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A beautiful relative of the noisy gekko.

Fifty Reasons Why We Love Phuket (II)

Sunday, December 9, 2007
26, 27. Katoeys
Phuket seems to have more ladyboys than most places in Thailand. Perhaps its just the tolerant nature of the island. Maybe katoeys here feel free to be themselves. Whether putting on a show in Patong, serving in restaurants or beauty salons or just being a part of the family, katoeys demonstrate Phuket's ability to live and let live. The annual Gay Pride Parade at the end of March and the migration to the island of the annual Nation gay party from Singapore are signs of the island's mature approach to sexuality. It's not Sydney or San Francisco yet, but gay tourism is growing.
A friend told the story of one katoey who decided to have a sex change, which these days has become another Phuket specialty. Later, after the operation, she asked the katoey whether the new body-part looked like the real thing. ''I don't know,'' the new miss replied. ''I've never seen a real one.''

28. Fresh Air
Bangkok air, along with the air in Hong Kong, Manila and most large Asian cities, will kill you if you stay in it long enough. Cities in other parts of the world are not much better. In Phuket, one of the great joys is to wake up and breathe. The cool of the morning is going to be replaced by heat and, during the monsoon, probably with a downpour as well. As the air warms, the insects hum. It's a new day. It may no longer be Paradise, but at least the air isn't going to be a fatal attraction.

29. The Villages
Just one night in a Muslim village on Phuket is enough to know that the modern world is leaving too many good ideas behind. At least on Phuket, the charms of wooden houses on stilts, with slatted floors to catch the breezes and tanks to trap the rain water, can still be enjoyed and appreciated. But then, isn't this picture from Phuket's present and past also a vision of the future for the entire world? In the villages there are no air-conditioning plants or fancy lighting systems churning up precious power. No His and Hers spa showers sending masses of water down the drain. The villagers don't have a fortress mentality. You won't find walls to keep out the world. They have breakfast on the veranda with their neighbours and wave to everyone going past. We have seen the future on Phuket, and we rather like the idea of going back to the village.

30. Seong Taews
They're slow, often crowded and hard on your backside. But they are also the best way to watch the passing countryside and enjoy seeing Phuket life up close. (We'd say something nice here about tuk-tuks too, if only they weren't so expensive.) While Western families these days congregate inside their homes, behind closed doors, Thais still enjoy life among their friends. From a seong taew (two benches) you can see what a difference it makes when people still feel a sense of community attachment. Thai children are often cared for by an extended family. The media here hasn't yet made them live in constant fear or serial killers and sex maniacs. Advertising hasn't yet turned them into grown-up consumers before they reach puberty. They still have childhoods.

31. Secret Pleasures
Great trips can still be enjoyed close to Phuket, weather permitting. A longtail boat ride off Bang Tao beach, near a rocky outcrop known as Ko Waeo, brings fish of every hue and stripe darting and diving about. So in we plunged. And before long, we knew what it must be like to live in an aquarium. The fish were in our faces, as curious about us as we were about them. Do alien cultures attract? It's a wonderfully romantic notion so let's not spoil it, even if the tossed-in bread played did have something to do with it. Then we had lunch on a small northern beach that has yet to be discovered by the masses. There were several construction cranes reaching for the skies nearby.

32. Kor Jok Si
For years, this place has had the enviable reputation of being the best night out on Phuket. Staid, reserved accountants beam enthusiastically as they talk about dancing on the tables. People seem to leave their worries at the door. Big-name visitors always find their way here somehow. In an out-of-the-way location in Phuket City, this nightclub restaurant is so successful and secretive that advertising isn't seen as being necessary. You probably need to book. And first, you need to find out the telephone number.

33. 34. Songkran and Loy Kratong
Like a couple of exotic bookends, these two festival mark the passing of the seasons on Phuket. At Loy Kratong, lovers float banana leaf boats laden with candles and dreams. The lake at Saphan Hin in Phuket City is often still and magical. Songkran brings world's biggest waterfight. Visitors enjoy the shootouts but sometimes miss the subtlety of spiritual renewal. These are the big national festivals but Phuket has so many now that one festival almost runs into the next. There's the Food Festival and the Old Town Festival, the Vegetarian Festival, Patong Festival and the Heroines' Festival. There's Western New Year, Chinese New Year and Thai New Year. Hardly a month passes without cause for at least one celebration, and that's just great. Are the promotions people listening? Hope so. Phuket should be sold to Thailand and the world as the Fun Festival Island.

35. Patong Hill
A trip over Patong Hill is the closest thing you can have to a spiritual experience in a Honda Jazz. Bangkok's ferris wheel ride doesn't have the highs and lows of a drive over the hill . . . although it was a bigger thrill a couple of years back, when the road was resurfaced and they neglected to paint new lines down the middle for a couple of months. The Hill is there so people can understand the vital difference between Patong and Phuket City. One is full of sin and fun. The other is pure in body and thought and goes to bed at 10pm. If it wasn't for the hill, the suburbs of Patong and Phuket City would have merged by now and there would be no sense of heading towards naughtiness, or of going back towards the light. We love that ride.


36. Ow Aow
Ow Aow is a sweet dessert that can only be found on Phuket, and even on Phuket it's not easy to track down. The next hardest thing, once you've tracked it down, is pronouncing the name well enough so you can order it. There is one stall down a lane off Yaowarat Road in the old part of Phuket City. People eat a meal elsewhere, then come to eat dessert here, sitting on wooden benches or plastic chairs. That's how good it is, or more to the point, how much Phuket people like their food. Exactly what makes Ow Aow so tasty is a little hard to define. Maybe it's the crushed ice, or some secret ingredient that goes in with the fruity topping.

37.-42. Other Taste Sensations

Mystique seems to play a big part, just like so much that's appealing about Phuket. When it comes to food, Phuket has its own local cuisine, more ped than most other places, and people come from other parts of Thailand just to sample it. We love especially the floating seafood restaurants at Laem Hin, the produce markets that give Thai cooking that fresh-every-day feeling, and the street stalls, selling everything from fried chicken to tasty dried squid and grilled insects. The going price for a hot stick of sweetcorn is 10 baht and if you are charged 20 baht, you know you're in a touristy part of the island. Order your sweetcorn cut up and mixed with coconut for another dessert delight. The coconut, with its ability to deliver so much pleasure in so many ways, just shades mangoes, mangosteens and rambutans when it comes to natural Phuket tastes we love.

43. Historical Sino-Portuguese buildings
Breezy and Chinesy, the Sino-Portuguese mansions and shophouses that survive in old Phuket Town are almost as magnificent as the local women. They're just as strong and built to last. We love them because they are a bricks-and-mortar reminder of great architecture for a hot climate, and of how man-made beauty could be created without detracting from nature. There's hardly a high wall to be seen. It's great that the decision has been made to preserve as many of them as possible. The recent reconstruction of Soi Rommanee is a good example of how new life can be given to old buildings. Now couldn't someone please bury all those masses of wires hanging from poles underground?

44. Soi dogs
Yapping, snapping, cat-napping or scratching fleas, which seems to be something they do most of the time, we love soi dogs. Oddly enough, they're seldom as territorial or as likely to bite as pets.

45. Koh Sireh
We were singing ''Do you know the way to Koh Sireh?'' to the tune of ''Do you know the way to San Jose?'' When we got there, we danced away the Saturday afternoon with the sea gypsies to a jukebox under a shady corrugated iron roof. It's just a few minutes' drive but a whole world away from Phuket City. The sea gypsies, like the modern-day farang home buyers, came to Phuket and liked it so much they decided to stay. While their culture on Koh Sireh remains fairly strong, north along the Phang Nga coast many sea gypsies have been rehoused post-tsunami on higher ground, so the isolation that preserved their culture no longer protects them. On Koh Sireh, dining at one of the restaurants along the beach allows you to take in the majesty of the Phang Nga coast in the distance, something the island's east coast offers that the west coast cannot match. When the tide goes out here, it goes out a very long way. People go on sea walks, looking for cockles. It's a good place to try a raw prawn salad. Thai cooking lessons are useful anywhere but against this backdrop they come highly recommended.

46. The Monks
We love the color saffron and the sight of shaved heads and bare feet in the morning. Monks and their female equivalents out gathering food lift our hearts and probably help keep incidents of road rage to a minimum, too. There's a serenity on the streets whenever they walk by. We even love the sound of the nunnery zither at 3.30am, knowing that while the day is beginning there, we can roll over and go back to sleep.


47. 48. 49. Small Sunsets, Big Sunrises
The best place to see a tropical sunset is somewhere away from the crowds. Nai Yang remains a great spot for solitude and good food as the sun drops into the sea. There's a choice between Western-style restaurants, or a Thai-style picnic at low tables, the kind that is also popular along the Rawaii seafront. We hope nobody has read this far because we'd like to keep this a secret for a little while longer. In any case, sunsets are for late-risers. We prefer sunrise. The birth of a day is much more significant because it always heralds hope. A man on a motorcycle used to ride up Rang Hill in Phuket City every morning. He would prop in the same spot, with his feet on a low wall. Around him, the jungle would be breathing softly. Some mornings, squirrels and monkeys could be heard. The flowers are beautiful, even before dawn. The man would sit on his motorcycle until the light hit his face. Then he would ride off into the new day, smiling.

50.The Big Buddha
Due for completion in 2009, the Big Buddha is quite an achievement for a quirky holiday island. It's already the largest sitting buddha in Thailand, and at 45 metres tall it towers over the 34-metre Hong Kong version. Burmese workers scamper across scaffolding, putting in place the white marble that will eventually cover the entire structure. The views across both sides of the island are astonishing, well worth the five-kilometre trek up from Chao Fa Road West. People talk about the serenity that can be found up here, above the island's hustle and bustle, above the chaos and the clutter. Thais talk of mee kwam suk, inner happiness. If there is a place on the island where it can always be found, even if only fleetingly, this is it.

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