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Introduction to Phuket

Phuket – Most popular island resort

"But who is going to come this far?"

The year was 1978, and the doubting voice belonged to one of a group of 12 travel agents, appreciative guests of the Thai tourism authorities. We were standing on the southernmost Phromthep Cape, watching a chilli-red sunset after a day spent admiring some of the most beautifully deserted beaches in the world.

After dinner that evening, the participants were unanimous in their conclusion. Thailand's largest island they agreed, even with its idyllic mountain scenery and fairy-tale coastline, seemed too remote to be on any viable tourist itinerary.

Furthermore, the community was already prosperous through rubber and tin mining, and tourism seemed far from anybody's thoughts. With a handful of hotels, very little infrastructure, and sporadic flights from Bangkok carrying local businessmen, it seemed to everybody very unlikely that this far-flung place would ever make it into the brochures.

How wrong they were.

On ancient charts, Phuket is referred to as Jang Si Lang, appearing on later maps, not too appealingly perhaps, as Junk Ceylon . Some maintain the current name derives from the Malay word 'Bukit' meaning hill, which seems the most likely, particularly since the transliteration from Thai was spelled Bhuket for many years. Others say it has origins in the Tamil word, 'Manikram' or Crystal Mountain, although any phonetical association here is unclear. Until it became recognised internationally, Phuket (correctly pronounced Poo-Ged) was mistakenly and mischievously included on the lists of the world's "naughtiest-sounding" destinations.

Located just under 900 kilometres Southwest of Bangkok, it is similar in area to Singapore, measuring 54 kilometers north to south, and 21 kilometers east to west at its most distant points. About 70 percent of the land area is mountainous, with the highest elevation at 529 meters. The terrain is richly varied, with rocky headlands, numerous beaches of differing sizes and character, limestone cliffs, jungle-clad hills, small estuaries, lagoons, and tropical vegetation of all kinds. It is surrounded by over thirty smaller islands of similar topography, many of them prime tourist attractions in their own right. The permanent population is estimated at roughly a quarter of a million, and Phuket is the only island in Thailand to have full provincial status. The Sarasin Bridge connecting it to the mainland was constructed in the mid-1970's, and a second one parallel to it, the 660-metre Thao Thep Krasatri Bridge, opened more recently. Phuket airport saw its first aircraft land in 1976.

Unlike tucked-away Samui off the opposing Southeast coast of Thailand, Phuket's strategic position as a trading post on coastal sea routes gives it a recorded history going back a millennium or more. This has nurtured an interesting blend of cultures and influences, including Burmese, Malay, Chinese, Indian, Portuguese and Dutch, mixed with the indigenous 'Chao Ley' or sea gypsies, dark-skinned peoples thought to have originated in India's Nicobar Islands. Although predominantly Buddhist, Muslims make up more than one third of the population. As a result, Phuket is a pleasantly strange mix of ancestry and ambience, a kaleidoscope of stunning tropical seascapes and forested hills, and a fascinating combination of tin mining, rubber, and tourism.

One event in its history might have dramatically changed the island's future. In the late 1700's the British seriously considered establishing Phuket as a strategic base for their imperialistic presence in the Far East. As it happened, they finally opted for the island of Penang further south, a decision they doubtless regretted when large deposits of tin were discovered on Phuket, an asset which led to a huge presence of immigrant Chinese. These industrious people dominated the tin industry, and their subsequent generations still form much of the island's population today.

If Phuket's history provides the traveller with a rich choice of pleasurable discoveries in edifices and customs, its size and varying altitudes endows it with a variety of meteorological variations. Weather conditions can thus change unexpectedly, often refreshingly, as you travel from one part of the island to another, particularly during the monsoon. Nearly a third of the flora consists of rubber plantations, which were first introduced in 1903, but the remainder of the vegetation is richly varied, and home to interesting wildlife, which in the past included tigers, rhino and wild elephants; reported by travellers as little as a century ago.

Tourism awareness remained at almost zero until the mid 1980's when the combined presence of the newly opened Amari Coral Beach Resort and Club Med gave Phuket sudden and significant international exposure. Delighted holidaymakers from Japan, Australia and Europe spread the word, and the emerging regional "Tiger" economies saw newly-affluent Asians begin to experience Phuket's delights. The so-called 'rainy season' from May to October proved to be no obstacle to enjoyment, and by 1987 - "Visit Thailand Year" Phuket was on everybody's lips. More top class hotels followed, and the airport was expanded to take wide-bodied jets. Direct scheduled and chartered flights began to arrive from Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, and Europe, and tourism soon became the main source of income, eclipsing the coconuts, cashews, pineapples, fishing, prawn farming and pearl cultivation which had been the island's economical mainstays in the past. Most land-based tin mines have closed down due to the fall in global prices. Marine mining still continues on a small scale.

If Phuket is many people's dream of paradise, increasing numbers of foreigners are turning dreams into reality by settling here permanently, either for business or retirement, and enjoying the unbeatable blend of exotic tropical ingredients, excellent infrastructure, good educational facilities, and the reasonable cost of living. Phuket indeed, has always enjoyed high standards; by 1910, it already had paved roads and motorcars, long before other provinces in the Kingdom.

What to Do

Noted in a magazine:

"With its size, diversity, natural beauty, exceptional beaches, climate, history, sightseeing, accommodation choices, sports, flora and fauna, Thailand's Phuket is probably the best and finest tropical holiday island in the world, catering magnificently for all ages, nationalities and tastes"

So waxed one enthusiastic travel writer, and even if he was somewhat biased, the accolade is not far from the truth. Compared with most other island destinations, Phuket wins hands down, a fact reflected in the ever-growing number of visitors, and an average of ten flights an hour using the busy airport, the majority of passengers coming to savour the rich bounty of leisure activities on offer.

If the temptation is to do nothing but laze, it is one that deserves some resistance. At the very least, a sightseeing tour to see some of the island's varied attractions is desirable, as is a half day walking around the main town with its curiously Chinese-Mediterranean ambience, which mixes modern convenience stores with ageing mansions, traditional shops, and old European-style buildings.

Nothing, however, beats the liberated pleasure of renting a vehicle for a few days, and equipped with swimwear and sun oil, setting out to revel in the spectacular beaches, the rugged coastlines, and the lush island interior. For the more adventurous, it's a pleasant 90 km drive from Phuket to Phang Nga with its fascinating marine rock formations, and location of "James Bond Island" from the film Man with the Golden Gun. If time permits, a further 86 km brings you to the stunningly beautiful coastline of Krabi.

The plethora of islands surrounding Phuket - from the well known such as Phi Phi to other often deserted jewels - allow endless opportunities for playing Robinson Crusoe in paradisiacal surroundings. For active folks, almost every land and water-based sport is well catered for.

Looking at the map, Phuket vaguely resembles a stretched triangle, with an irregular indented coastline as if nibbled by fish of different sizes, the deepest bite on the West Coast representing Patong Bay. The airport runs along the base of the thumb-shaped northern tip where the Sarasin Bridge connects to the mainland.

The West Coast is blessed with over a dozen world-class beaches, whilst the less attractive East Coast is home to prawn farms, fishing ports and the location of Phuket town. Travelling clockwise from the town past Cape Panwa, the site of an old Sino-Portuguese mansion, and Chalong Bay with its boat piers and seafood restaurants, you reach the long-established beach resort of Rawai with its adjoining Sea Gypsy village.

As you turn northwards from Promthep, the southern tip, the magical series of superb beaches begins, starting with tranquil Nai Harn, venue for the annual King's Cup Regatta, followed by Kata Noi, Kata, and Karon beaches which lead to the island's most famous and most developed resort of Patong.

North of Patong, come the tranquil beaches of Kamala, Laem Sing, and Surin, leading up to the developed Bang Tao Laguna complex, formerly a tin mine. Quieter, more secluded beaches follow, small Nai Ton, then the long graceful sweep of Nai Yang where sea turtles lay their eggs, from November to February. Finally, the longest of Phuket's beaches, Mai Khao completes the series of seaside jewels with over 9 kilometres of white sand. During the rainy season from May to October, some of these beaches experience strong currents and undertows. Bathers should always respect the "no swimming" red warning flags, and avoid bathing on deserted beaches during this period of the year.

On Land

At one point on the drive between the airport and Phuket town, the Heroine's Monument dominates the road. The two female figures, swords drawn, commemorate the successful defence of the island in 1785 against the invading Burmese led by these two brave ladies, Chan and Mook.

Phuket town can be enjoyed comfortably on foot, and one pleasant spot to begin your meandering (early morning is best) is Khao Rang, the hill above the town, which affords excellent panoramic views, plus gives a good idea of the general layout before you descend to explore. Interesting sights in the town itself include the 200 year old Taoist temple of Put Jaw, and the adjoining Jui Tui Temple dedicated to a vegetarian god, and centre of many festivities during Phuket's famous Vegetarian Festival (see below).  Also worth visiting is the shrine of Sanjao Sam San, devoted to the safety to boats and all those at sea. Many of the town's old colonial style buildings are absorbing, as is the Phuket Provincial Court, and Government House, the latter doubling as the French Embassy in Phnom Penh in the film The Killing Fields.

Nature lovers should not miss out on a visit to the 22 square kilometers of virgin forest that make up the Khao Phra Taeo Wildlife Park, a spectacularly verdant home to many rare plants, birds and animals and declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1969. There is a small waterfall at the park headquarters and marked trails assist trekkers discover the jungle magic. Mangrove swamps are one interesting aspect of Sirinat National Park located at Phuket's northern tip, covering 90 square kilometres, and rich in flora and fauna. Sapan Hin is an area of parkland and sporting facilities sporting a monument to Captain Edward Thomas Miles, who brought the first tin dredger to Phuket in 1909. Thalang National Museum contains interesting artefacts and exhibits from Phuket's history, worth visiting to glimpse the island's past. Wat Chalong, dedicated to two revered monks, is the largest and perhaps arguably the most photogenic of the island's temples. Wat Phra Nang Sang is the island's oldest temple dating back over 200 years, and contains a number of interesting relics, statues and murals, including Thailand's longest Lai Tong an accordion-like religious manuscript. Wat Pra Tong encloses a curious half buried statue of Buddha made of gold, but still encased in the plaster used to conceal it from the invading Burmese. Phuket Sea Shell Museum near Rawai beach houses a huge and fascinating display of over 2000 species, including many rarities, and is reputedly one of the world's best collections. The Thai Village and Orchid Farm has dozens of rare orchid species and puts on two cultural shows a day. Phuket Zoo is home to over 3000 animals from all over the world, including 600 species of birds. The exhibits include an aquarium and a 'nocturnal house' the latter devoted to insects, beasties and other creatures that may bump into you in the night. Phuket Butterfly Garden & Aquarium boasts a wide range of magnificent butterflies, interesting insects, and fascinating aquatic life. The Marine Biological Research Centre located at Cape Panwa rewards visitors with a memorable close up of more than a hundred sea creatures. The Pearl Farm on Naga Island opposite

Phuket town offers an opportunity to learn the methods of culturing these lovely treasures.

For sports enthusiasts, Phuket offers a huge choice of activities, including 4 top-class golf courses one of which, the championship Blue Canyon Country Club, was the venue for the Johnnie Walker Classic Tournament, in 1994 and 1998. Amongst the long list of sports, there is Rock-Climbing, Elephant Trekking, Mountain Biking, Go-Cart Racing, Mini Golf, Horse Riding, Shooting, Paintball, Bowling, Thai Boxing, and Bungy Jumping, to mention a few.

At Sea20 kilometres south east of Phuket, Phi Phi Islands are the most visited and most famous, no less so than after the filming of The Beach on Phi Phi Ley, the smaller island of the two, starring Leonardo Di Caprio. The scenery is literally spectacular, and this is forseeably the most popular of all the full day excursions. Renting your own boat is a desirable option if you want to explore beyond the set tour itineraries, and beat the crowds. This option also allows you to visit many of the smaller and idyllic islands offshore, and a friendly boatman who knows the best spots and the hidden beaches can make for a truly memorable experience.

For divers, many islands offer prime sites, such as Dok Mai, Racha, and Shark Point. The preferred choice however is the remote but renowned Similans, a chain of 8 islands 90 kilometres NW of Phuket, which according to those in the know, has some of the best dives in the world. Deep Sea Fishing can be arranged privately or jointly with fully equipped boats in pursuit of tuna, marlin, shark, sailfish and other big ones. Yacht Charters can be arranged by the day, or for longer, with or without crew.

Entertainment

Patong Beach is the undisputed nucleus of the island's entertainment, with a bewildering choice of clubs bars restaurants and trysts from the sophisticated to the sensational. The Simon Transvestite Cabaret rarely fails to impress with its excellent all male but exquisitely feminine productions, and at Kamala beach, the huge and extravagant Phuket Fantasea theme park blends high technology and special effects with stunning cultural presentations featuring hundreds of talented performers and scores of trained animals.

Events

Phuket boasts an extensive calendar of festivals and special events, including the Chao Ley Boat Floating Festival held during the middle of the sixth and eleventh lunar months at the Chao Ley (Sea Gypsy) villages in Phuket. Amongst festivities, music and dance, small boats containing dolls, and strands of hair are released on to the water to bring good fortune, and to ward off malevolence. The newly introduced Phuket Fireworks Festival scheduled for July, at Sapanhin Cape near Phuket town promises 4000 bursting beauties in the night sky, and may well become an annual event. Phuket's increasingly well-known and interestingly bizarre Vegetarian Festival is held from the 1st to the 9th day of the waxing moon of the 9th Chinese calendar month, which falls around September-October. Originating in 1825 in rites to ward off the plague, hundreds of white-robed participants, eschew meat, and take part in trance-like processions, apparently insensitive to the pain of self-inflicted body-piercings, flagellation, fire-walking and other physical trials. To add to the drama and atmosphere, enthusiastic spectators throw exploding firecrackers at their feet as they walk, and the effect can be quite surreal. Patong Carnival at the beginning of November promises a bonanza of the best Thailand can offer in good natured and noisy entertainment. This includes folk bands, jazz bands, famous local singers, fashion shows, sports competitions, beauty pageants, handicrafts, artists, painters, and almost everything else that is either fun, entertaining, colourful, or just wonderfully eccentric. Also at the beginning of November, the Phuket International Seafood Festival celebrates the rich bounty of the surrounding sea with a variety of festivities, and the participation of hotels, restaurants, and tourism related sectors. The Laguna Phuket Triathlon takes place in November at Bang Tao Beach, comprising a 1800-metre swim, a 55-kilometre bike race, and a 12-kilometre run. First organised to celebrate His Majesty's 60th birthday, the Phuket King's Cup Regatta is held on December 5. It is the largest of its kind in Asia, and open to several different classes of yacht.

Conclusion

It is hard to think of anywhere in the world that matches Phuket's alluring mixture of attractions; its superb and varied choice of beaches, its lush jungle interiors, its huge range of sports and leisure activities, and its bonus of surrounding idyllic smaller islands. When you blend this with the wonderful things that Thailand is so justifiably famous for its food, hospitality, culture, traditions, festivals and history, other destinations tend to pale by comparison.

A combination of a few days shopping and sightseeing in Bangkok followed by a stay in Phuket offers the ultimate in pleasure and relaxation. However, with direct flights linking the island with other Thai resorts such as Pattaya and Samui, plus connections to many Asian cities, all kinds of delightful holiday combinations with Phuket become easy, flexible and fascinating.

The monsoon season from May to October sees plenty of showers, spectacular thunderstorms, and occasional periods of prolonged rain. This is offset by the many things to do on cloudy days, which in any case often bring relief to sunbathers feeling the effects of the strong rays. Another big advantage is reflected in the substantially lower hotel prices during this period - often less than half of the traditional high season prices.

Patong Beach offers the best selection of activities, sports, shopping, and entertainment, therefore is the busiest and most developed. The Amari Coral Beach Resort is located on a secluded headland at the south end of Patong Beach. For those seeking peace and quiet combined with the convenience of a lively resort on their doorstep, this delightful hotel is the perfect choice for a memorable holiday on one of the most beautiful islands in the world.