Phuket reprised

Some of the nicest parts of the 'Pearl of the Andaman' are hiding in plain sight

Phuket is changing rapidly and some of its better known attractions have got far too popular for their own good. There are, however, still some quiet, relatively unspoiled spots on the island where one can have a relaxing time away from the maddening crow

But first you need to ditch that tourist map and get off the beaten track.

Driving across the causeway to Phuket recently, the first thing I encountered was traffic _ lots of it. As my car inched along the congested highway, I distracted myself by reading the gigantic roadside billboards advertising luxury residential projects. Then I entered what looked like a brand new business district.

I certainly don't remember it being there before.

Right at the junction with Chalerm Phra Kiat, the route to Patong Beach which bypasses Phuket city, a well-known domestic chain of department stores has opened a branch. A stone's throw away was another familiar brand, the imposing premises of a foreign cash-and-carry wholesaler. DIY, home-decor and garden-supply stores lined both sides of the road next to signs which stood out mostly because I couldn't read them _ they were all in Cyrillic script. There's obviously been an upsurge in Russian tourists since my last visit.

The road to Patong is winding and was very busy that day and when I finally made it to the coast it was only to discover that every single parking space on the beach road had been taken. This is a common state of affairs, apparently.

I was told that the seafront slots are occupied on a semi-permanent basis by car- and motorcycle-rental operators, local taxi drivers and retailers. I ended up having to park on one of the back roads from which is was a pretty long hike to the beach.

Phuket Aquarium at Cape Panwa specialises in indigenous marine life. In addition to gigantic groupers, this is also a good place to view rarely seen denizens of the deep like oarfish and beltfish. At the rear of the premises is a turtle nursery, always a firm favourite with younger visitors.

The streets of Patong are narrow and buzzing with humanity, packed with bars, pizza parlours, convenience stores, grocery shops and laundries. All the beachfront development which got a severe battering from the 2004 tsunami has been resurrected with a vengeance. The strip is once again thronged with deck chairs, colourful beach umbrellas and makeshift counters offering tours, jet-ski rental and banana-boat rides.

It being an oppressively humid afternoon, I thought some ice-cream would be a good idea. And it was certainly refreshing, but when the bill came I got all hot and bothered again.

In a world-famous tourist destination like Phuket, you expect things to be more expensive, but I didn't realise that the overcharging had reached these heights! A single scoop of very ordinary ice-cream was priced at 75 baht; and that didn't include the extra tariff for the colourful topping, the service charge and VAT. In Bangkok, it would've cost half that.

"The food prices on the beaches are double or triple those in Phuket city," a native who works in a local hotel told me later.

"Another thing ... on Patong Beach you can now find lots of vendors offering food from the North and Northeast; that's because most of the workers there now come from those parts of the country."

I usually do my utmost to avoid tourist traps so, after retrieving my car, I promptly fled Patong, heading for calmer waters, so to speak. Surprisingly, one of the places that has been least spoiled by tourism lies at the very heart of the island: Phuket city itself. Here, in the historic old quarter, life continues very much as I recall it from previous trips. Good examples of the local cuisine are easy to find and worth taking your time to savour. And the prices are standard; no rip-off merchants, here.

I did notice one major change in my surroundings, but this is an alteration which I'm sure will delight most visitors. The old part of Phuket city has always had a pretty unique look thanks to shop-houses constructed with a blend of Chinese and Western architectural feature, a style variously called Sino-Portuguese or Straits Chinese. Several of these antique structures, which in the past had looked rather the worse for wear, have now been renovated, refurbished and put to new uses: one has been given a vivid makeover and turned into a gallery of modern art; others have been converted into architects' offices, coffee shops, inns and bakeries.

One of the long-standing attractions in this neighbourhood is the Phuket Thai Hua Museum, which chronicles the history of the island with particular emphasis on the contribution made by Chinese immigrants.

Another repository well worth a visit, especially if you have small children in tow, is the Phuket Seashell Museum. This privately run establishment houses thousands of beautiful shells from whelks, clams and a host of other marine creatures; the exhibits include both indigenous and foreign species and rarities like the harp snail and banded bonnet.

Phuket Aquarium, located at the end of Cape Panwa in the southeastern corner of the island, is another great place to take kids. Although it doesn't boast gigantic fish tanks or submarine pedestrian tunnels like more modern aquariums, it does have displays of rarely seen denizens from the ocean depths such as the enormously elongated oarfish, the serpentine largehead hairtail (aka beltfish or Pacific cutlassfish) and other weird specimens I wasn't immediately able to identify.

And for a tranquil time by the sea, there are few better choices than Sirinath National Park. Located on the northwestern edge of the island, this protected area boasts three long beaches, a whopping 13km of practically deserted strand.

Phuket’s old town is undergoing a welcome revival. Many of the historic Sino-Portuguese shophouses have received a facelift and some have been refurbished for commercial purposes. It is now a lot easier to make out the details in the intricate neoclassical and Renaissance-style stucco designs which grace their facades. Like the exteriors, the interiors are a blend of Chinese and European architectural features, but each house has a large central living room floored with ceramic tiles. From the street, they look like the typically narrow shophouses seen in many Asian cities, but appearances can be deceptive; these houses are actually surprisingly deep, some of them stretching more than 50m from front to back.

Compared to the longestablished viewpoints on Cape Phrom Thep and overlooking Karon Beach, the new viewpoint at Khao Khad on Cape Panwa is still relatively quiet. A tower has been erected here to give visitors an impressively panoramic view of Chalong Bay and the whole southeastern tip of the island, including Palai Beach, Laya Noi Island and Mudong Canal.

Exhibits at the Phuket Thai Hua Museum chronicle the history of the island with particular emphasis on the contributions to local society and culture made by Chinese immigrants. Labourers from China began arriving in large numbers to work in Phuket’s tin mines during the 19th century, especially after the expansion of mining operations during the reign of King Rama III (1824-51).

This art gallery in an old Phuket shophouse is a good example of how a historic building can be given a new lease of life.

More than 2,000 beautiful exhibits, including several rare species, are displayed at the Phuket Seashell Museum. Originally established as a home for a collection of indigenous shells, the museum has since expanded to include shells from European marine creatures and some fossils like the ammonite pictured here. A member of an extinct group of marine invertebrates, this specimen is as big as a car tyre.

If it’s a deserted length of beach you’re after, Hat Mai Khao in Sirinath National Park should be top of your list. Situated in the northwest of the island, Mai Khao stretches for kilometres and there’s nary a deck chair, parasol or beer bar to be seen.

In Phuket city you can find delicious, authentic local food at very reasonable prices. One of the best places to sample the cuisine and soak up the municipal atmosphere is Lok Thian located at the intersection of Deebuk and Yaowarat roads. This open-air venue is the base of operations for a number of independent food vendors. You order directly from the vendor (or vendors) of your choice and pay when the food is brought to your table. One of the more popular treats is Hokkien noodles which is typically served with a raw egg. Most of the regular dishes here cost a mere 30 or 40 baht.

TRAVEL INFO

- Nok Air, Thai Airways International, Thai AirAsia, Bangkok Airways and Orient Thai all operate regular flights to Phuket.

- The Phuket Thai Hua Museum opens daily from 9am to 5pm. Admission costs 200 baht for adults; there is no charge for children. For more information, call 076-211-224 or visit www.thaihuamuseum.com. STORY AND PHOTOS: PEERAWAT JARIYASOMBAT 

- Phuket Aquarium opens daily from 8.30am to 4.30pm. Admission costs 100 baht for adults and 50 baht for kids. For more information, visit www.phuketaquarium.org.

- The Phuket Seashell Museum is open daily from 8.30am to 5.30pm. Admission costs 200 baht for adults; there is no charge for children. For more information, call www.phuketseashell.com.

- Sirinath National Park: phone 076-328-226.

Related search: Phuket

About the author

columnist
Writer: Peerawat Jariyasombat
Position: Travel Reporter