13.04.2009 - 14.04.2009
Till April 2009, Phuket for me was only a fish delicacy, one of the many dishes from a long list of exotic must-haves. And then I went to the place from where the dish had originated. From then onwards, Phuket for me, is the very definition of a perfect beach vacation. The trip to the ‘island paradise’ (as called by many a traveler who had ventured here before), during April last year, was a revelation.
Getting there was not easy though. Continuing our tradition of budget travelling and last minute planning, me and Sravan had decided on the trip the previous afternoon from Bangkok and had boarded the bus from the Sai Tai Mai terminal (Southern Bus terminal) to the island in the evening. It was a long bus ride, almost 14 hours. The journey format was pretty much the same as a Hyderabad-Mumbai Volvo bus ride. Music videos of a (presumably popular) female Thai pop star started floating out from the TV set as soon as the bus started. Although all the songs pretty much sounded the same to me, I could see that our Thai companions were thoroughly enjoying. And then the movie started. From what we could fathom, it was a Chinese movie dubbed into Japanese but with Thai subtitles. How’s that for multilinguism!
Midway through the movie, the bus suddenly stopped and the video shut down. The conductor indicated a dinner stop for about half an hour. We got down and went into what seemed like a Thai ‘dhaba’ (local highway restaurants in India), only much bigger. In the outer part of the dhaba, there were rows and rows groceries and eatables on sale - neatly packed chips, snacks, vegetables, fruits, meat and what not, stacked on long tables. It was like an outdoor supermarket. The inner part of the dhaba was meant for dining. Dinner was included in the bus ticket we had purchased. So, we sat down at a table with our companions.
One interesting thing that I observed in Thailand was the tradition of ‘communal dining’. All the food including soups, appetizers and the main course dishes are kept in large portions on a round table. People, sometimes complete strangers to each other, sit around the table and pass the dishes around to serve themselves. You are not expected to order individually; you have to share what is there on the table! Unfortunately, we did not find the dishes that were served to us appetizing at all; the only dish we found to be safely edible was a bowl of plain rice. There was a big dish containing a soup-curry which was a mixture of all sorts of sea food, and it was really smelly. Sravan refused to eat it outright. I decided to give it a try, but could not go past the first 3 spoonfuls. It was simply demanding too much of us, citizens of a vegetarian nation. Our sense of smell got the better of us and we decided to give the ‘free’ dinner a skip and make do with chips that night.
The next morning, we got down at the bus terminal at Phan Nga Road in Phuket Town. From there we took a local bus to Patong, the hotspot of the island. The local bus was not unlike the crowded public transportation in India. Finally, after a total of 16 hours travel, we got down in Patong, hungry and tired, still no idea as to where we would stay. Lonely Planet came to the rescue as always, and we started going around town with our backpacks and asking the prices in hotels that were listed in the book. April being an off-season meant that decent hotel rooms were available at discounted prices. There was a whole street in the middle of Patong named ‘Bangla street’ which was famous for its nightlife. We consciously tried to stay as close to that ‘centre of attraction’ as possible and finally zeroed in on a guesthouse named ‘Cheap Rooms’ (pretty straightforwardly named, wasn’t it?) and took a room costing 16$. Though, the guesthouse looked very seedy from the outside but it had surprisingly decent rooms on the inside.
Imagine a country of 6 million involved in a water fight all at the same time. Crazy as it seems, that is how Songkran, the Thai new year is celebrated. An unfortunate coincidence with the Thai rebellion meant that Bangkok could not celebrate its festival, with quite the same kind of fervor that is associated with the it every year. But Phuket was a world apart. Celebrations here were going on full swing. We walked out to hordes of people armed with water pipes determined to pour water on anybody who was remotely dry. People of all ages and sizes were armed with water guns and hoses to drench passersby. Like so many other things we observed, the cultural roots of the festival to India were evident. Songkran is derived from the Indian festival ‘Sankrantri’ and is celebrated like another popular Indian festival ‘Holi’, albeit without colours. Instead, a white powder is mixed in the water which just leaves a smear on your face (which can be easily washed off) unlike Holi, where you are covered in colours, and even your closest of friends would be unable to recognize you at the end of it all. By the end of our short trip to the foreign exchange counter and back to the hotel, both of us were wet and dripping with water from head to toe. We did not bother to bathe again!
We set out to explore the island further by renting a bike from our hotel. The Songkran craze did not seem to have abated and people were drenching each other with more rigour. Their objective was clear – pour water on anything that moves. Some enthusiastic people were specially targeting motorists. For novices like me who were just learning the art of two-wheeler driving, handling the bike amidst the chaos was tricky indeed. The constant torrents of water on your face meant that you were blinded for half the time and you had to recover fast in order to stay in control of your bike. Quite a learning experience that!
The Songkran crowds thinned as we entered the highway. The crowded roads gave way to winding highways. We were southwards bound and we decided to proceed as far as we could and then head back. After the long stretch of the Karon Beach had passed us, we made a stopover at the Kata Beach to relax for a bit. The beach was neat and very well maintained with a view of the Pu island offshore. Sravan dozed off right away on the beach chair. I was too taken in by the beauty of the beach to sleep. I dived straight into the water and after an hour of relaxing swimming, we resumed our journey. We kept heading southwards till we came to Prom Thep cape, the southernmost tip of the island.
Prom Thep cape is one of the best viewpoints on the island, and we got there just at the right time – during sunset. ‘Prom’ is the Thai word for ‘Brahma’, the Hindu God. Ironically, there is a shrine of the God ‘Brahma’ on the hilltop (I had never seen a ‘Brahma’ temple in Hindu India). The Kanchanaphisek lighthouse, which is a mini lighthouse-musuem built in an interesting architectural style, is also situated just beside the shrine. The view of the sea from atop the small hill is a sight to behold. Unfortunately, my camera started malfunctioning suddenly. Thanks to Songkran, water had seeped into my Kodak, and I found to my dismay that the pics were coming out really blurry. I managed a few captures before the thing blacked out totally. A pity, really!
By the time we came back to our guesthouse, dusk had fallen and Patong was slowly lighting up and getting ready for the long night ahead. Wondering what to plan for the next day, we came across a travel agent offering a 1-day package at attractive rates, to the islands around Phuket which were touted to be must-see. Thanking our stars that we had come in the off-season, we booked ourselves into the day-long tour the next day. Now, what do we do for the night? One night in Bangkok had really tired us out and we were no longer curious about Thai nightlife. We still went to a go-go bar as a matter of formality rather than interest. After staying there for half an hour, we got into the Hard Rock Café, where a local band was playing covers of international rock hits. We even checked out the shopping mall in the main street. After some random shopping (I bought cheap floaters by the roadside for 100Baht which I still use to this day), we ate Khao Mun Kai (chicken and cooked rice) at a roadside restaurant just beside HRC before heading back to the hotel.
There was a seemingly ‘genuine’ massage parlour right beside our guesthouse, and on a midsummer night in Siam, we decided nothing would be better than a Thai massage after an eventful day. Both of us went for the traditional Thai massage (which costed 300Baht for 1 hour). There was a sweet fragrance about the massage parlour and soothing music floated out from the background. A smiling masseur came and led me to the massage area. Without a hint of embarrassment, she asked me to remove my clothes and handed me a traditional dress (which seemed more like a hospital gown) to wear. The approach was all strictly professional, and it showed in the massage.
I always had this preconceived notion of the ‘original’ Thai massage being excruciatingly painful. Standing there in the hospital gown-ish attire before the massage started, I began having these images of the masseur stretching every part of your body to its limit and beyond. Not until I had actually taken it did I realize that the massage could be so invigorating. The relaxing music and the aroma all added to the atmosphere. The moment the masseur’s skillful hands touched my tired muscles, and began work on my my body, I felt rejuvenated and I could fully appreciate the therapeutic effects of a massage. So much so that, after all the stretching was over, my muscles screamed for still more. After the massage, I was given a cup of green tea and time to dress up. I left the parlour exhilarated; that was an hour well spent indeed!
The tour vehicle came early the next morning to pick us up. We hurriedly packed our things and checked out, well atleast, attempted to. With all the heavy duty night life in Patong, it was no surprise to me that there was no one awake (not even a receptionist) at seven o’clock in the morning in our hotel. We just had to leave the rooms open and rush to the waiting vehicle to join our fellow passengers. We were taken straight to the place where all the boats were. After depositing our backpacks in a small restaurant nearby we got into a speedboat called ‘James Bond’, and we set off.
The guide was a Thai who spoke broken, but decent English, and he was funny as well. With the wind slapping on your face, the sun beating down and the amazing scenery all around, I could not contain myself and started clicking pictures. By some curious twist of fate, Sravan’s camera started facing problems while my camera, after a full night’s rest got woking again! After about an hour’s ride, the boat stopped just before reaching an island in shallow water, and the guide indicated that it was snorkeling time.
It was a first for me. Equipped with swim fins and the snorkel, I got into the water, excited and at the same time, a little apprehensive. It took some time to get used to breathing through the snorkel, but once I got the hang of it, it was quite an experience. There was surprisingly so much underwater life even in the shallow water, with corals completing the remarkable marine landscape. The guide took out some bread pieces and started tossing them out into the water. Once a piece fell into the water, all the fish would converge on it, creating an amazing colour pattern in the crystal clear water. If snorkeling was so outstanding, I could not wait to try scuba diving next!
After that, we headed to the famed Koh Phi Phi Leh. As we approached Maya Bay, the magical landscape unfolded. There were steep limestone hills jutting out of the water, breathtakingly poised and surrounding the bay. This was the place where the Leanardo Di Caprio’s movie ‘The Beach’ was filmed. However, seeing the scenery in the movie is not even comparable to the real thing. The artificial landscaping that the movie production house had added was supposedly washed away by the tsunami and had left the bay cleaner. The tourist crowd was heavy at the beach, but nothing would spoil the party for me. I had neither read about nor seen the place in photos before. So, it was a complete surprise to me. That is one image that would stay in my mind for a long time to come.
The next stop was Monkey island which was very unimaginatively named so because, well, it had many monkeys. Then the boat took us to another island in the Phi Phi archipelago, where we were served lunch. This was again a communal lunch, but to our pleasant surprise, it was scrumptious. We ate to our heart’s content and then headed out to another island where we relaxed on beach chairs under shades. It was island after island of amazingly white beaches and clear water. I could not possibly ask for more for my 1500 baht.
The last attraction of our package was an elephant safari. However, as were running late for the Bangkok bus, we chose to skip it and requested the trip operator to drop us off at the bus terminal. He obliged, and at the last minute we could grab tickets in a deluxe bus complete with a toilet in it. Luckily, Bangkok had now cooled down after 2 days of protests and we learnt that it was quite safe to go there now. So, we took off to Bangkok to resume the next leg of our journey
It was not hard to figure out why this tiny island, Phuket, has become the most sought after international tourist destination. The sheer beauty of a ‘green-forest,white-sand,blue-sea’ combination hit home hard while I marveled at the marvelous beach strips and the islands nearby. This was a first of its kind experience, only rivaled by the beaches of Andaman & Nicobar islands in 2006, and after this trip, beach holidays have jumped straight to the top of my priority list. While sitting in the bus and leaving from the island, I vowed that I would come back for a second time. And a third time. And a fourth!