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We think about where to go and instantly an entire host of different locations come to mind. When we arrive, it’s never the way it’s made out to be.
Take the case of our journey to Phuket, located in the Southern part of Thailand, right in the path of the Southeast monsoon. From November to April, the high season sees the influx of millions into this vacation hotspot. Phuket is well-known as a major destination for beachcombers. Its pristine white sands typify what 20 million visitors to Thailand look for annually. The quintessential beach for most travel guides is Phuket, but that is not all there is to it. We know that every destination is really the sum total of all its impressions. We had to find the other side of Phuket.
The old town
Down one of the side streets leading into Soi Romanee, the Western influence is everywhere. Mildly cobbled streets lead into a section of the city that has a more European. When the Portuguese first arrived in the 16th century, they introduced the Thais to European lifestyles. Over the next two centuries, the influence of old Europe found its way into the architecture, mixed with the Chinese influence visible everywhere. Off to one corner, one finds a shop specializing in fabric from batik to Thai silk, and right beside it, a hardware store with various plumbing supplies literally hanging by a thread on full display. A themed café, with a pre-war Harley Davidson on display caught our attention. It’s a picturesque town which is farthest from the images in our minds when we said we’d go see Phuket.
The Chalong temple is the 2nd largest temple or wat in Phuket but it is the most visited. As one enters, you are greeted by a strange looking conical structure that looks like a huge acorn. Within there is a man that suddenly jumps out and a cacophony of firecrackers firing up simultaneously with a staccato eruption, one after another. Kun Rinna, our host and guide, tells us this is the way that one blasts away their bad luck and is an offering, to give thanks for wishes granted. The revered abbot Luang Por Cham, is reputed to have the power of healing. No doubt with a wave of his walking stick, maladies are cast into oblivion. The grounds house a smaller temple where it is said his walking stick is hidden away from the public. It’s yet another side of Phuket often ignored and well-kept.
Kao Saam Haad
Traditionally known as Kao Saam Haad, it translates to “Hill of the Three Beaches” but locals refer to it either as Karon viewpoint or Kata viewpoint, the most visited of all the mountain viewing decks in Phuket. We take in the dazzling view from that dizzying height of the northern side, to see the white sands of Kata Naoi, Kata Yai and Karon beach. Tourists here are mostly families, couples strolling in quiet solitude, soaking in the cool breeze and the chirping of birds in this heavily wooded area. A single guitar player is hunched over his instrument, playing Francisco Tarrega’s Lagrima. The lonely strains of the song provide an appropriate backdrop to the quietness enveloping the sounds of nature wafting across the hillsides, the rustling of leaves, birds chirping, and the banter of people.
Are you nuts?
The Sri Bhurapa Orchid Co. is a deceiving name because there are no orchids here, only cashews. Thailand is still the 3rd largest producer of cashew nuts in the world. The hand-shelling is as far as manual processing goes because guests can see the mechanized post-process through a glass window behind the rows of cashews in different flavors, from sweet to savory to plain. It takes a special skill to constantly pound a nutshell, with just the right amount of pressure, to reveal the nut within, then to take a hook and clasp it just so, in order to retain its whole shape. The different flavors are laid before us: plain salted, garlic, wasabi, sour cream and onion, barbecued and brittle. If you can think it, it’s here. And indeed, who are we to refuse?
To live well, and be well
The Thanyapura Phuket is a short drive from either the beaches or the airport and is an entirely different take on the idea of health and wellness. We are welcomed here by their director for communications, Kulchada Soubsa-ard, in all her diminutive air, hands clasped in the traditional Sawasdee kha greeting. Electric carts, uniformed bellhops and flat screens display the assemblage of sports, fitness and wellness offerings of the Thanyapura Phuket. It has won numerous awards for its endeavors, and just last October, it was named Asia’s Leading Sports Resort at the 23rd Annual World Travel Awards Asia & Australasia 2016. We learn that this is the training ground for many of the national athletes and students in the attached school.
A sports science center is complemented by a host of facilities. Their Mind Center serves as the yoga center where yoga advisors and trainers help develop your chi. When we visited, there was a session ongoing, marked by absolute silence. With a choice between three and seven nights’ packages, one is assured of achieving that elusive dream of being healthy. Kun Kulchada tells us that this is not achieved overnight, hence the multiple night packages that keep you on-site, monitored and supervised by a team of medical doctors, holistic practitioners and wellness advisors. Even Dining at the Divine restaurant is an exercise in diet prudence as each entrée is provided with a calorie count. Thanyapura is in touch with the reality of modern living and helps people cope with stressful modern lifestyles.
So many beaches, so little time
Coming down the winding Highway 4223, we reach that stretch of Kata Noi road in Muang district at the beaches we were looking at from Karon viewpoint. As we survey the first beach head of Kata Noi, we note the crowds are less rowdy and less noisy. No blaring music, children are still playing along the shoreline with parents in tow, holding on to them as the waves spank the sands in greater numbers and visibly higher than those on Patong Beach. The lifeguard tower exists, but is unattended, a lonely flag announcing “No Swimming on the Beach” and yet, there they are swimming on the beach in what appears to be just another day of frolicking.
Kata Yai is it
It’s a smaller version of Kata Noi. There are not as many people walking along and it’s more laid. The Kata Beach Resort is one of the older resorts but continues to be popular. A new resort called the Boathouse is the second of hotels that are beachside. The two Kata beaches are less crowded as Patong beach although there still is a beehive of activity across the street without the go-go bars.
Karon beach is the third longest beach in Phuket and is a favorite for night strolls as they keep it clean and orderly. Its five kilometer stretch provides more than enough space for all, from the quiet solitude in the northern side to the dizzying lights of clubs and restaurants in the south. The waves are gentler here. Even the ubiquitous vendor offering the typical beach souvenirs are present here. Kun Rinna tells us that the authorities occasionally send a contingent to sweep the beach to keep. It must be the vastness of the beach that allows the same number of people and still create the feeling of solitude as you look across the length of the beach.
Nai Harn exclusive
We’re told that this is the beach of choice for many locals who prefer the solitude and natural beauty of Phuket. It’s empty except for the occasional stray dog, rolling around in the sand and paying no heed to the strangers in its midst. As the day wears on, the smaller restaurants open up and allow beachcombers to sit and laze around. Prices are reputed to be visitor-friendly, no doubt, a testament of the popularity of this beach to locals and expats familiar with the location. A freshwater lagoon connects to a stream that leads out to the northern end where some excellent snorkeling is available, mostly during the high season from November to April. Our residence in Phuket, the Chivitr Health and Wellness looks out into the most inland part of the lagoon. Undoubtedly, this would have to be that other side of Phuket, reserved for those in the know.
Kalim and the Phuket secret
All this time, this other side of Phuket has always been there. Just a little way off Patong Beach tucked away to one side, Kalim beach is one of the least trampled. Although it doesn’t seem compare with Patong, in terms of sand clarity and location, there are no ambulant vendors to bother you. If you want to get away, this is your choice. At the weekend, some locals have their weekend barbecues.
As we make our way back to the airport, we make one last stop at an unnamed viewpoint along the winding road and Kun Rinna points it out, “There! Secret beach!” Laem Singh beach was what she was referring to, a little cove ringed on either side by large rocks and forested hillsides, access is only through a pathway from the top of the road down to the beach below.
Breaking on through to the other side
We toiled over the thought of coming to Phuket and expecting to see what we’ve seen before. Phuket equals beach equals Phuket, and that was all the equation we ever really needed. After this whirlwind roundabout of the city, we see another angle of this vacation getaway, more than just the white sandy Patong beach. From the viewpoints to the cafés, to the stories behind the temples, there’s an allure that the city has cast on agriculture, business and the travel sector as a whole. The other side of Phuket is that side which is not easily defined, but somehow stays with you as a traveler, and it’s the side you will want to come back to over and over again, just as you think you got Phuket all figured out.