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What brought you to Koh Phangan?
Koh Phangan was my tourist holiday spot in the 90’s, then at the end of the 20th century I was unemployed so I emigrated here and opened my business, like in a dream. I slowly started to grow the business, with a friend I opened ‘Casanostra’ in 2002 then slowly grew more with my business ‘Fellini’, I have one in Haad Rin and one inSri Thanu, the one in Sri Thanu has been going for eight years now.
How have you seen Phangan change over the years?
What can I say, it’s changed. Before, the main place was Haad Rin, and when somebody said I’m going to open a business in Sri Thanu or Thong Sala I just laughed, but slowly the main place has moved from being Haad Rin.
For me it’s evolution as now we have some difference. Haad Rin now is busy with full moon for three days of the month, then Baan Tai to Thong Sala, is now the party place and full with long term residents and then my area,Sri Thanu which is known for its yoga places and for being relaxing. In Sri Thanu, at the beginning eight years ago, Agama Yoga was first and then it just started to grow and in the last three or four years it has exploded! In my opinion it is a bit overcrowded with this kind of thing.
A lof businesses unfortunately fail, maybe because there are less tourists or money etc but Sri Thanu is still lovely. It’s still a beautiful place with lovely beaches.
As a long time business owner, what are the differences for an expat opening a business here?
I would say don’t come here to open a business, come for a holiday, spend your money on a nice long holiday.
It’s a life of sacrifice now, maybe two percent of new businesses can be successful now, even my established businesses are slowing down, there is too much on offer. The money you have to invest will be better spent enjoying it. Living here is getting harder and harder, as "farangs", we have different lifestyle and expenses, visa’s etc.
I was lucky to open my business at the time but we also stay on the edge, if you don’t improve then competition arrives. I used to be one of the only restaurants in Sri Thanu, now there are dozens.
You must always improve your business. If somebody does want to open, then look for something that is missing, there are already enough restaurants for example.
So tell us how you got into photography?
I was a photographer when I was a kid in the 70’s and 80’s. People were fighting on the road in Europe when I was a teenager and I was dreaming to change the world, reporting with my black and white camera
So I had some money to spend and bought a nice camera and started again. I love nature so I started to do animals, birds and insects. Photographing birds is expensive as you need special lenses, macro lenses, a high end camera and a good pair of boots as you have to walk, walk, walk through fields. And you have to have a good eye for insects.
What attracted you to butterflies in particular?
I started to take pictures of all kinds of insect but butterflies are more photogenic and I just like them.
I asked a friend to identify them and he sent me to this group, in this group there are butterfly photographers and I saw what they did and said ‘wow’, I got caught by them and from then everything quickly grew. My knowledge grew and I was finding new species, they chose me as a photographer for rare species in Phangan so I was pushed to look for more special butterflies.
Tell us a little about the butterflies on Koh Phangan?
In the Samui, Phangan area there are three hundred and seventy different species recorded. There’s a guy on Samui who has lots of knowledge, so together with my photography we get an official record of species. It’s pretty important biodiversity for a small/medium island. Taiwan is a huge island and they have four hundred species! In Thailand all together there are one thousand two hundred species of butterfly.
Tell us about your butterfly tours…
At the end of last year people started to ask me to drive them, they said ‘I want to go where you go’.
So I started to drive people, first just friends then business customers. At the moment it’s mostly business people from southeast asia, rich Chinese people as they have expensive hobbies and it’s a very small sector. Mostly my customers are from Taiwan, Japan, Singapore and India but I hope soon to get more people from Europe and America. It is like this at the moment as travelling from Hong Kong or the south of Thailand or Chang Mai is easy.
I pick them up from the airport, book the hotel and everything, and drive with my car to the butterfly location, usually for a week. The north, Chang Mai and around the mountains are good spots and the south like Krabi and Surat Thani.
Is there anything us humans can do to help protect butterflies?
Butterflies are not so much in danger, some are rare and targeted by catchers who then sell them to dealers then they go to collectors. There is a huge wildlife market, not just in butterflies but all nature. This is the biggest problem along with deforestation.
So I show beautiful pictures of these butterflies to make people aware. Thailand is not so ahead with the knowledge of this, I have made a poster of the most important butterflies of Koh Phangan with two species on.
What do you enjoy about Phangan in your free time?
In the beginning I would enjoy the sea and beach of the east coast, I had a speed boat and would wander around. But after discovering butterflies I now like to go to the hills and forests, Koh Ra or Sramanora waterfall area is beautiful and Than Prawet waterfall as it is still wonderful primary forest with huge trees and you can still see wild animals there.
Actually this is the same road going to the airport, I am scared that if they finish they will cut the forest to make the road bigger.
You should go free in the forest but I’m not a kid anymore, so it’s a bit hard.
when I can, I take a ferry and go to the mainland as the island sometimes gets a bit small for me! But I still love Koh Phangan, it’s still a nice island, I hope they don’t build too much, the forest will always grow again if they don’t cut too much.
What do you hope for the future of your photography and businesses here?
With my business, I will continue to do my job with the Italian restaurants. It has been fifteen years and I hope to follow with fifteen more years.
My photography, I’m happy with this. My target is to photograph one thousand butterflies, there’s one thousand two hundred and fifty recorded.
You must find a target and my target is to collect them and get to one thousand. I’m at about seven hundred.
The ID’ing of species is not easy however. I have found some somewhere in the wild but you have to physically take the species with you for identification and I don’t like to take the butterflies with me. Most places I go to are national parks anyway so you can’t take them by law.
What would you say to budding photographers here on Koh Phangan?
Come with me and we can take pictures together, I am always looking for a companion as I go alone on the trails. We can share information and experience.
It is not dangerous in the mountains but it’s good to have a companion, you don’t necessarily have to photograph butterflies as trailing in the forest you see lots of things, beetles, bugs, birds, Koh Phangan is still wild, it should be more protected but it is still wild.