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Travel - Thailand, The Islands, Phuket and Samui

Travel - Thailand, The Islands, Phuket and Samui

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Published by Barry Pollack

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Published by: Barry Pollack on Oct 10, 2010
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Barry Pollack’s “Going Places”The Islands - Phuket and Samui, Thailand
When it comes to picturing paradise, we’ve all seen the photos. There are azure blueskies, torquioise waters, white sand beaches, and rows of coconut palms. And most often, paradise is an “island” - a refuge from civilization – free from freeways and traffic, asphalt andhigh rises, smog and noise pollution.The isles of the South Pacific seem to have an edge in the running for “paradise.” TheCaribbean is a close second. But there’s another paradise that’s coming up fast in the contest – the islands of Southeast Asia. Perhaps the movie, Leonardo Dicaprio’s “The Beach” and itsstory about a young man’s search for utopia, pushed Thailand’s islands atop the list of island paradises. It was filmed off Thailand’s Southwestern coast on an island called Phi Phi (
 p-p
).I spent my first weeks as a tourist in Thailand in Bangkok and the lush mountainous jungle of its northern city of Chiang Mai. But before departing Thailand, I had to see for myself what its paradises were all about.Phuket
(foo-ket)
is Thailand’s largest island and one of Southeast Asia’s most popular holiday destinations. My flight from Chiang Mai to Phuket took two hours with a dramaticapproach to the main island over a multitude of smaller green islands poking up from thedepths of the Andaman Sea. Phuket airport is at the northern end of the island and it was a 40minute, 540 baht ($13) taxi ride to Patong Beach on the island’s west coast. The west coast beaches have the best sand, bluest waters, and most luxurious hotels. Patong is its busiest beachwith jet skis, parachute rides, and a bustling night life.Most of the “
 farang 
” or foreign tourists are British, Australian, or other Europeans.Americans have been slower in discovering Thailand as an exciting, exotic, and cheapdestination. Ninety percent of Thais are practicing Theravada Buddhists and that faith with itscodes of tolerance and non-violence makes Thailand a seemingly safer destination as well.I made my base in Phuket’s paradise at the
Coral Beach Resort
(
Tele: 0 2255 3960)
, anewer hotel built on a hillside at the southern end of Patong Beach. The Coral Beach
,
withrates in the off-season varying from $75-100, has a comfortable bar and lobby with open air views of the sea. Its spacious rooms have private balconies. Its restaurants serve a first classmenu of everything from classical Thai dishes to European cuisine. Their Jasmine spa is setaside in its own tropical idyll, housed in an exotic building on stilts where you can get a
 
massage or spa treatment in a private room. And in every setting there are spectacular  panoramic views of the sheltered bay below.Getting into town and to nearby Patong Beach is easy. You can walk. It’s about a mile.You can take a tuk-tuk, the four-wheeled open-sided motor cabs that are the most prevalentform of public transit in most of Thailand’s towns. Or you can rent a motorbike.The road alongside Patong Beach is lined with motorcycle rental stalls. We rented twomotorbikes for 200 baht/day ($5 for both) from a vendor lounging in his jeep parked between aStarbucks and McDonalds. I felt a little awkward leaving my passport with someone thatseemed so, well laid back. But he showed me a bag full of passports of other “trusting” rentersand the deal was made.Exploring the island, we cruised by several other luxury resorts. The
Banyan Tree
hadindividual cabanas on the beach and a beautiful golf course. The
Dusit Laguna
had a longrunway entry lobby leading to its own private white sand beach. Circling the island, we rodethrough Phuket town, bustling with traffic and commerce. But it was mostly a nativeresidential community not geared for tourists and worthy of passing up. We stopped next togawk at the views from Phromthep Cape and Nai Harn Bay at the southern tip of the island.Having traversed most of the island on motorbike in one day, we headed back to Patong andgot ready for its night life.You can hire a long-boat to take you to one of the many smaller islands around Phuketand discover your own private tropical isle and romantic beach. Or you can take a group speed boat or catamaran trip on one of several island tours. We chose a group trip to Ko Phi Phi -actually two separate islands, Phi Phi Don and Phi Phi Ley. I learned not to call it Ko Phi PhiIsland. It’s redundant. “
 Ko
” means “island” in Thai.It was a 45 minute ride to Phi Phi Ley where we disembarked in Maya Bay. Here wewere told was where “The Beach” was filmed. The small cove is framed by stunning cliffs.While Phi Phi Ley is described as uninhabited and unspoiled, this exquisitely beautiful beachwas tainted by loads of trash and debris. Our guide told us that debris floats ashore due to the prevailing winds in rainy season but I’m skeptical. Was that just an excuse for a heavilytouristed island with no provision to clean up the garbage left behind?We moved on and stopped at several nearby spots with spectacular views throughtransparent seas of blue, green and white coral and thousands of colorful and exotic fish.Though there are plenty of sites for scuba diving in the islands of Thailand, here, in Ko Phi
 
Phi, the waters were so clear and shallow that snorkeling provided a wonderful experience. Wecruised by a cave that was used to harvest birds-nest soup, a delicacy favored by the Chinese.In another cove, we anchored a few feet from shore and waded to a beach where hundreds of monkeys descended to meet us – lured closer by tossing them bananas and lychee nuts. And onthe way back, we weaved enticingly past many smaller islands made up of great white sand beaches, interesting coves, and soaring cliffs.Ko Samui is Thailand’s third largest island, after Ko Phuket and Ko Chang. Thoughtourism is growing there, and there are plenty of luxury accommodations, it is still a backpacker’s haven with plenty of inexpensive lodging. Our flight to Ko Samui from Phuketon Bangkok Air took only ½ hour. And though there are inexpensive inter-city flights, theregional airlines – Thai Air and Bangkok Air – have multi-city packages that make touring between Thai destinations like Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Phuket, and Samui even more attractive.
The Palm Reef Resort (0 2255 3767)
welcomed us at Samui airport’s tropical open-air terminal with orchid leis. The Palm Reef, with rates from $60-100, is a luxury hotel at thenorthern end of Chaweng Beach. Its rooms are set in a cluster of Thai-style buildings and bungalows surrounded by swaying palms with balcony views of gardens and the bay. Thehotel’s pool and its outdoor massage cabanas are a step away from the beach. And, as in mostupscale Thai hotels, a sumptuous buffet breakfast is included in the rates.Chaweng is the island’s longest, most beautiful beach with three miles of powderywhite sand and incredibly calm, warm waters. Bordering the beach are a scattering of luxuryhotels like the Palm Reef but plenty of smaller, rustic hotels attractive to backpackers and budget-minded travelers. These beachside bungalows are incredibly cheap ($8/day).Samui is also an island that you can navigate on motorbike in a single day. At itsnortheastern tip is the “Big Buddha.” There, a 38 foot statue of a sitting Buddha sits at the topof a long serpent-railed staircase overlooking the sea. Monks offered bricks to autograph or colored-string bracelets and solicited donations. There were even casino-like slot machines thattook 5 baht coins, flashed lots of lights, and spit out your fortune. It was a colorful fundraisingsetting to say the least. Lamai beach, Samui’s second largest, seemed populated by bohemian bars and restaurants owned by retired Germans and Scandinavians. At its southern promontoryare the Hin Ta and Hin Yai rock formations renowned for looking like male and femalegenitalia. Riding through the interior of the island, there are picturesque waterfalls and a

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