Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Two weeks in Thailand: Part 3 Phuket

We landed in Phuket at about 3pm after a short but, for me , excruciatingly painful (on the ears) flight from Chiang Mai. We then embarked upon an unexpectedly long, difficult and expensive journey to get to our hostel which was at the other end of the island to the airport in an area called Kata. Unfortunately, there aren't really any proper metered taxis in Phuket (at least we never saw or heard of any) which means that unless you have your own wheels it's very hard to get around without paying through the nose. We bought tickets for the minibus for 180 baht each which was a lot cheaper than the price the private taxis were asking for. However, the catch was that you had to wait until the bus filled up which took a surprisingly long time, about an hour in our case. We finally set off in heavy traffic but after 15 minutes driving the minibus pulled in at a tour desk so they could "check our tickets" and hawk tours and hotels to a captive audience. None of us were very impressed and, after making our feelings on that perfectly clear, they eventually let us go and we were on the road again. After a long time we finally made it to our hostel which turned out to be more like a hotel than any hostel I've ever stayed in. Our room was lovely, with a massive bed, coloured lights both under the bed and elsewhere, nice decor, a big bathroom, flat screen TV and a balcony. The only drawback was the lack of mosquito screens and nets which meant that every time we went out on to the balcony or came back to the room after it had been cleaned we would have to go on a massive mozzie splatting hunt. This was also the first place we stayed at that didn't offer breakfast. Still, there were small negatives and the couple who ran the place were friendly and helpful and there was a small sandy coloured lizard that spent a lot of time hunting insects on the hostel's lobby walls which was interesting to watch.

Our rather salubrious room at the Jinta Andaman hostel/hotel in Kata, Phuket.

The Jinta's live-in lizard. Every home should have one.

Once we had unpacked and waited for a thunderstorm to pass over, we went out to explore our area and find some dinner. Although there were several restaurants near to our hostel, we thought it would be a good idea to strike out towards the beach front. This turned out to be a mistake as the beach road was totally monopolised by Club Med so there were no shops or restaurants to be found. After getting lost and wandering around for ages on the dark empty beach road, we finally made it back to civilisation and started looking for somewhere to eat. We were shocked by the prices for meals on Phuket though, especially after how cheap Chiang Mai was. Prices for meals were 3 or 4 times what they had been in Chiang Mai and Bangkok and the eating options were mainly limited to European style restaurants selling Western style food at 300 baht or more per plate. Phuket seemed to cater much more to European package holidaymakers with money to burn than to penny pinching backpacker scum like us so it took us a while to find somewhere to eat but we settled on a pizza place that had a "special offer" on cheap pizzas - only 150 baht per small pizza. After a 30 minute wait, we were served the worst pizza I have ever seen or tasted in my life. I don't understand how they could make it so badly. It looked like it had been microwaved or something. It was tiny, the base was thin as paper and soggy and it was topped with a mush of tomato gunk, no sign of any cheese. To make matters worse the music in there was bloody awful too - it started with U2 and went downhill from there! Not a good start to our stay in Phuket.

We decided to spend the next day lazing on nearby Kata beach so we got up pretty late and had a nice unhealthy breakfast of fried noodle wrapped prawns for Rowan and pancakes and pineapple for me. We hired a couple of sun-loungers on the beach and were set up for the day with bottles of beer and salt and vinegar Kettle Chips. Kata beach was gorgeous and more than made up for the annoyances of the previous day. The water was really warm, like swimming in a big bath, and it stayed shallow for a long way out. In the evening, we went to a restaurant near our hostel which seemed to serve mainly Scandinavian food at horrendous prices (Kata beach is a very popualr resort with Scandinavian tourists apparently so many restaurants cater to them and have horned Viking helmets on their signs). However, they also served some Thai food at more reasonable prices though it turned out that it wasn't particularly nice. They did do some lovely garlic bread there though. We crashed out fairly early that night as we had a 7.10am start for a boat tour to see Phi Phi island the next morning.

Rowan's breakfast of noodle wrapped fried prawns.

Gasoline in glass bottles for sale at the side of the road - a bit different to petrol stations back home!

Kata Yai beach, just a short walk from our hostel.

Kata Yai beach again, just because it was so lovely!

As the sun started to go down the rain clouds began to gather.

There was a small rocky, jungle covered island just off the beach that you could visit if you hired a longtail boat though we didn't get around to it.

We were looking forward to the tour to Phi Phi island as it is supposed to be one of the most beautiful islands in all of Thailand. Early in the morning we piled into a minibus with the trademark low ceiling that seems common to all Thai minibuses and after 45 mins or so we arrived at a very busy port on the southern end of the island. The port was absolutely rammed with tour boats going out to Phi Phi. We were herded onto ours and given a red sticker to identify us as day trip passengers rather than the one way folks. It took us about 1 hour 20 ins to get to Phi Phi and it was a very sunny, windy trip. We were up on the open top deck of the boat and saw several groups of jelly fish in the sea on the way to the islands which was cool but hard to capture on the camera unfortunately.

The early morning Phi Phi tour boat scrum. Tourism on Phuket seemed to be mostly of the mass variety.

A lone jelly fish spotted from our boat on the way to Phi Phi.

View from the boat on the way to Phi Phi.

Another bunch of pretty islands seen on the way to Phi Phi.

When we arrived at the Phi Phi islands (they're actually a chain of islands but most people just visit the 2 largest ones) we found that they were indeed very beautiful. We took a few photos and then docked at Phi Phi Don (the biggest island in the chain) and were kept waiting for a long time while the one way passengers disembarked and some cargo was off loaded. This was pretty annoying as the guy we booked the tour with had promised that we would get 4 hours on the main island itself and we had already worked out that this wasn't possible given what the time was and a long wait to let people off and dump cargo was just eating into our "free time" on the island even more. This set the tone for both the tours we did on Phuket though - both tours never really delivered what they promised and there was no flexibility - we were herded through a tightly packed schedule with hoards of other tourists from around the world . Still, given that it is virtually impossible to travel around Phuket without your own transport or by paying a ridiculous amount to some private taxi cab, the tours were our best option to see a few of the sights without totally bankrupting ourselves in the process. We eventually set off again and cruised around the Phi Phi Lee, the second biggest island where the movie "The Beach" was filmed and took loads of photos. It was a really beautiful looking island, almost to the point of not looking real.

Phi Phi island - can't remember if it was the big or the small one but it was very pretty anyway!

More pics of Phi Phi.

Phi Phi Don harbour.

The Phi Phi islands really were very impressive.

Strange rock formations at Phi Phi.

We then did a bit of snorkeling off the back of the boat for an hour or so. The cheeky tour operators wanted to charge extra for the fins even though the snorkeling was an integral part of the tour! The coral was pretty although there was a lot of damage (not sure if that was from the 2004 tsunami or from people stepping on it) and it was dominated by long spined sea urchins which made it a little unnerving to swim around. It was the first time I had ever been snorkeling when I was able to actually see what I was looking at as I had learned to put contacts in especially for snorkeling in Thailand. It was definitely worth it though unfortunately we didn't have a waterproof camera to get any pictures. We saw so many different kinds of fish of all colours and sizes and two small sea snakes too sitting on the coral which was amazing. The tour guides were feeding the fish which meant they were swarming all around us which was a bit weird at first but unlike their freshwater cousins in Erawan National Park, the sea fish weren't interested in nibbling us. Our favourite fish were the black, white and yellow arrow head shaped fish and the long, rounder, metallic purple and turquoise ones. I've yet to positively identify what either of those fish are called despite numerous Google searches but I think the yellow, black and white fish may have been some kind of bannerfish. After an all too brief period of time we were called back on the boat to go for lunch which was to be served on Phi Phi Don. As we got off the boat we were told we had to be back on it again in just over an hour which didn't leave much time for looking around. So much for those fabled 4 hours on the island! To add insult to injury we were required to pay 20 Baht each just to come onto the island. As usual the tour operators had failed to mention that there would be extra charges - ho hum, that's Phuket for you, trying to squeeze you for every last baht. We were hurriedly led through the thronging crowds on the island to the other end of the main street where the tour company;s restaurant was. The food was a buffet mostly consisting of deep fried fish paste, rice and noodles which was pretty unappetizing so I went to a little convenience shop and got some snacks and beer which we took onto the beach in front of the restaurant. The sandy beach was beautiful and Rowan got a bit of swimming in before the heavens opened up and we were treated to a downpour of truly biblical proportions. After 10 minutes of hiding in the restaurant the rain eased and we decided to make a run for it. We stayed inside the boat for the return journey even though the rain stopped pretty quickly and had a fairly uneventful trip back to Phuket.

An example (not my photo I'm afraid as we didn't have a waterproof camera with us) of a pair of Long-fin Bannerfish that look pretty similar to the black, white and yellow fish we saw while snorkeling off Phi Phi. Not definite they were exactly the same as the ones we saw but pretty close anyway.

On the beach at Phi Phi Don just in front of our tour company's restaurant.

The weather turned just after we had our lunch.

It rained incredibly hard.

The heavy rain clouds were being shredded on the rocky peaks of the island.

A gloomy looking Phi Phi beach as the storm was abating.

After the minibus journey back to Kata where we were staying, we decided to check out a local bar that had a long happy hour from 12pm - 6pm and try out their cheap cocktails. We got a couple of rather bizarre margaritas with lots of crushed ice, no salt or triple sec but loads of lime so they were more like tequila and lime slush puppies. Weird but tasty! As we were drinking it started pouring with rain again so we hid there for quite a while. That night we had our first meal at a lovely local restaurant called Red Snapper, an Italian Japanese fusion place. The food there was so good that we returned to eat there another 2 times during our Phuket stay. They made a lovely carbonara and Rowan's steak with Mediterranean veg and balsamic vinegar was amazing, even if he did have to send it back the first time because they'd overdone it. The tiramisu was gorgeous too.

Rowan's delicious steak dinner from Red Snapper.

We had another early start the next day for our tour of the "James Bond Island" with some sea kayaking thrown in. We had the usual minibus ride, a long one this time up to a small port called Ao Po on the northern end of the island. After being shuttled along the long pier by a large songthaew truck we boarded our tour boat. That was quite amusing as we had to climb through a couple of other boats to get to our one and it wasn't particularly safe moving between them, especially for the couple with a baby and a pushchair. We started the tour by being shown a map and our main guide talking through where we were going to visit on the trip. The schedule for the day consisted of us cruising around some of the islands in Phang Nga Bay. Phang Nga Bay is very picturesque with many dramatic, craggy, limestone outcrops jutting out from the ocean. Many of these craggy islands had caves formed within them that could be explored either by foot or by kayak. Our tour included exploring the caves with sea canoes. Our tour guides gave us numbers, divided us up into pairs and assigned us to our canoe. Each inflatable canoe came with a guide to do the paddling for you which was nice for the lazy folk like me but annoying for anyone who had expected to have some kind of autonomy. For our first stop that day, we were paddled the short distance to the shore of a small islet in our inflatable canoe. My shorts got soaked as our canoe was a bit waterlogged and there was no sign of the waterproof bags we'd been promised. To be honest we were pretty disappointed with the canoe ride, it was nothing like the proper sea kayaking we'd done in Croatia a couple of years ago but the islet was really interesting. It seemed to just consist of a high outcrop of limestone covered in jungly vegetation and not a lot more. However, when we went ashore onto its tiny sandy beach with seemingly nowhere to go, we were handed torches and directed into a small cave entrance. The water in the cave was warm and over knee deep in some places and we waded through it for about 150 meters until we emerged out of the cave and into the island's mangrove filled interior. The outcrop of rock was actually more like a ring and we were standing in the hole inside surrounded by sheer walls of limestone covered in jungle. It was an amazing place and we even saw a group of monkeys high up above us perched on the limestone cliffs. After wading back through the cave we were paddled back to our boat and went on to the next island where we took a longer canoe ride under cliffs strung with stalactites/mites and though larger flooded caves (called "hongs" - rooms) which contained several interesting rock formations that were supposed to look like various different things. Surprisingly, most of the rock formations did bear a striking resemblance to the things they were supposed to resemble.

A pretty island we saw on our travels in Phang Nga Bay.

Strange rocky island chains in Phang Nga Bay.

An island cave that we weren't able to visit by canoe due to the tides.

Sea canoes on the beach at the first island we visited.

Wading through a shallow part of the cave on the way to the island's interior.

The view of the interior as we emerged from the cave was stunning

It was really strange and beautiful in the interior of the island. The sides soared so high all around us and there were many strange rock formations inside too created by the eroded limestone.

A very blurry picture of on of the monkeys we saw in the interior of the first island. They were too far away to get a decent picture unfortunately.

The floor of the island's interior was muddy and provided the base for the twisted mangrove trees in this picture.

The entrance to the cave from the island's interior, skillfully held aloft by a couple of tourists.

Rowan's favourite member of our tour company's crew - Ms Screechy Pants. She seemed to delight in shouting orders at her unruly mob of passengers. Here she is, screeching "Number 8, number 8!" trying to get us into our correct canoes. She missed her calling as a Sergeant Major methinks.

Can you see the monkey head in the rock?

A tourist holding up a horseshoe crab that some local fishermen were passing around at one of the islands we visited.

One of the rocky crags (karsts) that we paddled around in our canoes.

Our guides actually paddled us into some of the caves when the tide was high enough.

Cave canoe traffic jam.

The elephant rock formation. Can you make it out? I think the resemblance is quite striking personally.

The next stop was the "James Bond Island" (actually called Khao Phing Kan). Although this was billed as the main selling point of the tour it was actually probably the worst part. We were off loaded dangerously into overloaded motorised long tail boats which began to list alarmingly when we turned so that we were all asked to move to one side of the boat to stop it from keeling over. We hadn't been given any life jackets at all despite there being small children and a baby on the boat so it was pretty luck we didn't keel over. Safety didn't really seem to be a big concern for our tour operator generally though so I was really glad I knew how to swim. When we got to the fabled island we were told we had to be back on the longtail boat by 2.15 pm which gave us the grand total of 8 minutes to look around the island. Luckily, it was pretty small and crowded and seemed to consist mainly of some caves and lots of stalls selling overpriced tourist tat so we weren't too bothered. On the other side of the island was the main sight that everyone had come for, the sandy beached bay with cliffs either side and a pillar of limestone rock jutting out of the water like a huge nail head. This was where the scenes from the 1974 Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun were filmed, giving the island it's popular name of James Bond Island.We took a few hurried snaps of the bay and then caught our longtail boat back to the tour boat with rain threatening yet again.

The man himself, back to back with his three nippled arch enemy Scaramanga, in front of the famous nail head shaped pillar of rock jutting out in the middle of the bay.

The motorised long tail boat that took us to the "007 Island".

They really packed us into the long tail boat, so much so that it started to tip when we turned - exciting!

There was a large, cavernous cave on the James Bond island that people were climbing around in.

Next to the large, room shaped cave was this high, vaulted cave.

The famous bay with the jutting rock pillar where the James Bond movie was filmed.

More small caves at the side of the bay.

Back on board the boat, we disappeared into Dave Pearce's Trance Trousers (Dave Pearce was a BBC Radio 1 DJ for years playing god-awful populist dance music) for about 20 minutes or so before switching to the traditional SE Asian soundtrack for the rest of the journey - The Eagles with their greatest hits, including, of course, Hotel California. As The Eagles blasted out their hits the clouds cleared, the sun came out again and we went back to the first island we'd visited, moored up and were allowed some actual free time to swim and paddle the canoes ourselves. It was great! We immediately grabbed a canoe and were the first ones in the water and spent time just paddling around, mostly in circle. I got evicted from the canoe in the end though by a crew member of another boat who had missed his boats departure and needed to catch it up so I was left to swim back to our boat. After our free time was up, the boat took us back to Phuket and we were taken by minibus back to Kata as usual.

Dangerous Dave Pearce with his trademark baseball cap that stops his tranced out brains spilling from his shaven crown. Who knows if he has his trance trousers on or not...

E is for Eagles. Hotel California seems to be a Thai standard.

The weather looking decidedly ominous again over Phang Nga Bay.

On the way back to Phuket, a member of the crew treated us to a free "lady boy" show, much to the distress and embarrassment of some of the more uptight, macho men on board.

That night we returned to our beloved Red Snapper and I had the best meal ever there - homemade gnocchi in a cheese sauce made with 5 cheeses and balsamic vinegar reduction - it was heaven on a plate! We had planned to go out in Patong that night as Patong is the main tourist area on Phuket but when we found out that it would cost us a minimum of 400 baht (just over 8 British pounds) one way for the 15 min car journey we decided not to bother. We only wanted to go there so we could see the sleazy human zoo that Patong is supposed to be. Instead, we checked out our local bars in Kata which were almost all neon lit girly bars with names like "Frisky's" selling overpriced drinks with bad music and a clientele of prostitutes and their customers.

Yes, that's right folks. Every Thursday at a bar in Kata, The King rises from the dead and sings again for adoring Scandinavian audiences.

The Thai Elvis doing his thing.

A street of go-go bars in Kata.

We decided to spend our last non-traveling day in Thailand on the beach. We got up pretty early for once and made it to the beach at low tide. We hired a couple of sun loungers, dumped our stuff and then hired snorkeling gear for the day from an old Thai bloke on the beach. We weren't really expecting to see much just snorkeling off the beach and at first, as we waded out, we didn't. The water stayed shallow for a hell of a long way, especially as it was low tide so we got quite a long way out while the water was still shallow enough to stand up in. Then, to our surprise, we found ourselves in caught up in a shoal of small fish and suddenly there were colourful fish everywhere! Just off Kata's main beach we discovered heaps of beautiful, unspoiled coral inhabited by all kinds of sea creatures. I think that actually the variety of fish was better than what we saw when we went snorkeling off the boat at Phi Phi. Our favourites this time included a big purple starfish and those lovely bannerfish were around again. We also saw a rather scary looking large, long, pointed fish that we at first mistook for a squid. No idea what it was but it freaked me out a bit as it was so big! We had a lovely day of swimming, snorkeling and lazing around and we were so lucky to have gone snorkeling at low tide as that was by far the best time to go. Unfortunately, we both managed to get pretty badly sunburnt on the backs of our legs while we snorkeling which made for a painful few days traveling back to Korea. It was worth it though. As it was our last night on Phuket and we couldn't decide whether to have Thai food or more gnocchi, we decided to go crazy and have both! We had starters at the Thai restaurant and crossed the road for some more gnocchi action at Red Snapper. It was delicious but so, so filling. That night we watched the stupid SyFy channel (one of only 2 English language channels) for the last time. That channel just seemed to show the same episodes of the same 4 or 5 programs every night in a slightly different order. It was pretty annoying but they did show Star Trek (Next Gen - woohoo!) and a really ridiculous program that had us in stitches called The Seeker which had the memorable lines "Not everyone is friendly in The Midlands" and "I used protection...magical protection" as an alibi in a paternity dispute between a woman and a wizard.

Snorkeling off Kata beach was amazing, particularly at low tide. Shame we didn't have a waterproof camera.

Walking in fins proved somewhat difficult.

The next morning we got driven back to the airport by a guy from the hostel for the bargain price of only 700 baht - expensive but still a bit cheaper than the private taxis would have charged. We took the short flight to Bangkok and caught the skytrain into the centre of town to our hostel called The Urban Age. It was a really basic place, no TV or bathroom in the double room and no cleaning for the last 10 years by the look of it either and a bed that was so soft it was like trying to sleep on a blancmange but it did have air con and a mosquito net and it was dead close to the skytrain which was our main concern as we had a morning flight back to Korea the next day. We went out that evening and explored the area including nearby Patpong Night Market which was mainly just stalls selling fake designer gear and a few tourist trinkets. The area was pretty sleazy, full of go-go bars advertising special shows. After the market, we looked for a place to get some dinner. There were a couple of nice sounding restaurants mentioned in the guidebook but we couldn't find them so ended up in Pizza Hut. Pizza Hut was playing some awful covers of some already pretty terrible songs and of course, before we left, we got treated to a strange salsa cover of Hotel California. We finished off our rather boring last night in Thailand by doing a bit of grocery shopping in supermarket to get some rum and a few other things you can't easily find in Korea. The next morning we said goodbye to Thailand and flew home to chilly Korea, taking full advantage of the free cocktails in offer on Thai Air to the point where we were pretty sloshed by the time we landed. It was a shock to the system getting back to Korea as it was -6°C, people were pushy as hell when waiting for the bus as they usually are here and we had to go to work the next day.

Hong Kong viewed from above through our plane window.

All in all, it was a pretty amazing holiday! I would love to go back to see more of Thailand but next time I would definitely skip Phuket and go to a quieter island, spend more time in charming Chiang Mai and do as many Thai cooking courses as I could afford!

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