Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Ten Wonderful Days in Phuket, Thailand

As I've said before, travel is one of our biggest priorities during our time here.  The accessibility and our vicinity in SE Asia makes adventures feasible and affordable.  For our first trip, we traded our busy island for another large busy island across the boarder in Thailand.  Phuket is a quick and direct 1 hour and 15 minute flight from Penang.  Phuket is a large island off the west coast of Thailand in the Andaman Sea.  It is a very popular tourist destination with a wide range of activities, accommodations, restaurants, night life and nature.  Phuket is probably most known for it's beautiful beaches and the limestone "islands" that randomly pop up in the Phang Nga Bay.  On this trip, I planned a good mix of outings that would let us experience the tourist attractions as well as the "off the beaten path" activities. The trip was broken up into 3 stages giving us the opportunity to stay in 3 different hotels and locations on the island.

Stage 1: Relax
We spent the first few days relaxing at our amazing hotel, Sawasdee Village and exploring Kata.  Sawasdee was probably the nicest and most serene hotel we have ever stayed at.  We had a cute bungalo style garden room with our own koi pond and outdoor seating area.  Walking into the hotel, you could feel the stress of the last few months just melt away and the peaceful surroundings flow in.  It was nice!  Lucky for us, it happened to be rainy season in Phuket, and it rained on and off for our entire stay at Sawasdee.  We spent alot of time enjoying our resort.

We did manage to spend some time away from our hotel.  Thailand is known for cheap Thai Massage and we happened to be staying on a street where massage parlors were about every 5 feet.  The place next to our hotel gave Thai Massages for 200baht per hour or $7 US!!  Yes, you read that right, $7 for an hour massage.  Now, let me tell you, that a Thai massage is not your traditional oily rub down. No oil is used and you keep your clothes on. These massages are more like a full body work out, where you are stretched into positions you didn't know you could be put in by small Thai women who walk down your back and use their fists, elbows, knees and forearms to work out the kinks. They are AWESOME and leave you feeling like a noodle.  We had at least one massage a day and we found out the small shops give better massages than the fancy and way more expensive hotel spas.  I'm not sure I can ever go back to a regular massage, this was pure bliss!

Because of the rain, we weren't able to spend an entire day at the beach, but we were lucky enough to spend a few hours a day there and catch the sunset at Kata Beach. 

We also fell for the most touristy thing to do on the island.  We went to see Fantasea.  A Thai version of Cirque du Soleil, mixed with culture and theme park. We were picked up from our hotel in a hot pink minivan with a large elephant wrapper on it.  Upon arrival, it became clear to me that Eric had never been to Disney Land.  He had a look on his face that was more like, what the hell is this.  Clearly he had never been to a "theme park".  Lucky for us, the skies opened up again and it started to rain.  We quickly relocated to the nearest bar and bought overpriced, but good, drinks and listened to the cheesy Thai cover band.  When in Rome, do like the Romans... Despite the cheese of the theme park, the show was very well done. The history of Thai culture was complete with acrobats, fireworks, dancing, flying, singing and elephants.  Very well done and worth the money. 

Stage 2: Dive
After 3 nights in Kata, we moved up one beach to Karon, a nosier and busier beach than Kata.   We traded in our jungle in the city retreat for ultra modern concrete walls at the Bamboo House.  Not as plush or comfortable as our previous accommodation, but it got the job done.    We stayed at the Bamboo House because we booked our PADI advanced open water diving course with them.  We traded in comfort for convenience and learned our lesson.  Upon arrival, we were shuttled to Marina Divers to buy our course books and "get fitted" for our gear.  The lady at the dive shop determined that I needed a XL BCD and XL Wetsuit and Eric needed an XL BCD and XXL Wetsuit.   We tried to plead our case that those would be too big and she assured us that "In 17 years, she has never gotten the sizes wrong." Ok, first time diving in Asia, maybe the BCDs and wetsuits are made for Asians.  We spent the night prepping for our first day of diving in the ocean. Lots of nervous excitement.

Let's just say that our diving experience in Phuket was bad but we did achieve our Advanced Open Water certification, which means we can dive pretty much any where we want.  Our equipment was too big the first day and we both ended up borrowing BCDs and wetsuits from the boat.  It turns out the I actually wear a medium wetsuit and BCD, I guess I was the first one she has ever gotten wrong...Eric had a faulty regulator on day 2 and drank some ocean water instead of breathing air.  He ended up on his emergency regulator.  On our second dive, our dive master and I lost Eric.  He didn't descend fast enough and we got taken in the current.  I'll save you the details but I freaked out, swore at our instructor, we found Eric at the surface, went back down on our dive, and I almost ran out of air.  By our third dive on day 1 I was about ready to kill our instructor who was more interested in taking pictures and trying to sell them to us, than teaching us, going over our dive plan or listening to our needs.  Lucky for us, another dive master picked up on our frustration and talked us through the rest of our dives, answered our questions and did a good job of selling his company.  If we dive again in Phuket, it will only be with Kiwi Divers. 

At the end of two long days of diving, we learned a lot.  We learned what to look for in a dive company and a dive master.  We learned the importance of diving with a reputable company and that saving a few dollars is not worth the stress of having bad gear and an instructor that doesn't listen.  We will also be buying our own regulators when we return to Austin.  All in all, we achieved what we set out to do and now I can start planning diving trips!

Stage 3: Culture
One of the best ways to understand another culture is to learn about and eat the food, visit important religious sites and to see how the people actually live outside of the touristy areas and we did just that! Taxis are pretty expensive in Phuket, so we rented a driver for the day.  This allowed us to go all over the island!

Eric and I attended Pat's Cooking Class, where we learned how to cook a few tradition Thai dishes - spring rolls, green curry chicken, tom yum soup, papaya salad and banana in coconut mild for desert. YUM! We had a great time and were very surprised how easy and fast these dishes are to cook!

After we ate our lesson, we headed up to the national park to see a few waterfalls and pay a visit to the Gibbon Rehabilitation Center.  This was a great way to see the local rainforest and meet an NGO that is doing great conservation work in Thailand.  Twenty years ago, Gibbons were poached to extinction in Phuket.  It is now illegal to take Gibbon's out of the wild or have them as pets.  The Gibbon Rehab project is trying to repopulate the area and cares for Gibbons that were previously kept as pets.

We also paid a visit to Wat Chalong and the Big Buddha.  The Big Buddha sits atop the hill and overlooks the entire island.  It is still under construction but worth a visit.  Absolutely stunning! 

 Our last hotel, was a cute and quiet bungalow in a small Thai village in the non-touristy part of the island.  This was a welcome change from the hustle and bustle of the city.  Our hosts, Bobbi Jo and Stephen were a friendly British couple who made us feel at home and served up some strong drinks in their little bar!  We were a bit isolated but, the hotel shuttled us around to the beach or to a nice restaurant.

We also went on a sea kayaking sunset trip into Phag Nga Bay.  After our diving tour experience, the expectations for this trip were pretty low; however, we had the complete opposite experience on this trip.  The tour was fantastic! The staff were Eco-friendly and knowledgeable and the food was awesome!  We went kayaking in the limestone structures  that pop up out of the ocean.  Entrance into the caves is dependent on the ocean's tides so we had to time our paddles appropriately.  We had the head trip guide JJ in our boat and we were always the first ones into the sea caves and the last ones out.  We saw lots of wildlife and were well taken care of.  I am considering a live abroad paddle trip where we could go down the coast for a few days in our kayaks! 

Our last day was spent relaxing and recovering from a late night of partying.  Let's just say that my first and only experience with Jager did not go well.  It's poison, and I was warned.  The last beach of this trip was the best one by far.  Quiet, isolated and great for swimming! A great way to wrap up our trip!

Overall this was a great trip!  Our first trip together, just the two of  us, in over 3 years.  We were ready to return to Penang, our home.  Honestly, after this trip, Penang does feel like home.  Walking into our condo after being gone felt great!


  1. Great post! I love all of the pictures. Looks like a wonderful trip! I think we'll have to have you plan all of the activities on our trips from now on ;-)

  2. Andrea -- don't worry when you guys come to visit I will have everything planned out!