After two weeks of solid traveling through bustling cities and squeezing in as many sights as we could, Jeff and I were ready to ditch the alarm clocks and itineraries. We said our goodbyes to Bangkok and headed to one of the islands off the southern coast of Thailand to relax.
We arrived at Phuket airport just as the five o’clock rush hour began. When we researched where to stay, we had decided to go to a beach that was quiet and remote rather than busy and “popular.” We wanted proximity to some of the main sites on the island, but more importantly, we wanted seclusion. After scouring online reviews and maps, we decided on the Mandarava Resort and Spa near Karon Beach.
Conveniently, they had a driver waiting at the airport for us, so we did not have to worry about finding a tuk tuk or taxi for the hour ride further south. One of the great things about traveling to Thailand in the summer is that it’s their low season or monsoon season thus making prices easier to budget and also, there are less people around. While the rain did cause some interesting moments during our four days, it was never debilitating for what we wanted to do. So if you’re looking to go to Thailand on a discount, look at going in the summer months.
Because it was five o’clock, and the roads are limited to two very windy lanes, it took us nearly two hours to reach our hotel. We were exhausted after the adrenaline and excitement wore off, but we were greeted warmly by the hotel staff with umbrellas and lemongrass tea that tasted like liquefied Froot Loops. Despite it being pitch black outside, it was a lovely first night in Phuket.
The next morning, I looked out the window toward the ocean and saw the morning monsoon approaching us very quickly. I sat on the balcony with my mug of coffee and watched the rain just pour around us. Jeff was a bit disappointed that our morning beach trip was postponed, but I was thoroughly enjoying the sounds of tropical rain not on a CD or white noise machine. But as soon as I saw blue sky creep over the ocean in the distance, we grabbed our umbrellas and bathing suits to make the mile trek to the beach.
While the Mandarava Resort had constant, free shuttles to the beach, and tuk tuk drivers constantly circle the various resorts in the area, we didn’t find the walk difficult. It’s not the prettiest walk, I’ll admit, as you go through construction zones and old buildings with stray animals looking for food, but when we made it to the water, we took a breath of fresh air.
A quick note: In my previous post about Bangkok, I mentioned there are scammers everywhere trying to bilk you out of a few dollars. This does not stop in the capital city. We were stopped by guys on bikes trying to scam us into a contest or taking a ride to a hotel to get a prize. Under no circumstances do you give them information or get on their friend’s tuk tuk.
Standing on Karon Beach, we soaked in the horizon and ocean air. But just as we spread out our towel to recline in the Thai sun, I saw another storm cell brew over the coastline. We barely had enough time to grab our things before the sky opened up and we felt the sharp pelts of rain hit our legs.
Soaked to the bone, we continued to walk down the beach, determined to not let a little rain ruin our afternoon. As the clouds finally parted, we walked up toward the street to find something to snack on. Forgetting nutrition, I saw an ice cream stand featuring the rolled ice cream that became a viral sensation months before online. Captivated by the method, I filmed my own passion fruit cup getting made before my eyes, and it was delightful in the muggy heat.
We walked, cups in hand, toward Patak Road because it was recommended as a place to find local street food. Along this road, there were proper restaurants and bars, grocery stores, and a single street food stand that had an umbrella and a cart with blazing hot stoves. Naturally, that’s where we stopped. We ordered a refreshing coconut that came with a straw and spoon and waited for our lunch while listening to the sing-song voices of the massage parlor ladies that surrounded our little stall. “You wanna massaaaage?” It was interesting to note that once the sun set, the sentiment changed to, “You wan’ some compan-eeee?”
Our curry and fried rice arrived, and we dug into this extraordinary meal. I said it before, but the best Thai food will never be found in a restaurant. You have to go to the streets to find the true flavors of the country.
A word of caution: in an upcoming blog, I will detail my experience in the Japanese hospital system. Whether I contracted e.coli from the streets of Thailand or the stalls of Cambodia, I’ll never know, but just keep this in mind when indulging in street food of SE Asia.
The day’s heat was beginning to get to us, so we made our way back to the resort to relax for the night, but not before stopping in for a Thai massage at Frutta Massage Parlor right next to the resort. The prices for a massage at the hotel were outrageous next to the $8, hour-long, professional massage just a block away.
We walked up to the entrance of the parlor to be beckoned in by a woman in her 60s and a younger woman in her 20s. They handed us a menu of choices, and we both chose the traditional Thai massage before being shown into a massive room with mats laid out in neat rows.
I mentioned in my previous post that to tattoo an image of Buddha is a sign of disrespect. Jeff has Buddha’s face on his chest, so before disrobing for the massage, we tried to ask if this would offend anyone. We quickly realized the masseuses only knew enough English to get you through the door and your order. After several minutes of flashing the ink and asking if anyone was offended, they finally brought the owner over to translate just to be told that it was fine and that it would be covered. They handed us sheer robes to change into, and we were led to the mats for our massage.
It was the most relaxing hour of my life. My 60 year old masseuse stretched my arms, legs, back, and neck is all sorts of directions, and then she stood on my back, walking up and down my spine. The hour flew by too quickly, but we said our gracious thank yous as we paid and left feeling like we were on air.
The next night, we did go to another massage parlor near Patak Road, and Jeff asked for a sports massage. As if on cue, a masseuse came forward and ushered us in. We lovingly dubbed this masseuse Lola because of her strong hands, deep voice, and small frame. Watching Jeff get worked on by Lola was extremely entertaining. My massage was not exceptional since my masseuse was new, but Jeff was contorted and flipped around like he was auditioning for Cirque de Soleil. And while he felt like a new man leaving Lola behind, I felt like I had been barely touched in my session. We had different concepts of “you get what you pay for” that night.
The next day, the clouds stayed away as we made plans to see one of Phuket’s biggest attractions: Big Buddha. We found a lovely taxi driver who charged us 1000 baht to drive us all the way to the attraction, wait an hour, and then drive us back to Kata Beach, one of the more famous and picturesque beaches on the island. Compared to some of the other drivers, 1000 baht was a steal. Through windy roads straight up hill, we saw some lovely landscape, but it was as we approached the top of the Nakkerd Hills that overlooked Chalong Bay, we saw the body of a massive Buddha statue.
The porcelain white statue has only been there for 10 years. New to the Phuket skyline, this statue at 45 meters tall, is still under construction, but it is truly something to see and take in. A smaller Buddha at 12 meters in height and of solid brass sits next to the monument. We walked all around the 25 meter across base to try and see every detail of this holy attraction, but it is impossible to get a full view of it from its feet.
While staff members surround the base trying to get donations for the construction, they were never pushy in getting you to donate. But we did give 300 baht to have our name forever glued to the base of Buddha’s seat. As we continued to walk around the top of the hill, we took in the gorgeous view of the Chalong Bay.
As I soaked in the vast horizon and the green hills, Jeff quietly came over to me and said, “We need to go.” I looked at him surprised, but then he motioned to a person standing behind us propositioning Jeff for a kiss. I smiled politely as Jeff said a swift, “No,” and we made our way back down the stunning mountainside to Kata Beach.
While we didn’t regret our choice in Karon Beach to stay for the quiet and solitude, Kata Beach was much more the picturesque view we had in mind. The sand was a perfect shade of tan, and the coastline was something out of a dream. The trees, blue skies, and waves were everything we had imagined for an afternoon in the Thai islands.
Big Buddha was our only excursion on Phuket. We wanted to hop on a boat and see the Phi Phi Islands or the James Bond Island, but this is where the big negative of traveling in the summer comes into play. Because the waves and weather are so unpredictable, boats rarely go out for safety reasons. A bit disappointed and relieved, we took it as a sign to continue and recharge for the next legs of our eastward journey toward the States.
On our last night in Phuket, we finally decided to see Patong Beach and Bangla Road, the famous party area that is compared to Miami or Las Vegas. We got a tuk tuk to take us the five or so miles from the resort to the Naka Market first. This seafood night market happens every weekend near Patong Beach. The parking lot of the shopping center transforms into countless stalls and steaming food for as far as the eye can see. But the main attraction to the market is the seafood.
You walk up to any of the stalls selling fresh fish and you pick out what you want to eat. A bartering man takes your order and weighs out the food and gives you a price. He then takes it to the chef in the back, and it’s all cooked to order. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to go.
The experience we had was a classic bait and switch. We picked out three, good size prawns to be cooked, but as we were seated and given bottled water, we watched our bartering man switch out one of our prawns for a much tinier thing charging us the original price. Already annoyed, the chef gave Jeff a cheeky wink full knowing we saw the switch take place. We called it out, but the waiter did nothing to compensate, apologize or discount. Instead, he told us he did it for our benefit because the smaller one had more meat. Scratching our heads at his logic, we left to see who else could screw us.
Down the way from the seafood stalls are stands with everything from BBQ chicken to banana pancakes. I enjoyed a scoop of coconut ice cream with grass jelly while Jeff dove into some Nutella drizzled crepes before making our way to the neon light haven for frat boys and party people.
Bangla Road is famous for the bars, entertainment, and ping pong shows. We were constantly and incessantly hounded to go see a ping pong show, and while I would normally say, “Sure! Let’s indulge in the local flair,” I knew better than to be sucked into this scam. Hawkers beckon you in for a strip show for free, but then you are not allowed to leave without paying a substantial sum. We read horror stories about these scams, so we stayed away at all costs, even when women were popping their lips together for a sort-of ping pong noise effect hard to replicate via a blog.
It was quite a show on the streets alone as we watched street performers, girls dancing on tables, and men stumbling from bar to bar. It was definitely not our scene, but as travelers, we had to check out all of the attractions…for science.
For a quick snapshot of strolling down the crazy street, click here for a video.
We grabbed a party tuk tuk to drive us back to our resort in neon light style and packed our bags for the next leg of the trip. We spent four days in Phuket and got the much needed rest necessary for Cambodia. Stay tuned for the next blog where we visit working silk worms, a student circus, and edible tarantulas.
Helpful hint in Thailand: Laundry services are available for those who need fresh clothes. I would not recommend using a hotel because they will charge you quite a bit. We found a local woman to do a load for us just down the road from the resort. They price it by weight, and it was done in 24 hours. The other wonderful thing was they shrink-wrap your clothes upon return making packing much easier for our suitcase.