly uncomfortable experience. It took injections and days of pain and severe nausea to get over it.

So you should try to avoid yoghurt-based foods in the quietest months of the low season as well. That said, the risks of food poisoning exist all year round. You can get food poisoning simply by food being contaminated by bacteria or viruses.

In some lower-end eating establishments you might succumb to food poisoning from poor hygiene. Occasionally restaurant owners have not been educated about washing their hands before preparing food.

Any manner of infection can get transferred from hands to the food, especially after a trip to the bathroom.  (Please note this is by no means an indictment of all street food or food stalls.  But you need to take care when selecting your lunch or dinner venue.)

Let us take a step back here and clarify what we are talking about when we say “food poisoning”.  You don’t have to be hospitalized or crawling to the toilet to have food poisoning. It might just be a case of “traveler’s diarrhea”, but even that is usually a mild form of food poisoning.

Bad bacteria can temporarily overpower your immune our systems. So when we ingest something “dodgy” our bodies react by trying to get rid of it as quickly as possible.

Vomiting and frequent trips to the bathroom are the body’s main methods for rapidly expunging anything unwanted. We usually get a raised temperature too, which helps to temper the activity of the bacteria.

A hospital visit is not always necessary, but if you feel like medical attention is required, then seek it out.

Scientists haven’t even begun to isolate the hundreds of different infectious agents that can upset our digestive systems.

Occasionally you’ll need antibiotics, and while we disagree with the overuse of antibiotics, it’s worth it to salvage your holiday.

Once you’ve taken your course of antibiotics, be sure to also buy some decent probiotics. You will need this to replenish the friendly bacteria in your system that antibiotics can harm or destroy.

If you only have a milder form of food poisoning then here are some tips to help you get over it as soon as possible:

  • Activated Charcoal, or the equivalent, has been used for millennia as a way of soaking up bacteria in the digestive system. Toxins bind to the charcoal, which assists in ridding them from the body. The absorption potential of a carbon tablet is quite remarkable. All pharmacies sell activated charcoal.
  • Depending on how you feel about pharmaceutical drugs, you may or may not want to take Imodium. But if that is what it takes to rescue the last few days of your holiday, you may want to consider it.
  • It might sound obvious, but you should avoid alcohol. We can almost guarantee that some food poisoning victims will carry on with the party at any costs. That’s probably a mistake.
  • Try to abstain from eating anything else, especially anything that could make you even sicker. Whatever is making you feel so poorly will itself feed off of whatever you eat.  Try to fast for a day to starve it out.
  • Drink lots of water. Also, buy some electrolytes (hydrating salts), which are sold in sachets from the local pharmacy. You’ll lose a lot of electrolytes from so many trips to the toilet and runny stools, and these need to be replaced.

In short, you don’t want a dodgy crustacean to ruin your holiday!  Food poisoning is far from a pleasant experience, so be extra diligent in the rainy season when buying food.

Mosquito Net

Be Aware of Dengue Fever

Mosquitoes breed in stagnant water, so it stands to reason that they don’t pose as great a threat during prolonged dry periods. This includes the Aedes mosquito, that little blighter responsible for spreading the dreaded dengue fever.

But when the rain comes, it accumulates in pots, puddles and in gutters.  This is a perfect environment for these little stripey-legged critters to breed in numbers. It should therefore come as no surprise that Dengue fever is very common in Phuket during the low season.

People often speak of dengue and malaria in the same breath, but they are carried by two different genera of mosquito.  Dengue is very common in Phuket, but cases of malaria are thankfully extremely rare.

Dengue fever does not have the same fatality rate as malaria, but an infection is extremely unpleasant.  If you contract dengue, however, a few days of your holiday will almost certainly be spent in hospital.

With so much rain falling in the South of Thailand during the low season, it is no surprise that Phuket has so many cases of dengue. As a percentage of population, Phuket currently has the highest rates of dengue infection in Thailand.

In fact, in the past year, the regions incorporating Phang Nga and Krabi are second and third on the list after Phuket. The fact that these three neighbouring provinces have the three highest rates of dengue in Thailand means you have to be on your guard.

But while it is common, dengue is easily avoidable if you take precautions.

And don’t think that only the very young and very old are susceptible to, or could die from dengue fever. Also, don’t make the mistake of thinking that it only affects local Thais. In April 2018, a 32 year old Russian national died in Phuket from dengue infection.

The local authorities do their best to educate people about the dangers of contracting dengue. But during Phuket’s persistent rainy season, there is often too much still water lying around, so this problem won’t go away.

If they become infected, people usually attribute their symptoms to a heavy cold or flu, so they don’t report it.  If you have a strong immune system, you can stay in bed for a week and get over it.  People can and do die, however, but the underreporting of dengue cases makes an accurate accounting of the numbers difficult.

The best advice is to use mosquito repellent when you are out for the evening.  Always check for “mozzies” in your room, and spray your room if necessary.

You should be aware that household insecticides may themselves be hazardous to your health. But if you are holiday, and want to avoid a trip to the hospital with dengue, spray your room.

It’s probably best to give it a thorough spray before you go out for your evening meal. That gives the airborne toxins in the spray a chance to dissipate before you go to sleep.

 Rainy Season Elements

Respect the Elements

We’ve written in other articles how much we enjoy everything about the rainy season (we even don’t mind the floods). But for unsuspecting tourists, this can be a scary, or even dangerous time of year.

The weather can occasionally be extreme, and it’s during the worst rains and storms that you encounter the biggest inconveniences.  Fallen electric poles or mudslides can block roads, and, especially along the coast, roads can wash out or develop sinkholes.  When poles fall over, and live power wires are lying around in all that water, stay well clear.  There is a very real threat of electrocution.

The south of Thailand can suffer from severe flooding and every few years, whole towns are under 3 feet of water. It is usually the result of river or stream bursting its banks, but in Phuket the sea plays a role. Flooding sometimes makes roads impassable, and flash floods can catch you unaware.

Concrete and brick buildings usually weather even the strongest storms, although the roofing is often ripped off or damaged. Less sturdy structures don’t fare as well.

We have known entire resorts with lovely wood and bamboo bungalows to simply disappear overnight in strong storms.

Floods can also disrupts travel plans.  Sometimes you are literally stranded because you can’t leave the area where you are staying.

As a natural phenomenon, lightning is beautiful, but you don’t want it striking you on the head. If you get caught outside and there is lightning nearby, you should try to find shelter somewhere dry immediately.  Be sure to stay away from anything metal, and do not consider a tree to be “shelter”.

If you’ve lived in Thailand awhile, and you’re perched on a mountain, you have likely experienced lightning striking your roof. It’s not regular occurrence, but it happens once or twice every rainy season.  It’s usually wise to unplug the TV and other electrical appliances until the lightning storm passes.

Sometimes direct strikes kill people. A couple of years ago, the Bangkok Post reported 1 woman, 18 cows and 4 pigs killed all in one night.  Hundreds of houses were damaged in the same storm.  That occurred in a Northern provinces, but there have still been deaths in Phuket. One man was recently killed by lightning while swimming, and lightning strikes have started fires in buildings, resulting in fatalities.

A direct hit typically injures a few dozen people each year in Thailand, around one third of whom are killed.

 

Beyond The Sea

We’ve already mentioned the hazards of swimming during low season. But the seas can be so rough that tour operators will sometimes encourage you not to take boat excursions.

The weather at sea is hard to predict.  If it changes suddenly you could find yourself out on a boat when all hell breaks loose.

Make sure you take plenty of Dramamine, and be prepared for a rough ride back to shore. Personally we wouldn’t go out on a boat in really rough weather. We’ve come close to tragedy a few times, and know that things can go horribly wrong. We’ve been rescued by Thai Royal Navy, come close to being smashed to smithereens against a jagged cliff, and nearly frozen to death on a catamaran.

While we experienced a few “near misses”, tragedy strikes every year.  In July of 2018, a tour boat carrying 105 people was hit by 5-metre (16-foot) waves off the coast of Phuket. Sadly, 47 people perished in the accident.

The dangers are real, and not to be underestimated. Be careful with boat trips in the low season, and expect the unexpected.

 

Creepy Crawlies to Watch Out For

There are poisonous snakes in Phuket, but since you probably know what they look like you also know how to avoid them.  There are also spiders, but you will not find anything as poisonous as a tarantula or black widow on the island.  We get scorpions in our garden but Thailand’s scorpions, although scary looking, don’t have fatal bites. Don’t get me wrong, the bite hurts like hell, but it is rarely known to kill.

There are all manner of tropical insects you will have never seen before, but they are by and large harmless.

The one you should fear is one you probably wouldn’t think to fear:  the giant centipede.

Depending on where you are, you have to be especially careful of these centipedes in the low season.   If you are staying in a jungle-type environment, or even a resort with lush gardens, then keep your eyes peeled.

All that rain not only brings them out of their hiding places, but they then go looking for somewhere drier.  They will try to sneak into your house, or your room. If they don’t make it that far, your shoes outside on the verandah or balcony might appeal to them.

A giant centipede is not to be mistaken for the gentle millipede. This is the roundish creature with the red legs that moves in a wave, then curls into a circle when threatened. Millipedes are pretty much harmless to humans, so please don’t hurt them.

These centipedes, on the other hand, are different monster altogether.  Not only can they bite you, but given the opportunity they almost certainly will. Their bite releases a toxic venom which doesn’t just hurt . . . it hurts a lot! The excruciating pain can last for an hour or more, and the swelling lasts for a few days. You might not die, but you’ll be in total agony.

A giant centipedes is a larger version of centipedes you find back in Europe, but with one distinct difference. That would be the large fangs protruding on either side of its head.

They can grow to be extremely large. In Rawai, in Southern Phuket, a group of villagers spotted a 50cm long centipede climbing a pam tree.  That’s a 20-inch long centipede!

They’re not all that big, but the big ones cannot be missed. It is the smaller ones that we worry about. They hide anywhere to escape the rain, and most bites come from not checking your shoes.

You’ll know when you have been bitten because it is so painful. The pain lasts a few days, and is usually accompanied by redness and severe swelling. If you are unlucky enough to experience a giant centipede’s bite, you should go to the hospital.

Before you think that the hospital is an overreaction, trust us, it’s not.  It is recommended you get a tetanus shot if you’re bitten by a giant centipede, and you could also be allergic to the venom. (And you can also get something for the pain.)

Children are especially susceptible to the venom.  So if one of your kids has been bitten, get them to the hospital as soon as you can.

 

Ticks

This warning is predominantly aimed at our four-legged friends, so possibly more applicable to residents than tourists.  That said, people can also get infections from ticks, so it pays to avoid getting sucked on by one.

As you get closer to the equator, it is virtually impossible to avoid ticks. Naturally, they love the warm humid climate of Phuket, particularly in the low season.

If you have dogs then you will be all too familiar with ticks. Unless you do your best to prevent them with purchases made at the local vet, our canine buddies are guaranteed to find a tick or two.

Ticks can infect people and animals because (like mosquitos) they suck our blood. That’s right . . . ticks are little vampires.  Dogs are especially susceptible, and tick-borne diseases kill dogs every year.

There are over a dozen different diseases known to be passed from ticks to human and animals. The most common one is Lyme disease, but for some reason that one is not common in Thailand.

But there have been a few cases over the years of humans being taken ill from ticks in Phuket.

In one case a baby was rushed to hospital in a distressed, restless state.  The doctors were in a quandary and could not figure out what was wrong with her. They eventually discovered that a tick had burrowed into her ear.

Ticks are technically arachnids (just like spiders) because they have 8 legs. Like leeches, they become considerably larger when they feed. A tick may be unnoticeable when it first latches on to you, but after a day or two of sucking your blood it is easy enough to spot, resembling an extremely large mole hanging off the skin.

Walking in long grass will increase your risk of exposure to ticks. They hang on to bits of grass and leaves with a couple of their legs, and just sit there waiting.  With their other legs outstretched, eventually a furry animal (or a human) comes by for them to grab hold of.

You’d think – in a random field – they could be waiting a long time to find a host. Well, they do.  Some soft tick species can survive for years without feeding at all. Many never find a host and so never even reach maturity.

Obviously enough of them do survive for their species to exist (and thrive), often attaching themselves to rodents and birds.

If they do manage to latch on to you, what happens next isn’t pleasant to think about. They cut into your skin, inject an anticoagulant, and insert their hypostome (their own little epidermal anchor).  Then they begin to gorge on their “all you can eat” blood buffet until they are stuffed.  And they really tuck in, generally ingesting up to ten times their body weight.

If you like to walking through fields or grass, or if you have a habit of stroking stray dogs, your chances of picking up a tick are much higher.  Of course, if you own dogs that frequently pick up their own ticks, your odds also increase.

If you live in Phuket, and you have dogs and/or small children, you should do what you can to treat any infestations that occur around your property.

If you have experienced a tick infestation (this author has), then you’ll know how easy it is for the entire garden and house to be infested and never know.  Very often you can find them climbing the walls, but if they have not fed they are hard to spot.  So pay extra special attention to the walls, cracks and cervices. It may even be worthwhile to invest in a magnifying glass.

There are plenty of products you can buy to rid your home of ticks.  And it is a paltry investment to safeguard your family and the family pets.

Nature Walks

The creepy crawlies and ticks are not the only things to watch out for if you venture into nature.  There is also the nature itself.

Phuket has a number of locations where you can take a jungle trek or hike to a waterfall.  And when the rains come, the terrain becomes treacherous.  These trails/paths are not necessarily closed off during inclement weather, and accidents do happen.

Sometimes it is only a sprained ankle, but a serious slip down a muddy hillside could lead to a broken leg or to the loss of life.  On one such muddy trek in the month of May, this author likely had his life saved by a thankfully strong and well-anchored tree root.  Walking a narrow and muddy path, with “outdoor hiking shoes”, the path gave way with a nothing between me and the bottom of a 50-foot ravine.  The root I grabbed ahold of held, but my heart was beating out of my chest for the next hour.

Caves pose a unique danger because they can be regular labyrinths – luring you in, while disguising the way out from whence you just came.  Caves on the seaside or near a source of water are especially dangerous.

The youth football team that found themselves trapped in the caves of Northern Thailand in 2018 will know this already. The cave looked very inviting so they all went in to look around.  When torrential rains started falling, the water level inside the cave rose dramatically, cutting them off from the exit.

The boys’ excursion into the cave highlights the fact that nature doesn’t play favorites, and whatever experience or expertise you think you have may not be enough.  While the 12 boys and their coach were miraculously rescued, an experienced Thai Navy SEAL died trying to take oxygen tanks to the trapped youngsters.

 

Conclusion

All in all, the low season can be a lot of fun.  Most of the time you won’t have anything more to endure than a leaky roof.

If you have respect for the elements and for nature, there is no reason you still cannot enjoy yourself.

And stay safe and healthy!