Surfing in Thailand: Stoked in the Land of Smiles

This post is part of our Sea Hearts Recon series where we bring you the inside scope on surf destinations around the world.

Solving the Mystery: Is there Surf in Thailand?

The stage is set and everyone is down on the beach in surf threads.  Board shorts, Hawaiian shirts, and flip flops are the outfits de jour.  Converted-combis are pumping out cold pressed coffee, twenty-somethings sell surf suits and bikinis, and young boys whiz through the crowd on colorful Penny skateboards. The announcer calls everyone’s attention to the ocean as tiny ankle-biter waves lap at the shore.  I watch as two young boys run down to the water’s edge, surfboards in hand, and get ready to strap their leashes to their ankles.

But, I can’t help but ask, ‘where are the waves?’  Where is the swell for the rash-guard clad surfers waiting on the shore?  I gaze past the crowds and onto the calm seas at Patong Beach and that day, can’t help but ask, is there really surfing in Thailand?

anni_flynn_thai_surfer

In the coming days, I would see for myself that the answer is a resounding yes but at that moment in Patong I’d have to use my imagination.  Luckily, my mind surfing was assisted by the Thai National Surf Team who highlighted the surf demonstration.  The standout was a girl called Anni Flynn.  You could tell that Anni ripped on a surfboard despite the fact she had to be towed into the micro surf by a jet ski.  When she let go of the rope, she smashed the lip of a right-handed ripple in the shore break.  If you know anything about surfing, you know that completing maneuver in extremely small conditions can be as difficult as performing in the big stuff.  Anni and her teammates showed they had talent. 

I later learned that Anni was not only a junior champion for Asia but had recently won back-to-back World Flowboard Championships. When I caught up with Anni she explained that during the surf season, which lasts from June until the beginning of December, she finds plenty of waves around Phuket. Anni notes, “when it is really big on the island is when the monsoon hits.  When you see all the storms and all the rain is when the waves really pick up.  They’re not beautiful, the water is grey, they are tumbling everywhere but they have good form for us surfers." 

phuket_surf_fest

The waves at Patong may be hit or miss when I visited in early June, but Anni believes the best surf isn’t until July or August with her home beach being the pick of the surf spots.  When I ask her about where her favorite place to surf is she answers easily, “definitely, Kata. Kata is the main place where I go.  But if Kata is too small, I go to Kata Noi.  It’s a much smaller beach and so it picks up more swell.  But it’s not far, only a five minute drive.”  Of course, when the surf is microscopic, there’s always the Flow Rider in Patong to practice your cutbacks and turns.  Turns out the super-stoked young Thais are are finding ways to get in the water and ride their surf crafts almost everyday.

Khao Lak: A Learner’s Paradise

“If waves start getting bigger than 2 foot, everyone is like ‘get the kids out of the water,’” remarks my Thai traveling companion who is an adventure sports junkee and recently started surfing.  I wonder out loud if this a lingering mental effect of the Boxing Day tsunami that devastated this coast line and killed over 5,000 people back in 2004. Except for the very young, most of the Thai surfers I met during this trip were alive during the tsunami and were at least indirectly affected by its devastation.  

I asked Tah, owner of Pakarang Surf School and Monkey Dive Hostel in Khao Lak, whether the 2004 tsunami affected the development of surfing as sport in Thailand. “After 5 or 10 years, people started coming back to the beach.  Many of the kids here, they lost their family and many people are Moken people.  Matt, an expat American, started bringing all the kids from school and teaching them surfing and about the ocean after the tsunami.  So, now it’s better.  When they can surf they are proud to surf and they go to school and show other people and more people are coming to learn.”  

Photo: @tah_surferday

Photo: @tah_surferday

But surfing is still a relatively new phenomenon.  Despite wanting to surf since he was a child, Tah only learned to surf about six years ago.  "I think I was part of one of the first Thai groups to start surfing in this area. Many people were surfing in Patong and Phuket for the last ten years, but here was a hidden place.  You see the road coming here, it’s like a jungle.  No one believed that you could come here and surf.”  Tah remarks of Khao Lak.  In fact, Tah himself didn’t believe you could surf in his hometown until he was living in Australia and saw photographs of people surfing in Khao Lak.

Photo: @tah_surferday

Photo: @tah_surferday

But things have changed.  Just last year, Tah taught over 4,000 students from Bangkok and around the world to surf in Khao Lak’s gentle surf.  

I can see why wannabe surfers would flock to Khao Lak.  The beach resort community is located only 1.5 hours from the seedy shores of Patong but is a world away.  The Phang Nga region is noted for its many National Parks and abundant wildlife. The waves are gentle but more consistent than Phuket due to shadowing of the area by Sumatra.  Tah nails the reason so many Bangkokians are flocking to Khao Lak, "the beach is quiet, beautiful and easy."

When I finally get my surf suit on, I can hardly contain my excitement to finally get out in the lineup in Thailand.  I grab a board from the palm tree thatched sheds of Pakarang Surf School and run out to the sand.  Local kids rip on shortboards while older expats cruise on longboards in the small but punchy conditions.  The water is as warm as a bathtub.  All up there’s about 30 people in the water spread out down the beach.   Beyond the sand, seemingly out of place pine trees line the beach.  I pull into a glassy close out and feel the undeniable stoke that is calling all these Thais to learn to surf.

… 

phuket_surf_fest

Double Shakas and Smiles

“Everyone, do the shaka hands!" Beams the announcer at the opening ceremony of the Phuket Surf Festival where this story began.  Twenty-five Thai government agents, surfers, entrepreneurs, and tourism officials shake their outstretched pinky and thumb on stage while the surf-paparazzi let their shutters fly.  There are no waves but everyone is so happy.  The Land of Smiles lives up to its name.  

But these happy people have more to smile about the 6 inch waves on offer that day.  Thailand now boasts its own talented surf team, waves that lure tourists from around the world, and the momentum to change the general population's existing beliefs about surfing.  

The stars of the Thai Surf Team exhibiting the “shaka hands”

The stars of the Thai Surf Team exhibiting the “shaka hands”

So, what’s next for surfing in Thailand?  

Anni hopes that more and more girls get involved.   She says, “I want to see more girls.  I want to see the girls get out in the waves and have fun and not care about keeping their skin white so much.  Just wear sunscreen.  If you’re going to get dark skin, get it.  I just want to see surfing in Thailand grow so much bigger than it is with girls leading the charge!”  

Tah knows that his stomping grounds in Khao Lak will continue to bring the stoke of surfing into so many people’s lives.  But first he has some convincing to do, “actually, many Thai people don’t believe we can surf in Thailand.  They don’t understand surfing.” Slowly this is changing.  Tah is standing by to assist at his very professional surf school that will help both Thais and foreigners surf in Thailand and beyond.  “Many people improve themselves.  They go overseas and surf and see how great the waves are here in Thailand.”  

The bottom line is that if you’re looking for a fresh, refreshing surf scene in a country full of very happy people and excellent food, Thailand could be your place.  If you’re looking for a place to learn to surf or just ride some very user friendly waves, you’ve got to see Khao Lak.