Phuket, a tear-shaped island in southern Thailand, is quite simply paradise. After the devastating tsunami of 2004 that has left scars on the island in the shape of crosses, warning signs, and portraits on street lamps the exuberance for living is still present on the island with just a twinge of grief. Phuket was once a sleepy beach town visited only by those who wanted to counteract the seediness of Bangkok and nearby Patong. Now it boasts luxury resorts, a water park, top-rated dining and even an art community that is gaining international recognition.
The commuter plane from Bangkok is a short 45-minute ride and offers the best views of the island. Upon initial approach to landing, all one has to do to have their breath taken away is to look out the plane window below. Blue water and greenery meet the eye, but there is a sense of the magical. Your eyes have to blink quite a few times to understand fully the view is real. Within minutes, you are on the ground still mesmerized by the natural beauty.
The Phuket airport is small, but right away you have genial Thais willing to help you hail a cab or find food. Once you are outside, in broken English, a line of Thai cab drivers offer to take you anywhere you need to go. Ask them to take you to a food cart that specializes in rotis. Since the influx of tourists, Phuket has fused foreign dishes with their native flavorings. A roti is a crepe filled with egg, fruit and dowsed in condensed milk all for 30 baht (roughly 93 cents). After the hours of flying, it nourishes you enough to regain your sense of wonder.
It only takes fifteen minutes to reach the Grand West Sands Resort & Villas Phuket Resort, which resides on the western side of the side. Mai Khao, the local beach, is the quietest, yet longest stretch of beach available on the island. Blending ecological responsibility with tourism, West Sands customized a green system to conserve the local area. Once you put your bags down and check in with the transgender (aka a lady boy) concierge, make your way over to Mount Nagakerd.
You will seek refuge from the world at the white jade Buddha that is big enough to see from almost any side of the island on a clear day. Officially known as Phraphutthamingmongkhol-akenagakhiri, the statue is over 147 feet tall and rests on a lotus overlooking the Andaman Sea. The stray dogs will guide you as you walk/drive up to the entrance and are not a problem as the monks in saffron robes care for them. One word on tourist etiquette: do not touch the monks. The holy men are happy to bless anyone (a donation is appropriate afterwards), but they are forbidden to touch women.
You will work up an appetite on the way up and will be tempted to chow down at one of the numerous beckoning restaurants targeted towards tourists. Resist the urge and instead experience food like the locals. One way to do this is to attend the night market on Ong Sim Phai Road near the Robinson Department Store. This is a glimpse into the real Phuket. Locals shop there during the day, but at night, it is a festival of food. A sea of portable stalls and carts greets you as do the salty wafts of freshly caught seafood. White plastic benches and chairs spill out into the street as a makeshift dining area.
The cornucopia of offerings might be overwhelming at first glance. Look around to see which stand has the longest line and join it. Take note, however, most local cuisine will be quite spicy, and they may not be able to accommodate special orders. However, with fresh papaya salad, pork buns, all forms of curry and barbecued fish balls there is a dish to suit your palate. A must have dessert is white rice soaked in condensed milk served with slices of juicy mango. The best part of this market is most meals, including beer, will not cost more than 300 baht or $900.
Afterwards, head straight to your hotel room as tomorrow morning will be an elephant safari. This is a perfect activity if you have youngsters in tow. The pachyderms have enormous saddles on their backs resembling cages. There are four bars on either side to ensure maximum safety. These excursions are led by mahouts, elephant wranglers, that perch themselves on the elephant’s head. Once secure on the back of these majestic creatures, you ride for less than an hour through shallow streams, the mountainside, and groves of rubber trees. While it does take a bit to adjust to the saddle, the views are beyond compare for roughly 1500 baht or $45 per hour.
Ultimately, Phuket is whatever you want it to be. It can be a Buddhist retreat, a debauched seaside holiday or an ecological adventure. Plan ahead to take in all this earthly paradise has to offer and remember to tip well.