I looked at my bag again, considering another jacket and reminding myself that the weather on the other side of the world will be much warmer than the early winter frost in South Africa. It is mental suicide to pack a bikini and tank tops when you are reaching for coffee and pulling on a jacket before you head to the airport. Our tickets and passports were in my purse with a detailed itinerary from Easy Gallivant Travel Agency explaining every stop and transfer. My husband had surprised me with the tickets for the trip one Thursday afternoon at work ( I know, didn’t I marry the coolest guy?!) and I had been carefully avoiding thinking about Thailand ever since – for fear that I would be able to do nothing else but daydream about white beaches and blue water. The time had finally arrived and with a last few checks from my assistant, Charlotte, we were out the door and on our way to the airport.
Flying from South Africa to Doha, Qatar, and then on to Phuket, Thailand, is a long trip stretching anything from 18-30 hours depending on your layovers but with a vacation waiting at the other end of the trip it makes the time go by faster. We were picked up at the airport by a driver holding a sign with our names and as I watched other passengers scramble for their transfers I was thankful for the clear directions and emergency numbers our travel agent had given us (it turned out to be more a courtesy on her part than the normal practice of travel agents everywhere). We rode to the hotel in high spirits together with a few other passengers from South Africa – some who return to Phuket every year! Thailand is 5 hours ahead of South African time which makes your head spin when you phone home and find it is two in the afternoon while you are watching the sun set over the ocean in Phuket.
After welcome drinks and check in we headed for our room to take a shower and sleep horizontally for the first time in two days… and it was heaven!
And so the adventure began.
Phuket is a bustling city with more motorbikes than I had ever seen together – and fewer traffic rules! The power lines make a web of black lines all along the busy streets and I was not sure whether I should be impressed that the place had not burned down from an electrical short or worried when it would. The people live by their own rules with a happy heart, greeting with friendly smiles as they go about their day. We rented a motorcycle with two helmets from Tenny, an elderly woman who has a tour agency and bike shop just down the road from our hotel. She keeps your passport for the duration of your rental and returns it to you if you bring the bike back in good order – a practice seen all around Thailand. We were careful who we rented from as a missing passport could ruin a trip. Tenny in Patong beach next to the family Mart at Sunset Beach Hotel is a safe place – and her prices are good, 250 Thai Baht (R100 or $8) per day. Gasoline can be bought anywhere along the road and the price is not regulated as in other countries, so you will be charged 50 Baht (R20 or $1,5) per liter of petrol in tourist areas and a few blocks further the price will drop to 20 Baht (R8) per liter. Unlike in Western countries where gasoline is only available at gas stations, you can buy it in bottles next to the road from vendors.
We spent our first day getting lost in the sights and smells of Patong city, gawking at the architecture and sipping cocktails. The Thais are known for their massages and we soon found out why. Since I am currently 17 weeks pregnant (relax I had mocktails not cocktails!) I was told that a Thai massage would not be good for the baby and advised to enjoy an oil massage – which was better than any other massage I had ever had! Pieter on the other hand were twisted into all kinds of positions on the bed next to me and I giggled at his nervous laughter as a tiny Thai lady massaged and pulled his body into positions he had not even tried in school gymnastics. He loved it! In fact, he is recommending it to everybody going to Phuket. Finding a massage parlor is about as common as finding shoes in shoe shop. There is one or two (or more!) on every street with at least 4 therapists working their magic on tourists. A massage will cost you anything from 200-350 Baht (R80-R150 or $6-$11) for an hour.
Outside almost every business is beautifully decorated spirit houses dedicated to the Buddhist gods where the families bring food sacrifices from their meals. Some streets have golden lampposts and everywhere is shrines dedicated to the late king of Thailand Bhumibol Adulyadej who died in Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok, Thailand on 13 October 2016 at the age of 88. His people loved him and they speak with great respect of him. Many Thai people wear black for a whole year as they mourn his death. It doesn’t take long for even tourists to feel admiration and respect for the legacy that he left in his country. Black and white drapes adorn many public places and on a hill between Katu and Patong cars and motorcycles hoot as they pass a shrine set up to honor his memory.
In a side street behind Sunset beach hotel we found a ball of a time in the form of Zorbing – it is an inflated orb or ball with water into which willing participants climb to be pushed down the hillside for the thrill of their lives. The water and slope turns the orb into an endless water slide that makes big men yell like little girls. I never expected it to be so much fun! I am seriously considering getting myself a hamster ball at home.
All over the island you will find markets that sell food and clothing at ridiculously low prices. Since food is so cheap most Thai people don’t cook at home but eat at the markets, making night time a busy time of day on the streets of Phuket. Most of the shops don’t close until 10pm at night.
One thing you will have a hard time finding in Thailand is sweets. Some of the family marts or Seven Eleven shops might sell it but as a rule you do not find sweets and chocolates in markets. Thai people eat fruit and if they really want a treat they make a fruity ice cream created in a very skilled art by street vendors near the beach of Patong. Fruit and milk is poured unto a freezing plate and worked until it is a frozen treat beautifully carved into rolls and decorated with whipped cream and chocolate sauce. With hardly any sugar it is a healthy and delicious treat that we loved – plus there is the joy of watching them make it!
At the Junceylon mall you can find shops advertising food in such an incredible way that you will be hungry even if you just ate. We also enjoyed a fish spa experience in which tiny fish massage and nibble at your feet – it is very ticklish and had us howling with laughter at the sensation.
For those with a more European taste in food there are multiple franchise restaurants like McDonald’s, Starbucks, Hooters and Hard Rock Cafe spread over the island catering to you taste.
Included in our package that we bought from Easy Gallivant we received a free tour of the island and specifically Phuket City, so on day 2 we met with our tour operator – Jome – who lives in Thailand and became a great friend during our visit to the island.
Jome helped us book all our island cruises and recommended restaurants, he even told us where to shop and what was expensive or which beach to visit. We did not have one bad experience from his references. We were taken to beautiful lookout points, a view of the big buddha and a temple before we went to the biggest jewelry store in the world.
Gems Gallery Phuket is nothing like the jewelry stores we know back home. At our arrival we were taken to a train moving slowly through an interactive ride, telling the story of the history and the process of making jewelry before we went into the factory where workers were manufacturing and polishing pieces of jewelry for the store. The store is a sea of diamonds, rubies, sapphires and other precious stones in gorgeous settings ranging in prices from millions to low hundreds, catering for the pockets of every walk of life. Thailand is known for it’s pearls and my hubby got me a pair of earrings that I could treasure with the memory of this trip. We expected this part of the tour to be somewhat boring as we were looking forward to the beaches, but we had such a good time at Gems that it is on our list of things to recommend to friends traveling to Phuket.
Religion is deeply imbedded in the culture of Thailand as we saw little children training to be monks. As a Christian I admire the patience and gratitude of the people of Thailand. They are extremely dedicated to their gods and practice disciplined spiritual rituals every day. We learned much from them.
Paradise beach is one of those beaches that has all the trimmings of an island vacation. It has the white sand and blue water, it is modern and busy with people on sunny days… and it is expensive. You can rent a beach chair and towel if you didn’t bring yours and sip cocktails as you watch the selfie queens pose on a swing hanging over the water. It has a walking trail and according to Jome it has some of the best full and half moon parties in the world – judging by the big stage and speakers set up next to a big lighthouse I would say he might be right, this place is used to having loud music and loads of people. It has loads of photo opportunities that will make for great holiday pictures to make your facebook friends green with envy.
A short drive from Paradise beach is a turnoff for elephant swimming. We believe in responsible tourism and therefore did research to ensure the safety and treatment of animals before participating in any activities involving animals. Down a winding road to Lucky beach we found the place recommended to us by Jome with 2 young elephants owned by a woman who is the third generation in her family to care for the elephants. For 700 Baht (R300 or $23) you can swim with a young elephant as he cools off in the sea. The adorable little guy loves to cuddle and hugs you with his trunk when you get close. He feels you all over and sprays anybody with his trunk who comes too close when he is playing with someone. His handler holds on to his ear simply to keep him from swimming in too deep into the ocean – they told us they had to go get him in the deep water a few times after he simply took off swimming. The family will take pictures for a small fee and put one in a frame for you. This truly was one of the best experiences.
We went to James Bond Island on a long tail boat tour. On our way to the marina we stopped by a mountain temple that had become a playhouse for wild monkeys. The locals sell bananas and treats that you can feed to them and the cave itself is quite something to see. The trip to James bond island is beautiful as the boat maneuvers through a huge mangrove before islands pop out of the ocean like tall steeples. James Bond island has been named after the movie scene from 007 – The man with the golden gun. The movie was shot in 1974 and has made the island famous as tourists come from all over the world to visit the tiny island. The island is crowded with people and although it is nice to see the place, the real highlight of our tour came in the form of a floating village named Pan Yee. 530 families live in a tiny floating town built on stilts in the ocean. Their houses consist of a shop on the bottom floor and bedrooms on the top floor. Little children run in the narrow alleys and there is a floating soccer field. The only building built on land is big Mosque with golden minarets. We were served lunch and given an hour to explore the village before heading back to our transfer.
Our trip to Phi Phi island turned into one of our favorite memories of Thailand. Since I am pregnant we could not take the speedboat to the island so we booked a place on the ferry. The boat holds 500 passengers and have seating all over. The trip to the island takes about 2-3 hours and they have refreshments and snacks on the boat available. They also show movies inside if you want to pass the time. We sat mostly outside with our feet hanging off the edge of the boat and watched the island come closer. Phi Phi Island is one of the most beautiful islands in Thailand. It has crystal clear blue water and white beaches that make stunning pictures. There are no cars on the island so you have to walk where you want to go. We went snorkeling before lunch at one of the hotels and did some shopping and sightseeing. A dive centre offers scuba lessons and excursions and an artist sits and paints inside a gallery with the most stunning paintings that will make you want to forget your baggage limit when flying. Small Bonsai trees are displayed and everywhere is souvenirs that you won’t find anywhere else.
One of my favorite gifts for family and friends came from a little soap shop owned by Oi. She handcrafts orchids from soap, paints it and puts the masterpieces is quant little boxes that are light and easy to transport.
Our last days came much too soon as we traveled around on our rented motorbike, exploring the beautiful beaches, eating like kings and getting sunburned. Yanui beach is a stunning little beach to visit and Kata offers parasailing – something I would recommend to anybody. Pieter watched as I was taken higher and higher up in the air for a panoramic view of the island before being put perfectly on the ground without even getting wet. The guys hanging like monkeys from the ropes of the chutes are not clipped in and yet they do this feat a few dozen times each day with perfect results each time.
We had our laundry done at a small laundry shop with pets everywhere. I don’t know how they managed to get all our clothes packed so neatly into small bags (and it smelled heavenly!) but our suitcases had much more room for the things we bought when we loaded the laundry in on the night before our flight back to South Africa.
Thailand stole my heart and it is a place I will gladly revisit over and over again.
If you would like to go make your own adventures in Thailand, give Easy Gallivant Travel agency a call at +2717 634 5799 or e-mail Manda at firstname.lastname@example.org