Discover Thailand: Phuket

“It is better to travel well than to arrive.” Buddha

When it came to planning this year’s summer trip to Thailand I wanted to see more of this beautiful country as we had only previously visited Koh Samui back in 2009. My must do’s were Phuket and the Phi Phi Islands and the capital city, Bangkok before we headed to Samui for a wedding. I’m not going to lie, the other half was quite adamant shall we say that he didn’t want to visit Phuket after hearing so many negative things, I on the other hand like to make up my own mind. He got some positive endorsement from an old friend who now resides in Thailand (more about him in later Bangkok posts) so succumbed to my plans.  IMG_4765Unfortunately when I think about Phuket the first thing that springs to mind is the much publicised horrendous tragedy that engulfed and devastated the Island in 2004, the tsunami on Boxing Day (26th December) and the harrowing film The Impossible that portrays that story, I was keen to visit myself and make some positive memories. From the internet research that I did and trawling through endless booking.com hotel reviews I decided that I wanted to stay in one of the amazing beachside resorts and definetely not in the more lively or shall we say seedy Patong. Long story short due to time constraints we stayed in Patong (you can’t win them all), right in the heart of all the madness, a five star hotel tucked away in the street that features in the Small Luxury Hotels of the world, a smidgen of good in what I was assuming would be all bad.

Location, location, location was the best thing about this establishment (not so much the McDonalds next door), it gave us easy access to explore in our limited time frame, the hotel is actually part of the rebuild of Patong Beach post-tsunami. Alongside its sleazy party options Patong offers good dining choices from posh cliffside restaurants to more traditional Thai venues and street food. Massages were offered everywhere, there are also many shopping opportunities from cheap fake copies to authentic Thai merchandise and souvenirs, the beach itself was pretty clean and lined with vendors selling fresh coconuts.

What we did…….

The Phi Phi Islands – our main requirement of our stay in Phuket was to see the Phi Phi Islands and I organised a full day boat trip with Blue World Safaris in advance after a recommendation from Tripadvisor. The trip departed from nearby Chalong Pier and included a return pick-up from our hotel, lunch, snacks, drinks (alcoholic drinks extra charge), use of kayaks, snorkel and diving equipment (diving is at an additional cost) and a tender service to and from the beach stops. I can honestly say that Mike (fellow Brit) and his team were awesome, the trip was extremely well-organised and relaxed, everyone was attentive and the service was tip top.

The large comfortable catamaran provided a smooth ride with plenty of room for all passengers to relax in an indoor cabin, shaded seating area or open sunbathing spots on the bow and on the upper deck. Our first stop was alongside Honeymoon Island where a large pod of playful dolphins encircled the boat, friendly playful they swam alongside and in front of the boat, it was fantastic to watch and photograph.

We dropped anchor in the waters of a hidden cove on Ko Phi Phi Don known as Monkey Beach (Ao Ling) home to a colony of very cheeky Macaques. Some more aggressive than friendly especially if they think you have food, they might appear tame but they are most definitely wild animals with quite a sharp set of teeth. These monkey’s may look super cute, especially the babies but they have become are far too used to human visitors and are happy to pinch anything they can get their paws on, unguarded possessions whatever their shape or size will disappear and fast!

The furry thieves sit in the trees and vines that line the beach and wait for their opportunity to pounce, don’t run either as they chase you as we witnessed! The monkeys are not the only attraction at this picturesque cove with its rocky forest headland that sits under the largest mountain on the island, it’s also the perfect place for snorkelling atop its coral reef and great for kayaking too.

A hot buffet lunch was served onboard before we sped off to Viking Cave home to thousands of swallows and where locals scale the rocks that jut out over the sea via simple bamboo ladders to collect ingredients used for Chinese Bird’s Nest soup, no ropes or hard hats for these agile climbers. Koh Bida Nok was next for more snorkelling and scuba diving, colourful sea life aplenty here but glad I stayed on board (as if I ever even considered getting off) after lots of people had small jellyfish type stings, vinegar was administered which did the trick for those affected. We then cruised towards to our last stop of the tour through the Loh Sama channel between stunning steep green covered vertical cliffs that rise majestically out of the seabed.

Paradise personified is the best way to describe Maya Bay on Phi Phi Ley. Resurrected to its former beauty after the devastation of the tsunami this idyllic bay was the location of ‘The Beach’ movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio as well as many others over the years. A stunning stretch of white sand lined with brightly coloured long tail wooden fishing boats, amazing views of the Andaman sea and surrounding rock formations. Good visibility in the shallow water makes it another ideal snorkelling and kayaking spot for those who do, this rocky enclave was a great finale to a superb day.

I can thoroughly recommend Mike and Blue World Safaris, good communication from initial contact via e-mail, the hassle free booking process, online paypal deposit and the day itself was faultless and so enjoyable (click here for all the information and contact details).

Sightseeing, Culture and History – It was hard to top the fab first day exploring Phi Phi but time was precious and we needed to tick off the sites on my itinerary. Hiring a taxi driver for the day worked well except the stops at various outlets where he got a stamp for a supposed free car wash. First stop on the intensely hot day was the Big Buddha located on the peak of Mount Nagakerd overlooking Karon Bay. The immense statue is reached via a few steps is covered with Burmese jade marble which shimmered in the sun.

Visitors must be appropriately attired with knees and shoulders covered, the site is free to enter but hire of sarongs and scarves requires a minimal donation. The site is undergoing some renovations which is part of an ongoing restoration project since 2009. Visitors can purchase a marble tile to sign that is then affixed around the edge of the statue’s base. We bought a metal gold heart, duly signed it and hung it on the wire that surrounds the base of the statue (when in Rome and all that, the other half aka Mr Grumpy loves these types of touristy shenanigans as you can well imagine). The 360 degree panoramic views from the top were incredible with Phuket Town, Kata beach, Karon beach, Chalong Bay and the sea beyond were all visible from this vantage point.

As we descended the mountain we passed by lots of elephant camps and animal parks much to the other halfs disgust, he wouldn’t even get out to see a cute baby elephant having a shower as he feels it encourages animal exploitation. The culture fix continued at the nearby Chalong Temple (Wat Chalong) where the temperature had soared to unbearable, taking our shoes off to go inside was a challenge with the burning floors. Named as the most important out of twenty-nine Buddhist temples on the island, it extends over several stunning architectural and colourful buildings with various Buddha statues, wax works of monks and a strong aroma of burning incense.

Our final stop was Old Phuket Town which was a complete contrast to Patong and other places we had travelled through. Pretty much tourist free some of the streets such as Thalang were lined with beautiful colourful shop-houses (formerly businesses where the owner and family also lived) that now house quaint little shops and Western style coffee shops and cafes. These Sino-Portuguese buildings are offset by large modern graffiti on the sides of some of the walls, Phuket Town also has large Sino-Colonial mansions.

Treatments – Massages were cheap, fantastic and available everywhere, we tried the recommended beachside Onbeach Relax Massage parlour. Alongside the regular Traditional Thai massage, which the other half tried, where you wear loose clothing and the body is pressed, pulled, stretched and rocked into all sorts of positions (lots of groaning as he was physically manhandled and sat on) there were many types of aromatherapy and oil treatments as well as specific foot massages and facials.

I had a lady masseur for my full body massage with coconut oil and it was one of the best I have ever experienced leaving my skin silky smooth and hydrated. The large parlour had lots of different areas and we found ourselves upstairs on cute and brightly coloured individual beds with silk drapes. Overall a great experience that I would recommend and both full body treatments combined cost a ridiculously cheap 1000 THB (AED 100 or just under £20).

What we ate…….

A friend of ours has an apartment in Patong so we took his advice on where to eat, his recommendations confirmed as popular by Tripadvisor. The first night we went upmarket choosing the cliffside fine dining restaurant Baan Rim Pa, famed as Patong’s best establishment. An exquisite setting at the quiet end of raucous Patong Beach, the ambiance and food were equally as exquisite as were the views. A pianist tinkled away in the corner, a lady carved flowers in fruit while we enjoyed some cocktails, fine wines and local beer. The traditional Thai cuisine was flavoursome and perfectly presented, the extensive menu incorporated the flavours and ingredients from all four regions of Thailand with a special emphasis on local seafood. Impeccable service as you would expect from a venue of this calibre and reputation and well worth a visit if you are in the area, I would suggest sunset to get the best views.

As part of our sightseeing tour our taxi driver took us to a local restaurant frequented by Thai people, in fact we were the only non-Thai diners there. The other half selected his crabs from a bucket, swimming one minute and served on the plate the next. He also had a spicy Tom Yam seafood soup while I sipped a fresh pineapple juice, adventurous as always on the food front.

We enjoyed sundowners and light snacks on our hotel’s open air rooftop bar and restaurant, Surface. Delicious cocktails and amazing views across Patong beach watching the paragliders and the sun setting was an ideal last evening in Phuket.

The following night eldest son had arrived in Phuket so we all dined at another recommended eatery, Sea Hag which served traditional Thai cuisine and seafood in a more modest setting than Baan Rim Pa. Using local fresh produce Sea Hag offers a large menu as well as cocktails, local beers and wines. Good food that’s easy on the pocket, perfect for a good meal before a stroll down the notorious Bangla Road that’s filled with cheap open fronted bars and clubs, loud booming music and girls or is that boys, it is Thailand after all!

Where we stayed…….

As I already mentioned we stayed in the heart of Patong Beach at La Flora Resort, a small luxury boutique hotel located alongside the main beach (read more about that here).

Breathtaking scenery, tropical paradise beaches, stunning sunsets and an abundance of fresh coconuts sums up our Phuket trip. Warm and friendly people welcomed us at every turn, the massages were frequent and professional, the food rich and tasty, the nightlife vibrant and colourful, the shopping cheap and cheerful, all in all a perfect start to our Thailand adventure.IMG_4779All views are my own. Unless otherwise stated, all photos on this page © Jo Brett 2016. All rights reserved.

Read more about our trip to Thailand in my previous post In Pictures: A Postcard From Thailand