Its reputation precedes it – but the truth is: Phuket is much more than overcrowded beaches and party havens. Old Phuket Town is where the Thailand that once was is palpable, and where a stroll through the Night Market is an encounter with the country’s culinary diversity. And those picture-perfect beaches? Of course they exist – as do so many other Phuket highlights. A guide to the hidden treasures of the Andaman Sea:
A holiday in Phuket basically starts at the airport. One would be hard pressed to find a more relaxing point to enter Thailand. Passport control runs like clockwork and our luggage arrives before we do. My first destination: Old Phuket Town. I could take the airport bus to the city centre, which would cost me less than three Swiss francs. But the air conditioning in the taxis is too tempting to forgo. Failure to demonstrate a degree of tenacity and negotiating skill vis-à-vis cab drivers can result in being charged a lump sum rather than the rate shown on the taximeter. I, too, fail on my first two attempts. The third cab driver I approach makes a half-hearted attempt to rip me off, but then switches on the taximeter. Either way, compared to Switzerland, taxi rides are a bargain in Phuket.
History to touch and tuck into
The island’s capital is home to an endless slew of small boutique hotels, but none merges tradition and modernity better than the legendary "The Memory at On On". The hotel has hosted guests for almost a century. Some may find it oddly familiar. This is because it appeared in the cinema blockbuster "The Beach" starring Leonardo DiCaprio. The "On On" is where Phuket’s past as a trading hub is palpable. The same is true of the warm hospitality of the Thais and their sense of detail. It is also the perfect starting point for a tour of the city. I make my way through narrow alleyways past Chinese temples and hip cafés in colonial-style buildings. My first culinary treat is also my favourite Thai dish: “som tam” (fresh papaya salad). "Pet, pet!" a woman at the beach warns me, as she whisks chilli, papaya, tomatoes and peanuts. A real “som tam” must be spicy!
A visit to the Talad Kaset Night Market with its plethora of cookshops is a must for true gourmets. Thankfully, I am in the company of a good friend, so we share delicious soups (a spicy “tom yam gung” is imperative), fresh fish and wok vegetables.
Phuket City is a good place to spend a few days. A motor scooter tour to Rang Hill (be aware of left-hand traffic!) affords me a view of the city from above. Situated just a stone’s throw away from there is one of the famous “Muay Thai” training camps. Thai boxing fights are held there on a regular basis. I decide to spend the evening in one of Phuket’s best-kept secrets: the “Ka Jok See” restaurant. As soon as the guests have finished dining and the tables have been cleared, this restaurant metamorphoses into a “high society” dance haven for Thailand’s upper class.
A thirty-minute ride to paradise
After a night of partying, I am drawn southwards, to the sea. My choice mode of transport is, yet again, a taxi, for which I pay about twenty Swiss francs. The taxi driver drops me off at “Nai Harn”, a long sandy beach fringed by crystal-clear water. I am faced with yet another choice: luxury resort or Thai bungalow? My stay is short, just long enough for some snorkelling at the small “Ao Sane” beach section, followed by a sundowner in one of the restaurants right above “Nai Harn” beach and a good night’s rest under a mosquito net, until I am woken in the morning by the chugging of fishing boats.
At its southern end, at Rawai Beach, Phuket is still rugged und untarnished. This is where the Thais like to spend their weekends enjoying beach picnics in the shade of trees and beautiful sea views. I join them, watch the fishermen at work, eat grilled fish and wait, until the tide is on the ebb and the seabed becomes a heap of sand. I explore the region on a motor scooter and encounter lonely temples as I cruise along. I also fall in love with the southernmost tip of Phuket Island: Promthem Cape, where the sunset seems to be within tangible reach and photographic filters couldn’t be more superfluous. I treat myself to a cool beer and could happily lose track of time. But, alas, it is time to leave the Cape. Not many people venture to this point, which is just as well for me, given that the scooter ride from there is adventure enough without oncoming traffic!
To immerse or to submerge?
Now I am really spoilt for choice. The days are simply whizzing by. At thirty degrees Celsius, everything except time and the clock move at a slower pace. So where to go next?
The Similan Islands north of Phuket are considered an underwater haven. Snorkelers and scuba divers can submerge into the turquoise waters and admire fish, turtles and the underwater world. Although the region’s west coast was severely hit by the 2004 tsunami, this marine national park survived the catastrophe amazingly unscathed.
Since I have travelled to and between the islands on previous trips, I decide to go to the Khao Sok National Park instead, which is a slightly longer journey. Numerous tours (such as kayaking) are available in the park and include watching elephants as they take their morning bath. The Rainforest Camp, I am told, provides overnight accommodation in comfortable tents that feature private terraces and direct access to the sea.
Canoeing through limestone gorges
These days, Cheow Lan Dam is surrounded not only by limestone cliffs but also by a large number of resorts. These “Floating Bungalows” can be reached by boat. I let myself be chauffeured to the dam and decide to defer finding accommodation until I get there. Of course I could have chosen to stay at the Rainforest Camp and arranged everything beforehand. But my spontaneity pays off. A boat takes me to a small lodge situated in the middle of the lake, where I meet other tourists. We sit on the veranda until late at night chatting about our various Thailand experiences. The next day, I am booked on a canoe trip that departs at daybreak. My initial tiredness soon makes way for sheer joy at the overwhelming beauty of nature.
As I pack my rucksack yet again, I solemnly resolve that, next time, I will stay longer. Just as I do every time I come to Thailand and then discover places I would never even have dreamed of. And just as every time, I end where I began: following a week’s travel, I return to the city, to the "On On" hotel where the concierge greets me with a smile and a "Welcome back Miss Laaanz".
My Three Phuket Highlights
The Memory at On On Hotel: A real gem in the heart of Old Phuket Town. Built almost a century ago by Chinese immigrants, the hotel combines tradition and modernity with oodles of charm. (19 Phang-Nga Road, Talad Yai, Muang, Phuket, www.thememoryhotel.com)
Restaurant Ka Jok See: A true treasure must be kept hidden. This restaurant is not easy to find, but the good food, the cordial service and a journey into another world make the search worthwhile. Ka Jok Se is where the action is, a place that metamorphoses into a giant revue and where strangers soon become friends. A reservation is essential! (26 Takua Pa Road, Phuket Town, Phuket, www.facebook.com/kajoksee)
Khao Sok National Park: A dam larger than Chiemsee (Bavaria’s largest lake), Thailand’s oldest rainforest and a multitude of activities, including elephant trekking. The perfect short trip for active travellers (approximately 3.5 hours from Phuket). (www.khaosok.com)