Life’s a Beach at Phuket

January 24, 2009 by  
Filed under Exotic South East, Feature Highlights

To our right, the beach beckons – pristine white sand upon long tresses of crystal clear water. The perfect afternoon sun combined with fresh coconuts and Thailand’s scrumptious delicacies makes it a tantalizing option as we ponder our next plan. To our left, rows upon rows of stalls take up shelter by the road side, vending fake Rolexes and cheap tee-shirts for the shopaholic travelers.

Further down the road the alleyway widens and a carnival of sort entices tourists with welcoming arms. Bars, pubs and massage parlors lined up both sides of the road, with catcalls and whistles fired out from all around the place. In the middle of the road, there was a fashion catwalk with various ladies (or not) costumed up with long colorful feathers and glittering fake diamonds adorning their dresses.

It’s not even past dinner time yet, but in Phuket, the party never really stops, even after the devastating 2004 tsunami.

Amongst Phuket’s various beaches, Patong Beach is the most developed, most vibrant, and most visited one. It’s a picture perfect postcard view of a 3-kilometer long white sandy beach perfect for swimming, lazing, and enjoying challenging water sports such as jet skiing, windsurfing, snorkeling, and parasailing. Various diving and snorkeling spots are scattered throughout numerous small islands around the area, easily accessible by boat. From Phuket, there are also various adventure trips heading inland for jungle trekking, mountain climbing or white-water rafting. For me however, these are all secondary. Much like Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in that aptly named 2000 movie, The Beach, I came here to experience a slice of the famed island paradise – the Phi Phi Islands.

The Island Paradise
The journey to Phi Phi Islands was suspiciously easy to arrange. Numerous stalls on Phuket’s crowded street offered day-tours to tourists. Being the untrusting travelers that we were, we negotiated for a small down-payment for our tour arrangement, with full-payment given only when we were picked up from the hotel. I suppose we shouldn’t have worried – close to 98% of Phuket’s population depends upon tourism to make a living, and as such they are always eager to make a good impression.

The Phi Phi Islands comprises six islands surrounded by the Andaman sea, 2 of them main – Phi Phi Don and Phi Phi Leh. Phi Phi Don, the largest of the six, is the only island with permanent inhabitants, but Phi Phi Leh’s beach is very popular with the tourists as well. It was there on the serene Maya Bay in Phi Phi Leh that the movie was shot, and while my boat entry towards the beach was much less anti-climatic compared to DiCaprio’s jump over a ten-meter waterfall, it was still every bit as astonishing.

As our boat neared the bay, the crew noticeably turned down the machine, not wanting to disturb the fragile ecosystem below the sea. Tall breathtaking cliffs forms a circular wall around the area, and my eyes searched around trying to find an entrance. Suddenly, the green jungle opened up, paving a pathway of transparent sea to a small tranquil beach. Crystal clear water gives view to the coral beds which are home to a wide range of sea life. Our boat anchored a little distance away from the beach, and we were free to swim and snorkel around the boat. The journey there was over an hour long, but very well worth the trip.

From the pristine Maya Bay, we then made our way slowly passing the soaring limestone walls surrounding Phi Phi Leh. The island’s shallow blue-green lagoons and coral gardens, with caves and passages dotting the tall cliffs, made for a spectacular scenery. We snorkeled a little more before finally making our way towards one of Phi Phi Don’s numerous resorts for a hearty meal.

Nightlife at the Beach
Later on at night, we made our way through the jungle of shops cramping the coastal side of Patong beach. Compared to the tranquil beach of Phi Phi Islands, it made for an extreme contradiction. A coalescence of noisy pandemonium boomed in my ears as I made my way through the street, be it vendors selling various cheap imitations, tuk-tuk drivers offering rides, and numerous tailors touting cheap custom-made suits. There were also the noisy advertising of various muay-thai boxing matches calling out to impressionable travelers.

Those out to shop would be well advised to know that these are simply cheap thrills. There are indeed shops selling higher-quality fakes and the likes, but those are far and few between. Indeed, my Puma boots were a wreck only after a few sessions of soccer, and a friend’s Rolex didn’t last though the end of the month. You are still able however, to find unique handcrafted items and some amazing paintings. Haggling is a must, and you should always start by offering half of the original starting price.

On Wednesday nights, Thailand’s famed lady-boys come out to play. Every bit as beautiful as they were rumored to be, they came out dressed in long glittering gowns with over-the top cabaret shows make-up, parading and enticing various tourists who are eager to take photos and chat with them. Beware that tips would be expected of these miscellaneous services, a small one will suffice. They are also keen to promote their one-of-a-kind Thai Girl show, which features various acrobatic acts performed by the ladies and lady-boys. Be warned as well that these lady-boys are every bit as beautiful as they were rumored to be.

If one were to choose a word to describe Patong beach’s street side revelries, that word would invariably be “rowdy”. If you are looking for a romantic place to dine and wine, or a relaxing lounge to chill and rest, then this isn’t the right place for you. Instead, what you would find here is a good mix of tourists and locals who are out to have a good time, drink and be merry.

About the Author. Nikolas Tjhin. Freelance graphic artist and travel fanatic. Twiter-addict and social media novice. Adventure budget traveler and stay home weekend worker. Before working on Unearthing Asia, Nik’s journeyman career has seen him do work for various creative studios in Wisconsin, Minneapolis, Singapore and Jakarta. Now that he’s settled down for the time being (till 2010) in Jakarta, he’s focusing his efforts on social media and his location-independent-service-provider career.

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