Phuket (pronounced POO-Ket) is an island off Thailand that caught the jet set imagination in 1974 after the James Bond movie The Man With The Golden Gun. The movie showcased the white sandy beaches and one of the world's must-see spots, the sea caves at Phangh Nga. Phuket really took off in 1997 after the Thai Baht plummeted and set off the Asian Flu, making beachfront property remarkably cheap. Since then, it has been developed into a world-class destination. We visited there at the request of a friend who has been in the middle of developing the island. We had a remarkable week.
Getting Around. Phuket is on the west side of Thailand, about a two hour flight from Singapore or Bangkok. The best time to visit is November through February. It begins to heat up in March and April, and April showers bring May monsoons. While the monsoons are not as intense as those in India or Indonesia, they stir up the ocean. The normally placid Adaman Sea on the western coast turns into a surfers' paradise and a divers' nightmare.
The island feels a bit like a cleaner & gentler Mexico. Despite the resorts, the place is still third world. Lining the roads are beaten-up houses and shops, and most of the people live on very small amounts of income. An American could live on social security payments, and still have enough left over to pay for a housekeeper and a cook. You need to drink bottled water, and be careful with greens. Yet it is upscaling rapidly, Every corner seems to have a 7-11. A new mall has gone in, Central Festival, and another one is planned. The Coca Cola tastes pretty good here, since they still use sugar (not high-fructose corn syrup) to sweeten it. Just a short time ago, grocery shopping was done the old fashioned way -- you went to six or eight specialty shops. Now you go to the grocery store.
Driving is a bit of an adventure. We used a driver all week, and were glad we did. Scooters and small 'rice rockets' abound, dodging in and out around the cars. Cars are increasing, although traffic is a lot kinder than in Bangkok -- and the air is quite clear. Restaurants spill into the roads, and people jaywalk with aplomb. The Tsunami has left little impact. On the west side, restaurants featured pictures of the damage, but the infrastructure seems to have been repaired everywhere we went. There was still some debris in places. There were a series of underseas earthquakes and a tsunami warning issued right before we arrived, and people looked a bit attentive, but no tsunami came. Instead, it seems to have scared off the fair-weather tourists, leaving more room for us to enjoy. In our dive spots, the reefs looked fine, undamaged.
It's Great to be King. They take the King very seriously in Thailand. Thailand was never colonized by a European power. (Apparently, Britain and French couldn't agree on who got it; at least, that is their story, and they seem to be sticking to it. The Thai story is that the Kingdom was simply unconquerable.) We went to a movie, and instead of trailers, they played the Thai national anthem and showed a video of the King. We all stood respectfully. Much of the land is in Royal hands. The King owns most of the beachfront property and forbids building above 80 meters elevation from the ocean on the privately owned property. Thus, much of the Phuket coastline is off limits for private ownership and development. This scarcity makes the developed properties more valuable, and allows the countryside to retain its natural verdant character. Most people live along the sides of the roads, making most of the roadways populated, even through the interior of the island.
Rating the Resorts. We stayed in a villa off Kamala Bay, a beautiful inlet with a Mediterranean feel. It was built in Thai style, with each room in its own building and with high, concave roofs tapering to a high peak. The infinity pool overlooked the whole bay. Below us were an occasional mixture of jet skis, Thai boats with their external propellers, and local yachts. We ate outdoors, an occasional mixture of green curries, satays and wonderful breads baked by Paula, the owner of the villa, who brought the magic of sourdough to the tropics. She also runs a local restaurant, Cafe Retro, and caters meals for the hoi polloi.
Nearby is Amanpuri, a six-star resort that is the darling of the Yacht People, such as Billionaire Paul Allen. Stars such as Leonardo di Caprio and Harrison Ford are frequent guests, as are Tiger Woods and other top athletes. The resort is delightfully blended into the terrain, hiding itself as it wraps its guests in comfort and privacy.
A bit further up the coast road is Banyan Tree, part of a sprawling development that seeks to one-up Amanpuri. The lobby is unbelievable, the nearby beach is brilliantly bright and private, and the service impeccable. It also sports a golf course.
Partying in Patong. Every resort area has a strip full of tacky souvenir shops, seedy bars and shady hawkers. In Thailand, they take it to excess. Nothing is as it seems in Patong. Most notorious are the Katoys, girls who were once boys, or are still somewhere in the middle. Like sirens, they lure the tourists into the bars. Shops sell knock-off goods, especially bags and watches. Locals tell us that the quality gear is hidden in back rooms.
Many stands sell ripped-off CDs and DVDs. The locals tell me some are of low quality -- the video may occasionally be interrupted by someone getting up for popcorn in front of the handheld video camera ripping the film. Others are top quality transfers. This is a big headache for Hollywood. We were dismayed to hear rumors that The Da Vinci Code, which is not yet out in theaters, had already been ripped -- but apparently only the 'Making of' video has been copied.
Phuket also sports First Class Cinemas, which have 40 Lazy-Boy style recliners for viewers, with blankets, popcorn, drinks, and other snacks provided in the price of admission. We enjoyed the first class treatment and watched V For Vendetta. The film had periodic hand scribbled notations on the print; a ripper with a videocam in the theater would have filmed a fingerprint, and created a trail of evidence that could be tracked to a specific theater owner -- hence putting pressure on them to police their audience better. Hollywood is taking measures besides the fingerprinting. The movie we saw was released in Phuket simultaneous with its US release. Previously it would have come to Asia later, This way they hope to capture more theatrical revenues before the ripoffs hit the streets. Another tactic being considered is to sell lower-cost DVDs in the high piracy areas, regionally coded to prevent leakage back to the US and Europe. A DVD runs around 100 baht in the street, or $2.50; so a cheap but quality DVD of a bit higher cost (say $4) would probably eat into the pirate revenues, as you never quite know what you are getting in the street copy.
The saddest part of Patong were 17-year-old farm girls walking hand-in-hand with 60-year-old gents, and especially these gents - they had a lot of mileage on them. Times are tough for farm girls, and this is easy money, yet ... Even more pathetic was watching these gents cry as they made their goodbye's at the airport. The girls play along until the men are out of sight, then sought out their next marks.
Our need for gawking fulfilled, we quickly left Patong and explored other paths to pleasure in Phuket.
Kayaking at Phang Nga. We set off on an adventure to one of the must-see spots of nature. Off the east side of Phuket lie limestone islands which have been carved by nature inside and out. Rain falls and pools on the top, and melts through the limestone, eventually carving deep lagoons in the middle. Seawater works on the outside and digs small entrances to the lagoons. We went there courtesy of John Gray, who came to Phuket over 20 years ago after leading sea kayak expeditions in Hawaii. He was on the Hawaiian Coastal Commission, and successfully set up programs to preserve many of the coastal wonders of Hawaii. He now views his mission to do the same with Phuket, and particularly these wonderful sea caves.
We set off in little rubber kayaks, led by guides, who turned out to be essential -- depending on tides, the caves can be very tight to cut through into the lagoons. (We were there at a full moon, so the tides were strong; we saw a tour boat left stranded on a rock as the captain had not watched the tides carefully enough.) Once inside, the lagoons are incredible. They sit at the bottom of deep wells. Rich foliage lines the sides to the sky high above. Birds chatter, bugs buzz and monkeys dance in the trees. Some of the caves are large, and in one we saw bats. The high tides let us experience a wonder of nature -- mudskippers, air-breathing fish that are probably ancestors of all of us. The tides dropped so much that the lagoons began to go dry, and the mudskippers came out and flitted around. We left before we got stranded and joined the fossils in the silt below.
After a little swimming in the late afternoon, we held a ceremony to mark the full moon, a ceremony that originated in India on the Ganges. We created a floating icon of flowers and banana leaves, added candles and incense (one for the Buddha, one for the King, one for the Book), and went into a lagoon at night. We lit our offerings, made wishes, and set them free. A marvelous moment, lying in the kayaks, darkness enveloping us, and our offerings drifting around us. A lightning storm had begun far above us, and the sky was frequently lit up, outlining the tops of the limestone hillocks. Large fruit bats were flapping way above, flying off to the mainland. In the water were bio-phosphorescent plankton, and each paddle stroke brought a bouquet of little lights to the surface. We raced back to the boat to beat the storm, and cruised back into port, entertained by magic tricks as lightning and rain spilled outside. But the true magic was the moment at night in the lagoon.
Scuba in the Similan Islands. There are a number of dive spots around Phuket, and the best is 50 miles offshore in the Similan Islands, nine small outposts in the Andaman Sea (our Indian Ocean). We set off in a fast dive boat by H2O Sportz. The water is clear and the fish abundant. Two of us were certified and three got a quick 'resort course' training. The dive master (whom you can reach at email@example.com) was very cautious and stuck with the newbies like a sea anemone on coral. Since one of them was my daughter, I was appreciative of the quality of care! She did fine, and by the second dive was taking pictures and puttering around like the best of us. Our second dive was in a current, so we just drifted by wonderful sights. We played with a sea turtle (but did not touch!) and were briefly tracked by a pod of dolphins. A great time was had by all, and we sat satisfied on the ride home. We also got to know the pleasures of Aloe Vera afterwards, as the sun is quite intense. Of course the teenage girls felt it their duty to get a tan, and overdid it. Burn burn burn in that ring of fire. Sure beats Spring Break in Mexico.
Trekking With Elephants. Forget polo, elephants are the way to go! My daughter and her college roomate took a ride on a pair of Indian elephants, sitting bareback on the hide - a bit hairy and sweaty, but tough as, well, leather. The elephants were well trained, and happy to get a bunch of bananas at the end of the ride. They even tried to take my videocam - I guess it looked banana-ish. The girls loved it. A must-do!
Relaxing With Thai Massage. If anything is a Thai national obsession, it might be massages. Massage joints seem to be nearly everywhere, and they do housecalls, too. For 500 baht ($12), including tip, one can get an excellent one-hour treatment, in one of several styles. After working out, or doing an excursion, it provides a wonderful respite. The 'sport' or 'deep-muscle' massage is one you will remember, at least until the muscles heal!
The Road to Phuket. The attractions are exciting, but the people made our trip. At times it felt like we were living through one of those movies in the '30s that spoke of adventure in exotic locales, with colorful people; and at other times one of those loopy Road Trip comedies of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. What brings people to Phuket, and why do they stay?
A fairly small group have driven the development of Phuket over the past decade. Some of them have joined a sports club called the Phuket Coconuts. Our host for the trip introduced us to the driving force behind the Coconuts, an elegant & very fit gentlemen with an intriguing background full of mysteries and adventures.
One of the group came to Singapore from San Franciso to help develop villas for the Amanpuri Resort in Phuket. His timing was impeccable -- the Asian Flu hit, the baht fell more than in half, property was suddenly cheap, and development money flooded into Phuket. He was there to manage the high-end projects. He moved to Phuket, and has stayed ever since. He left his stuff in storage, expecting to return to the States; it sits there still.
His wife is an amazing force. She was bitterly disappointed in the rigid education of her kids at the local British Style school which seemed to dissipate students' natural excitement for learning. She has now started a new international school (whose first 80 students come from 23 different countries), pulling in the best ideas from around the world on how to educate for the Digital Generation. Designed more like an office than a factory, and fully wired for the Internet, she is planning project-based learning where students are actively involved in their own education and parents serve as educational resources too. Her husband is helping develop the school and surrounding community, which will be wired together with the latest in broadband technologies. The goal is to integrate the school into the community at large and make its resources available in evenings and weekends. A visionary plan.
Another person came from Hong Kong, where he had started and grown a dot-com business. After the crash, he sold off the business to local institutions and headed to Phuket. His investment instincts had told him to move into real estate, and his timing was propitious. He came to Phuket as the worldwide real estate bubble began, and has built quite a good business in just a few years. He invited us for lunch and boat in on his newly-acquired yacht, and we had a delightful time puttering around the eastern waters off Phuket. We later ate at his restaurant, the Rockfish, in Kamala Bay, which is one of the best in all of Thailand. We had local fish, bought fresh from local fisherman who dock in the waters just below the restaurant, blended with Asian fusion spices and flavorings. Delicious!
We had dinner with a quiet, dignified and very successful Coconut, who had us over to his Thai-style house -- or perhaps better described as estate. A variety of rooms dotted a verdant landscape, connected by walkways and pools. We first had drinks in the waiting room -- an open air building with a dramatic sweeping Thai roof that soared above us to a distant peak. We then ate outside on a roofed patio, overlooking the gardens and a bit below the Adaman Sea. Soothed by a gentle breeze, we ate local lobster, duck and fried rice, drinking fruit juices and fine wine. He came to Phuket from Monaco, for the lifestyle (!).
Our host has several times made a fortune, and spent it. Once in California, then again in Tokyo during the 1980s bubble, and now for a third time in Phuket. He is a very fit 67, having recently raced in the NZ Ironman competition. (The Ironman combines a 2.5 mile swim with a 100 mile bike race, finishing off with a 26 mile marathon, all in the same day.) He finishes those races, and helps close deals. He seems to be the motivating force behind many of the Coconuts, inciting normally busy and sedentary seniors to train for triathlons, workout in the heat and humidity, and transform their lives. A marathon in the tropics -- you wonder whether he has been in the sun too long!
His wife was one of the first female Marine Corps aviators, and is helping an orphanage in Ulan Batar, Mongolia. A remarkable woman, she took to the project after a visit up there at the behest of a mining Billionaire. When the Russians quit 15 years ago, they left behind few institutions to help the poor. Many kids freeze out in the street. She is improving the orphanage, adding a school, and building up the town. Mongolia is a bit primitive. Many locals live in a tent -- Russians call it a Yert, Americans a Ger-- but the kids call it home. When asked whether they would like to live in a regular orphanage building instead, the kids overwhelmingly preferred to stay in small groups in the familiar tent. After all the trauma they have experienced, emotional comfort is important so their wishes are honored. Her work with the orphanage so inspired the locals that they gave her a ceremonial camel.
Their stories are all different. What binds them is the lifestyle and opportunity in Phuket.