Phuket -- where everybody goes   (04/05/04)

Last updated 04/14/04                                                                                                                               

Phuket, more exactly Patong beach, is the oldest and therefore most developed beach resort in Thailand. That means, where another beach community like Ko Samui's Chaweng would have 10 blocks' worth of restaurants, souvenier shops, bars and tour operators, Patong has a 20-by-5-block area of all the same, plus a variety of girly bars, "entertainment centers" and pay-by-the-hour hotels. We cannot report on the latter categories because, to our shame, we went to bed by 10 o'clock at latest every night and completely missed out on the much-touted nightlife of Patong beach.

As for daytime activities -- well... there's the beach. It seems that Phuket attracts mostly the type of vacationers who want to sun themselves under a beach umbrella all day long, with short infrequent breaks for a splash in the sea (they can't swim) and more frequent outings to a snack stall. The unbelievably long strip of Patong beach is covered with hundreds of beach chairs and umbrellas and dozens of food vendors to accomodate the lazy customers. Oh, did I actually say "lazy"? Of course I meant "enjoying the relaxation they fully deserve". We enjoyed it too, for the first half-day, thanks to the engaging books we were reading at the time. The water sports on Patong beach are represented by banana rides (where you sit astride a banana-shaped inflatable boat, pulled by a speedboat, and fall into the water on each turn with much happy screaming), water jet scooters for rent (too pricey for your average backpacker at $1 per waterborn minute), and parachute rides (you hang from a parachute which is, as you may have guessed, pulled behind a speedboat, and pay more per minute than for the jet). No kayaking (due to strong winds, or perhaps lack of demand), no snorkelling (due to the absence of coral reefs or anything else to see in the somewhat murky waters). Our rescue from utter boredom came in disguise of a piece of styrofoam sized 2 by 4 feet, known as "wakeboard".

The wakeboard makes it possible to ride the waves in the surf, only without the challenge of standing up on the crest of the wave like real surfers do. Instead you lie down on the board with your upper body, as if preparing to swim on your tummy, then catch a good wave, and get propelled by it all the way into the surf, until the board scrapes on the sand. This is as much fun as the long-gone memories from my Russian childhood of sledding downhill on ice tracks, or jumping the giant (to my 2-year-old brain) sea waves in the arms of my parents. Wakeboarding soon reduces you to giggly happiness and such exchanges with your significant other as "Did you see me ride that big one?" -- "Not bad, but you should've seen me catch one five minutes ago, that was really something!". Wakeboarding is supercool and also safe, unlike true surfing, and can be done with waves of smaller caliber and in shallow waters. It's so easy and safe, indeed, that you can do it even without knowing how to swim! Perfect entertainment for a day on the beach, granted you've got some surf coming your way.

So what do people do in Phuket once they are bored of the repetitive beach scene? Why, they go elsewhere! Phuket's tour operators are outnumbered only by its bars, and day trips are offered to all sorts of exotic locations... like Ko Phi Phi from where we had just arrived. We chose to take a tour to Similan Islands which are supposed to be the snorkeller's heaven: coral reefs unharmed by boats' anchors, underwater life of incredible variety, visibility up to 10 meters down. All this sounded attractive enough to motivate us to get up at 5:30 in the morning and take a 2-hour van ride and then another 2 hours by boat (and don't forget the corresponding 4 hours to get back to the hotel at the end of the day) to see the amazing Similans. Reality was, unfortunately, quite disappointing. Maybe there are those magical snorkelling locations around Similans, but we certainly did not visit them. The places we saw had some coral reefs, and some fish around them, but nothing better, or even as nice, as what we saw at Monkey Beach on Ko Phi Phi. Granted, I had the good luck of seeing a 5-feet-long sea turtle twice, and we happened upon a "monitor" (a huge lizard like the commodore dragon) on the beach, but the rest of our snorkelling experience did not justify the effort, or the cost, of this day trip. Similans did not choose to reveal their beauty to us...


A street in Patong beach, lined with hotels, bars and shops                Patong beach itself, a long sandy stretch with many an umbrella                Patong beach near sunset                

 Above: views of Patong beach. Below: wakeboard provides us with much-needed entertainment on the beach.

  Let me introduce you to my fried, the wakeboard                This is how you hold it...                ...and this is how you use it!                Doesn't take much to make me happy

Below: the highlights of our trip to Similan Islands -- sorry, no sea turtle pictures. No Puneet pictures either, he was not in a photogenic mood.

  One of the 11 Similan islands ahead                More Similan views                Look at the rocks behind me -- see footsteps?                

  Daria aboard the boat                The beach on Similand Island No.8                The Sailing Rock, symbol of Similan islands. Some people see Donald Duck in it.