Part of the fun of travelling is the actual journey to the destination and over the past month there had certainly been some memorable journeys. Whether it was a bouncing jeep jaunt through lush tea highlands of Cameron or a spine re-aligning boat ride to the Perhentians or rickety trishaw cycle dodging traffic on Penang, these will be remembered with fondness. Not so our mini-bus hell-ride from Penang to Phuket.
We were heading for the Land of Smiles – Thailand. A lush green land of temples and jungle; of bowed heads and hands of prayers; of shy glances and huge smiles. This was our first visit here and I was eager to embrace its famed friendliness. We were collected at 8am from our gorgeous little Georgetown guest house run by a lovely host family by mini-van and its Thai driver. Our bight hellos were met with a gruff grump as the driver ordered us where to sit, shoved our backpacks into the minuscule spot behind the back row seats and rear door, and then preceded to drive with the presence of road-rage. Five hours later we found ourselves off loaded at HatYai to another mini-van with an absolute Sargent Major for a driver.
Actually the mini-van was really a moving cave in disguised. The stalagmite seats almost touched the ceiling, it’s windows tinted within an inch of it’s life and the sticker-roll so low you had to be sitting on the floor to peer out. We fourteen bats sat hunched in our seats, our eyes peering into the darkness and our legs and feet becoming numb from their curled positions. I suppose I should consider it a blessing that I couldn’t see out the windscreen due to the parphanial of religious icon bling (I just prayed the drive could) but I must admit that viewing the death-defying on coming traffic chaos as being better than the on-continual loop 20minute pop princess tape that played on the small screen that hung down next to Sgt.Major drivers head. Big M and I certainly got to know our fellow passengers, even though not a single word was spoken. Being squashed in so tight, the chappie beside me kept rubbing my leg. If I didn’t know any better I’d swear he was either feeling me up or checking for my wallet, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and believe it to be restless hand syndrome.
We arrived at Phuket Town some 13hours later and in pitch darkness. The mini-van dropped us into a dark narrow lane with tightly shut shops and masses of dogs wandering around. A taxi tout is close by and being the only foreigners on the van, he was on our tails before we’d even stepped foot out of the van. We asked him to stop hassling whilst we dislodged our luggage from the van’s tight embrace. Due to our tiredness and numbness our request of “Just give us five minuets mate,” must have come across rude to him as when we were ready to discuss transport, he told us where to go….not very nicely. And so we did.
Our initial “Welcome to Phuket” was quickly forgotten when we finally arrived to our hotel at Kata Beach on the other side of the island. Knowing we’d be arriving late we had pre- book a room for one night and weren’t really expecting much for our price of $30.00. To our absolute delight we found ourselves at a beautiful resort and our fishbackside-tight budget reeled in a full blown villa complete with living room, kitchen, enormous bedroom with everything and amazing bathroom where the shower didn’t sit over the toilet! Upon rising in the morning we needed to pinch ourselves even further when we realised our included breakfast was an absolute feast and the pool and gardens were stunning. Our one night became six.
Our first day at Phuket was to become a steep learning curve. Still feeling euphoric from landing at such a beautiful resort with such lovely staff, we found ourselves skipping down to the main hub of Kata Beach adoring everything and everyone around us. Our smiles must have been very inviting as we were quickly stopped by two delightful girls – one French, one Thai – and offered a ‘tear-open and scratch’ card each. Big M won a tee-shirt and the girls giggled and joked with him as they told us how to collect the Tee. I hadn’t open mine and when I did anyone would think I’d won the lottery as they went bonkers. Jumping up and down, squealing and hugging each other, the French girl almost in tears. My card said I had a possible chance of winning one of four prizes – a Blackberry, an IPad, $1000Us or a 7day holiday. To find out I had to peel off a sticker… but the catch was I couldn’t peel off the sticker until I was in the collection office. So we were encouraged….in fact begged to catch a pre-paid taxi to Patong Beach and to collect our prize. So off we trundled to Patong Beach and before we knew it we were sitting in a beautiful resort hotel with a charming English ex-pat called Martin, being told all about a fabulous holiday-club we could join for the bargain basement price of $15,000.00. Yes that’s right fifteen thousand….but this could get us 38 years of cheap holidays - cheap not free and we also had to also pay an ongoing yearly subscription fee of $160.00. Thank goodness it was stinking hot outside and the resort’s air-conditioning was amazing, that was the only thing that made Martin’s three hours of dribble bearable, that and the promise that after listening to his dribble I could scratch my ticket. (Yes, I did say three hours!) When Martin realised that we weren’t going to buy into his club he finally let me have a scratch and lo and behold I’d won a holiday….no strings attached. I was so excited at the prospect of 7days free, I promptly bragged about it on Facebook and proceeded to walk on cloud nine for the next couple of days.
There’s a reason why there is a saying that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”…. because nothing is entirely for free! A price is always paid somewhere. After a few days of floating on the clouds of luck and patting myself on the back for winning something, because I never do win anything, I decided to Google the holiday club and there it was – The Catch. It turns out this is a typical Thai Scam… been going for years, since Adam was a boy! My free holiday is there but only if there’s a spare room going and then we have to pay an admin fee and then sit through another spiel and then…..who knows! And to add salt to wounded pride, Big M’s shirt won’t fit because they only had mediums (look like bud’s got another shirt.)
Our next venture into ‘great deals’ not being everything they are cracked up to be was the next day when we caught the bus to Phuket Town. I loved the little rattly busses that took us across the island, old trucks with bench seats, open bar windows and entry via a tailgate step. They rattle at snail pace along the winding roads whilst scooters, tuk-tuks (pimped to the max….uber cute!) and big billowing trucks roar past sending black plumes of fumes in through the glassless windows.
Upon arriving at Phuket Town we were delighted to find that a festival was happening - the Nine Day Vegetarian Festival where everyone wears white, yellow flags flutter everywhere and the sumptuous smells of vegetables cooking in every conceivable way waft through the air. We relish in wandering along the street looking at the food stalls lining it, discovering a hidden temple with full blown evil demons lining up ready for a celebration and being surrounded by monks in particular the mini-monks, little boys with impish playful smiles. So cute and cheeky.
But the day was another sauna and it didn’t take long for us to start melting. A chap could see we were turning into sweat puddles and offered to take us in his nice air conditioned car for a city tour – on a map he held he pointed out a number of temples, the port, a pearl farm and suggested visiting a market. We were up for the temples and port and for 100baht thought – what a great deal!
So off we trundle in his not so good, not so cool car and our first stop was a Watt. All very colourful and artistic and I enjoyed seeing the beautiful gold enormous Buddha bedecked in flags overlooking the city. Not so enjoyable the many stair climb or the fact that the temple was only just being built and most of it was in construction mode. We climbed back into the car ready for our next destination and suggested the Chinese Buddhist Temple we’d seen on the way to this one. The reply was it was on a one way street and we’d have to pass the market first so we would go there first. No shopping please we replied, but suddenly we found ourselves at the market. Well it wasn’t actually a market of the true sense of the word; it was a Gem Factory and Sales Room. Our protests about going into the market fell on deaf ears as he insisted we go in. In fact he refused to move the car. So out we hoped and into the market we went. Around the sales room we go, followed by a persistent sales lady who wants to show us every ring, necklace, jaded dragon and gold gilded tea set. We escaped out the door without a purchase, back into the car and hopefully onto our next stop. No shopping bags, no more sightseeing! Before we knew it we were back at the street corner our delightful chap had found us on and told our tour had finished.
My rose coloured glasses finally smashed on our third great deal offering. They were slowing slipping down my nose over the six days we were in Phuket and eventually fell crashing to the floor, splintering into a million shards. I tried hard not to cry at their loss, but it was hard.
We contemplate hiring a car and driving ourselves around the island, but instead are talked into hiring a car and driver for the whole day to take us to wherever we wanted to go on the island for less than the car hire alone.
The day started off fabulously, first visiting the enormous White Buddha that sat high on a hill over looking the whole of Phuket Island. It was indeed an awe inspiring sight and the views of Phuket were amazing. At times cloud mist rolled in and shrouded the
45 metre great marble statue in an aura of mystery. Leaving the Buddha we then found ourselves at the very moving Gibbon Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre where the stories of the beautiful monkeys would bring you to tears. All monkeys are delightful, but gibbons seem to have this childlike quality about them - all gangly limbs and round innocent faces with enormous eyes. Although you are unable to get up close to these amazing creatures, you can see them swinging in the trees and hear their hooting howls echoing through the forest. It’s their calls that attract the poachers and it’s the babies that are the sort after prize. The babies are sold and used as tourist attractors – ‘photographers’ charge unsuspecting tourists to have their photos taken with them or the babies are put in front of restaurants and spas to ‘attract’ the tourist in.
We learn that for every gibbon baby, there’s a dead mother and a devastated family unit. And for every gibbon used as a tourist attractor, there’s a likelihood the animal is drugged to keep it docile and suffers from HIV or Hepatitis from the needles it’s injected with. We are horrified, shocked and extremely sadden to learn this. Those we can see clearly in the distance are kept in pens and these are the saddest cases. They can never be released fully into the forest as they either have a disease or are so traumatised they would be a harm to themselves or other gibbons.
From the Gibbon Centre we wander up the hill to a beautiful waterfall. The track leading up is steep but cool and we are enjoying the peacefulness, listening to the occasional gibbon call and watching butterflies flit through the lush green foliage. Suddenly our driver appears, out of breath, an urgency about him. He tells us he must go but has organised another driver to take us. We are concerned for him, worried something bad has happen but he won’t elaborate, telling us to continue enjoying ourselves. Our new driver arrives; he’s old but seems very sweet and smiles alot. As we are driving away from the Gibbon park we try to tell him where we’d like to go but he appears not to understand. We try to speak slowly, simply, but we obviously can’t pronounce the names of the places of where we want him to take us. He tells us we will go to Chalong Wat.
Along the way we pass the Chinese Temple I so wanted to visit days before and we ask him to stop. He keeps driving. We yell for him to stop. He laughs and keeps driving. Then a procession of utes pass us along the road, decorated and holding beautiful thrones with people dressed elaborately in white riding in the back, we know it’s part of the festival and want to go too. “Where they go?” we ask excitedly. The driver ignores us. We ask again, loudly this time. He replies Phuket Town. We ask him to follow them; he turns off the road and goes down another and we arrive at Chalong Wat. We give the driver the benefit of the doubt and think he either can’t understand us or is deaf. I’m frustrated, annoyed with myself for not being able to speak the language. As the day continues it becomes obvious he is neither. He has a set route he is taking us, told by the other driver. Eventually we return to the resort and find the other driver also there, waiting for his money but no explanation as to his sudden departure.
Phuket however is not all funny deals and sly smiles; it really is quite a beautiful island peppered with stunning beaches at every turn, surrounded by beautiful emerald green waters and offers fabulous entertainment.
Big M’s highlight was a deep sea fishing expedition complete with flying fish skimming above the waters and marlin fighting the lines below. He returned jubilant with five whoppers and tales of snorkelling with coral fish, sailing past beautiful enigmatic limestone cliff islands and eating a traditional BBQ feast. At night we’d stroll down to Kata Beach, indulge in the fabulous food on offer, enjoy romantic night beach walks and listen to the chorus of frogs and fireworks exploded into the evenings.
I’m also in awe of the resilience of these people who only eight years ago suffered so much. Today there is little sign of the devastation that struck this island. Phuket is an almost spotlessly clean island where her golden sands fringed by with swaying palms, stretch and curve. Behind the palms, buildings abound, gorgeous luxury resorts, thatched roof bungalows and cute sino-portuguese homes and terraces. There are a few cleared patches and the occasional building under construction, but in all, she is an island that is definitely open for business and fun.
At weeks end we embark on the next leg of our journey and the anticipation of an overnight private train cabin excites me. As our bus roll in to Phuket Bus Station, across its broadside emblazon the company’s name “Crazy Bus Thailand”. Inside, its toilet sports a large sign indicating a ‘No Poo Policy’ and we double over with laughter. Buoyed by the exhilaration of anything will happen, I throw on my tinted glasses, board the crazy bus and find in the Land of Smiles everything’s amazing, beautiful and new.