Thailand, hotel displaces village separating it from the sea with a wall

The village of Tonsai in Thailand was moved to make space for a hotel that never materialised. A wall, now covered in art, separates it from the beach. This is the story of what happened.

In 2014 the small village of Tonsai was relocated to make space for a new mega-resort commissioned by the Sheraton. After relocating the village the hotel chain proceeded to build a concrete wall around their land.  Tonsai is located on the coast of the Andaman Sea in the province of Krabi, in Thailand.  A town that used to sit facing the ocean was forcefully moved and now faces a concrete wall instead. Two years later the hotel-resort is still nowhere to be seen but the wall still stands.

The people of Tonsai could do nothing to prevent a local landowner from selling the area designated for the hotel two years ago, and nobody knows whether the Sheraton will finish what it started. There are hopeful rumours that when the hotel giant bought the land it had only seen pictures of the beach at high tide. Only when construction began did they realise that at low tide the beach is completely covered in sharp and jagged rocks, which potentially prompted them to cancel  construction!

Tonsai: the village, the wall, the beach

Tonsai isn’t an easy place to find. To get there from the Thai capital Bangkok you have to board at least one plane (or a twelve-hour bus), two minibuses and a long-tail boat that delivers you to the nearby village of Railay. Once in Railay you have to walk across the beach, through the jungle, across another Tonsai beach and then, finally, find the path that leads back into the jungle and towards the newly relocated village that once stood on the beach itself. One final detail, all of this can only be done with a low tide and calm seas.

rock climbing tonsai
Tonsai is one of Thailand’s top destinations for rock climbers © Getty Images

Walking upwards from Tonsai beach you may notice that this is a place of staggering beauty. The beach however, like many unkempt shorelines, is covered in rubbish washed up from the sea and, particular to Tonsai, the ruins of a village that is no longer there. Behind the beach is a patch of jungle encircled by the large concrete wall.

The wall follows you as you make your way from the beach towards the village. Tonsai once stood overlooking the sea, then it stood overlooking a bare concrete wall and now it stands facing the same wall, filled with depictions of art, irony and protest as both tourists and locals have been painting it from top to bottom.

Artwork on the Tonsai wall © Edoardo Bassetti

A new form of tourism

The area was first discovered by rock climbers almost thirty years ago and rockclimbers continue to flock here every year in the thousands. The only difference being that they now come equipped with stencils, spray paint and lots of creativity. The Tonsai wall has become a symbol of protest and rebellion, providing the canvas for innumerable works of art.

What will happen with the resort remains to be seen, but for now all we can do is sit back and appreciate how when barriers can’t be torn down then they can at least be decorated.

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