A Tough Year

Review by Fiona Duncan, published 11th October 2004.

Which is just what the gentle yet stoic and realistic people of Phuket tried to do immediately after the great wave struck on Boxing morning. The international media, however, had other ideas. They descended on the well-known island, making it their headquarters for reporting around the Indian Ocean and giving the impression in the process that the place was a virtual write-off. In fact, few more than 200 people lost their lives and only 5 per cent of the beaches were badly damaged. Within a couple of weeks, 90 per cent of hotels were operating normally, yet overblown reporting, the lumping together of Phuket with Ko Phi Phi and Khao Lak, which were much worse affected, and misleading information from the Foreign Office resulted in a near total collapse of tourism in the months that followed, alarming when you consider that the industry employs 70 per cent of the population and accounts for 80 per cent of Phuket’s revenue.

Now at last things are beginning to look up. Though the Chinese and Japanese, fearing ghosts of the unburied dead, have yet to return, those depressing banners that signal a resort hotel struggling to fill its rooms (‘A Warm Welcome to the Association of Dental Hygenists’) and the packs of unperturbed Koreans in search of inexpensive honeymoons (room prices were inevitably slashed) are slowly giving way to Europeans, Australians and Americans in search of a perfect winter climate, beautiful beaches, fine hotels and the sort of service that feels like balm on a wound. The truth is that Phuket is better than ever.

Tacky Patong beach is being landscaped and remodelled with a sophisticated tsunami warning system already in place; damaged hotels have been repaired and improved, new sand has been deposited on beaches, coral reefs are in pristine condition and water pollution is the lowest in two decades. People talk, mindful of those who perished, of the tsunami having had a cleansing effect on the island, and they also talk of the need to move forward. “We feel very aggrieved by the unbalanced picture that was painted of our island,” says deputy mayor of Patong, Chairat Sukhabal. “While shallow, north-west facing areas such as Patong, Kamala and Bangtao village were badly affected, it was business as usual everywhere else just a day or two later. And yet we were deserted”.

It’s certainly business as usual on my visit, but before I completely succumb to the ministrations of the hotel staff, with their prayerful greetings, naturalness and oriental charm (the willowy, silk-clad beauties are enough to make an ever-expanding western girl wince) now is a good opportunity to find out what else Phuket has to offer, apart from chilling by the pool and on one of its many lovely beaches.

Enough to give your sun-and-sand holiday variety, is the answer, without making you feel guilty for not doing much. Apart from Taoist and Buddhist temples, which can be visited, there’s negligible culture in Phuket, a rubber and tin mining region reinvented as a hugely popular tourist destination; instead, various forms of ‘soft adventure’ are available. The so-called elephant trek, a half-hour stroll around a well-worn circuit, was a deal too soft for me, but our sea-canoeing trip was hugely enjoyable, and Phang Nga Bay, filled with curiously shaped limestone islands – sheer green cliffs that rise like benign sea monsters from mirror-flat, emerald water – was a movingly lovely sight, particularly at sunset. Though there are many imitators, you should book with John Gray’s company, for he was the man who pioneered the use of inflatable canoes for exploring the interior of these tiny islands, with their mysterious caves (called hongs) and lagoons, and his outing is the only one that stretches into the starlit night.

Each with a guide, we paddled around the islands, squeezing through rocky clefts so narrow that we had to lie flat to pass into caves encrusted with bats and oyster shells, and lagoons filled with rooty mangroves and live with kingfishers, egrets and diving, swimming, shell-cracking Crab-Eating Macaque monkeys. All the while a Thai feast was being prepared aboard the support boat, so that by the time we were gazing at the spectacular sunset, the smells of cooking had become unbearably tempting. Thanks to the delightful canoe guides we were all friends by now: the couple from Vladivostok, the divorce lawyer from Manhanttan, the policewoman from Sydney, the English ex-pat and his smiling Thai wife.

Snorkelling in transparent water and picnicking on an empty white sand beach, transported there by our own crewed speedboat, made an equally fine day out. We didn’t make it as far as the Phi Phi islands, though excursions do go there, not to the devastated part still under reconstruction, but to Maya Bay, The Beach of the film, while another trip takes you to hopelessly hackneyed James Bond Island (Ko Phing Kan), famed for its starring role in The Man with the Golden Gun.

And that was it. The rest of the time I spent holed up in my resort, but when you consider that Laguna Phuket consists of not one but five hotels, then it’s not surprising that some people never leave at all. Each has its own spa, pools, restaurants, bars and activities, plus a golf course, shopping village and – should you have the need – wedding chapel, with a useful central billing system so that guests can move freely between them. I was kept pretty busy really, in chill-out terms. I might have a Balinese massage at the Banyan Tree, where I was staying, in the morning, then take the shuttle boat (the complex is set around a series of reclaimed lagoons behind a long strip of beach on Bangtao Bay) to the Angsana Spa at Allamanda Hotel for a spot of shirodhara and an Indian head massage. Apart from swimming in my private pool, that was my exercise for the day.The Banyan Tree Phuket invented the concept of pool villas, with luxurious mini pagoda houses from whose sliding doors you step directly into the water, set in a lush lawn surrounded by flowerbeds, with walls that give the sort of privacy you can only dream of in your back garden at home. The hotel staff look after you beautifully; you will want for nothing. And they, like the rest of the islanders, are looking forward to a better year.

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