One cold miserable night in Oamaru I made a pretty rash decision to book a trip to Thailand. I think I had just watched a cooking show where they were making Phad Thai. I was craving hot weather and an exciting adventure! After swiping the fantastic plastic it soon dawned on me that my dream trip to Thailand was actually happening!
We travelled from Auckland with Thai airways leaving on a rainy Auckland morning, to arrive 12 hours later at the amazingly huge Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok. I had never been to an Asian country before so wasn’t too sure what to expect. The airport itself was clean and enormous. The signage was clear and we had no trouble finding where we were going. Mind you it was late in the evening and probably not as busy as it is in the day time. We arrived approximately 1030pm and had to make our way to another terminal to catch our connecting flight to Phuket.
We had to get on a bus that took us to the middle of the runway to board the plane, the moment the door opened the heat just hit me! Even though it was midnight the air was heavy, hot and damp. We arrived in Phuket around 0130am and were transferred by (thank heavens) an air conditioned shuttle. Not much to see driving down to Karon beach in the dark, but could make out buildings and masses of power lines.
Awaking that morning and pulling back the curtains we were greeted by a beautiful sunny day. We were staying at the Centra Resort, Karon beach and could not have been happier with our choice. The Centra is a family friendly resort with 3 different pools, and most importantly for us, all had swim-up bars! Our room was tidy and clean and we had an interesting view of an alleyway on one side, and one of the pools on the other. The resort itself is in good location smack bang in the centre of Karon, a block away from the beach with plenty of good restaurants, bars/pubs and markets/stalls handy. I highly recommend the temple markets on Tuesdays and Saturdays. The first day wandering the streets did give me a bit of a shock, everybody wanted to sell us a massage, suit or Tuk Tuk ride. The Thai people in Karon were all friendly and smiling but some pushy, we learnt the words mai chai (no) pretty quickly. The hardest of all to decline were the tiny little children that come up and hand you a souvenir and then expect money, hard to resist their beaming little faces.
The restaurant at the Centra was amazing and every morning we filled up on a big breakfast mix of American and Asian food, the omelette station was great! Breakfast fuelled us daily and often we didn’t eat again until dinner time. Be sure to head to a dairy/supermarket and grab bottled water, we would just pick up a 6 pack of 1 litre bottles, cost about NZD4. It is important not to drink the tap water in Thailand, not even to brush your teeth or look out, you will spend some time admiring the toilet walls.
Travelling to Patong wasn't a hassle as everyone (and I mean everyone) wants to take you, but you must bargain for the right price. For the four of us we paid around 400 Baht (NZD15). Patong was just a 10 minute tuk tuk ride over the hill. Huge markets greeted us with plenty of souvenirs, far too many clothes, and even more pushy people trying to sell you something. You must bargain to get a good deal. Just be sure to do it with a smile! We ended up sitting in the Hard Rock Café for half the day to escape the heat. Patong has an amazing white sandy beach but be warned if you take a seat in a beach chair you will be expected to pay.
A highlight of the trip was a day spent visiting Chalong Bay. We were collected in an open top jeep from the Centara and taken to Siam Safari where, after an interesting lesson on the elephants, we boarded our our ride ... a beautiful old creature called “Boi” he was a lovely well behaved big boy, and quite happily took us on our 30 minute circuit through the jungle. It was a peaceful, scenic, but rather bumpy journey, and quite surreal. He was quite a poser actually, stopping to smile and throw his trunk in the air for photos. I found the elephants were treated in a humane way and all looked happy and healthy, also the elephant guides had a beautiful connection with their charges. The main tour guide spoke English well and was really funny. We also watched an amusing show where baby elephants painted pictures (possibly better than me), played the harmonica and kicked soccer balls! On this same trip we also tasted traditional thai curry pastes (wow, hot, hot,hot!), learnt about rubber making, and coconut oil and topped the day off with a sunset cruise on a traditional junk boat including a buffet meal. The boat itself was a beautiful wooden ship, and the meal was nice, but quite plain. To top it off we watched the sun set over the bay with a cold Chang beer. All in all a fantastic day.
Over the next few days we spent time checking out the local restaurants and markets in Karon and treated ourselves to manicures and pedicures professionally done by a glamorous ladyboy just down the road from the resort. Lovely lady she was.. Most evenings between 5-6pm were spent in the swim up bar for happy hour, we found this a great way to end the hot, long, action packed days. One night in a bar in Karon a man was wandering around with a snake so after a drink or two and a “you only live once speech” to myself I plucked up the courage and gave the man a few coins to take my photo with the snake around my neck. Still shudder thinking about it but glad I did it!
Something I must say was a different experience and probably my favourite day in Thailand was sea canoeing in Phang Nga Bay. It was quite a drive from Karon to the jetty, maybe 2 hours, we then took a boat out to the islands. It was so peaceful and warm with awe-inspiring scenery. When we arrived we each had our own canoe with our guide paddling for us (ahhh now this is the life!), we ventured into the caves and through into a lagoon on Hong island. The scenery here was breath-taking. The cliffs around the island are high and the caves are low (you have to lay down in the canoe to go through some of them). While the caves were dark, but amazing, coming out into the central lagoon on Hong Island was astounding. In the middle of the island it was like a whole other world, there were monkeys climbing up mangroves and high, high cliffs reaching up as far as you could see. It was so peaceful and quiet it almost felt like we were the first people to discover the area, it seemed untouched. The monkeys were friendly and we feed them a bunch of mini bananas and apples. We paid for a DVD of the whole day and glad we did as it is something I’ll never forget. Don’t miss this if you head to Phuket!
One of the things I can’t stop raving about is the Thai food, we ate frequently at little Thai restaurants and paid no more than $15 per person for starters and mains, we were always too full for desserts! We tried as much unusual food as we could, we asked for “Thai hot” curries, and we were never disappointed! I even tried something on a stick ... still not sure what is was. Wasn’t quite brave enough to eat a spider or grasshopper but we tried to be adventurous, let’s just say we never ordered a burger and chips.
Phi Phi island was very interesting, we went out on a large ferry and had just one night out there, it was a very busy island, people everywhere and a maze of markets. I almost found it too busy and confusing, but maybe that was the heat. It honestly felt hotter on the island than anywhere else we had been. It was a blessing to get to our hotel and just relax in the pool. That night we headed out and ending up in a Mauy Thai bar with live boxing, drinking vodka buckets, now at the time we thought it was a novel idea but proved to give us slight headaches in the morning...my recollections of the night included sitting on the beach on bean bags watching fire dancers, getting lost in the maze of night markets, talking to travellers from all over the world, and a midnight swim at the beach! The ferry back was long, and overcrowded but was lovely sitting outside in the breeze and sunshine. Was worth the trip out there just next time no vodka buckets...
Well to sum it up we had an unbelievable time in Phuket and I can’t wait to go back, I took hundreds of photos, didn't use all my spending money and also lost my phone (well, lost or stolen). I recommend Phuket for a first time traveller to Asia, locals are mostly friendly, weather was good, food/shopping was cheap and I found it easy to get around. Just do a bit of research, learn a few simple Thai phrases, maybe book your day trips in advance and prepare to be wowed! Next time I’ll talk about Bangkok, but that's a whole other story....