The Islands - Phuket and Samui, Thailan
When it comes to picturing paradise, we’ve all seen the photos. There are azure blue skies, torquioise waters, white sand beaches, and rows of coconut palms. And most often, paradise is an “island” - a refuge from civilization – free from freeways and traffic, asphalt and high rises, smog and noise pollution.
The isles of the South Pacific seem to have an edge in the running for “paradise.” The Caribbean is a close second. But there’s another paradise that’s coming up fast in the contest – the islands of Southeast Asia. Perhaps the movie, Leonardo Dicaprio’s “The Beach” and its story about a young man’s search for utopia, pushed Thailand’s islands atop the list of island paradises. It was filmed off Thailand’s Southwestern coast on an island called Phi Phi (p-p).
I spent my first weeks as a tourist in Thailand in Bangkok and the lush mountainous jungle of its northern city of Chiang Mai. But before departing Thailand, I had to see for myself what its paradises were all about.
Phuket (foo-ket) is Thailand’s largest island and one of Southeast Asia’s most popular holiday destinations. My flight from Chiang Mai to Phuket took two hours with a dramatic approach to the main island over a multitude of smaller green islands poking up from the depths of the Andaman Sea. Phuket airport is at the northern end of the island and it was a 40 minute, 540 baht ($13) taxi ride to Patong Beach on the island’s west coast. The west coast beaches have the best sand, bluest waters, and most luxurious hotels. Patong is its busiest beach with jet skis, parachute rides, and a bustling night life.
Most of the “farang” or foreign tourists are British, Australian, or other Europeans. Americans have been slower in discovering Thailand as an exciting, exotic, and cheap destination. Ninety percent of Thais are practicing Theravada Buddhists and that faith with its codes of tolerance and non-violence makes Thailand a seemingly safer destination as well.
I made my base in Phuket’s paradise at the Coral Beach Resort (Tele: 0 2255 3960), a newer hotel built on a hillside at the southern end of Patong Beach. The Coral Beach, with rates in the off-season varying from $75-100, has a comfortable bar and lobby with open air views of the sea. Its spacious rooms have private balconies. Its restaurants serve a first class menu of everything from classical Thai dishes to European cuisine. Their Jasmine spa is set aside in its own tropical idyll, housed in an exotic building on stilts where you can get a massage or spa treatment in a private room. And in every setting there are spectacular panoramic views of the sheltered bay below.
Getting into town and to nearby Patong Beach is easy. You can walk. It’s about a mile. You can take a tuk-tuk, the four-wheeled open-sided motor cabs that are the most prevalent form of public transit in most of Thailand’s towns. Or you can rent a motorbike.
The road alongside Patong Beach is lined with motorcycle rental stalls. We rented two motorbikes for 200 baht/day ($5 for both) from a vendor lounging in his jeep parked between a Starbucks and McDonalds. I felt a little awkward leaving my passport with someone that seemed so, well laid back. But he showed me a bag full of passports of other “trusting” renters and the deal was made.
Exploring the island, we cruised by several other luxury resorts. The Banyan Tree had individual cabanas on the beach and a beautiful golf course. The Dusit Laguna had a long runway entry lobby leading to its own private white sand beach. Circling the island, we rode through Phuket town, bustling with traffic and commerce. But it was mostly a native residential community not geared for tourists and worthy of passing up. We stopped next to gawk at the views from Phromthep Cape and Nai Harn Bay at the southern tip of the island. Having traversed most of the island on motorbike in one day, we headed back to Patong and got ready for its night life.
You can hire a long-boat to take you to one of the many smaller islands around Phuket and discover your own private tropical isle and romantic beach. Or you can take a group speed boat or catamaran trip on one of several island tours. We chose a group trip to Ko Phi Phi - actually two separate islands, Phi Phi Don and Phi Phi Ley. I learned not to call it Ko Phi Phi Island. It’s redundant. “Ko” means “island” in Thai.
It was a 45 minute ride to Phi Phi Ley where we disembarked in Maya Bay. Here we were told was where “The Beach” was filmed. The small cove is framed by stunning cliffs. While Phi Phi Ley is described as uninhabited and unspoiled, this exquisitely beautiful beach was tainted by loads of trash and debris. Our guide told us that debris floats ashore due to the prevailing winds in rainy season but I’m skeptical. Was that just an excuse for a heavily touristed island with no provision to clean up the garbage left behind?
We moved on and stopped at several nearby spots with spectacular views through transparent seas of blue, green and white coral and thousands of colorful and exotic fish. Though there are plenty of sites for scuba diving in the islands of Thailand, here, in Ko Phi Phi, the waters were so clear and shallow that snorkeling provided a wonderful experience. We cruised by a cave that was used to harvest birds-nest soup, a delicacy favored by the Chinese. In another cove, we anchored a few feet from shore and waded to a beach where hundreds of monkeys descended to meet us – lured closer by tossing them bananas and lychee nuts. And on the way back, we weaved enticingly past many smaller islands made up of great white sand beaches, interesting coves, and soaring cliffs.
Ko Samui is Thailand’s third largest island, after Ko Phuket and Ko Chang. Though tourism is growing there, and there are plenty of luxury accommodations, it is still a backpacker’s haven with plenty of inexpensive lodging. Our flight to Ko Samui from Phuket on Bangkok Air took only ½ hour. And though there are inexpensive inter-city flights, the regional airlines – Thai Air and Bangkok Air – have multi-city packages that make touring between Thai destinations like Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Phuket, and Samui even more attractive.
The Palm Reef Resort (0 2255 3767) welcomed us at Samui airport’s tropical open-air terminal with orchid leis. The Palm Reef, with rates from $60-100, is a luxury hotel at the northern end of Chaweng Beach. Its rooms are set in a cluster of Thai-style buildings and bungalows surrounded by swaying palms with balcony views of gardens and the bay. The hotel’s pool and its outdoor massage cabanas are a step away from the beach. And, as in most upscale Thai hotels, a sumptuous buffet breakfast is included in the rates.
Chaweng is the island’s longest, most beautiful beach with three miles of powdery white sand and incredibly calm, warm waters. Bordering the beach are a scattering of luxury hotels like the Palm Reef but plenty of smaller, rustic hotels attractive to backpackers and budget-minded travelers. These beachside bungalows are incredibly cheap ($8/day).
Samui is also an island that you can navigate on motorbike in a single day. At its northeastern tip is the “Big Buddha.” There, a 38 foot statue of a sitting Buddha sits at the top of a long serpent-railed staircase overlooking the sea. Monks offered bricks to autograph or colored-string bracelets and solicited donations. There were even casino-like slot machines that took 5 baht coins, flashed lots of lights, and spit out your fortune. It was a colorful fundraising setting to say the least. Lamai beach, Samui’s second largest, seemed populated by bohemian bars and restaurants owned by retired Germans and Scandinavians. At its southern promontory are the Hin Ta and Hin Yai rock formations renowned for looking like male and female genitalia. Riding through the interior of the island, there are picturesque waterfalls and a crocodile and elephant park. And on Chaweng Beach at night, Samui’s bars, restaurants, and clubs come alive with young tourists joyously infected with some tropical fever.
Riding our motorbikes on a narrow road through the island’s tropical forest, an old bearded Caucasian man, lounging on the veranda of his home, waved at us. Curious, we stopped to strike up a conversation. He told us he was a retired National Geographic photographer from Holland. Having traveled all around the world, he decided to retire to Thailand and chose this island as his retirement home. Life here, he told us, was peaceful, low key and inexpensive.
“And how,” I asked, “do you spend your time?”
“I just paint,” he answered, “and wave to people passing by.”
“Is it paradise?” I asked.
“It’s home,” he replied.
Paradise is something each of us must discover on our own. It could be Thailand’s islands with its warm ocean breezes, tropical fragrances, and magnificent beaches. Or it could be home.