Like Godfather, like son
The latest clean-up of Bang Saen beach reveals the province's most powerful family isn't ready to give up its influence just yet
For Thai families, a summer weekend on Bang Saen beach is the ultimate traditional seaside getaway. Situated less than 30km from Pattaya, Bang Saen offers a peaceful environment for families wanting some quality time away from the buzzing nightlife, go-go bars and not-for-swimming waters its neighbouring resort town is known for.
Spotless sand: Saen Suk Municipality used to be plagued with complaints about Bang Saen beach, but that has changed since a clean-up drive by one of the members of the infamous Khunpluem clan.
Over the past few decades, Bang Saen has experienced relatively stable visitor numbers. It might not have had a big break like Hua Hin or a real-estate boom like Pattaya, but around 50,000 registered residents, plus another 50,000 students and staff from the beach-side Burapha University, keep its economy, which largely depends on tourism and hospitality, growing.
Bang Saen Mayor Narongchai Khunpluem, 38, has made it his mission to protect the area’s key source of income. Since November last year, his “Bang Saen clean-up” initiative has won him public applause and national headlines. The beach is tidy, the water is clearer, and visitors no longer face harassment from vendors or beach chair operators.
However, local businesses have responded differently to the clampdown. Many can’t help but compare the young mayor to his father, Somchai “Kamnan Poh” Khunpluem, who served in the same position almost 30 years ago.
Kamnan Poh, 79, is now being treated in Chon Buri Hospital under the guard of Corrections Department officers. He is serving 30 years in prison for plotting murder and corruption, after being captured in 2013 following nearly seven years on the run.
Known for his paternalistic style of ruling, many locals agree the “Don of the East” or “Godfather of Chon Buri” was more generous, lenient and intimate with them, compared to his son.
But, with the help of the military and the backing of martial law, Mr Narongchai believes his clean-up operation can succeed, as he strives to live up to the Khunpluem family name while adapting to the changing context of national and local politics.
“I don’t expect people to love me as much as they used to love my father. I already have a very valuable asset in my last name, so why waste the opportunity to transform Bang Saen, my home town?”
Family man: Bang Saen Mayor Narongchai Khunpluem, 38, is the son of the notorious ‘Kamnan Poh’.
BOTHER AT THE BEACH
Mr Narongchai’s office in Saen Suk Municipality used to be plagued with complaints from locals and tourists who visit the 2.6km stretch of sand that is Bang Saen beach.
About 1,500 registered business operators work on the seafront, including those who rent out beach chairs, run food stalls, offer massages and hire out boats, jet skis and bicycles.
Typical gripes would relate to harassment from deck chair operators, for example, with visitors complaining of being pressured to pay 30 baht a day for a chair, even when they had brought their own beach mats to sit on.
Many were also aggrieved at being forced to order overpriced seafood “specialties” from vendors linked with deck chair operators.
Last November, officials from Saen Suk Municipality and Chon Buri provincial administration teamed up with officers from the 14th Military Circle and Saen Suk police to put the Bang Saen clean-up into force.
Since then they have adjusted the areas set aside for deck chairs and sun bathing, regulated the part of the beach where vendors operate and introduced new waste management processes.
The main objective is to allow visitors to enjoy the beach however they like. To achieve this, three key “deck chair-free” areas have been designated, at Bang Saen circle, covering a 55m beachfront stretch, at Saen Shrine area covering a 153m sandy area, and at the other end of the beach, in front of the S2 hotel.
People can sit in these areas without being forced to take up a deck chair and are free to bring their own food and drinks.
WAVE OF NEW RULES
Deck chairs are traditionally organised into “locks”, the term referring to the area that each beach chair operator controls. Previously, locks comprised 70-80 chairs in an area 20-23m wide. But since the clean-up campaign, locks must be no larger than 19m wide.
New rules mean a one-metre gap must be left between each lock, to allow visitors a path down to the beach. Every two locks, a four-metre gap now provides a wider walkway, while an 18m gap has been instated for every 10 locks, to allow unobscured views of the scenery and make it easier to collect rubbish.
But business operators say the clean-up has resulted in losses to their meagre incomes. And they say new limits on food prices and the number of deck chairs permitted on the beach are worsening the effects of already-sluggish domestic consumption.
Bang Saen vendors are often locals who have been working in the area for generations. Their businesses have always relied on securing contracts with Saen Suk Municipality, so Mr Narongchai’s clean-up directly affects the relationship between the city and its residents.
Deck chair operators have been particularly dependent on securing long term contracts to work on the beach.
Mr Narongchai has changed the way that these contracts are awarded, convincing beach chair operators to take part in an annual draw to determine the location of their businesses.
The mayor said he wanted the operators to understand that contracts for the beach were not like permanent state concessions, which cannot be revised or change hands.
Peet, a 31-year-old deck chair operator, is the third generation of her family to work on the beach. She said the clean-up hasn’t harmed her business, though Mr Narongchai’s style of administration lacks the intimate connection that Kamnan Poh was renowned for.
“The contract is extended on an annual basis and each operator is permitted to run as many locks as they can,” she said. “The location of the locks is determined by the draw every December so the business relies on that. If the locks are near to a convenience store or the public bathrooms, they attract more customers.
“If a new operator comes in and cannot secure a contract because all the spots have been taken, he can buy one from an existing operator for five million baht per contract before registering with the municipality.
“This is the first time that businesses have been regulated with the help of the military. The rules are not as lenient as before but it’s alright.”
Peet now operates a 108-chair lock and is affiliated with 10 food vendors. Food sellers are only permitted to work with specific chair operators — a system devised to prevent conflict. During high season from April to May, Peet’s income can soar to 10,000 baht per day.
Sea through trees: Deck chair vendors on Bang Saen beach have been reorganised to allow unobscured views of the scenery and make it easier for municipal officials to collect rubbish.
THE COST OF CLEANING UP
But Pa Non, 57, is a long-time Bang Saen food vendor who said she had been losing money since the clean-up drive began. She had to follow her deck chair operator around 60m from her previous location to what she said is a less lucrative spot.
“My stall used to be near a convenience store, but now it’s further away. On a weekday, I used to earn up to 1,000 baht, with around 200-400 baht profit, plus 3,000-5,000 baht on weekends,” she said.
“My problem is that the regulations are very tough. The authorities are focusing on pleasing the visitors more than us vendors.
“The municipality has capped prices for food. For example, a spicy seafood salad must be priced between 100-120 baht, but I know my costs are higher than that so I sell it for 150 baht.
“If a municipality official finds out, I am fined 500 baht, or sometimes 1,000 baht. The rule is that if you receive three warnings or fines, your registration with the municipality will be annulled on your fourth offence, so it’s more difficult now than before.
“At first, I thought they were only going to regulate the beach chairs, I didn’t expect it to include me.”
CHILD’S PLAY: Mr Narongchai hopes more families will visit the beach following his clean-up drive.
GOING HIS OWN WAY
Mr Narongchai’s approach to the clean-up is based on regulations and standardisation — a direct departure from the “godfather” style used by his father in the old days.
The Khunpluem patriarch accumulated wealth and power from fishing trawler concessions and alcohol distribution in the ’60s and ’70s, before moving on to local politics, becoming Bang Saen Mayor in 1988.
Mr Narongchai acknowledged the clean-up would dent his popularity, but hopes the support of the military will mitigate this.
“I know I cannot do the clean-up of the beach without losing some of my political base,” he said.
“But there are 40,000 registered eligible voters in the municipality and 20% of votes can result in a win, plus I have never even had any competitors in my mayoral campaigns.”
Mr Narongchai started his political career as an appointed vice-mayor of Bang Saen in 2008, before being elected mayor in one-man races in 2010 and 2014.
In the digital age, his approach to making connections with locals is different.
He attended schools in Bangkok and abroad, which makes him an unfamiliar face at times in Bang Saen, and his physical presence on the beach and around town does not generate the huge levels of attention his father would have received.
However, Mr Narongchai personally answers complaints made by residents through social media. “I never aspired to be in this position,” he said. “It is more of an obligation. The context of my father’s time compared to mine is different.
“My father ruled the city like a father to a child. But people nowadays are different and social media has made complaints more common, compared to how complaints were unheard of in the old days.”
TURNING THE TIDE FOR GOOD
“I want to make this clean-up last. Organisations including the municipality, the provincial administration, environmental departments and the Marine Department are currently trying to set up a ‘super board’ of various representatives to carry on the task for as long as possible.”
The key to sustaining the Bang Saen clean-up will be to balance the interest of visitors and vendors.
“Ultimately, the clean-up will benefit more tourists and in the long-run that is a positive thing,” Mr Narongchai said.
“To rearrange the deck chair locks, for example, I had to convince old-time operators who got their contracts during my father’s tenure that having 70 chairs as opposed to 80 was not going to considerably affect their business, since people don’t usually fill up all the chairs anyway.
“Now the beach is cleaner and the vendors are not so aggressive, people tend to visit more, which means more demand for the tourism sector,” he added.
Still, the mayor has not completely shunned family connections. Mr Narongchai admits some long-standing beach operators who obtained “fixed locks” from his father are exempt from annual draws, meaning the location of their businesses is set, although they must operate within 19m-wide areas like the rest.
“Those people are the first generation of beach chair operators in Bang Saen. They know my father and they have fixed locks, which are special locks that do not have to move.”
BALANCING THE BOOKS
According to the Department of Tourism, there were roughly 1.8m visitors to Bang Saen in 2011 and 2012, of which 1.7m were Thai tourists who spend around 1,800-2,000 baht each on a daily basis.
In 2011, the city’s revenue stood at 6.9 billion baht, but this fell to 5.9 billion baht in 2012.
This is precisely why Mr Narongchai says the town must stop scaring off tourists with ill-mannered vendors and sub-standard hospitality services.
The Khunpluem family’s hospitality, real-estate and construction corporations manage most of the hotels in Bang Saen including the Bang Saen Beach Resort, the S2, Bang Saen Villa and The Tide. Mr Narongchai confirmed that family assets stand at an estimated 1.5 billion baht.
On a normal day the mayor’s chores include administrative duties, dealing with complaints from locals and coordinating work in the town between various agencies. And despite being less of a local celebrity than his father, his influential status as the youngest son of Kamnan Poh is made clear by residents.
On the day that Spectrum interviewed Mr Narongchai, people were lining up to meet him, not so much to talk about the running of the city, but to ask for help on family and personal matters.
He pointed to one of his visitors and said: “This one wants me to help put her child in school.” Asked how many people he or his family provided assistance for personally, he replied: “Many, many, and about everything, from issues to do with their children to problems with the police. At the moment, I even provide financial help to retired municipality officials. I spend my salary on buying rice for them every month, you know.”
Mr Narongchai explained that his father was dubbed a nak leng, or gangster. But he said the label was given to him because of his generosity. “My father accumulated his power on his own. A nak leng has to be generous. He helped everybody, which made him feared by everybody.” n