The Magic of Phuket, Thailand

I wrote this travel article shortly after arriving in Phuket, Thailand in September 2005, just 9 months after the December 2004 tsunami.  It was picked up by EscapeArtist, a popular travel website that at the time published a monthly magazine called Escape from America.

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When I first arrived in Thailand, I did not expect to fall in love. In fact, just the opposite was true. Driving into Bangkok for a three-day stopover on the way to Phuket Island, my first impression was one of shabby buildings, unsophisticated advertising billboards, and suffocating smog. In the superficial glance I was able to give it, (and through the lens of my Western cultural viewpoint), Bangkok looked like a tawdry imitation of what I had left behind.

Now, after just two weeks spent on Phuket Island, I find that Thailand has captured my heart. I am smitten with the grace of the people, the lush, tropical beauty, and the easy-going and peaceful nature of the place. I initially wondered if the friendliness of the Thai people was directed only at my tourist dollars. However, I soon met a young Canadian couple who live up north and teach English; they assured me that it is not. Thailand is called “The Land of Smiles” for very good reason.

I love the Hawaiian Islands and have long believed that no other tropical destination could ever measure up. However, as much as Phuket Island lacks the well-groomed polish of Hawaii, I nevertheless find myself seduced by its eclectic character. The juxtaposition of diametrically opposed elements is interesting, to say the least. In many of the Phuket beach towns, luxury resorts share shoreline and street space with small, modest businesses and local street vendors.

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As a little background knowledge for you, Phuket (pronounced Poo-ket) is both the largest island and the smallest province of Thailand. Those of you who followed the news about the tsunami last December are probably aware that the west coast of Phuket Island was one of the places affected. A large percentage of tourists who survived the event evacuated immediately. Future bookings for the high season, which had barely begun, also evaporated overnight. People on the island have coped with both economic and personal loss this past year. As an Australian expat recently told me, “Everyone I know in the Patong Beach community either lost or knows someone who lost a loved one to the tsunami.”

To keep things in perspective, Phuket Island did fare better than other areas of Thailand and the world. A recent article in the October 8-14, 2005 edition of the Phuket Gazette reports that of the total 290,000 worldwide fatalities incurred by the tsunami, there were 5,400 confirmed fatalities and 3,000 people reported missing in all of Thailand. Of those, 279 fatalities and 620 of the missing occurred in Phuket. Phuket Island was fortunate to be somewhat protected by the northernmost tip of Sumatra, which lay along the path of the westerly waves. The majority of destruction in Thailand occurred farther north, at Khao Lak National Park and the Takua Pa district, in the province of Phang Nga, and also on the Phi Phi Islands, southeast of Phuket.

Patong and Kamala were the two beaches on Phuket Island that sustained the most extensive damage. Large numbers of vehicles parked on Thawiwong Road, which runs right along the edge of Patong Beach, greatly exacerbated the damage there. Taxis, cars, tuk-tuks, and motorbikes were picked up and swept like small toys into the surrounding buildings and streets. Being the main tourist beach for those who love to shop, party, and generally be “where the action is”, Patong received the most immediate attention for clean up. According to the New York Times on January 5, 2005, (just ten days after the tsunami), 90% of hotel rooms in Patong were back in service, however occupancy was a very low 38%.

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Having spent time here, I can assure you that as much as there are still small pockets of reconstruction going on here and there, Phuket Island is a beautiful and desirable place to visit. My first few days on the island were spent exploring Patong Beach and buzzing up and down the west coast with my partner on a motorcycle. We found minimal and discreet renovating going on right along the beachfront at Patong; there was, however, more blatant evidence of construction north at Kamala Beach. By and large though, the island is in extremely good shape and people here are eager and prepared to welcome visitors.

High season in Phuket runs from November to April, and everyone is optimistic that the upcoming one will be good. My new friend Juergen, who has recently arrived back here for his annual respite from European winter, showed me around and excitedly pointed out new businesses that have sprung up since he left last March. They are indicative of a continuing tourism and real estate boom on Phuket Island. Since the 1980’s, tourism has developed into the main industry in Phuket, with the number of annual tourists increasing from 1/2 million per year to well over 4 million per year between 1987 and 2002 respectively. And, many feel that the cloud hanging over the island since December may well prove to have a silver lining; Phuket is now “on the map” as it never was before.

An American friend who is living at Kata Beach and who knows the island well made the recommendation to move south and spend some time there. And, as the “over the top” commercialism that is the earmark of Patong hospitality is not appealing to us, the invitation was a welcome one. Traveling south of Patong, the more beautiful tourist beaches quietly reveal themselves, namely Karon, Kata, Kata Noi, Naihan, Promthep Cape, and Rawai. Kata, the second most popular tourist beach after Patong, was fortunate to be somewhat protected from the tsunami waves by Pu Island. Sitting not too far offshore in the middle of the U-shape formed by Kata Beach, the smaller Pu parted the incoming waves and minimized some of the damage to its larger neighbor.

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Exploring around the south end beaches, we found Kata to be the most appealing as a place to stay put for awhile. Kata Beach is large yet intimate, as it is U-shaped and comfortably nestled into a gorgeous backdrop of jungle-canopied hills. These features, combined with its sparkling and clear turquoise water, make it a much more beautiful beach than Patong. There is also a diverse range of accommodation to choose from, and substantial shopping, restaurants, and bars without being overly commercialized. And, if you want to go north to Patong Beach for a dose of the high-energy nightlife there, it is a short 200 baht (USD $5) taxi ride away.

There is ample opportunity to interact with the Thai locals, and Thailand proves to be uncharted territory for me in many ways. The local market at Kata Beach is alive with foreign sights and smells, richly colorful and abundant with fresh fish, strange-looking, exotic fruit and vegetables, and heady, pungent spices. I walk through the market and mingle with the local community, delighting in the rich sensory input. The market stalls lack the antiseptic presentation I am accustomed to, and experiencing a culture that challenges my Western sensibilities is a valuable exercise.

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A small, cafe-style restaurant at the south end of Kata Beach has quickly become a favorite haunt to indulge in one of my greatest pleasures here: Thai food! It serves the best Pad Thai I have ever tasted, and this at the bargain price of 40 baht per plate. Right now (October 2005), 40 baht is equivalent to USD $1. With the exchange on the baht, foreign currency goes a long way in Thailand. The going rate for renting a small motorcycle for twenty-four hours is 150 baht (USD $3.75) and a one-hour Thai massage is 250 baht (USD $6.25). Bargaining is expected by the street vendors who sell souvenirs, clothing, and other goods and by the independent taxi drivers. The customary rule of thumb is to offer half the quoted price and dicker from there; be sure to establish your price upfront.

Living here is inexpensive and easy-going, and with fewer than usual tourists at the moment, we have been delightfully surprised to find resorts offering additional discounts to the already bargain low season prices. As you know, when you are booking a trip to a destination for the first time, choosing accommodation on the Internet or from a travel guide can be a real shot in the dark. In Phuket there is a wide variety and price range to choose from, from modest single rooms and bungalows right up to luxury resorts.

It is absolutely impossible to be bored on Phuket Island; there is an almost endless list of things to do. For those who are weary of the workaday grind and are simply craving rest and relaxation, this is a great place to find it. Comfy lounge chairs protected by large, colorful sun umbrellas line the outer edge of Kata and other main tourist beaches; they’re perfect for laying back and snoozing, or contemplating the gorgeous scenery and sipping a long, cool drink. The chairs are owned by local vendors and you can rent one for a paltry 100 baht for the whole day. No dragging around a lot of equipment to enjoy the beaches here; you just show up and enjoy. Massage facilities are also rampant in Phuket, so there is absolutely no excuse for feeling stressed out!

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Water activities include (of course) swimming and snorkeling, as well as surfing, parasailing, and jet skiing. With direct access to some of the most beautiful dive sites in Thailand, such as the Similan Islands, Racha Yai and Rach Noi, Phuket Island is recognized as a preferred base for a diving holiday. There are also numerous companies on-island offering PADI dive courses for every level from beginner to advanced. The outlying Phi Phi Islands and archipelagoes not only feature absolutely stunning scenery, they also offer diverse opportunity to snorkel and explore the abundant marine life. There are many full day and half day island hopper tours launching from Phuket Island.

As far as land excursions go, there are Buddhist temples to visit, horseback riding, a butterfly aviary, a Thai village with traditional dancers, and the list goes on. There are also loads of little shops to scour if you like shopping; they are crammed with everything from practical wares such as clothing to Thai silk and other exotic items. There are many convenience stores in the beach towns; however, if you feel the need to do more “serious” shopping, there are several large department stores and malls in nearby Phuket Town (the capital of Phuket province). It is just 20 minutes away by taxi (250 baht, more or less, depending on your bargaining capabilities), or a little longer by bus (set price, 25 baht).

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My most exotic, albeit bizarre, experience here so far has undoubtedly been my visit to the Vegetarian Festival in Phuket Town, which took place this year between October 2nd and the 11th. This annual event on the first nine days of the ninth lunar month dates back to the year 1825. History has it that a traveling troupe of Chinese performers visiting Phuket came down with a serious outbreak of malaria. They used a strict vegetarian diet and ritualistic ceremonies to purge the malady. The apparent success of this regimen encouraged the locals to adopt it as an annual ceremony of purification.

Many Thai people observe the nine days of the festival by wearing white and abstaining from meat, alcohol, or sexual relations. This is practiced particularly in Phuket and Trang, southern areas of Thailand. I visited the festival on October 9th and witnessed the more astonishing side of this festival at the Jui Tui shrine. A small minority of devotees within the general population called “Ma Song” (entranced horses), perform a traditional acts of self-mutilation, intended to bring good luck to the community by shifting evil from other individuals onto themselves. Ma Song are mainly male, however, there are a few female devotees to the tradition.

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Respectful onlookers are allowed into the open courtyard in front of the temple, as the Ma Song parade in from another ceremonial area. Their faces are punctured in one cheek (sometimes both) with skewering devices ranging in size from small thin metal rods or knives up to very large objects. The most bizarre example I witnessed was a fellow who had pierced a large beach umbrella through his cheek. It therefore didn’t surprise me to later read an editorial in the Phuket Gazette. The article voiced current concern in the community that this ritual has become outlandish and competitive, overshadowing the general intent of the festival. I have to say that it is personally one of the more thought-provoking experiences I have had in my travels so far!

My visit to Phuket, Thailand has opened up a myriad of thoughts and feelings so complex it will take some time to sort it all out. However, there is a certain something about the place, an allure that is beguiling and defies explanation. Yesterday I sat in a Kata coffee shop, owned by an obviously content British expat who chatted me up as I sipped my java. “I love it here,” I said, “and I can’t exactly put my finger on why.” He just nodded and smiled, saying, “I know what you mean, and the more you come back, the deeper the hook goes.”

 

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“The Magic of Phuket, Thailand” © Susan L Hart
“The Magic of Phuket” was first published by EscapeArtist.com in their November 2005 issue of Escape from America magazine.