Monday, February 22, 2010

Japin' round the world: Phuket! Let's go to the beach.

So for the final leg of my tour of South East Asia, I found myself in sunny Phuket (the sunny weather is scarcely a defining feature, as most places I've been here have been sunny too). It's a good tonic for the hectic pace of life you get in Bangkok, and also is near the beach so it's a good place to relax before I get started on my Australian adventure.

As a result I didn't do a lot of sightseeing here at first, and instead just flopped down for the most of the day, either at the beach, or watching the hostels extensive film collection. Thanks to the latter I've had a good chance to catch up with some films I'd been meaning to watch.

Just before heading here I have also had the chance to observe a strange local custom I had otherwise missed before. It happened first at the bus station, where I was waiting for my Bus to Phuket. Suddenly a whistle sounded, everyone stood, and some music began. I looked at my watch and realized it was 6pm precisely, and gathered that from the standing crowds and music, that this must be the national anthem of Thailand playing. I have never seen this kind of publically enforced patriotism, and I couldn't help but laugh quietly at the time. I witnessed this charade a second time whilst eating, which on this occasion came up on a TV. This time the anthem was accompanied by some pictures of the king looking, well, kingly and a few shots of the Thai army doing maneuvers as well as the happy populace looking cheery (it is the land of 1000 smiles so I'm told) with a fluttering Thai flag behind them, and then it was over for another day. I've also heard that in cinemas before a film begins this occurs too, regardless of the time of day. Strange to witness for the first time, and I can't really see it taking off at home. Unless it's presented like this.

Sadly the journey here was not the best I've had, and this was entirely the fault of the passenger sitting next to me. At first I thought of her as a kindly person, as she helped me with a couple of things, like showing me how the fold up table came down. However, this lack of knowledge here must have been a signal that I was generally incompetant, as when we were given our complimentary food, she grabbed it before I could do anything and opened it for me, and so on. I find it hard to know if this was in kindness or sympathy, needless to say I found it a bit patronising and was quite surprised she didn't try to tuck me in for the night. My real bone of contention however, came when it was time for sleep (this was a 12 hour overnight bus) as she decided to curl up in the insufficiently sized seat, which then started encroaching on my area. To cap it all she then started snoring, and that put paid to any plans I had for sleep that night, not that I sleep well on buses anyway. As a result I was very tired when we finally arrived and could not get to the hostel quickly enough.

Phuket town itself is a relatively quiet place, and there isn't a lot here apart from the beach. This suited me down to the ground at this point, but if you do intend to stay here it's best to use Phuket as a planning hub for island or beach hopping. That said there are a few things to do here. For example there's a fairly busy night market at the weekends, and also the other day I happened across some kind of street festival which seemed like quite a big deal. There was the usual pazazz of music, food and traditional dance. Some which was good, others which were piss poor even by local standards.

As for beaches round here, I firstly went to Patong Beach which is the bigger beach near Phuket town. This beach could literally be anywhere in Europe, as the only thing defining it as distinctly Thai are the Thai massage huts near the beach. It's your usual tacky touristy beach, full of sun loungers, screaming kids and aging Westerners with their disgusting lobster tans - seriously why can't some white people tell when enough sun is enough, bright red is not a good colour for someone's skin. Also I was sat near an elderly northern couple who were loudly discussing their trip. The surreal thing about this conversation - or at least what I could gleam from what they were saying - was that one of their friends out in Thailand with them was back in the hotel, ill, and they were looking to get to Bangkok in a couple of days to get him some medical treatment. Naturally I assumed that the poor companion might have some kind of nasty reaction to the heat, or a bad stomach. Then I heard "kidney failure" mentioned and then began to wonder why on earth these slow witted idiots hadn't rushed their friend to a dialysis unit. I think after one day I'd had enough of Patong beach.

I found a much better beach further along the road, which is called Kata Beach. This fits the image of a Thai beach a lot better than Patong. It's much bigger, and even though there are a lot of tourists, it's easy to forget as it's so big it's hard to fill it up. Also here, there are beautiful clear waters full of tropical fish, white sands and stunning scenery. I also found a piece of Paradise on the aptly named Phi Phi (pronounced Pi Pi, yes laugh up the humorous urinary similarity) Island. Here I managed to do some snorkeling round the coral, and see the fish up close etc. Unfortunately, being the wuss that I am, I was constantly panicked by the thought of rogue jellyfish and sea urchins inflicting pain on me, but it passed quickly, there aren't any killer fish here really. The island itself is a young revellers dream as it's it feels just enough like an old fashioned tropical island, although the tourist trade clearly holds some sway here. I wish I'd spent a night there now.

Another interesting experience I had in Phuket was a trip to the national park, where there was a 15 meter waterfall and a gibbon sanctuary (cue the "aww's" from animal lovers). Part of the experience here was boarding one of the 'local' buses. These clearly seem to be pick-up trucks, with a roof attached to the back, and they also operate as a package delivery service for locals. It really was quite a journey to remember. However we misjudged the timing of the last bus so had to hitch our way back. I've never hitched before, and it didn't end like a cheap teen horror film, where the unsuspecting hitchers are hacked to pieces by the local masochists, so it couldn't have gone better. It was actually a really pleasant experience, the couple who picked us up were really nice, so basically the lesson learned is you don't need buses all the time round here. At least with hitching you get air con!

So that was the end of my South East Asian trip, so I headed back for Bangkok - which was more comfortable aside from the occasional annoyance from a chubby hyperactive child - to make myself ready for the flight to Australia. However, I did read today that a Tsunami might possibly hit the Pacific coast of Oz, which did leave me wondering if Cairns will still be there when I arrive tomorrow. By the sounds of it it's not going to affect Australia much, which is good news. I'd have hated to have got my hopes up for Australia, only to find nature had other ideas for my trip. Not this time nature! NOT THIS TIME!

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