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Tourists flee Thai islands as storm closes in

Khao Lak, Thailand

THAILAND cancelled flights to a popular tourist island, battened down beachside resorts and evacuated offshore oil rigs as the first tropical storm in nearly 30 years menaced its southern shores on Thursday.

Tropical storm Pabuk approached southern Thailand with winds of up to 65 kph, bringing high waves and gusty winds ahead of its expected landfall on Friday.

Bangkok Airways cancelled all flights to and from popular holiday destination Koh Samui, potentially stranding tourists.

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Media also reported that ferry services to and from the island were suspended.

The Thai Meteorological Department warned of heavy downpours and strong winds in several provinces, including those with popular island destinations such as Koh Samui, Phuket and Krabi.

Some hotel operators reported a few early checkouts and said they were prepared. "Since the morning we have prepared sand bunkers and we have barricaded glass windows. We have also prepared first aid kits, torches, water, food and fuel for the hotel's power generator," said Ampawan Taopheng, manager of Lub D Koh Samui on Chaweng Beach.

She added that other hotel operators had made similar preparations.

PTT Exploration and Production pcl also said that it had suspended operations at Bongkot and Erawan, two of the country's biggest gas fields in the Gulf of Thailand. "Our immediate and urgent task is to do everything in our power to ensure safety and wellbeing of staff," the company said.

Tens of thousands of tourists have already fled some of Thailand's most popular islands and resort areas as the storm closes in.

The islands of Koh Phangan and Koh Tao, packed with holiday-makers during the peak Christmas and New Year season, have emptied out since Wednesday as tourists squeeze onto ferries bound for the southern Thai mainland, with swimming banned and boats set to suspend services.

No official evacuation order has been given but tourists are leaving in droves, with those unable to book flights preparing to see out the storm on eerily deserted islands.

"I think the islands are almost empty... between 30,000 to 50,000 have left since the New Year's Eve countdown parties," Krikkrai Songthanee, Koh Phangan district chief, told AFP.

The acting mayor of Koh Tao, one of South-east Asia's finest diving spots, said that boats to Chumphon on the mainland were crammed with tourists, but several thousand guests were still on the island likely to brave the storm. "It's difficult to predict the severity of the storm so people should comply with authorities' recommendations."

On Koh Samui, a Russian man drowned on Wednesday after his family ignored warnings not to go into the sea.

The Similan National Park, home to pristine beaches and bays, has been closed until Saturday as a precaution as the storm bites hard into business during the peak season. REUTERS, AFP