Published: March 23rd 2011March 19th 2011
We arrived at one of Phuket’s
eastern ferry terminals at 10.30am, jumped into a songthaew
(small pickup truck/ute with seats in the tray) and headed to the Gibbon Rehabilitation Centre (where gibbons are rescued from captivity and carefully reintroduced into a nearby forest after they find a mate). We arrived at 11am and found ourselves mesmerised by the 15 or so gibbons that were on show for the public because they could not - for various reasons - be rehabilitated into the wild. I was particularly taken with Bo (or Rambo). He had been a pet since he was a baby and his teeth had been filed down by his owner to stop him biting. The owner surrendered him to the Centre when he matured and became too much to handle. He eventually found a mate and had two babies with her, and this was the trigger for releasing him (and his new family) into the wild. Unfortunately, the wild wasn’t for Bo - he would follow people out of the forest and turn up unannounced at the Centre. Despite attempts to re-unite him with his family, Bo didn’t like freedom, so he now lives permanently at the Rehabilitation
Centre while his family roams free in the nearby forest.
We had lunch at the Centre at 12pm. Ren had a very ordinary pad thai
(rice noodles stir fried with shrimp, egg, bean sprouts, tofu, chillies, fish sauce and peanuts) while I had an amazing yum met mamuang himaphan
(Thai style spicy cashew salad). After freshening up with an iced coffee, we headed to our hotel (Karon Living Room
) that was set back a little from Karon Beach. We arrived at 1pm and it was unbelievably hot. Our packs had been on top of the minibus, so our clothes were almost too hot to unpack. We showered, caught up on emails and then headed down to Karon Beach. Ren found a masseur on the beach and I found a shady spot to sit and catch up on my writing. While Karon Beach is definitely not for me, you can lose yourself in thought when you are overly warm and have a cold beer at hand on a hot day. I definitely lost myself on Karon Beach, and judging by Ren’s face, so did she - especially with Michael Jackson blaring from loud speakers in a beachfront venue beside the
We walked back to the hotel via a street market, where we sampled sugar cane juice and the most succulent chicken skewers. Thunder filled the sky and it started raining softly as we walked. We got back to the hotel at 6.15pm, freshened up and headed out for dinner at a restaurant just around the corner. We shared gai pad khing
(stir fried chicken with ginger) and goong gaeng pa naeng
(prawns in dry spicy red curry). It was sensational food. After dinner, six of us headed to Patong. This was to be an experience. We walked along one of the main streets, dropped into a bar where a local band was playing covers and shared a few cocktails (Long Island Iced Teas and Phuket Paradises). The band’s song list included Gun’s N Roses, Santana, Dire Straits, Metallica, The Knack, Bob Marley, Kings of Leon, ABBA… the list went on (and on). They were good fun, and we had a ball. We left and gathered the courage to venture down the seedier stretches that lay just off the main strip. It was getting hilarious when we came across a venue titled “A## Smacking Fun”. A number
of touts outside the venue were using rubber batons to accentuate the venue’s title, so needless to say I continued past at great haste. However, the rest of the group (five girls) were having an absolute ball, and for one agonising second I feared I would have to succumb to group consensus and enter the venue with them. Fortunately, reason prevailed, and we continued our journey through the sad and seedy streets. We enjoyed the experience (more to do with the company than the location), but at the back of all our minds lurked the stark reality of human exploitation at the hands of unrestricted and uncontrolled sex tourism. It was such a contrast to the serenity of the night before on the beach of Koh Yao Noi.
We jumped into a songthaew
at midnight and headed back to the hotel. Even though we didn’t need to get up early tomorrow, it was time to crash. These are the days holidays are made of (or at least made for).
I woke late at 7.30am to catch up on some writing before we headed down for breakfast at 9.30am. We decided to take a local songthaew
to Phuket Town,
and another travel companion and our Guide accompanied us. We left at 10.45am and arrived around 11.30am. We wandered through the streets of the old city, and it was incredible. It had a very bohemian and creative atmosphere, which was such a contrast to the side of Phuket we had experienced the night before. Our first stop was the Governor’s Mansion, which had been converted into a hip bar, colonial 5-star restaurant and cooking school. After a tour of the mansion, we continued meandering through the very arty and art-style streets of this amazing place. I love travel days when you chance upon things that are completely unexpected. There were very few tourists - most were baking on the beaches of Karon, Kata and Patong. We picked up a memory card for Ren’s camera at the most retro camera shop I’ve ever been in and then retreated from the intense midday sun for Thai iced tea and iced coffee at the museum coffee shop. We retraced our steps, jumped back onto the local songthaew
at 2pm and headed back to Karon. We arrived at 2.30pm, picked up our laundry and relaxed in our air-conditioned hotel room.
I caught up
on my writing while Ren had an afternoon nap. After a quick shower, we headed out to dinner at 4pm, but we had a few scheduled stops beforehand. There are a number of scenic vantage points along the coastline that allow you to view the various beaches around Phuket, and we ended up at a great viewpoint where we watched the sun set behind a giant rain cloud on the horizon (with lightening flashing all around us). The sunset was almost perfect, but the rain cloud prevented the burning orange sun casting a shimmering river of light over the sea. We had shared the sunset with thousands of tourists, but the anticlimax sent many of them bussing off before the sun disappeared. We jumped back into the minibus and headed to our hilltop restaurant which overlooked the Phuket coastline. We settled into a fantastic table but were quickly moved when staff thought the lightning storm would escalate into rain. When we were safely undercover (much to our disappointment - we were more than happy to dine in the rain), we shared a som tum
(Thai spicy green papaya salad), pad see ew
(stir fried wide rice noodles with chicken and
basil leaf), and a pla muek gaeng phed
(squid in spicy red curry). It was sensational. Ren finished her meal with a banana pancake before we minibussed back to the hotel and farewelled a few of our travel companions. We headed out for a last drink with our remaining travel companions, and we struggled to find a suitable venue. The bar we eventually chose was less than ideal but the better of many evils - two fat old men were stroking their pathetic egos with two young Thai prostitutes at one of the back tables. We must have killed the mood, because they upped stumps and left (with young girls in tow) soon after we arrived. We retired at 10.30am as we had an early start in the morning. We were flying back to Bangkok, and we needed an early night.
I’ve shared my favourite joke with you already… “Man who walk sideways through airport turnstile is going to Bangkok.” Needless to say, I’ll be very careful with the airport turn stiles tomorrow. SHE SAID...
After an hour wooden boat ride from Koh Yao Noi, we were in the tourist-thronged island of Phuket
. Talk about an
extreme change of pace! We had docked on the east coast of Phuket Island and then travelled in a songthaew
through large rubber tree plantations on our way to visit Phuket's Gibbon Rehabilitation Centre. We also passed a few very distressing and horrible ‘tourist’ elephant camps where it is very apparent that the elephants are in terrible condition. I cannot understand how any tourist could support such overt animal cruelty.
The Gibbon Rehabilitation Centre exists because there is a lucrative illegal gibbon trade here. Baby gibbons are cruelly kept as chained pets to be paraded about for tourist photo opportunities on Patong beach, but the even crueller hidden side of this is that the parent gibbons are usually shot before the baby gibbons are stolen. The Centre (run by a local NGO) hopes to educate locals and tourists to try and stop the practice and to also provide a safe place for dumped gibbons who are too old for the tourist trade. They try and create ‘families’ of the gibbons and then reintroduce them to the wild together. However it doesn’t always end well; and the gibbons that are physically or emotionally unable to take care of themselves
in the wild return to the Centre and live in the long term area. The Centre was informative but not as enlightening as I had expected.
There was an option to walk to a nearby waterfall but it was a hot day and nobody felt like a walk. After a lunch of average pad thai
(rice noodles stir fried with shrimp, egg, bean sprouts, tofu, chillies, fish sauce and peanuts) and an amazing yum met mamuang himaphan
(Thai style spicy cashew salad) at a local cafe near the Gibbon Rehabilitation Centre, we spent what felt like hours navigating heavy traffic across Phuket town to the west coast and Karon Beach. The highlight of this songthaew
trip was that we got to see a large section of the island!
We checked in to our room at Karon Living Room Phuket
and had a much needed AC cool down and shower before gathering our strength to venture into the madness. The hotel was charming and more than adequate for just two nights. We were initially unhappy about the five to ten minute walk to the beach; however, we were eventually grateful for not being closer to the main beach area
when we realised that the bars were still in very loud party mode when we walked through late at night.
We made an effort to walk down to the beach, but the hot and difficult walk on a very busy main road lined with pushy vendors didn’t put us in the best of moods. Andrew took an instant dislike to the beach and its unbroken line of deck chairs three deep, but I really wanted a massage so Andrew bought some beers and camped by my massage beach hut while I had my most expensive and most average oil massage to date. The setting should have been heavenly, but a beach party being set up nearby was doing a very loud sound check which killed the tranquillity somewhat. The only highlight of that outing was the very vibrant local market we visited. It was early evening and the night vendors were starting to do a roaring trade. We tried the freshly bbqed chicken skewers which were amazingly tasty.
That night Ae took us to Ya Restaurant
on the main drag, and yet again Ae’s choice of restaurant was perfect. Andrew and I shared a fabulous goong gaeng pa naeng
(prawns in dry spicy red curry) and gai pad khing
(stir fried chicken with ginger). As glad as I was that we were not on Patong Beach with its seedy red light district, girlie bars, fake clothing labels and tacky souvenirs; Karon Beach does lack the good eateries and bar options that are plentiful on Patong and Kata beaches. However, in spite of the smaller choice of eateries, Karon Beach is definitely my preference over Patong and Kata beaches; but even here you cannot escape the ‘Phuket Tourist’. I never ever ever want to see another 70-something old leathery skinned man in a pair of tiny g-string bathers…that image is permanently burnt into the back of my retinas. I am truly scarred!
We (Andrew, Ae, Julie-Anne, Nadine, Jessica and myself) caught a songthaew
down to Patong Beach for a few drinks after dinner. Patong Beach’s Bangla Road was as over the top horrible as you would expect a sex tourism capital to be - with dancing girls, lady boys, bar madams and beer girls all trying to vie for our attention. As odd as it may sound, we settled into a bar with live music and
2-for-1 cocktails and actually had a great time singing along to the popular numbers by the very entertaining (but eclectic) band. The Burmese singer was very welcoming and the Thai drummer doubled as their reggae guy (probably because of his afro). However, even though we were off the main girlie bar area, looking around at the other clientele in the bar was a swift reminder that most of the men here were paying for their ‘date’ by the hour. Andrew was relatively un-hassled by the bar girls because he was surrounded by five girls, but even he wasn’t spared the ‘smacking’ by the guys dressed up in devil outfits trying to tempt us to go into ‘The A** Smacking Fun Bar’. After a few hours of the circus that is uniquely Patong Beach, we retreated back to our hotel for some much needed sleep.
I slept in until 9am the next morning, and we then had a hurried breakfast of omelette for me and a continental breakfast for Andrew. We had planned on going to visit the old town area of Phuket Town. Julie joined us, and as we waited at the bus stop outside the hotel, Ae surprised
us with her company too. We caught the 10:30am public bus which was a large songthaew
(the size of a small truck with side seats in the back) which took about an hour on windy hilly roads. Phuket Town is a sprawling modern large capital city, but it was once a bustling town with a large Chinese population. The old town area is basically one main street with a few very cute lanes off it. The architecture is Sino-Portuguese and most of the buildings are still in very good condition. As we were walking towards the old town we were struck by the grandeur of the old Governor’s mansion set in large park like gardens. As we approached it we realised that it was now a restaurant and cooking school, and in true Ae style she thought we should have a look inside. She convinced the staff that she was on a fact finding mission for Intrepid Travel and we got to look around what turned out to be an exquisitely refurbished mansion. There was a very modern and funky bar in one of the front rooms and very surprisingly the juxtaposition of new and old worked brilliantly. The rest
of the house was furnished in an old Colonial Chinese style, with dark woods, lush fabrics, old world ceiling fans and masses of orchids in all possible colours. I really loved this place - one of my favourite buildings and interior design styles on this trip.
We had come to Phuket Town to see old architecture, but we soon realised that this area was very stylish in parts and there was a small pocket of focussed modern art and interior design going on in this neighbourhood. The interior designs were cute experimentations of art deco and post war styles. We walked down Soi Romanee (the Street of Happiness), a small lane that was the old red light district. The buildings here were markedly more flamboyant. We kept stoping at almost every house to take photographs of beautiful exteriors and sometimes even more beautiful interiors. The residents didn’t seem to mind, probably because we were the only four people doing so. The street still seemed to be mostly owned by Chinese families - there were Chinese lanterns above the front doors and Chinese clan names on the altars outside the houses. There was also a small Muslim community here
as reflected in the few Muslim shop fronts. We walked to the end of the whole street, and then doubled back on the other side so that we could see the facades on both sides. It was a hot day and we had a well-earned rest in the coffee shop of the Museum of Phuket. Thai iced tea for me and iced coffees for everyone else. I have fallen in love with Thai tea, which has a distinct orange colour and tastes like normal tea but with a creamy twist. We also had a snack of banana roti that we had bought along the way at one of the small Muslim cafes on the street.
After a totally unexpectedly amazing day of sightseeing, I had a quick nap and then had to tear myself away from the bed to get ready for our sunset tour and the final group dinner Ae had booked for us. We all met at reception at 4pm and got into a minibus which took us to the Karon Viewpoint, where you can see the three beaches of Kata, Karon and Patong all lined up. It was very pretty; however, if anyone had been up
here on that fateful morning when the Tsunami hit in 2004, they would have seen a frightful sight hit the entire coastline as far as the eye could see. We then went to the Nai Harm viewpoint further south. This hill top had two wind turbines and a lovely view of the islands, coastlines and beaches. There was a wedding photo shoot going on and most of us were slightly more interested in the couple and their entourage of photographers, video person, make up person and fanning assistant, than looking at the view. The third stop was Phom Thep Cape for the sunset view. It was packed, and Ae said this was a ‘must see’ location for local tourists. Unfortunately, the sunset was washed out by stormy rain clouds, but it was still a good but very very humid experience.
After this we drove to the After Beach Restaurant
on a cliff top look out for dinner. It would have been a beautiful outlook, but within seconds of sitting at the best table in the house, the waiters ushered us into the undercover space because there had been a few drops of rain. So no view, but the food
and cocktails was phenomenal - Andrew and I shared a som tum
(Thai spicy green papaya salad), a pad see ew
(stir fried wide rice noodles with chicken and basil leaf), and a pla muek gaeng phed
(squid in spicy red curry). I was wonderfully sated but still had to try the banana pancake for dessert! As we have travelled further south in Thailand, I have noticed that fried food seems to be more prevalent than the fresher taste sensations of the north. I’m not complaining, mind you...it’s all still very very delicious, but just not as healthy.
This was our last night together, and when we were dropped off at the hotel, we said goodbye to some of the group. However Ae, Julie, Julie-Anne, Nadine, Jessica, Andrew and I were up for one last drink together. Finding a bar that wasn’t seedy was a hard task. We finally settled on the one that was the quietest, and commandeered the front of the bar. Andrew was convinced we were bad for their ‘old western man’ business, but I don’t think they minded as we were buying drinks. We then said a sad goodbye to the girls who had been
really fun to travel with, and retired to our room to pack for our early transfer to the airport the next morning.
Phuket Airport was insanely busy and it was the first time I had to queue to just walk into an airport! But we checked in with no hassles and then had breakfast in the departure lounge. After two days in Phuket, today is the last day of our Thailand Adventure
trip, and we are now waiting to fly to Bangkok to start our next adventure - a few days on the national park island of Koh Samet.
Phuket had been interesting to say the least; we struggled with aspects of its culture, but loved other unexpected treasures it has. It is so sad that sex tourism riding on the back of mass tourism has overtaken whole parts of a beautiful land and corrupted its culture. What is sadder to me is that a whole industry that so obviously exists is ignored by authorities, leaving it unregulated and the women within it with no rights or protection. I know that it is a complex social, cultural, sexual and moral situation…but I cannot help but judge these sad
sad men who are happy to exploit the situation.
See you in bustling Bangkok!