While on a six-month stint traveling around Southeast Asia, I discovered a magical bay on a Thai island peopled by carefree hippies. As I was pining away for my rescue pup, Bobo, I noticed that the canines were just as blissed-out as the humans — so I set out to discover more about their unconventional doggy lifestyles.
Had Thien beach on Koh Phangnan island in southern Thailand is a haven for Westerners who have escaped the 9-to-5 rat race for a life of leisure, hedonism, healing, and community. The idyllic lifestyle is not just for humans: The dogs who live there have freedom Western pets can only dream about and pastoral care that most animals in Southeast Asia sadly lack.
The dogs are not confined to homes. They roam unrestricted around the beautiful bay, where turquoise sea meets sandy beach meets coconut grove meets jungle. They also wander uninhibited into the manmade landmarks of Had Thien: the restaurant of The Sanctuary resort, where they get petted and cooed at by tourists, and the Saturday dance parties at Guy’s Bar, where they dodge between the ravers, having just as much fun as the people.
Rather than being chosen by an “owner,” the dogs of Had Thien choose the humans they want to take care of them. Foxy, a sweet-natured bitch whose name is obvious from her orange-tinged coloring and delicate features, has had a series of humans since she arrived in the bay around five years ago.
Her current human is Daisy Kaye, a masseuse who lives and works in the Bay for most of the year. “I was sitting in the restaurant one day and Foxy was looking at me through the bars, and then she jumped up and sat on my lap,” says Daisy.
Lenka, Foxy’s previous carer, was about to leave, so Daisy asked her who would be looking after Foxy. “And immediately she said, ‘Oh my god, can you take her please please please?’ I said, ‘Well it looks like she’s already chosen me, so that’s totally fine.’ And then that was it. And we just hung out from that day on.”
Daisy is about to leave the island to escape the summer heat, and she believes that Foxy can tell. “Animals have a sixth sense about these things,” she says. “I went away just for one night and she attached herself to someone really strongly. She knows that I’m going so she’s preparing herself.”
Victoria von Gorski, another longtimer on the Bay, cares for a podgy seven-year-old Labrador-Poodle mix called Dodo. Others have told her that when she goes back to California for half the year, Dodo sits on the beach and pines.
It’s the same for Leo, a white shorthaired one-and-a-half-year-old, who is usually looked after by a Thai man called Lah. “When Lah left to go on vacation, Leo was depressed for like three days, but now he’s back to normal,” says Victoria. “And then when Lah comes back, Leo will be off-the-charts crazy excited.”
The dogs seem to adapt to non-lifetime pairings in the Bay. Mostly, you always see them smiling, especially Leo and his fluffy white-and-black sister Sparkle. “They play all day,” says Victoria. “They are super happy. They have no fear. They get fed pork bones from the restaurant. They get loads of attention from the tourists.”
But it’s not all a life of bliss for the dogs of the bay. Their lives are closer to how they would be in the wild, which includes pack-building and fights over territory.
Dodo was dealt a heavy knock to his confidence after his buddy died and he was injured in several serious fights over territory.
“When Dodo had a pack, he was a different dog,” says Victoria. “He was a lot more free. He was a lot more fun. He had a lot more confidence; he didn’t have a weight problem. He didn’t have any fear or hesitation to go to the beach. But after his friend died and he went from a dog who was always in a pack to a dog that had no pack and was being attacked by other dogs, he actually is scared to play now.”
There have been problems in Had Thien with too many dogs wandering in and fighting over territory and the female dogs. “New dogs come in and change the balance, just like new people come in and change the balance,” says Victoria. “Right now we’re at a really peaceful place with the dogs, because we have so few of them. When we have a pack here with a pecking order and it’s all functioning well, it keeps the other dogs off the bay.”
The dogs are also in harmony because the males and females have all been fixed. “Because this beach is predominantly Westerners, the dogs get looked after,” Victoria says. She also looks after the dogs to make sure they don’t fall prey to ticks, fleas, and heartworm. She also treats surface wounds — she has experience working in a wildlife center, so she knows basic veterinary care.
The dogs in Had Thien don’t live painless lives. They aren’t overprotected and they do sometimes get into scrapes. But perhaps if we could ask them, they would say that that is a price worth paying for their liberated lives. Foxy, Dodo, Leo, and Sparkle have the best of both worlds — the freedom of dogs in Asia with a loving community that cares for them.
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