More Than Just Perfect Beaches
I hope you didn’t plan to come to Phuket, Thailand's largest island, just for the beach. Even so, this is to show you, it’s worth organizing a blended visit with beach and some sightseeing in it.
I can imagine your initial goal is to rest and enjoy the crystal clear water & white sand beach. Trust me, I had planned to stay more in the hotel but the fact that there were so many things to see and who knows when I’d travel this far to get another chance to see them won the debate against lying down. So basically I rested a few days and then started visiting around. Remember, the only beach is not your hotel’s, there is plenty more and it’s part of the plan to see them. The only difference is that it doesn’t get as relaxed; if you’re up for some rush and guaranteed satisfaction, keep on reading!
You need to make a choice in the beginning; do you prefer tranquility & luxury (Mai Khao, Surin, Nai Thon ideal for romantic getaway, honeymoon) and be away from the center (and perhaps face some transportation issues as your only option will be the taxi from the hotel with commissions) or are you okay with less and find it more convenient to have more options to food, activities, transportation and entertainment? With center, I don’t necessarily mean Patong, I preferred Kata for instance. Karon is also worth considering. Kamala and Bang Tao, populated by average numbers, are ideal for families. I’d advise the west coast as it has the perfect beaches surrounded by headlands & mountains, unless you want to feel the experience and live like a local, that’s when you’d pick the east coast with less facilities (just remember the water & sand won’t be as spectacular). Cape Panwa or Chalong are where the flavour of the east coast remains ‘Thai’ rather than ‘tourist’.
I tried avoiding the peak season (December to March) and took a chance on the less crowded yet monsoon season and guess what, I was lucky! Welcomed by a storm and showers at the airport, I was preparing myself to just reading books in the room, but turned out just the opposite J) I hadn’t done much research as my main purpose –yes, I admit- was to lie on the beach. But on the second day, the good life has gotten to be too much and the travel vibe called me on to go out there and explore. Patong was already on the checklist and I used it as a discovery to figure out what else I could do around Phuket. Talk to as many travel agencies as you can and try to have an idea of the prices and haggle with them. If you book more than one tour with the same travel agency, it’s the best excuse. Just be prepared to walk away, not all chase you. Remember you pay everything up front in cash and the resort travel agency or trying to substitute it on individual terms will almost always be more expensive. I picked two island and one city tours which I’ll be talking about in a moment.
Patong by day and by night are two different worlds. In daylight, along with the beach, restaurants, tons of tour agencies, Jungceylon (shopping mall) welcome you and to be honest it doesn’t look very charming. At night, busy streets, neon lights and chaotic atmosphere can be overwhelming for a newcomer, especially for someone who hasn’t been to a similar scene like Bangkok before.The bustling nightlife with beer bars, go go bars and night clubs is all centred around Soi Bangla (Bangla Road) and I’m afraid this isn’t where you read about it.
Phuket city tour was a pleasant cultural diversion from the sand and snorkeling and half day was enough. In fact, they had packed so many activities, some had to end up in speed light. Old Phuket Town got its share I’m afraid and it was difficult to get a glimpse of Sino Portuguese style buildings. But the rest was satisfactory. Below is the most famous sunset viewpoint, that is, if you can make it around sunset 😀 From Phuket’s southernmost point, Cape Promthep, you can see the beautiful coastal area around Naiharn Beach. The lighthouse, used to guide mariners sailing to Phuket from Malay, has a small nautical museum inside. This shrine is a Buddhists Altar and is surrounded by brass elephant statues and carvings which give the area a somewhat a traditional atmosphere.
Phuket’s major gem, cashew nut factory and honey farms were included in the itinerary (remember this was a half day tour :-p ). Even monkey & elephant trekking were on agenda but I don’t support the idea of animals being “worked” against their free will, so that and Fantasea (Vegas-style show) were out of my interest. I learnt later that elephants were set free after 60 years of hard work. And since it’s almost impossible to adapt, they spend the rest of their lives in rehab. So, why not visit one instead. I didn’t know at the time that there are tours where you can (pay to) volunteer to feed, bathe them or even scratch their backs. Well, now you know and make sure it’s a decent one like Phuket Elephant Sanctuary or Elephant Nature Park. You never know which celebrity you’ll come across besides; Leonardo DiCaprio, Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul, musician Goldie have already been.
Visible from the south of Phuket, the 45 meter tall, of white Burmese marble Big Buddha Statue is set upon the top of the tallest hill in Sakayamuni. Sitting on a marble podium crafted as a giant lotus flower, the rest of the site is yet to be completed. You get great panoramic views overlooking Phang Nga Bay and Andaman Sea.
No trip to Phuket is complete without an excursion to the spectacular Phi Phi islands. There are six; two of which are the main attractions. Phi Phi Lee is famous for Maya Bay, where they filmed Leonardo di Caprio’s movie, 'The Beach'. It is home to Phaya Naak, or Viking Cave with prehistoric cave paintings where they also collect the edible birds-nest for birds nest soup. Although uninhabited, plenty of tourists during day time may not give you the peace you were promised in the movie. Off season was no different. So they have another option; sleep aboard tours departing from Phi Phi Don. The idea is to step on the island after daily tours leave in the afternoon, spend the evening enjoying a bonfire and sleep over on boat by Maya Bay. One last chance to step on the island early in the morning. Sounds like a better option, I didn’t know at the time.
Ko Phi Phi was devastated by the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004, when nearly all of the island's infrastructure was wiped out. A swift redevelopment has taken place with extra care to preserve the island's stunning views.
I booked a tour by speedboat that included Phi Phi Lee with visits to Maya Beach, Loh Samah Bay and Viking Cave (i think ours missed Pileh Lagoon L), Phi Phi Don with Monkey Beach and lunch, and finally a stopover at Khai Nai island. Monkey Beach is located on the west coast of Phi Phi Don. It is simply a stunning 150m-long strip of white powdery sand fringed by emerald water, home to a colony of wild monkeys. Khai Nai was a bonus, another beautiful island where I could enjoy a drink but I wouldn’t recommend it for snorkeling. The shallow, fuzzy water and the tiny stones made it pretty difficult and I didn’t see much to be honest. I skipped Phang Nga Bay (home to James Bond Island.) as I’ve read there’s not much to see, you decide if it’s in your interest.
The lush green, soft sandy beaches, transparent, sparkling aquamarine waters kept on, on another tour this time to Coral island. As you can imagine this was a relaxing tour with no other stopovers. It's called coral for a reason, right; great opportunity to snorkel and discover the impressive coral reef. The island features two main beaches, Long Beach and Banana Beach. Banana Beach is within reach of a 15 minute walk from the eastern end of Long Beach leading through a jungle. It may not be ideal for the elderly but it was a pleasant walk for me even with slippers. The highlight of the trip, I should say, was Banana Beach for me. Enjoying the crystal-clear sea, along with a drink on a deck chair, your feet on pristine white sands under nodding palm trees... what else would one want; less crowd perhaps? Here yes, that’s what made the experience a whole.
By the way, the tours to islands are on or off depending on the weather, they are pretty careful about that. Same goes with sea; when it is rough, lifeguards only allow you to swim in a restricted area. Other watersports options include kayaking, sailing, surfing, kite surfing. If you’re around in December, watch out for The King’s Cup Regatta.
If you’re up for partying and happen to be there at full moon, the full moon party in Koh Phangan may be a good alternative. In the open-air nightclub, expect festival-like atmosphere, great music, fire shows and huge quantities of alcohol (your childhood bucket for sand serves as a glass here :-p). If you’re wondering where the sparkle and glow come from, it’s not the fireflies but the neon painted bodies and UV strip lights 😉
Don’t forget to:
- Try instant ice-cream rolls
- Have a massage, as much as you can 😀 My favourite was the foot massage
- Pay attention to butterflies in its heaven
- Have a mosquito spray (you can buy it from 7-11 stores, too, they are in fact very convenient for shopping)
- Have US dollars for exchange
What to watch out for:
- My biggest advice for Phuket is for you to exchange money all at once if possible. It was a hassle to have to exchange it a couple of times (as it sounds too much, I avoided exchanging bigger amounts) with offices not in the area, or out-of-office hours and worst, they don’t accept bills less than $100! On the last day, I just needed some for the cab drive but hey even the hotel didn’t help and their usual smile wasn’t as fun then. I had to ARGUE at the airport as I had seen smaller bills in their hands and witnessed they rejected other who didn’t resist. So, beware!
- You bargain for shopping and even transportation. The tuk tuks will cost you around the same as a taxi, so you might prefer an air-conditioned choice there.
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