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Come on in, seaside or pool, the water's fine on Phuket.

Fifty Reasons Why We Love Phuket (I)

Sunday, December 9, 2007
Phuket remains very much a special part of Thailand, and that's reason to celebrate. In the first of two parts, we look at the delights of the island.

1. Generosity Of Phuket People
A few unsavory characters live on Phuket. Coastal resorts everywhere seem to attract them. Yet most of the local people who call the island home are honest and willing to welcome visitors into their hearts. A few years back, having finished lunch at a local restaurant, I left a five baht coin on the table as a tip. Seconds later, having crossed to the other side of a busy main road, I heard someone calling me. It was the proprietor of the restaurant, waving the coin in his hand and dodging the traffic, anxious to return my money.
At least once a week I've gone back to that restaurant, as much for that honest memory as for the excellent pork and noodles that Khun Uut and Khun Maew produce at their no-name place on a bend in Yaowarat Road, Sam Kong. Many other island people have shown just as much consideration and kindness since then. Phuket is blessed with big-hearted Thais.

2. The Women . . .
A little while back, a young Thai writer had one of his characters say that visitors came to Thailand for just two things: the women or the elephants. It was a cynical perspective, yet with some truth attached. Phuket women are certainly magnificent. Graceful, charming, delightful to talk or to admire from afar, Thai girls from 19 to 90 make life a joy for most men, no matter where they come from. On Phuket, women are leaders in many fields. And foreign women friends admire the good looks of Thai men, too.

3. And The Elephants
Every day between 3pm and 4pm, it's possible to go surfing with the elephants on Bang Tao beach, opposite the Sheraton Grande Laguna Phuket. There may be other places in Thailand where elephants swim in rivers or lakes, but as far as we know only in Phuket do elephants take to the surf. If you're brave, it's possible to grab a large ear and clamber onto one of them and use their hairy hide as a diving platform. Just remember to step to one side when either of them catches a wave.

4. The Sisters
The Heroines Monument is fairly close to the heart of the island and it's certainly the most important place to make that final decision. Will it be the bright lights of Phuket City and the south, Surin beach and the boisterous Andaman coast resorts, perhaps the quieter delights of a Muslim village to the east, or a full revolution and a quick escape via the airport? Try to avoid the circling pick-ups and ten-wheelers as you make up your mind. This pair of statuesque sword-waving sisters liked Phuket so much they thought it was worth fighting for. Maybe they were right. Property prices were much more reasonable in 1785.

5. Noisy Gekkos
Probably the most distinctive noise in any Thai house is the sound a gekko makes in the middle of the night. Many a tourist, hearing the strange, other-wordly calls for the first time, has jumped out of bed and switched on all the lights. How these little critters manage to clamber upside down across ceilings is amazing enough. How they manage to pack such vocal power into so small a space is another great unsolved mystery. The greatest wonder of all, though, is how they always choose to crap in the one place you didn't want them to.

6. Kamala Wat
One of the truly serene spots on the island is the Buddhist temple at Kamala, largely because the restoration of the buildings and the gardens after the tsunami have made it a place to marvel at the power of determination. Having survived being swept from the temple by the tsunami, the local abbot found himself stripped naked by the surging tide. Bobbing across the water towards him came robes fresh from the store. The abbot later fought to prevent local authorities from demolishing the damaged wat, gaining international support in the process. The result proved him to be a wise man.

7, 8, 9. A Hub For Diving And Snorkeling
As Phuket's roads widen and the seafronts fill with housing, visitors are now obliged to head to off-shore destinations to experience being in a ''remote'' place. While concerns are rightly held for the future of the coral reefs, diving and snorkeling remain delightful experiences. Chalong Pier is the starting point for the speedboats that ferry passengers to the island of Raya. Larger boats head to Phi Phi from the port at Rassada. Every dropped anchor destroys a little more of the reefs. The Similan Islands, to the north off the coast of Phang Nga, are protected and allowed to recover free from tourists for the green season. Anchor buoys are provided to prevent reef damage. That's a fine example of what needs to happen elsewhere, before it's too late.


10. Tsunami Warning Signs
Everybody loves the blue tsunami warning signs. Visitors may not realize that it took almost a year after the big wave to erect them. Debate raged for many months. On the one hand, it might be a good idea in the event of a second tsunami if tourists know which way to run. On the other, do we really want to remind them about the tsunami? Maybe they'll see the signs, be frightened, and head straight back to the airport? After almost a year, the signs finally got the OK. There was no mass panic. Now we all know which way is up.

11. Karaoke Clubs
Beer bars are fine, if you like that sort of thing. For the more adventurous, and for many Thai men, the large karaoke clubs have greater appeal. Slim girls wearing world's smallest miniskirts teeter about on world's tallest platform shoes, singing melancholy Thai love songs. Every so often there's a mass chorus with as many as 40 singers on stage at one time. Buy a floral garland at 100 baht or 1000 baht for your favourite singer and she may even come and sit alongside you. Fall in love and you will be obliged to sit through the same repertoire of songs every night for months to come. Just follow the twinkling bud lights.

12, 13, 14. The Big Beaches
Once upon a time, the beaches at Patong, Karon and Kata would have been at the top of every list. Mind you, we still love them. They can still be very pleasant places. The problem is that there are days in high season now when it's not possible to see the sand for the umbrellas and lounges. To many visitors, the beaches are still much less crowded than the cities they come from. Yet the sad point about Phuket's sands is that they are no longer what they once were. The green turtles, which used to breed on them in large numbers, have been driven away. Now we know that they are never coming back, not even to the northern beaches that are eventually bound to become versions of Patong, Karon and Kata.
According to Marine and Coastal Resources biologist Sontaya Manawatthana, who has been studying the green turtles for two years, even the regular releases into the sea of young turtles raised in captivity serves no practical purpose. He says that any female breeding turtle fortunate enough to survive the fishing nets and return to Phuket would try to land at night, see the lights along the coast and drop her eggs hopelessly into the sea.
Phuket, he says, is simply too developed now for turtles. The tourism instinct has overwhelmed the hatching instincts of a creature that is less adaptable, but perhaps more adorable. Tanned bodies now occupy the sands that were once destinations where turtles could lay their eggs. Tourists can still marvel at turtles in tanks up the hill behind the main aquarium building at Cape Panwa. They are wonderful to watch. Yet their disappearance forever from Phuket makes us all feel sad and, as beach-goers, a little guilty. There's still a scientific mystery surrounding where they go and what they do in the first ''lost year'' of their life. Not even the experts know for certain.
Biologist Khun Sontaya says that while they are purely symbolic, at least the public releases of tank-raised turtles into the ocean illustrate the importance of fighting to preserve other marine species, especially the dugongs, dolphins and whales that still swim relatively close to Phuket. A pod of dolphins was even spotted recently in Bang Tao Bay. The dolphins, fortunately, don't need a beach on which to breed.

15. Som Tam
The most successful line to win the heart of a Thai maiden is: ''Come up to my place and try my som tam.'' Sweet, sour, pungent and bitter. Doesn't that sound just like love? Many Phuket women are addicted to the unripe green papaya salad that is sometimes mixed with fermented crab and other delicacies. Some will eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner, even if the rest of their day has to be spent in the toilet. We love it in small, mild doses.

16. The Family Saloon
The motorcyle is a mechanical marvel and it has made long-distance travel accessible to people on Phuket. Nothing beats seeing a family of four or five go by, with one or two offspring on rattan seats up front or clinging on the back . . . unless perhaps it's a group of smiling schoolgirls. Or the family bog in the front basket. It's such a shame that children, young boys especially, are not taught to drive to survive.
Some tourists also think that because the sun is shining, there is no chance they will fall off their motorcycle. They should know better.
Surely one day the law has to change so that everyone who clambers onto a motorcycle is obliged to wear a helmet, not just the driver. We once saw a family of three on one vehicle, all properly protected. And we still don't believe it.

17, 18, 19. Big Sunsets
There must have been a time when the view from Cape Phromthep was spectacular. When you could stand on the clifftop, drinking in the last rays of the sun, and feel at one with the beauty of nature. These days it's a good place to go -- if you like lots of people and large car parks. One tourist promotional guide calls it ''Phuket's most stunning vista.'' We suspect those words were written by someone who perhaps hasn't visited the cape for a few decades.
We love the cape still but it provides a warning about the island's many other attractions. Natural beauty has to be preserved. It cannot be ''developed.'' It's true that everyone should have the opportunity to enjoy what nature has to offer. But when the crowds begin to come, it's not always wise to simply build a bigger car park. The pressure of numbers is what will rapidly erode the attractions of Phuket. Hopefully this kind of car park response is not going to be repeated elsewhere on the island . . .
At present, Phuket is in transition from the idyllic remote destination it once must have been to becoming an outer suburb of Rome, Sydney, Moscow and Los Angeles. There is no turning back, so let's just enjoy the ride. To capture a romantic island sunset the way it must have been once at the cape, stop off at the After Beach restaurant or its next door neighbour, the Small View Point, high on the road above Kata Noi. You can sit on a balcony eating seafood and drinking wine. Every year, these wooden platform restaurants keep growing larger . . . and larger. It probably won't be long before someone has an inspired idea: hey, let's build a car park.


20. The Vegetarian Festival
As a friend once said: ''You think Phuket people are normal, everyday people . . . then along comes the Vegetarian Festival.'' At first sight, the daily parades of impaled warriors through the streets of Phuket's towns and villages are confronting and sometimes hard to stomach. The concept of fervent Taoists sticking sharp metal rods and other objects through their cheeks takes a little time to have any appeal.
Giving up meat, alcohol and sex for a nine-day stretch once a year is not such a bad idea. The pierced Mah Song warriors are continuing traditions that go back to ancient China, but no longer survive there in the same way. These men and women, temporarily possessed by spirits, are taking the pain of the world for the rest of us. Beneath the firecrackers and the hypnotic attractions of the parades, there's a deeper religious significance and even a compelling philosophy that sometimes seem out of place. That's because Phuket has changed, while the Vegetarian Festival remains the same. The parades are a photographer's delight. Why not dress in white and join in? Once the festival is over, life returns to normal, until the following October.

21. Tammachart (Natural) Restaurant
Swank restaurants galore spread across the island but this is the one that tops the list for a real Phuket experience. It's tucked away on a one-way road in behind Phuket City's old fresh market. Tammachart was the creation of a couple who couldn't bear to cut down the trees in their front yard to start the business. So they built the restaurant around the trees. It's the kind of place that Tarzan and Jane might have enjoyed, winding up several levels, and stocked with recycled goods of all kinds.
Television sets now have fish swimming in them. Old sewing treadles topped with slices from a giant fallen tree constitute the tables. The menu contains many local delights. A visit on a balmy night is an unforgettable experience.

22. Wat Chalong
There are remarkable buildings elsewhere on Phuket but nothing quite matches the astonishing structure at Wat Chalong, the biggest temple on the island, where some rare relics of Buddha are interred. The chedi spire reaches for the sky and the the building almost seems to breathe. It's a striking sight, especially at night under a full moon at a religious festival. Not to be missed. The annual temple fair is also a lot of fun. Other wats worth visiting can be found dotted around the island.

23. Buffaloes
Hardy beasts are hard to find these days, and the most easily spotted buffalo herds meander beside the road leading from the Andaman coast to Thalang. Are there any rice fields left on the island? With water in limited supply and local authorities unable to provide a satisfactory solution to the chronic shortage, it's probably just as well that paddy fields can no longer be found. With visitor numbers up and the property market in full boom, how long before Phuket runs dry? The buffaloes evoke a bygone era of a better balance between Man and Nature. Many people do not relish the day when the last of them disappear from Phuket.

24, 25. Entertainment Large and Small
Truckloads of people come to see the FantaSea show at Kamala and it's a spectacular tribute to Thailand involving elephants galore, flying trapeze artists and cutting-edge technology. Everything about the show is big, which means it's at the other end of the scale to the blind man who can sometimes be seen around the island playing the piano accordion, being led from shop to shop by his wife.
Continued on the next file

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Thursday February 22, 2024
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