Phuket is a small island south of mainland Thailand. We went there on our very first trip to SE Asia. It is called Asia’s most popular beach destination. Of course, this was before the Big Tsunami a few years back. It faces the Andaman Sea, that everyone became familiar with after the tsunami. It is beautiful, blue, and peaceful sea most of the time. By the way, Phuket is pronounced pooh-kett. Forest, rubber and palm oil plantations cover 60% of the island. The western coast, where we were headed has several sandy beaches, while on the east coast beaches are more often muddy. The island is mostly mountainous with a mountain range in the west of the island from the north to the south.
We took the flight from Bangkok, only an hour away on a big 747. It was full of tourists, and businessmen. On the hour flight, Thai Airways serves both a beverage service and a meal. We are lucky in the states to get a soft drink these days. We decided to stay away from the touristy and cheesy Patong Beach. We opted for Karon Beach instead. Karon Beach, featuring a long stretch of squeaky white sand, is less hectic than Patong but still offers a full range of facilities, dining and activities. While it’s a fast-growing area, Karon is spread out and rarely feels crowded.
Karon is concentrated around three main areas: The Karon Plaza area on the south end features a number of budget guesthouses, restaurants and bars. The side sois are worth exploring, particularly the one that leads to a small art community, where some budding Thai painters have built a complex of huts, pubs and art galleries in which they live and work.
Our first day, we met in the hotel bar. Our friend Mike was already there with a cold beer, teaching English to a nice young Thai busboy. They were almost inseparable for the next four days while we were there. The busboy practiced his English with Mike helping him. He also made sure plenty of cold beer was available. We ventured down to a beachside cafe for dinner. Naturally, seafood was the big attraction. We found very few Americans. It seemed most of the lighter skinned visitors were Swedish. It turns out that many years ago, the Swedes bought up timeshares there. This may also have been the meal that caused some intestinal discomfort for us.
We walked into the little town of Karon, just to walk off dinner, try to cool off, and see what we could see. The first thing we saw was a string of three young elephants walking down the main street with their trainer or mahout. All of a sudden, the trainers have the elephants sitting down, and turning 360 degrees. It was meant to be entertainment for us tourists. We were also expected to give a small tip, which we gladly did. It turns out that tourism actually helped save the elephants. They were being phased out as workers in construction, in favor of tractors and other heavy equipment. But when they found out that tourists wanted to see, ride and learn, they made a big comeback. The trainers actually make more money than the tour guides.
Mike and I went golfing the next day. We wanted to play where Tiger usually plays when he visits his mother’s homeland. But we settled for the Laguna Country Club, about 40 minutes up the coast. We had to rent clubs, but brought our own shoes, golf balls, and gloves. They assigned two female caddies to us. Mine was kind of young, and attractive. Mike got a grumpy older lady. How is that for good fortune?
When we teed, off, that was the last time we touched our golf ball. From that point on, the female caddies did everything. Besides clubbing us, and cleaning the golf ball when we got to the green, they lined up putts, took care of the flag, and pulled our ball out of the cup. They carried our bags to the next tee, and teed up our ball. I did not touch the ball again until she handed it to me on the 18th green.
It was a rather warm, muggy day, but bearable. We played halfway decently with the rented clubs. About the 4th or 5th hole, the refreshment cart came around. Mike and I each got a beer, and offered the caddies a cold drink as well. What do you think they chose? They both chose a cold bottle of milk!!! They did this again two more times. Now I don’t know about you, but when I am hot and thirsty, I would take water, beer or soda. They wore bluish-green uniforms that looked like surgical scrubs, and a bonnet to keep the sun off of their beautiful and flawless faces.
When we finished, we gave them their customary tip. We also gave them our leftover golf balls, and another bottle of milk. I have never seen happier caddies in all my life. It turns out they can sell the American golf balls for more than the Thai made golf balls. We had a few more beers and a sandwich before heading back to our hotel.
We were so tired, we decided to relax in the afternoon. Mike and I ordered a massage before dinner. The typical Thai massage is quite vigorous. My body does not respond well to their pretzel making skills, so I opted for a gentler Swedish massage. It was so good that I felt like a dish rag after. The five or six beers did not hurt anything either. Did I tell you how good Thai beer tastes on a warm day? We were so spent that we had dinner that night at the hotel dining room and called it an early evening.
The next day was a total relaxation day. We had to catch a plane later, but Mike headed to the famous limestone karsts or islands on the east coast of Phuket island. He had a long van ride, then another two hours on a long tail boat. I am glad we passed on this little trip. He said it was quite grueling, and he almost got seasick. Me and the sea are not the best of friends. If I was born Hemingway, I would not have been able to write “The Old Man and the Sea”.
Phuket is a place to visit just once, despite the beauty. It is very poor, as we saw along the little beach towns. An entire family rides on a single motorbike. Trucks rumble by with fifty people catching a ride on the back. I imagine they want tourists there after the tsunami. But we found the culture there to be somewhat different than the Thai mainland. We found out from locals, like our busboy friend that it wasn’t just our imagination. It turns out that Phuket has a much higher (30% vs less than 10% on the mainland) percentage of Muslims. While still friendly, they were more distant than the Buddhists. We could feel it at the hotel, and the restaurants.
While this is not the case in a place like Malaysia, it is quite evident here. In Malaysia, the Chinese, Buddhists, and Muslims intermingle quite peacefully and easily. But local merchants are very receptive to Americans. We did feel welcome most everywhere, especially in bars, and at the golf course. I readily volunteered to come over here after the tsunami through my employer. But they needed big fixes, like sanitation engineers, and architects, heavy equipment operators, and city planners, not a lowly pill pusher.
People have told us that the other islands are as beautiful and not as touristy. Maybe our next trip will be to Samui or Phi Phi, both a little more remote, and much smaller. We enjoyed the Malay islands of Langkawi and Penang so much more. But who knows, you never know until you try.