I had already visited Bangkok — the capital of Thailand — twice, spending only a few hours in Pattaya. We did not have the pleasure of visiting any of the other islands at the time.
This time we zeroed down on just one island — Phuket.
Reaching Phuket from Delhi, India
We chose to travel by Thai airways known for its efficiency, but our flight was late by more than an hour that evening. But to be fair they more or less made up by the time we landed.
Landing at the Suvarnabhumi Airport at Bangkok, we made a beeline for the connecting flight to Phuket. The distance is 683 kms from Bangkok and the flight takes just over an hour. The country’s largest island, Phuket is part of the Southern provinces of Thailand located in the Andaman Sea. There are many other smaller islands in the Southern part of the country.
Since the visa-on-arrival is cheaper, we had decided to collect it at Bangkok airport as we had plenty of time to kill before catching the connecting flight. (Do pray that your flight is not delayed.)
Anybody planning on the visa-on-arrival adventure should remember to carry a few extra passport size photographs, since we goofed on that and had to shell out quite a few unnecessary Bahts to get some quickly.
Day 1: On the streets of Phuket
The hotel pickup service was at the airport and we were deposited efficiently at the Novotel Phuket Vintage Park. This is a 4-star hotel, located in the heart of Patong.
The room overlooked the pool area and there was greenery all around — serene and beautiful. I would have given anything to jump into the pool straightaway. But we decided to get a feel of the island first.
Since the main street was just a stone’s-throw away, we walked down the lively, brightly lit area, enjoying the fresh sea breeze. Stalls of freshly cut fruits and shops selling varieties of sea animals for consumption were predominant. These were interspersed with innumerable eating joints. Every second shop beckoned you to experience their unique Thai massage.
A consensus was reached—the tired ‘soles’ of the women needed the massage while the ‘souls’ of the men craved for one. We decided to stick to just the foot massage and keep a watchful eye on the men. Priced just at 200 Thai Baht (THB), which is approximately US$6, the ‘not-to-be-missed’ experience sealed the unanimous agreement of getting a massage every evening while we were on this blissful holiday.
Since my better half is a vegetarian, we zeroed down on a small but clean restaurant that served ‘paranthas’ (flatbread with vegetable stuffings) and curd. The owner, an Indian who had immigrated years ago, was delighted to hear us speak Hindi. We had been a little apprehensive that there would be a fishy smell all around, but not once did we experience such a thing in our entire trip.
The meal was reasonably priced and we were done in 1000 Baht (approx US$30).
Day 2: City Tour and FantaSea
After a sumptuous breakfast, we were lined up for a half-day city tour @ 900 Baht per person, through a travel agent. You must remember to carry your hats, sunglasses, camera, cash, wear light clothing and slather yourself with an overdose of sun tan if you want to enjoy the island. Phuket has a beautiful coastline and we soaked in the view of the clean sand and the blue Andaman sea as we drove past the Nai Harn beach to the Karon View Point. As Phuket is an island of hills, the road undulated through ups and downs of breathtaking views. This point is also known as the Kata View Point and is one of the most frequented, as it gives you an incredible, panoramic view of the three beaches of Kata Noi, Kata Yai and Karon. I could imagine how gorgeous a sunrise or a sunset would look from this point.
One can easily see the Big Buddha, towards the North East, sitting serenely, with his back to you.
We had to be wrenched out of our wonderment we had slipped into, or the next tour programmed would have been delayed. On the way, we stopped at an elephant trekking safari and enjoyed watching other tourists riding the elephants. It was already terribly hot at noon and we were not very keen on the ride, as we had experienced this several times in India. But we could see the other tourists enthralled by the experience, oblivious of the heat.
The next stop on the agenda was a visit to one of the Wats (Buddhist temples) — Wat Chalong. This is one of the most important Buddhist temples of Phuket and is dedicated to two monks, Luang Pho Chaem and Luang Pho Chuang who played a major role in the Chinese rebellion of 1876 and helped the injured with their knowledge of herbal medicine. A certain dress code is followed and women are required to cover their shoulders and wear clothing that covers them up to the knees. The peace that descends deep inside you if you sit there even for 10 minutes, meditating in its environs, has to be experienced to be believed.
We stopped briefly at an unexciting antique furniture and souvenir shop and then moved on to one of the famed gems factories — Wang Thalang Factory. We learned quite a bit about pearls and how they are produced. Bu the end of it we could tell the difference between fresh water and sea pearls and the different hues they came in. Soon we became the happy customers of some beautiful pearls. Do remember to bargain for a good price.
Back in our rooms, we had a few hours to unwind before a visit to the cultural theme park, FantaSea (meaning the ‘sea of fantasy’). This opens only in the evening but one can stay until late night. We drove along side scenic beaches and through hills to reach here. The entry is 1800 Baht per person which includes a buffet dinner.
The main attraction at FantaSea is the Thai Cultural show performed inside a 3000 seat theatre involving exquisitely made up, agile and accomplished actors along with trained elephants and some other animals.
The other main attraction was the theme buffet at their restaurant, Golden Kinnaree, where 4000 guests can be seated and the grandeur of the place, along with the variety of food items, leaves one blissfully satiated. The cultural show starts after dinner. No cameras, mobiles or eatables are allowed inside. The efficiency displayed by the staff involved in the safekeeping of the personal belongings of such a large number of visitors was commendable. Not a hiccup anywhere!
Inside the auditorium, you are literally transported into a magical and magnificent world of kingdoms and Thai culture based on exotic dance and songs. We loved every single moment we spent here. It was definitely worth every Baht.
Day 3: The James Bond Island tour
This was going to be the adventurous day of our trip. A day on the sea was on the cards. We got a great package at 2200 Baht per person, to visit a few islands around the Phang Nga Bay, which lies in the north-east of Phuket.
To really enjoy this trip one must wear shorts, comfortable flip-flops and carry sunshades & swim wear.
The van took us to the Royal Phuket Marina Pier, where we transferred to a motorboat moored to the pier. After a brief session of do’s and don’ts during the trip, the boat zipped over the water, leaving a white trail in its wake. Thrilled, we held on tight to the grab rails, loving the strong breeze on our face.
After about half hour of this exhilarating ride on the open sea, we reached Panak Island, in the Phang Nga bay. The boat was moored and we were helped off onto the soft sand in the water. There were huge limestone cliffs on one side and we were led wading waist deep, through the seawater, into a niche in the rocks. A tunnel led through the rocks into an open area on the island, completely surrounded by the mountainous rocky side. We gasped in wonder at nature’s beauty. We were all alone in a tiny jungle on an island and I had that Robinson Crusoe moment.
One could see the sky from the cove. The floor was sandy and huge roots of trees filled a better part of it. Half an hour of marveling at the wonders of nature and we were ushered back to the boat. We were on the sea again and soon reached the limestone mountainous rocks of Hong Island. A number of canoes were waiting to whisk us to another wonderland.
Not more than two people were allowed in a canoe and we were instructed to lie down while going through a passageway in the rocks, to a secret lagoon. For a moment, the thrill gave way to the beginnings of claustrophobia, as the narrow canoe veered its way through the narrow opening in the rocks. But the reassurance from the enthusiastic boatman at once put my apprehension at ease.
I would advocate this as a one-time experience, which should not to be missed if you are in Phuket. The limestone cliffs surrounding the lagoon are covered with greenery — serene, majestic and humbling. We went around the lagoon, listening to ‘silence’, just absorbed in the moment.
Lying on the small canoe, as we exited on to the vast empty sea in front of us, it reminded us of how insignificant we were in God’s world.
Lunch awaited us at the Floating Village at Panyee Island, in the middle of Phang Nga Bay. Such a set up can only be seen in South East Asia. The village is largely occupied by Muslim population which is self sufficient with its own market place and school. The narrow passageways that led through the village were quite well maintained.
Lunch was Thai cuisine and the vegetarians were served accordingly. No alcohol is permitted on this floating Muslim village.
From here we were whisked away to visit the breathtaking Khao Tapoo Island, more popularly called the James Bond Islands, since the film, “Man with the Golden Gun” was shot here. As one climbs up the rocky terrain on the island, you see the leaning rock, Khao Phing Kan, majestically towering in the middle of the sea.
An hour of relaxation on the beach of Lawa Island and we were ready to be transported back to the Royal Phuket Marina Pier.
The trip was worth every Baht, if not more.