Way back in November, while we were still in Tacoma, our good friend Dan told us that he had two weeks of vacation scheduled in March, and that he wanted to come to Thailand while we were there! Excited to have a friend come visit us, Julia and I made sure to leave our schedule open to go wherever Dan wanted – and Dan wanted to go to the island of Phuket! We all bought our respective plane tickets, and reserved an apartment through Airbnb in the small town of Kamala. I flew in from Myanmar, Julia flew in from Vietnam, and Dan flew in from the states connecting through Seoul. Julia and I got to the apartment by midnight, and Dan showed up a few hours later. We could barely believe that he was actually here with us – and neither could he!
We woke up the next morning and walked down the street, both exploring the area and looking for a place to eat. Just in the first few minutes of walking around, I could tell that Phuket was much different from Chiang Mai. For one thing, it was very humid – even though the thermometer said it was only 92-94 degrees (as opposed to 100-104 in Chiang Mai), it actually felt hotter because of how humid it was. However, the humid air and sea breezes also meant that there was virtually no smoke in the air, a very welcome change from the smog that persists in Chiang Mai! One big cultural difference is that Phuket has a large population (35%) of Muslims – in northern Thailand, we haven’t seen any sign of the world’s second most popular religion. In Kamala in particular, mosques are as common as wats, and many women can be seen wearing the traditional hijab (just the hood-like garment that covers the top of the head and neck, not the entire face or body). Much like Chiang Mai and everywhere else in Thailand though, we found that the people are incredibly friendly, pleasant, and helpful in Phuket!
Our first few days in Phuket were relatively uneventful – just the way we wanted! We really enjoyed the local market, and some of the more unusual items, above! We also enjoyed relaxing at the beach and at the pool by our condo, getting delicious (and cheap) food from the street carts, playing billiards and darts at one of the many bars nearby, and even just relaxing in our condo watching Netflix or playing Magic. Dan has worked very hard for a long time without getting much time off, so he was perfectly happy doing nothing for a while. We also set up our activities for our time there. Dan’s checklist was short and simple – visit the Big Buddha temple, visit James Bond Island, visit the Phi Phi Islands, and see a Muay Thai fight (Dan is a big MMA fan but has never seen a fight live). With the help of our very friendly receptionist, we made bookings for the islands and the fight. But rather than pay a taxi to take us to the Big Buddha temple (transportation is actually much more expensive in Phuket than in Chiang Mai), we decided to hike!
The Big Buddha of Phuket is on the highest point of the island, about 1200 feet elevation. We found out later that the temple is actually still being built, so this is definitely the newest Buddhist monument we have seen on our trip! Kamala is on the west side of Phuket, and taking a cab to the top would take us down around the southern tip and back up the east side of the island. Since we were hiking, we took a short cab ride to the town of Karon, and planned to hike straight up the mountain! We had read reviews online of people that hiked it before and they said it was a “moderate to easy” hike that would take about two and a half hours (one way). After stopping at a 7-Eleven to load up with water and trail snacks, we were on our way!
The first part of our hike was on the streets of Karon that led up the mountain. Only five minutes into our hike we were presented with a very long and steep hill. Dan seemed to have no problem with hills, with years of experience as a (walking) letter carrier, but Julia and I were struggling right off the bat! Fortunately we started somewhat early in the day, and there were lots of trees on the side of the road providing shade, but we were still drenched with sweat once we got up this first hill. We went up and down several large hills like this before finding a path that took us off of the asphalt roads and onto the dirt.
The dirt path was more of the same – lots of steep hills – only now there was more dirt getting on us, and less shade. It’s a good thing we brought so much water, because we really needed all of it! Just as we were cursing the people on the internet that called this a “moderate to easy” hike, we rounded a corner and saw the Big Buddha!
It was still a ways off, but now we could see the light at the end of the tunnel, and that light wasn’t too far above us in elevation. The rest of the hike was more of an easy walk up a slight hill, the last kilometer on the road with taxis, ATVs, and songtaews wizzing by us. We also passed several cliffside restaurants, but resolved to wait to go until after we made it to the top, as a reward. Finally, we made it to the top! The views were great and the Big Buddha was quite impressive. Even though it was a lot more challenging than we were expecting, we’re glad that we hiked up, because it gave us a great sense of accomplishment and made the views that much sweeter!
Our next excursion was two days later, a boat trip through Ananda tours that took us to “James Bond Island” and some other surrounding sites. (On a side note, we’d seen the island’s name misspelled at least five different ways on printed tourist fliers-one of our favorites was James Bong!) Early that morning, we got picked up by a shuttle to take us around to the east side of the island. After a brief introduction and safety lesson, we walked to the end of the pier and got on a barge! The barge was of course chock-full of tourists – not unexpected, but definitely different from what Julia and I are used to! The barge was large enough that the ride wasn’t choppy at all – and there was plenty of juice, water, and snacks to keep us energized for the day. There was also beer for sale, but it was a bit too early in the morning for us (I guess we’re getting older).
Our first destination was Panak Island. We didn’t actually go on the island as much as we went in the island – canoeing through a bat cave! We anchored about 100 meters “offshore” – this particular island didn’t really have a beach, but more of a cliffside that continued straight down to the water. Everyone on the barge got on guided canoes and we made our way to the cave. The cave ceiling was actually quite low, in fact it’s so low that most of the cave is underwater at high tide – and low enough that we could see the hundreds of bats on the ceiling quite easily! Besides the bats, there were of course beautiful and intricate rock formations to see.
After our short venture in the bat cave, we had a little more time before the boat left for the next stop, so we jumped in the water for a quick swim! With how hot it was, we didn’t even need our towels to dry off!
Our next stop was Hong Island, known for it’s beautiful limestone cliff formations. The sea level was between five and ten feet higher for much of the cliffs’ existences, only relatively recently coming back down to present levels. This means that the limestone of the rock that is now five to ten feet above sea level was battered by waves for thousands of years, making the very base of the cliffs recede inwards. We anchored off Hong Island and again got on canoes to take a look around…
Our next stop was James Bond Island – originally known as Khao Phing Kao Island, but even the locals rarely call it that anymore – made famous by the 1974 movie The Man with the Golden Gun. This island actually had a beach to approach, though the beach was very small and already crammed with other boats. We actually had to get on a smaller long-tail boat just to find a spot on the beach! But even though there were tons of tourists, it was totally worth it.
Our last stop of this day was Naka Island. This beach was a lot more private, as there was just our barge and one other barge there – but there were lots of monkeys to make up for the lack of tourists! We had about 45 minutes to relax, but we couldn’t help but watch the monkeys play around and mess with tourists. Pretty soon, it was time to get back on the barge and head to our apartment in Kamala and rest up for the next adventure!
Our next activity was a night of watching Muay Thai. We bought tickets to see what turned out to be a series of fights at a small arena in Patong, a short ride away from our apartment. Our tickets again included transfer to and from the arena. We got there early, so we walked around Patong for a bit, which is much larger than Kamala. It made us glad that we stayed in Kamala, which is small enough that it doesn’t feel too touristy – there was always a spot on the beach and never too many tourists walking around. Patong felt like a constant party, which is great for some but not really what we were looking for. We didn’t stray too far from the entrance to the arena, choosing to walk through the night market going on across the street. The street vendors have a lot more seafood (including sushi which sells for between one and two dollars per roll!) than in Chiang Mai!
We headed back to the arena to get in as soon as the doors opened to ensure good seats. We walked up the stairs as the PA system repeatedly advertised the “SUPAH REAL FIGHT” we were about to see. We walked in, picked some seats, and got ready for the show!
There were five fights advertised on the flier when we signed up for this event, but we got an updated flier when we sat down showing us that there would be eight total fights! Each fight was five rounds of three minutes, unless the fight was stopped prematurely by knockout – so we really got our money’s worth!
Muay Thai is very similar to boxing (it actually translates to “Thai Boxing”), with the notable exception of kicks being allowed. There is still no grappling or submission attempts like in MMA, however. The first three fights were all “domestic” fights – fights between two residents of Phuket. The first fight we watched ended very quickly, as it appears that one of the fighters had second thoughts about his choice of hobby after getting hit a few times. Most of the fights were very entertaining – the best fights of the night featured a fight between a British girl and a Swedish girl that went the distance, and an American shaking off some rough early hits to knock out a fighter from Thailand. Then there was a total slugfest between an Australian and a Frenchman that featured several hits that I thought for sure would be an immediate knockout. Overall, the night was very entertaining and actually a lot less violent than I thought it would be – I’d highly recommend seeing Muay Thai to everyone but those that have exceptionally queasy stomachs for hard hits.
Our last scheduled excursion was to go to the Phi Phi Islands. Far off the Eastern coast of Phuket, these islands actually required a speedboat to get to! Similar to our other island excursion, we got picked up at our apartment by a shuttle, then met the rest of our group at a pier and headed out. The choppy conditions and smaller boat meant that our boat was a lot less of a party atmosphere than the barge from a few days prior, but our destinations would more than make up for that.
Our first stop was Maya Beach, which is prominently featured in the movie The Beach, a Leonardo DiCaprio movie from 2000 (we watched it the night before, and I was actually surprised by how much I enjoyed it – definitely worth checking out). Since it was our first stop, there weren’t too many other tourists there, especially compared to how many were at James Bond Island. Our first impression when stepping off the boat was how incredibly soft the sand was. Check this out!
In the movie, this beach was described as paradise unlike any other. I could only imagine what it would be like to be there with no other people – the bay is well guarded to keep the waves down, sitting on the sand feels like laying down on a pile of feathers, the limestone cliffs are gorgeous to look at, and the surrounding plants and trees complete the picture. We were only here for about an hour, and I think we spent most of that time just standing and taking it all in! Maya Beach is a must-visit for anyone coming to Phuket!
We stopped at a few other places that day, though none of them could compare to Maya Beach. We stopped on the largest of the Phi Phi Islands for lunch, stopped at a spot in the water for some snorkeling, sailed past some cliffs that were populated with monkeys, and ended the day relaxing on the beach of a very small island. The last island actually had some great snorkeling, and some cute kittens to watch when we were tired of swimming. A perfect mix of gorgeous sites, activities, and relaxation!
Our last night in Phuket (and Dan’s last night in Thailand) was a lot of fun. In the late afternoon, we went to a lawn bowling place that Julia discovered and played a game of lawn bowling. Beer was for sale, of course. It was a lot of fun – we were all pretty evenly matched so there was a lot of luck involved and some chaotic shots, and Julia was able to come out on top! That night we went to a bar and played some darts, one of Julia’s favorite bar activities. We started chatting with some other (non-American) tourists, and the topic of the election came up, as it always seems to do. We came to Thailand to try to get away from all of that crap! But at least we don’t have to hear/watch the attack ads.
Anyway, we played a few different types of games, and we each won one game. Before we started the last game, one of the guys we were talking to (American born but now lives in Australia) said “I’ll put 1000 Baht (about $28) on the lass”. The three of us kind of laughed but didn’t agree to a bet or anything like that. Well, Dan won the last game and the guy walks up to him and hands him 1000 Baht! Dan was happy to buy a couple rounds for us to keep the night lasting longer. We ended up going to the beach well after dark and swimming in the water for a bit. We could see sky lanterns (those mini balloons that you light on fire so they float away and then burn up) going up from many different places in Kamala. We sat back down on the beach watching the lanterns and waves, and just talked about random (read: drunk) topics for a few hours, before heading back to the condo. An absolutely perfect way to end our two week trip in Phuket with one of our closest friends. Thanks for coming out, Dan!