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Phuket v Bali: Paradise Photo Special

Phuket v Bali: Paradise Photo Special

Monday, April 11, 2011
"BALI SUCKS!" a drunken Australian bleats out for an entire planeload of Phuket-bound passengers to hear. And thus another battle between Southeast Asia's two most popular islands for the hearts and dollars of tourists is born.

With the launch of the Thai AirAsia 'Paradise to Paradise' flights connecting Bali and Phuket last December, those seeking a double-dip of island fun have never had an easier or cheaper time of it.

Several Phuket residents seeking a change of pace including this writer have made their way down in recent weeks, booking return flights for as little as 3500 baht inclusive. One Phuket expat said of her recent Bali visit, "It was my first time and I love it ... sort of like Phuket with a soul."

Asia's two most popular island destinations are inevitably compared and often battle for top spots in travel magazine surveys and tourist arrival numbers. While each has its own unique appeal, both islands offer a rich mix of sun, sand, sea and cultural attractions that tempt a wide range of visitors.

Those seeking hedonistic party pleasures land on the sands of Patong in Phuket or on Bali's Kuta beach. Phuket's Surin beach vies with Seminyak in drawing in trendy types with money to spend who emerge from their private villas to 'see-and-be-seen' at a chic beachfront bar.

Bali's sleepy Sanur beach resembles Kamala with its shallow waters, family-oriented scene and sizeable expat population, while Sanur's south end has a more Saphan Hin park feel to it with local families out in droves for beachside picnics, kite-flying and football matches - though Sanur has a more exotic element with families seen engaged in group meditation sessions with ornate fruit and flower offerings spread on the sands.

Bali, 10 times larger, has a more interesting geography but Phuket visitors can easily reach the more varied landscapes of Phang Nga or Krabi by boat or car. Bali's answer to the five-star resort enclave Laguna Phuket is Nusa Dua, while those seeking culture, thriving markets and an eclectic dining scene head to Ubud in Bali or Phuket City on Phuket, though Ubud's Boho vibe more closely resembles Chiang Mai.

Among the locals, there are whispered complaints about outsiders coming onto the island to work on the cheap and make trouble - the Javanese to Bali, the Burmese to Phuket.

Bali's attraction has been first and foremost as a place of artistry, deep spirituality and harmony with nature. Elaborate dances and exquisite religious rituals are played out daily to the delight of tourists, while every second home and shop it seems is devoted to creating works of art. Phuket, even with its promising Old Town revitalisation and Big Buddha projects, remains behind the curve in its cultural attractions.

Bali's surge in tourism to more than 2.5 million overseas visitors in 2010 was attributed partly to the Julia Roberts movie Eat Pray Love, which showed stunning images of the island as an American divorcee is restored via the healing powers of Balinese meditation - and a romance with a wealthy Latin lover.

As the locale for the happy ending of this intoxicating modern-woman's fairy-tale, Bali's place among the world's most enchanting destinations seems assured. While Bali is known as the Island of the Gods, Phuket is often seen as a place where Money is God.

But image is one thing, reality is another. Those seeking stillness on a Bali holiday may find it first in a traffic jam as they leave the airport in Denpasar city. As a recent Time magazine article headlined 'Holidays in Hell: Bali's Ongoing Woes' described, traffic in some areas of the island is getting as bad as smog-choked Jakarta. Even in early April, months away from Bali's peak tourist season, the going is slow and bumpy on mostly narrow, potholed roads.

Like Phuket, Bali lacks an efficient public transport system. There is a private bus service but it is slow and inconvenient; most choose to use motorbikes or cars. And Bali suffers from the same territorial mindset as Phuket - an Ubud based driver says if he drops guests off in Kuta he must return empty lest he wish to invite trouble from the Kuta taxi collective.

But overall Bali wins hands-down for providing fair-priced, convenient taxi services, and metered taxis abound in Bali. One resort on the outskirts of Ubud offers a service that Phuket hoteliers could only dream of: an on-demand shuttle service to and from the town centre. No hassles, no charge. The service is included in the US$75 (2255 baht) room price.

The islands share many of the same detractions, too. The English weekly 'The Bali Times' is full of stories that read like a copy-and-paste of Phuket news. Property developments that tout their closeness to nature as they gobble up pristine or agricultural land. Polluted beaches.

Dangerous roads. Drug abuse, and violent crimes against expats. One article bemoans that not only are the Balinese overcharging and cheating the bule ('farang'), they're starting to rip each other off too!

Balinese taxi drivers in particular have a jolly way of telling you that their beloved island is going to hell in a hand-basket, and people complain about ''kill-to-kill'' price-slashing wars since the suicide bomb attacks of 2002 and 2005 that have driven down profits and incomes.

Though tourism numbers have since recovered, as did Phuket's following the 2004 tsunami, there's still an unsettled feeling among the Balinese. Tsunamis do not target tourists, but the terrorists did. Twice. Some say they do not trust that enough has been done to ensure it will not happen again.

Not only does Bali have a stray dog problem like Phuket, the Indonesian island has been waging a two-year battle to stop rabies. Bird flu has also made a comeback with chickens testing positive for the virus, and Australia recently added Legionnaire's disease to its long list of travel advisories and bulletins on Bali and Indonesia after a small number of its citizens returning from holidays in Kuta were found to have contracted the complaint. This, in addition to ramping up its warning on terrorism, yet again.

Still, Australian travellers with their strong dollar continue to visit Bali in droves, nor were they deterred from visiting Phuket when it was hit with a nationwide warning during the Bangkok riots last year. Australia remains the largest source of visitors for both islands.

In exploring the islands' differences, Bali is the yin to Phuket's yang, and there's almost a yin-yang, yo-yo interplay in effect, where the misfortunes of one benefits the other, in the short term at least.

Phuket had a visitor bump following the 2002 Bali bomb attack, while Bali took on tourists who shifted away from Phuket after the 2004 tsunami. Last week, an American couple based in Kuala Lumpur told of cancelling their planned Phuket trip and going to Bali after seeing news about torrential rains and flooding in Thailand's south.

And while Bali's Benoa port last month received a "Best Port Welcome 2010" award from London's Dream World Cruise Destination magazine, Phuket's image as a luxury cruise port-of-call was further tarnished by a taxi blockade against passengers departing the Silver Spirit ship.

But with these direct AirAsia flights and hopefully more to come, attracting visitors need no longer be a zero-sum game with one loser, one champion. Regional and long-haul visitors with the time and the cash to spare can now easily sample both islands on one trip. Developing Phuket-Bali packages seems like a no-brainer, win-win endeavour to try.

Tour operators might even launch 'Eat, Pray, Love' Visa Run trips for expats from Thailand to have their passports stamped and souls soothed all in one go.

Certainly for this jaded Phuket expat, a flight down to Bali provided a breath of fresh air, a chance to pick up some new ideas and at the same time gain a renewed appreciation for my Thai island home.

As the AirAsia flight descended into Phuket, there was an audible intake of breath as the plane first flew over the white-sand fringed islands of Krabi, then Phang Nga Bay's towering karsts and finally over the lush green landscape of northern Phuket.

A few exclamations of ''Wow'' were heard. The big challenge, for both Phuket and Bali, is to keep those ''Wows'' coming for the duration of their visitors' stay, while minimising the woes.

Perhaps with this new 'Paradise to Paradise' link, people of each island will be better able to exchange ideas and jointly find solutions to their problems, and ensure that for travellers and residents alike this Asian island connection does not become a 'Hell to Hell' trip.

Tips for the Phuket traveller to Bali:

THIS would apply for travel anywhere, but in Bali in particular do not rely on one ATM card as a source of cash. It can often take a few tries at various ATMs before a card will work, and we lost a card at one ATM when it was sucked into the machine with no explanation, necessitating a call back to our bank in Thailand to cancel the card.

There are far fewer bank branches than seen on Phuket, but money changers are everywhere - it's advised to check their exchange rates closely and count the money carefully before settling. Though Indonesia is on 220V electricity, the same as Thailand, most places have outlets that take only a round two-pin unearthed plug. If you forget to bring an adaptor you can buy one at any electronics shop in Bali for 20,000 Rp.

Things to be aware of:
For a budget carrier, AirAsia delivers a comfortable four-hour flight, though tall people will be wanting for leg room. Flights in both directions left and arrived precisely on time. However, those who dutifully arrived to the Phuket airport two hours before the 6.45am flight had to wait half an hour before the AirAsia check-in desk opened, and then had to join the long immigration queue together with people on a big departing flight to Copenhagen for waits of 40 minutes or longer - as a result, some passengers boarded the AirAsia flight at the last minute, breathless and stressed. AirAsia advertises an online check-in service and the ability to drop your baggage at the counter more than three hours ahead of the flight time, which would have been useless for this early-morning Bali-bound flight.

As recently reported in Phuketwan, a Phuket expat mum on a solo trip was strip-searched by Bali immigration - be aware of Indonesia's serious ''death to drug dealers'' laws and be prepared for some uncomfortable probing should the authorities wish to take you aside for questioning.

Travelling Aussies can be loud. An MP3 player is highly recommended for the flight, since AirAsia lacks an audio system.
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Photo Album A roll of the 'dise sees Phuketwan's intrepid reviewer catching a flight to Paradise II. Or is that Paradise I? Here's what she found.
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Comments

Comments have been disabled for this article.

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Next season, some large dive liveaboard vessels will leave definitely Phuket and the Andaman Sea for Indonesia waters.
Those dive companies have already open Indonesian companies and will register their vessels as Indonesian.
Rats leave the boat before sunking.... leaving Thai dive operators with their mess such as:
- No reinforcement of the Thai diving regulation in Marine National Parks.
- 50-90% dead coral following the warm water last year.
- Too many foreign Instructors working illegally or not properly registered according to Thai laws.

Posted by Whistle-Blower on April 11, 2011 17:24

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also both in common they have been spoilt by us the tourist, but that's expected I suppose.

Posted by Michael on April 12, 2011 08:56

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''Bali has a Zoo, Bird Park, Reptile Park and Waterbom Park all excellent, and one price for all. Green areas, where farms and rice growers live. Beaches not covered with beds and hawkers and Imigration quick and courteous.

''Phuket has?''

Posted by Big T on April 12, 2011 09:51

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I've spent too much time on both islands and can assure your they're both HELL, not paradise. For example, 'korruptzi' as they call that vice there, is even worse in Indonesia than in TH. A bumper sticker in Denpasar read: "This car is 95% korrupzi-free!" It is the only country in the world where I was asked by government officials to pay bribes to "avoid trouble". TWICE!

Posted by Hans on April 12, 2011 18:25


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