Seeing Real Phuket (Without The Tourists) By Any Means Possible

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

You find yourself paddling a lagoon in the Dr. Seussian islands, about 20 kilometers northwest of Phuket, Thailand. Few words have entered your mind since you began; perhaps none of your vocabulary matches the kind of tranquil beauty around you. That is, until you notice your arms begin to tire from paddling your kayak for the last few hours.

Your thoughts turn inward, dismissing the nearby beauty for thoughts of lactic acid buildup and why you chose that last bender over a workout. You look down and the reason is slapping you in the face: the damn boat isn’t blown up all the way. Heading through the final cave on your way back to the boat, your arms are a thousand pounds and you’re getting more pissed with every paddle. We’ve all been there, you begin to hate everything — the guide sucks for not filling up your boat, the water isn’t clear enough, caves blow, kayaking is stupid, screw Thailand.

Fuming, you finally reach that pinhole of light that you’ve been plodding towards in the stupid cave. When you finally reach it, the passage isn’t much bigger than when you first saw it at the far end of the cave. You lean forward to squeeze through.

Then it hits you,  not the cave walls, but the reason you’re sitting three inches below the waterline. If the inflatable kayak was totally full, you would never fit. Those three inches give you just enough room to pass through the narrow opening and head to a hidden lagoon sanctuary. Now, that’s something you should work for.

Kayaking Phuket and the surrounding islands is just one way, inflated entirely or not, to see the gems this area has. The New Zealand Herald recently published an article about finding some refuge among the onslaught of tourists there. Although, you may have to work for it (kayak), roll with it (bike), or climb it (elephant), there are still many corners of solitude to experience the draw of Phuket.

From the Phuket Boat Lagoon, head north by speedboat to Koh Panyi Muslim fishing village. Almost entirely built on stilts over the sea, this village may be losing its fishing identity in order to cater to the sun-baked tourists off-loading the many ferry boats. To bypass it all, wander down the rickety walkways and narrow alleys into the local market stalls and restaurants serving up the freshest catch imaginable. Just watch your step, the ocean is meters below you at all times.

Back in Phuket, shed the beach-loving tourists by renting a bike and heading inland. Only a 10 km pedal, you’ll pass through rolling hills, rubber plantations until you reach the town of Thalang. Take in the atmosphere of Phra Nang Sang Temple and watch the school children playing in its courtyard.

What would Thailand be without a trip atop an elephant, right? Traditionally, Thailand’s elephants have been highly regarded as transportation and logging in the forest and jungle regions. More recently, their populations have grown, taking tourists on these famed treks. From the back of your surefooted elephant, watch a monkey being trained to pick coconuts, check out a demonstration of how to make a jungle curry paste, or simply marvel at being in the jungles of Thailand.

The constant I gathered from the article is the sheer numbers of tourists overrunning the jungles, lagoons, and beaches of the area. Should we get pissed? Not necessarily yet, just know that, with a little effort, true Phuket is still there to experience.

Besides, how often do you have a chance to lumber into the Thailand sunset on the back of Dumbo.

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