Phuket, Thailand: The ubiquitous Thai hospitality welcomes you the minute you blissfully sink into the colorful first-class seat of a Thai International flight to Bangkok. The pampering by the super courteous cabin crew, supply of exotic fruits in tangy sweet syrup, and alluring cocktails prepare you for what is to come when you land in the verdant paradise: Thailand.
My brother & I experienced for the very first time the grandiosity of Bangkok’s world-famous Suvarnabhumi airport! Our first impression was that of unequivocal awe!
The size and scale were that of a mini-city with shopping areas, restaurants, etc. The jewel-toned & intricately carved Buddha statues and other mythical characters liberally standing guard all over the airport are museum quality. We were totally enchanted by their size, detailing, and workmanship.
As our destination in Thailand was Phuket, we boarded the next outgoing flight there.
Domestic travel is better served by local airlines that are reliable and light on the pocket. We purchased a ticket from the office within the airport and waited for about an hour in the spacious lounge.
This was quite an experience as we interacted with a group of backpackers. They were a friendly lot and excitedly shared details of the most affordable places to stay in Phuket and things to do in Thailand. We made quite a few friends there and the hour went by unnoticed.
Phuket airport is about an hour’s drive from the town where our hotel was located. They charged us USD 20 a night for two double beds, a clean bathroom, and a breakfast comprising eggs, tea, toast, and chicken hot dogs…not bad at all!
By three o’clock, we were ready to hit the world-famous Patong Beach.
The cab fare from Phuket Town to the happening Patong Beach was 700 Bhat one way so we decided wisely on renting a Honda City car (1200 Bhat for 24 hours). Feeling like two excited children left to their own devices, we, the middle-aged versions were in our element: the weather was sunny, cool refreshing winds were blowing and a new city seductively beckoned us to explore its thrills and chills.
Traversing around town, with an iPhone GPS and a map to guide is great fun, especially when you have the comfort of knowing that you simply cannot get lost on an island.
About the food: cheap food from local hawkers along the beach is far better than the expensive buffets in fancy restaurants. The freshly barbecued red snapper and shrimps, wok-fried rice, smoldering papaya salad, and tangy tom yam gong soup sold on the beach for a grand sum of 200 Bhat is almost enough for two. I can still recall the cornucopia of flavors complementing each other.
The long winding route from Phuket town to Patong beach is heavenly.
Patong is where the action is, so spending an entire day at the beach is a blissful option. You can take a dip in the blue-green waters, marvel at the huge ocean liners, partake in the beachside cuisine, paraglide or simply get on the jet skis guaranteeing adrenaline pumping & pulse-racing action. You can also take in a peaceful snooze in the multicolored deck chairs (two chairs with a shade: 150 Bhat rental) lined up on the white beach.
After suitable re-energizing, hop off to the market right across the road later in the day where shoddy copies of famous international brands like Nike, Hilfiger, Louis Vuitton, Prada etc. abound. It might put some people off these brands for good but the nightclubs, branded restaurants and cinema entertainment are options that have people thronging to this Island.
An almost 40minutes drive to the south of Phuket to Promethape Cape ensures the most glorious sunset one may ever witness in one’s lifetime. Imagine molten gold bursting from the heavens everywhere!
The drive is fantastic across the hills (imagine Nathiagalli) and through the bazaars (like Bohri Bazaar) minus Pakistani faces.
View aside, the drive alone is worth the effort.
The next morning we took Phan Nga Bay tour essentially meaning going to Khao Tapoo, commonly known as James Bond Island from Ao Por pier.
The lunch is included in it along with all-you-can-consume beverages the whole day. The speed boat ride is very exciting and you end up making lots of interesting friends. The lunch in the Koh Panyee island or Muslim Fisherman floating village was an interesting experience. The views are fantastic: turquoise green water, limestone hills jutting out vertically from the sea and white painted flotilla everywhere.
James Bond Island is pretty small and quite overrated though.
The place is good for visiting once, but there’s really nothing much to see except for the thrill of seeing the beach shown in a James Bond movie that came out some thirty-odd years ago!
The place is crowded with tourists, lots of souvenir shops that are ridiculously overpriced but you can take some photos and explore the labyrinthine caves. The drinks are three times the price so it is advisable to quench your thirst in the boat for free.
The most interesting segment is when everyone disembarks on a canoe, propelled by the sturdy locals to explore the caves.
Cave canoeing or Kayaking in Thai means exploring the caves in a canoe. The caves have interesting names like Bat cave, Mangrove cave, Mud cave, Ice Cream cave, etc., as told by our guide.
Canoeing inside them is quite an experience and some caves actually have coal drawings by lost-in-time civilizations. The lethal-looking stalactites and stalagmites are extremely dramatic and awe-inspiring!
About half a day was spent relaxing on the Naka Beach; this picture-perfect white sand beach with green-blue water and palm trees lined up throughout the beach is simply delightful. Hammocks abound and a quick nap is recommended. The usual jet skis are also available, but this beach is not as developed as Patong, which is actually quite good.
Coming back to Phuket atrociously tanned to spend the night, we decided to explore the sleepy Phuket Town.
Roaming around in a rented Moped (200 Bhat for 24 hours), we saw a shopping mall, the Central Festival Phuket. It is an air-conditioned mall on the outskirts of town and is regarded as the shopping hub of the island. There are about 120 outlets selling products ranging from silk to sushi, Levi’s to laptops, and books to barbecued seafood.
Hungry for a little retail therapy, we were glad to spend some time there. The Mall has some great restaurants, high-end shops on several floors and a great multi-screen cinema. For dinner, we tried Urban Food restaurant.
Urban Food is an International and Asian restaurant located in the courtyard. Run under the auspices of celebrated French management, this well-known eatery has an extensive menu that caters to discerning taste buds.
Being slightly adventurous, we decided to check out a couple of spicy Thai dishes without toning down the fire element… the wrong decision on our part. These were beyond spicy and we could not go beyond two bites. And it’s expensive!
The cinema at Central Festival was uber-luxe: delicate woodwork, rich mahogany panels, deluxe-sized seats, and velvet curtains. The screen size is humongous and picture clarity is ultra HD. We watched 47 Ronin and had a good time, even though the movie was not all that great.
The next day was dedicated to a grand tour to Phi Phi Island.
The tour bus came to pick us up just as we’re about to finish breakfast. This time we had decided to use the Ferry. The ride to the Port was slightly longer as we drove all across the Island. By the time our group reached the port, we realized that we were probably one of the last groups; all the best seats were already taken. However, we managed to grab two chairs at the end of the lower deck at sea level.
On the way to Phi Phi, the ferry dropped its anchor in the middle of the sea for scuba diving and snorkeling enthusiasts.
My brother decided to jump into the emerald-green waters while the paralyzing fear of Jaws & drowning got the better of me. I decided to stay put reciting all the holy verses I knew (the short ones) as I helplessly watched my adventure-seeking brother becoming a distant dot in the sea.
The death-defying activity, I was told was most relaxing for every diver. Apart from a splendid coral reef, untouched by the 2004 tsunami; the millions of harmless ‘Nemos’ my brother came in contact with were breathtakingly beautiful.
After a couple of minutes, we saw the famous Phi Phi Island in the distant horizon.
The pier was quite dull and commonplace. The restaurant we were told to go to for lunch belonged to an aging hotel that had seen better days! It badly needed renovation and refurbishment. The food was great though and they had the courtesy of refilling the plates, unlike the stingy and unsmiling hosts in the Muslim Village.
This time we had Tom Kai Kai, a delicious clear soup with squids, shrimps, and prawns. The flavor was starkly raw and gave a real kick to all the five basic taste sensations. The steamed rice was accompanied with chicken with cashew nuts, red & green curries, tiger prawns, sautéed vegetables & baked red snapper. Fantastic!
After lunch, we looked around for a place to spend the night. We spotted a small internet café, in one of the winding alleys behind the beach. My brother on the pretext of checking an urgent email slipped into the kiosk to seek budget accommodations. Meanwhile I tried to delicately extricate myself from the steely clutches of a self-appointed matronly guide.
Luckily, we noticed that the internet café also rents out rooms…on an hourly basis!
We looked at the room which was strictly functional, and signed the contract to stay there for 24 hours. For 1200 bhat, it was way too overpriced. The deciding factor was an operational flush in the loo so you can see how desperate we were by the end of it all. We dumped the baggage and after resting for a while, decided to explore the Island. It was almost evening.
Inside the Island, you can only walk and in about an hour the entire Island can be toured end-to-end. Kahani Khatam!
There are two beaches: one at the pier end where all the speedboats and ferries are anchored and the other one is at the other side of the Island where everyone hangs out.
This is where the world-notorious Full Moon party was scheduled that night.
The Full Moon party is a grand non-kosher masti of epic proportions and lasts till mid-day next. Since the party was a couple of hours away, we trekked to View Point along the tsunami evacuation route. ViewPoint is a good one-hour climb (one way) along with irregular steps to the highest point of the Island from where the view is absolutely breathtaking: you get to see both sides of the beach and the entire island. I cursed every minute of the painful climb, but the view was beyond anything I had ever seen. It was worth every laborious huff and puff.
The evening at the Phi Phi Beach was magical: thumping music, fire-breathing dancers, inexpensive and delicious barbecued seafood, acrobats, and fireworks. The full moon party is everything one can dream of and more. Toned bodies gyrating to salsa beats and thousands of European/American tourists having a great time. When you get tired, just lie down on the reclining chair or in the shallow waters and enjoy the full moon along with the music.
The next morning, we took the ferry to Krabi & from there a bus ride to Surat Thani which was a good 5 hours drive.
From Surat Thani, we took a speed boat to Koh Samui. By the time we reached Koh Samui, it was almost evening. As the speed boat approached the pier, the first thing that you notice is the color of sand. It is like white flour!
Koh Samui is as picturesque as you can imagine. Every corner is like a postcard!
We rented Honda City again for 1000 Bhat and with the help of the map and iPhone GPS app took to the road. A booking had been made in a hotel so we checked in and after a quick shower, stepped out to explore.
Crab is a seafood restaurant that is hard to miss with a huge red plastic crab on its roof. All the seafood can be viewed from the huge water tanks. We selected lobster, white tiger prawns, and squid for a barbecue platter and fish for the curry. Extremely economical, the food was heavenly. We did though ask them to keep the spiciness level down. After dinner, we drove around town and returned to the hotel.
After spending three glorious days in Koh Samui we grudgingly returned to the soiled grey cemetery that is Karachi.