A Different Kind of Winter Blues in Phuket
When you think of Thailand, what do you envision? Do you picture yourself taking a leisurely stroll along a white sand beach while sipping on a fruity concoction in a coconut? Swimming in the crystal clear water amidst a sea of colorful, long tail boats? Dancing the night away with your friends under a starry sky at a full moon party?
If you answered yes, YASSS, or Hell Yeah! to any of the above questions, you’d be dreaming about the southern islands of Thailand. The pristine beaches of Phuket, Krabi, and Ko Samui beckon travelers from around the world to come for a visit. If the natural beauty of the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand wasn’t alluring enough, Thailand’s beach towns offer accommodations suitable to any budget, a vibrant nightlife, and a budding food scene. So when December rolled around, bringing snow days and sweater weather to many of our friends back home in the States, Dave and I were delighted to fulfill our long time aspiration of Thai beach hopping. With the promise of a three day weekend ahead, we packed our bags, headed to the Chiang Rai International Airport, flew to Bangkok, and onward to Phuket.
We touched down at Phuket International Airport around midnight, tired from an evening of travel but excited at the prospect of two whole beach-filled days ahead. Earlier in the week, Dave had booked us a driver (you know the type - sharply dressed, holding up a sign with your name on it; basically the real life version of Ask Jeeves) to meet us at the airport and take us to our accommodations. Walking out of the airport we headed to the passenger pickup area, feeling a special kind of fancy as we envisioned a smooth ride to Rico’s Bungalow Resort navigated by a suave Thai man. As we approached the outside area we eagerly scanned a sea of welcome signs for our names, held by equally hopeful looking drivers. But to our disappointment, our real life Ask Jeeves (or a sign with our names on it) was nowhere to be found. After a frustrating 20 minutes of trying to get in touch with Agoda and our supposed driver - we cut our losses and hitched a taxi to our resort, one hour away in the town of Kata.
One misconception that I had prior to coming to Thailand was that Phuket itself was one, large, glorious beach. In actuality, Phuket is an island comprised of several different glorious beaches each with their own distinct personality and allure. Patong could be described as the party girl of the group, offering visitors a thrilling nightlife and full moon parties. While Kata is more akin to the chill older brother who got most of the partying out of his system a while ago (but is partial to a casual beer or two). There are several other beach neighborhoods in Phuket that you can read about here. We ended up choosing Kata because we wanted a laid back, relaxed atmosphere with a gorgeous beach (not hard to find in Thailand!) and a variety of restaurant options. We stayed at Rico’s Bungalow Resort, a Thai style resort, with a pool and restaurant. In Thailand there are many “resorts”, which in our experience means a property with about a dozen basic rooms (including a bed and a bathroom) that have doors which open directly to the outside (not like in a hotel where there are many floors with hallways of rooms upon rooms). The resorts usually have their own restaurant too, like Rico’s did.
We had a fabulous stay at Rico’s - we found the staff to be charming and loved the vibe of the resort in general. Tucked away behind a long hallway next to a 7-11 (which are EVERYWHERE in Thailand! More on that in a future post), Rico’s offered us seclusion and tranquility, a short 5 minute walk to the beach, a plethora of restaurants, and quick proximity to the popular walking street. Our room was simple - a king sized bed, a dresser, and a bathroom, but our front door gave us direct access to the pool and restaurant. We also had our own patio, which I happily used as my coffee, reading, and meditation nook, while listening to the birds chirp in the morning. The staff was exceedingly gracious to us (no surprises here - as this is the Thai way!) and helped us to schedule a taxi for our return to the airport on Monday morning. I would highly recommend you check out Rico’s Bungalow Resort if you are planning a trip to Kata - for about $50 a night you can stay in a great location, grab a snack at the convenient resort restaurant, and lounge by the pool. Now that’s a win in my book!
On Saturday morning we stopped by (re: walked 15 feet to) Rico’s restaurant for eggs and coffee. We popped back over to our room afterwards to grab our towels, lather on sunscreen, and zip up our kindles. After an easy walk, lasting all of 5 minutes, we arrived at Kata beach. With the weather on our side (80 degrees and sunny) we found an open area in the soft, white sand and claimed our spot. The clear, jade-colored water of the Andaman Sea sparkled back at us. Towards the end of the shore several long tail boats were parked, bobbing peacefully with the sea. Families with small children, solo travelers, and couples on romantic getaways made up the majority of the beach crowd; most appearing to be farangs or tourists like us. The occasional Thai vendor would roam the beach offering sunglasses and hats for sale. And of course, it wouldn’t be Thailand if there weren’t a few dogs leisurely enjoying themselves. Several restaurants and bars were located towards the end of shore as well - serving fancy cocktails in coconuts and a variety of western and Thai food.
After basking in the sun for a bit, we waded into the water, delighted at its warm temperature and clarity (there is nothing quite like seeing your feet in clear, blue water to launch you into sheer relaxation mode...). Enjoying our perfect beach day - we ventured back and forth between the water and our towels for a couple of hours. A man paddle boarding with a dog (living its best life!) caught our eye. About 20 minutes (and 500 baht) later we found ourselves standing on our own paddle boards in the gentle waves of the Andaman Sea. I had never been paddle boarding before, but with Dave’s coaching (and patience #thanksboo) I got the hang of it pretty quick. For about an hour we paddled around the water enjoying the views from different vantage points and laughing about how crazy it was that we were paddle boarding in Thailand in the middle of December.
When we were finished paddle boarding, we stopped at one of the beach side restaurants for a quick bite and a cocktail. We nibbled on fried shrimp and seafood salad and enjoyed some tropical drinks. Dave went for the classic pina colada, while I opted for a coconut colada that came in a fresh, young coconut adorned with a pink umbrella. Feeling extra chipper (sunshine and rum will do that to ya) we returned to our beach spot and resumed our swimming/lounging cadence. By mid afternoon we’d had our fill of the sun, so we packed up our bag and headed back to Rico’s to enjoy the pool. We wanted to do some exploring around the island, so per our new weekend “tradition” we rented a motorcycle and spent the evening cruising (re: searching for a gas station, battling stop and go traffic, and trying to avoid an ominous, dark cloud surely signaling an imminent monsoon) around town.
One of Phuket’s main tourist attractions is known as the “Big Buddha”, which is literally a humongous statue of Buddha on top of a mountain. Even if you don’t make the trek up the mountain to see it up close, you’re likely to catch a glimpse of the Big Buddha while driving around town because of its enormity. The conception of the Big Buddha originated from a group of friends who happened upon a breathtaking viewpoint between Chalong and Kata, while walking through the forest in the Nakkerd Hills. They decided that this beautiful scenery would be the perfect stage for a gigantic homage to their Lord Buddha. In 2004, after many months of working to obtain several building permits and about 30 million baht in donations, the 45 meter marble Buddha statue was built. Today, the Big Buddha remains one of the top must-see’s for travelers and locals alike when visiting Phuket.
With Dave’s ever enthusiastic outlook on all things related to Thai motorcycles and my ever improving backseat navigation skills, we successfully weaved our way through rush hour traffic and up the mountain to see the Big Buddha for ourselves. The Big Buddha is truly a sight to behold. The Buddha looms large and serene over an incredible view point of the island. Golden statues of monks line the perimeter of the Buddha as if to form a holy ring of protection around their deity. The craftsmanship and the breathtaking views of Phuket are impressive enough on their own to warrant a visit. However, visitors may find themselves equally captivated by a mischievous band of monkeys that seem to have taken up residence in the gardens of the shrine (we certainly were!). We hung around the Big Buddha just long enough to enjoy the beautifully pink sunset over the water and snap a photo. Then we made our way back down the mountain to Kata, to return the motorbike.
Relieved to resume traveling by foot, after battling another hour of intense traffic (testing both our adrenaline stores and our relationship), we joined the crowd of tourists walking along Kata’s main road looking for a bite to eat. We walked back towards the beach with the thought of eating at one of the restaurants near the end of the shore. However, on our way there we were diverted by the sounds of live music (we’ve always been suckers for that kind of thing…). We learned that a free music festival and pop up walking street were taking place for the weekend. We grabbed a table at a nearby bar with a view of the stage and enjoyed a couple of drinks (and some mozzarella sticks #cultured) while watching the concert. Then we made our way to one of the beach-side restaurants and shared a late dinner of seafood Panang curry, while listening to the lap of the waves.
On Sunday morning, we woke up early to prepare for the day ahead. We had booked a full day boat tour of Phuket that would take us to several beaches and attractions around the island (with breakfast and lunch included!). At 7:30 AM a van picked us up from Rico’s and we joined a half dozen enthusiastic French people for an hour and a half ride to the dock where the tour boat awaited us. The tour guides ushered our group of farangs (6 French people, 2 Brits, 2 Italians, and 2 Americans) onto the Asia Canoe. The crew went over some house cleaning tips and gave us life jackets. They offered us tea and coffee and some traditional Thai breakfast - a variety of sticky rice treats wrapped in a banana leaf similar to Kanom Sai Sai and some fruit. The crew and our fellow tour goers were a fun bunch, chatting with us and taking pictures throughout the day. A few people from the french gang made use of the pole in the main deck, showing off their strength (and sultriness) with acrobatic tricks. About 30 minutes after we left the dock we arrived at our first stop, Hong Island, for a canoe ride across the Hong Island Lagoon and through the Tree Caves. I say “ride” because each canoe had its own Paddle Guide. Our’s was a happy, Thai man with broken English who spiritedly offered words like “chicken” or “elephant” every few minutes, which we took to mean that the nearest rock formation supposedly resembled that animal. We’ll never know for sure, but we enjoyed our ride and the time spent with the steer-er of our little canoe.
The next stop was to James Bond Island in Phang Nha Bay. This island was made famous in the movie “The Man with the Golden Gun”. The island is referred to as Koh Tapu in Thai, meaning Nail Island, because the limestone cliff juts vertically out of the water, similar to the shape of a nail. We walked around the perimeter of the island and enjoyed the views. One of the playful crew members snapped a few cheesy photos of us so that it looked like we were holding up Koh Tapu (re: the Thai version of the classic Leaning Tower of Pisa pose!). Although I thought the island was beautiful, this was probably my least favorite stop on the tour. The small island was crowded with swarms of tourists taking pictures and vendors trying to sell souvenirs of shells, shirts, and other trinkets. The highlight of this stop for me was the fresh coconut water I sipped on, straight out of the coconut.
The third stop on our tour was the most interesting one - a floating Muslim village, also in the Phang Nha province, called Koh Panyi. The village was built by Indonesian fisherman on a foundation of stilts! (side note - Because of the delicate foundation of the island, as we approached Koh Panyi we switched from the double decker Asia Canoe to a long tail motor boat. Riding in the long tail boat was pretty cool, especially since long tail boats are quintessential to the Thai beach scene, but depending on what side of the boat you sat on you were at risk for full soakage by the waves, a la Splash Mountain!) The fishing and tourism industries are the main economic drivers of this small community, made up of about 360 families and less than 2,000 inhabitants total. The main points of attractions on the island include a mosque, a school, and a floating soccer field. There is also a market with goods shipped from the mainland and several restaurants. During our time at Koh Panyi we walked through the village and toured the markets. I found the village to be a beautiful display of community and minimalism, but I found myself feeling a bit depressed on our stroll. Perhaps it’s because of my newfound role as a teacher, but I couldn’t help but wonder about the quality of education that is available to the sweet little kids on this tiny island, who kept trying to sell us pencils and other knick-knacks at every turn. At any rate, this excursion was a humbling reminder that happiness is in the eye of the beholder, as evidenced by the villagers at Koh Panyi.
After our tour of the Muslim village, we boarded the Asia Canoe for a Thai lunch buffet on the main deck. We had our choice of Pad Thai (chicken or tofu), seafood (fresh squid or fried fish), chicken wings, french fries, and cooked vegetables. For dessert they offered deliciously refreshing fruit including pineapple, watermelon, and papaya. It wasn’t a five star meal by any stretch, but it was a pretty good lunch for a cruise buffet. After lunch, we had about an hour ride to the last stop on the tour. Most people on the tour (including us!) made efficient use of this time by taking a post lunch nap, while sailing onward to Naka Island.
We awoke from our naps to arrive at Naka Island in the Phuket province. We boarded a small motor boat to the shore of the pristine, white sand beach. We were plunked down on two waterfront white chairs, at a small restaurant overlooking the sea, when a Thai salesman renting jet skis approached us. Dave’s eyes lit up at the sound of “jet ski” and in about two minutes flat he had scored a deal to rent one of the jet skis for 500 baht less than the original rental price. I elected to hang back on the beach, ordered a beer, and read my book. After a while I got in the water and was immediately befriended by a sweet, Thai girl and her brother, who looked to be about 5 and 6 respectively. They didn’t speak any English but we ended up playing games for 15 minutes; after all, as a wise person once said, we all smile in the same language. When Dave finished his jet skiing adventure, we took up residence in our white chairs again and hung out for another half an hour until it was time to board the Asia Canoe back to the dock.
When we arrived back to Rico’s resort (the ride back to the resort was included in the cost of the tour) it was around 6PM and dark outside. We relaxed in our room for a bit and cleaned up for dinner. I was craving a good ol’ American salad, so we decided to go back to the same restaurant where we had the drinks and mozz sticks the night before. I ordered an American cobb salad and Dave got a mediocre cheeseburger (I swear... most of the time we’re actually adventurous eaters!). After dinner, we took a stroll down the walking street, hoping to score some rolled ice cream. The Kata walking street was very similar to the walking streets we’ve experienced in the north. Vendors were selling an assortment of goods from silk scarves, to hand soap, to beachwear, and jewelry. Food stalls sold a variety of Thai food (meat on a stick, pad thai, dumplings) and sweets. It wasn’t long before we stumbled upon a food vendor selling rolled ice cream for 80 baht, which we both agreed was the best version we’d had so far. When we were done with the walking street, we headed back to Rico’s with full bellies, ready to get some sleep before our 5:30 AM taxi ride to the airport.
Overall, I must admit that we were fairly impressed with Phuket. The beaches were stunning (and super clean), from the crystal clear water to the soft as silk sand. Our stay at Rico’s Bungalow Resort was exactly what we had hoped it would be - a quiet retreat, close enough to the action, but far enough away to provide reprieve and relaxation. Experiencing Phuket by riding a motorcycle through the mountains and cruising the Andaman Sea on the Asia Canoe (and our paddle boards!) reminded us that we are the captains of our own fates. If you have a dream, it’s up to you and only you to take the actions necessary to turn that dream into a reality. Every time we look around us, we are overwhelmingly happy that we made the decision to pursue this dream of ours. We are filled with gratitude for all that we’ve gotten to experience and even more excited for all that’s still to come (...including a return trip to the beautiful southern coast of Thailand).