Guide to Safe Swimming in Bottle Beach

Bottle Beach is one of the best beaches on Koh Phangan. Not only is it stunning and surrounded by virgin rain forest, but also it is free of a coral reef off-shore meaning that it is great for swimming. However, it is always wise to respect the sea and not take chances even when swimming at Bottle Beach.

This month, February 2016, there was a tragedy on the next beach. The beach is Thong Nai Pan. It has very similar conditions to Bottle Beach in that it is set in a sheltered bay, has no nearby coral reef and has a very gradual drop off for those walking into the sea. These are conditions ideal for swimmers as well as those who like to paddle or even sit in the surf cooling off. Neither beach has coral in the sand. Both have few rocks on the ocean floor where swimmers would venture.

Normally, the only danger time for swimmers in Bottle Beach is the monsoon which usually occurs in November for 3 or so weeks. The sea remains a bit rough in early December and in late October. Typically there are long waves that break and push far up the beach.

When Not to Swim

However, there is the occasional storm in the Gulf of Thailand. During this time the waves come up very high, often to the edge of the beach front businesses. You can often spot hastily made sandbags lining the edge of restaurants hoping to keep the long fingers of the sea at bay.

This is when it is not safe to swim. Crucially look out for the red flag on the beach. This is put out to warn tourists to not swim. You can see an example of a red flag on the beach here.

While the Thais and Burmese working in the beach resorts will tell tourists not to venture into the waves, they won’t patrol the beach looking for less wise folk defying the no-swimming direction. After all they have work to do!

Even if you don’t see a red flag but the waves are coming a long way up the beach then don’t attempt to swim.

If in doubt then err on the side of caution – if no one is in the water it should be warning you to not be the exception.

Surfing and Body Boarding

There is nowhere in the Gulf of Thailand with the right conditions for surfing or proper body boarding. The only real ‘boarding’ available in Koh Phangan is wakeboarding and kiteboarding.

You will see in the shops in Koh Phangan cheap lightweight (and not strong) body boards for sale. These are fun to use when the sea is choppy but the red flag(s) are not out. You can get just in front of a breaking wave and the power of the soup surging forward will carry you half way up the beach. You can’t really get on top of a wave and expect to surf it properly. The same technique is enjoyable on rented kayaks – you struggle out, turn the boat and catch a wave that will propel you quickly onto the sand.

These activities are for people who can swim and who are not totally unfit as the waves can knock you over and keep you down for a few seconds.

Dangers for Swimmers

There is also a danger for swimmers who try to get beyond the wave line when the sea is rough. There are numerous under currents that can make it difficult to get back to shallow and safe water. It is important if this happens to not panic and conserve energy. Swim parallel to the beach and try to come in at another spot.

While it makes sense to call for help, it has to be remembered that Thais don’t provide professional life guard services. They will try their best to help but chances are they will be as limited as any other bystander to help.

Swimming Safely

The key to being safe is to know your limits and to continually assess the situation. If you feel tired come in. If you feel the sea pulling you out to deeper water then move closer to the shoreline. If you don’t see anybody else in the sea then ask yourself why?

Dangers in the Sea

boxjellyfish

It is not just the waves and rough seas that are dangerous. Watch out for jellyfish. Every now and again a box jellyfish floats into Bottle Beach Bay. It has a lethal sting. The box jellyfish is recognisable by its box shaped medusae (body) and long trailing tentacles.

The best protection against jellyfish stings are lycra suits. They are especially good for children as it cuts down on the need to continually top up sunscreen cover.

If you see someone bitten drag them out the sea immediately. Cover the sting wounds in liberal doses of vinegar and call for medical attention.

I have never heard about shark attacks in Koh Phangan. However, there are several species of shark present in the Gulf. Obviously the further out you swim from the shore the more likely you are to encounter bigger fish and potentially get in trouble.

The same is true of manta rays. They are common in the Gulf. While they would never consider humans prey, they can lash out with their tails or bite. Mantas don’t have stingers but their tails can pierce flesh. If accidentally caught by a manta staunch the wound and get as fast as possible to a hospital or medical centre.

Buddy System

Risk is managed much better in groups. Swim and play in the water with a friend. You can look out for each other, discuss conditions and if the worse came to the worse the one buddy can assist the other.

The buddy system has been proved essential for safety in the context of scuba diving. It is just as effective for casual swimmers and those keen to play in the sea.

Commonsense

People love talking about commonsense, especially about those who they perceive to be lacking in the quality. People who live in Europe won’t be familiar with many of the potential dangers that a tropical island has to offer. Rather than relying on some notion of innate wisdom to see you safely through your holiday spend a bit of time researching about your holiday destination whether it be Bottle Beach or Bolivia. And keep your ears open for any news fellow travellers might have.