To be honest, we weren’t expecting a lot from Phuket – beaches and Australians, mostly. Pleasantly, however, we discovered that our expectations were based on one admittedly pretty narrow stereotype. And while stereotypes generally carry at least a kernel of truth within them, as is true here, it’s always nice to experience a far more complex reality and come away with a far more nuanced picture. That’s the rationale for travelling in the first place, surely?
In reality, if it weren’t for meeting friends from South Africa, we probably would have skipped Phuket entirely for an island on the east coast. I’m glad we didn’t, because Phuket, both island and province, as well as neighbouring Krabi province, has a lot to offer. Like I’ve concluded about Thailand in general, I can see why it is so popular and has been for so long.
In our eleven nights in the region, I feel like we got a pretty good feel for its extensive range of possibilities – even if we didn’t dash about trying to fit it all in – and it does feel like several weeks could quite easily slip by without you even realising.
There are, of course, its famed islands; you can day trip to some, spend endless days on others. Which leads to its equally famed beaches…so many, such choice; its gluttony for sand lovers.
There is The Great Outdoors. As you approach the region, dramatic karst hills start cracking through the landscape, and reasonably flat although lush surrounds transform into something rather more interesting. A range of outdoor adventures await.
And there is also history. Old Phuket town is a pure delight, and a great companion to Penang’s more famous Georgetown. As it turns out, there’s a lot more than pretty historic shophouses that link the two.
We started out in Krabi, which is really just a little fishing town. It’s cute though and acts as an easy launch off point for boats to and from the islands. The night market, per usual, was the liveliest nightspot and provided a couple of great feeds. A wander along the waterfront and a visit to Buddha at the town’s temple, and we were ready to move on.
We next ventured to the far more tourist-heavy Ao Nang for three nights; a simple shared songtaew ride away. This is where beach lyfe begins. It’s not paradisically pretty, but not a beach you’d kick out of bed either, to appropriate the phrase oddly. And the swimming was great: warm, refreshing, and enough tidal current to make it interesting.
The South African contingent arrived the next day, and the glorious reunion was had. With so much to catch up on, there was nothing else to do but take advantage of happy hours that run the length of the afternoon and get quietly and joyously sozzled on cheap – but pretty average, it has to be said – cocktails. We settled on Mai Tais being the most reliable choice!
The next day we headed off-beach for a little exploration of the countryside. We made a final mountain climb, up 1,200 stairs of many shapes and sizes, to the famous Tiger Cave Temple; the views from the top making every sweaty brow wipe all the worthwhile.
As well as that, we were exploring the forest and caves at the bottom when we got caught in a monsoonal downpour. There was nothing to do but wait it out, although in truth it only made the experience even more memorable. While waiting we stuck up a conversation, of sorts, with a monk. As best you can when there’s no mutually intelligible language between you anyway.
Afterwards, as reward for our efforts, we luxuriated the afternoon away with a long soak in thermal hot pools, both naturally formed and human assisted. The rain had kept people away, so we were gloriously alone at-times; our own little forest oasis.
On our last day together we caught a water taxi to the popular, stunningly dramatic Railay Beach, for an afternoon of tropics swimming hemmed in by karst cliffs. And pent up exasperation of five months witnessing the Instawhore hoards of the world finally exploded in our own satirical photo shoot, although I’m not sure those close by, who we were essentially openly mocking, got it. Oi vey…
Our final six days we headed onto Phuket island itself, although it’s so large it doesn’t necessarily feel like an island. We spent three days in old Phuket town, and the last three days lazing it out on Karon beach (with a side trip to neighbouring Kata beach). There, it was essentially a regimented beach-pool, beach-pool routine.
Phuket town, though, is a real charmer, similar to but smaller than Penang’s Georgetown. There are real links between the two, with Georgetown having acted as something of a blueprint as the tin mining centre came into being. English style architecture and administration were imported, there is the same history of Chinese migrants intermarrying with locals to create a fusion Baba Nonya culture, and existing Penangites were in fact drawn to the opportunities Phuket presented. So it’s no surprise they feel like sister cities.
Like Georgetown, it has the feel of a living museum, albeit here a little more artificially constructed for tourism’s insatiable appetite (the historic centre, at least; surrounding it is a very typical, rapidly expanding Thai city). But when it’s so pretty, and so charming, it’s hard to feel bothered by a little well meaning duplicity!
Plus, it has one huge bonus. The island has a lot of beaches. Blessedly, they are all linked to the old town via local style buses (it’s much harder, or more expensive, to hop between beaches). It’s very easy to simply base yourself in Phuket town and explore the beaches via day trips before moving out to one for some proper aqua time (choose your beach right, and that will include Barbie boys and girls, if you should so want that not-looking-at-anyone-in-particular-Patong).
Speaking of that cesspool of tourism’s barrel, I’ve got a story to tell you about our ‘day trip’ to Patong, but I’ll save it for its own post…