Phuket wants you backPHUKET ―Sitting under an umbrella on Karon Beach last week, I read “The Beach,” Alex Garland’s thriller about backpackers who find a truly deserted island. At one point, the narrator divides people into “tourists” and “travelers,” clearly showing contempt for the former. I decided then to officially declare myself a tourist.
I’m no princess; during my stay in Phuket, I didn’t wear makeup and usually looked like I had just rolled out of bed, with my rumpled long-sleeved shirts and raggedy hair. But my backpacking days are over. My backpack has wheels now.
When I’m on vacation, I want to eat well (preferably at places recommended by others), I want to see the major sights (also recommended by others), and I want to shop (no recommendations necessary). And if this means I earn the scorn of those “more native-than-thou” travelers, so be it.
This doesn’t mean, however, that I naturally seek out large crowds of tourists ― far from it, which is why I avoided Phuket when I first visited Thailand in 2000.
But this time, I found the perfect mix of touristy fun and quiet in Phuket, and I didn’t have to pay a huge sum to get on a private beach. Most businesses are up and running, but foreigners have been reluctant to return, leaving large swaths of clean, fine sand for the rest of us.
The bargain tour packages to Phuket clinched my decision to go, and with no effort on my part, I found a friend, Sunjung, to come with me. Lotte Tours was offering astoundingly cheap four-day, three-night packages from 300,000 won ($299), but they required you to go on the side trips they had planned, and all I wanted to do was sit on the beach and read. So we went with Thai Airways, which was offering three nights free at an upscale resort with the purchase of a round-trip ticket, for a total of 468,500 won per person.
The airline’s Web site had a list of participating resorts to choose from. We decided to go with the Thavorn Palm Beach Hotel on Karon Beach. It was a great choice. The hotel grounds, separated from Karon Beach by a two-lane road, are enormous, with five swimming pools and lots of orchids and palm trees. It felt very Thai, and I was glad we hadn’t chosen some international chain.
The hospitality was very Thai as well: Upon our arrival, staff greeted us with warm smiles and asked us to rest in a pavilion, where we were served a chilled glass of juice while they registered us.
Before leaving Korea, I’d printed out a copy of an Asian Wall Street Journal article on restaurants in Phuket that had been published before the tsunami. It mentioned a seafood place and a surprisingly good Finnish restaurant in the heart of tourist central, Patong Beach, which had sustained a great deal of damage from the tsunami (other parts of the island were relatively unscathed). We took the hotel’s shuttle to Patong Beach and found Patong Seafood, but it had been gutted.
We headed down a street with a lighted banner saying “Welcome to Patong,” passed all the grimy bars half-full of tourists and their temporary local girlfriends, and followed it to the end, where we found Midnight Sun. A few tables were full of Westerners, presumably Finnish.
As I checked my printout to see what was recommended here, a rotund man at the table across from us noticed and got up to see what I was looking at. When I told him it was from the Asian Wall Street Journal, he said that he had heard his restaurant had been mentioned in the paper. After I let him borrow it, he took it over to his table and shared it with his friends, then asked an employee to make a copy.
In the meantime, Sunjung and I devoured huge amounts of butter and cream and cheese and fried goodness. The salmon soup was as tasty as advertised, with chunks of salmon in a cream and butter broth. I also had Finnish meatballs with a side of garlic potatoes smothered in butter.
We had initially tried to order a vegetable dish as well, but the look of utter disbelief on the waitress’s face shamed us into backtracking. She was right, though. The dishes we had, plus the complimentary salad bar, were more than enough.
No dessert for us, but when the owner of the bar came over to return my printout, he brought over two shots of Jagermeister, which we happily accepted. As we chatted, he told us the water had risen 50 centimeters (20 inches) in his restaurant during the tsunami, causing relatively little damage. But Finnish tourists stayed away from Phuket. When I said it seemed business was picking up, he just shook his head.
The majority of the trip was spent either on Karon Beach (100 baht, or $2.60, to rent an umbrella and two chairs all day) or in the hotel’s pool, just like good tourists. With the beach as empty as it was and the sea as beautiful as it was, every moment away from the water seemed like a wasted one. Plus, the breeze from the ocean was the only thing that alleviated the heat, which rose to 34 degrees Celsius (93 F).
But we found time to eat, of course. Following another recommendation, we went to the elegant Baan Rim Pa on the north part of Patong Beach, perched on top of a cliff overlooking the ocean. It was our big splurge, $75 for two, but that included two cocktails each, soup, rice, two appetizers, two main plates and tea.
No beach vacation is complete without at least one boat ride, and the day trip to Phang Nga Bay to the north was the highlight of our stay. We used Sea Canoe, which offers guided kayak tours of the limestone cliffs that form lagoons, only accessible through underwater caves when the tide is just right.
After an hour’s drive north to the pier, we rode a motor boat to the first cave, or hong, where Sunjung and I got into an inflatable canoe, with our guide, J.J., in the back. When I asked him how business was, he said he had worked only 10 days since Dec. 26. Usually, he works almost every day during the high season.
It was a shame that he’d been sidelined, because he was excellent. His knowledge of the tides was impressive, as was his respect for nature. Before we entered the first hong, he asked us to not make noise so we wouldn’t disturb the animals.
We lay on our backs to fit through the extremely narrow, low passage, and as we emerged into the lagoon, the silence that greeted us seemed almost foreign. I realized it had been a long time since I’d been in a natural environment without groups of hikers or other people milling about.
It was just our canoe and one other, gliding through the almost luminescent green water, among tall saltwater trees and other fauna and surrounded by cliffs. It was as if the outside world didn’t exist, and J.J. gave us a lot of time to just sit and drink in the beauty in silence.
During this time, the tide had risen, so when we tried to leave, our canoe wouldn’t pass through as easily. I have a touch of claustrophobia, so I just closed my eyes, breathed deeply and reminded myself that it was in Sea Canoe’s interests to make sure we got out alive.
After J.J. deflated the canoe, allowing us to sink a bit, we started moving forward. “Don’t breathe,” he said. I thought he was joking, but then I felt the limestone roof barely scrape against my chest.
“Five more minutes and we would have been stuck,” he said once we were out.
In addition to the native plants, we were able to get a glimpse of some wildlife as well, animals that weren’t behind bars. In the lagoon in Oyster Island, so named because of all the oyster shells mired in the limestone, a group of macaques emerged from the trees to gather on the shore as we moved closer. In another cave, we also saw bats, the insect-eating kind.
We went swimming in another lagoon, which made me feel a little like a character in “The Beach” ―just us and whatever was hiding in the trees and water. J.J., who often swam there, showed us where the limestone rocks were hiding underwater so we wouldn’t get cut.
But at some point, we had to reluctantly go back to civilization. After we got back to our hotel, we again hit Patong Beach for our final night. No recommendations this time. How bad could it be?
At Papaya Thai Restaurant, which is on the road next to the beach, in front of the Patong Beach Hotel, we had the perfect coconut milk shake. The food itself wasn’t as perfect, but it wasn’t bad. I would have liked a spicier red curry, but the som tam, or green papaya salad, more than made up for it.
Considering how empty the beaches were during the day, the Patong bar scene at night was surprisingly full and fully seedy. Touts approached me with pictures of women’s bared body parts, offering a “go-go show.” The local bar girls were there, most with sad-sack wrinkled Western men next to them. One doddering old man stumbled next to his nubile Thai escort. I snorted. If he couldn’t keep up with her on the street, how was he going to fare later, when ? anyway.
As I tried taking pictures of the bars, a transvestite came over and offered to take pictures with us. We agreed mainly out of politeness ― I’ve certainly seen better-looking trannys. I should have known better. Afterward, she (or he) wanted a tip. When I pulled out 20 baht, she said, “No, 100 baht for photo.” I promptly closed my purse, but Sunjung was kind enough to pay her. Then we were her best friends, air kisses all around.
Most shops were open for business, well into the night. A few places tried to make the best of things by selling “Tsunami 2004” T-shirts. One particularly tasteless vendor was selling photos of the devastation, including bodies. Once I saw that, I knew it was time to leave.
Returning will be difficult because the hordes will be back next winter. Karon Beach wasn’t “The Beach,” but I made it mine for the three days I was there, and for a tourist, that’s all that matters.
Information on the Web
Thai Airways is offering a “Loving Phuket” package until March 31 from 408,500 won, which includes three nights’ accommodation, airport transfers in Phuket and breakfast. A list of participating resorts can be found at www.thaiair.co.kr/eng/ or call (02) 3707-0011 for more information.
Sea Canoe offers trips around Phuket and throughout Thailand: www.seacanoe.net/phuket.htm
Baan Rim Pa, on Patong Beach:
by Sei Chong
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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