It’s a short bridge across to the island; two hundred years ago people used to make the journey by elephant-back. The spoke-like rows of rubber trees rhythmically passing by in a car today are immediately hypnotic. Upright as sentries and organised as if for parade, the trees create a canopy that looks cool and inviting. Spiky fields of squatting pineapples, almost bleached colourless by the sun, provide a sharp contrast every now and again, and great gaping red wounds of earth holding puddles of water, a legacy of the island’s marriage to tin, are also surprising.
This is Phuket, probably the most written-about island in Thailand. I’d heard so much I’d stopped listening: it would be full of resorts, lots of crowded beaches and a multitude of restaurants a la Mauritius or the Maldives. I pondered why I was holidaying here as we headed down to Phuket Town, located inland on the southeast of the island: my budget wouldn’t allow for a splurge at Le Royal Meridian or Laguna, sunning myself on a beach was out due to a recent operation, and as som tham, grilled pork sticks and freshly-cubed pineapple keep me quite happy, the restaurants would be superfluous. Well, I’d see. My partner and I would find the flip-side to all those tourist brochures if it meant learning five-tone Thai.
While Phuket and its tin was a prized asset over which the Malays, Burmese and Thais fought, it’s the influence of those who worked the mines, the Chinese immigrants, that’s lingered through to today. The shophouses left by Chinese traders are prominently dotted along central Yaowarat, Thalang and Takuapa Roads in Phuket Town. Some are dilapidated, but others are being tastefully restored as restaurants and antique shops as their value becomes appreciated by younger Thais. Colourful Chinese temples also dot the town.
While even the Novotel has a presence in Phuket Town, we chose to stay at the more budget-friendly—and more charismatic—On On Hotel. A Chinese brothel in the 1920s, the hotel today retains the grace of a faded old beauty with sweeping wooden hallways and a grandiose reception. It’s very basic, but charmingly reminiscent of a gracious bygone era.
We headed out to dinner. Kajok See, a restaurant without a signpost—always a promising sign in itself—had come recommended. Situated in an old shophouse, the peeling walls, thoughtful flower arrangements, unobtrusive music and Thai decorations create a seductive ambience. The candles that emerged due to a blackout shortly after arrival only served to heighten the mood, and the food didn’t disappoint: their crunchy green mango salad with tiny dried shrimp and cashew nuts was enough to turn a girl off street food for life.
The time had come to hit a Thai bar. We headed first to the Khon Thai, where we were punished with icy airconditioning for being way too early. Things got going by 10 pm, the cover band raised the temperature and by the time we departed it was difficult to find a seat. The cover band (why are they always covers in Thailand?) at The Timber & Rock, our next stop, was generating mass crowd singalongs as we pulled up a seat at the bar, ordered some beers and muu manao (grilled pork with chilli, lime juice, chilli, garlic and chilli), and learned how Thais let their hair down. And on a Monday night!
It would have been easy to let our days turn to nights and dance the holiday away, but we were committed to serious exploration. So we hired a motorbike and headed out to the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project at Bang Pae waterfall. Established in 1992, the program’s goal is to save gibbons and their rainforest habitat via rehabilitation and education. At the Project’s centre, visitors are treated to a short tour by a volunteer who explains the program in detail. You won’t get to see the animals up close, as the objective of the program is to actually reduce contact with humans. Nevertheless, the enthusiasm our guide showed as she regaled us with tales of various ape antics more than made up for this.
Heading back south, a stop at the National Museum was in order. Housed in a spacious building, the museum looks not just at the history of Phuket, but of all of Thailand. Look out for the intriguing maps that trace the development of Bangkok. While the English translations are not always up to scratch, the museum still provides a fair Thailand-in-a-nutshell overview. The international tourist flying directly to Phuket for what they think is a holiday in Thailand should definitely make a stop here. Unfortunately, the museum was completely deserted during our visit.
The Butterfly Garden and Aquarium was next, a tranquil comma in an otherwise hectic day. A combined tropical garden, mini-zoo, insect display and aquarium make for a pleasant Thai flora and fauna experience—although some foreign species do make cameo appearances. Watch out for the friendly mynah bird who’ll be waiting to say hello, and the glassed-in cage containing masses of writhing black scorpions.
Our second dinner in Phuket Town was also memorable. Eclectic decorations make for a unique atmosphere to feast on excellent and very well-priced Thai food at Natural Restaurant, a haunt popular with local Thais. Try the steamed prawns in tamarind juice, and the stuffed squid in green curry. And there are the not-even-trying-to-be-authentic-because-we-are Thai-desserts to finish with.
Over the course of the next few days, we ventured to a variety of other places worth recommending. Stop for lunch at Tunk Ka on Khao Rang Hill in Phuket Town for a great Thai meal with a great view of the surrounds. Make sure you try the ‘Fried cashews with dried shrimp and young pepper, Tunk Ka style’ with a cold Singha beer. A trip to Chalong Bay is a must, both for the azure-blue bay scenery, and seafood lunch at Kanaeng Restaurant. Take a peaceful and enlightening walk among the mangroves in Sirinat National Park, which can be reached by songtheaw, even though you may have to squint at the sun-faded explanatory texts. A motorbike drive from Kata Beach to Cape Promthep will give you more than enough postcard-perfect views of beaches; time your drive to finish with sunset at the cape. And a two-hour visit to Siam Safari is a way to get close to some elephants while helping to support a company that actually helps the elephants.
Sure, we flirted with the Patong beach scene. The US Navy was in town, there was some shopping to be done, I succumbed to the desire for a steak: we could have been in any international resort town in the tropics. We had, however, done more than enough to be satisfied that we knew exactly where we were. And we were more than just pleased to be there.
- The On On Hotel, at 19 Phangnga Rd has basic single rooms (with a double bed and fan) for 150 baht.
- Kajok See is located at 26 Takuapa Rd, Phuket Town. Open Tues–Sun evenings. 300–400 baht for two people.
- Natural Restaurant is located at 62/5 Soi Puton, Phuket Town. Open Tues–Sun, lunch and dinner. 200 baht for two people.
- The Gibbon Rehabilitation Project is located at Bang Pae Waterfall, Pa Khlock, Thalang, and is best reached by motorbike. Free guided tour, voluntary donation appreciated. Paid volunteers run the Project, cost depends on length of stay. Contact (076) 260 492 for details.
- The National Museum is open daily 9am–5pm. Located just east of the Heroine’s Monument. Entrance is 30 baht.
- The Butterfly Garden and Aquarium is open daily 9am–5pm. Located 2km north of Phuket Town. Entrance is 150 baht.
- Recommended guides: Heritage Phuket Holiday Guide by Ken Scott, available from Asia Books in Thailand for 120 baht.