Hit the road to explore Thailand's holiday island of Phuket, writes PHILIP GAME.
What are the attractions of Phuket? Golden sandy beaches, bargain-basement shopping and vibrant nightlife: yes, but don’t forget the royal wildlife reserve, the mysterious half-buried Buddha or the stage show featuring 30 live elephants.
In Thailand, you don’t always think of taking the wheel, thanks to unpredictable traffic, inscrutable road laws and readily-available transport alternatives, but in the kingdom’s most-visited island there are quite a few sights you might never discover any other way.
There’s no rush to get anywhere, except perhaps to and from the airport at the northern tip of this 810-sq km island. For two or more, especially, four wheels are better and far less hazardous than two.
From the air, Phuket glitters like a tropical jewel, embellished with lush, emerald forests, sparkling turquoise waters and white sand.
Down on the ground, the jewel soon reveals the tarnish of mass tourism: glimpses of lush, dense rainforest and golden sand are all too often overshadowed by tangles of cables, scarred hillsides and incongruous high-rise developments. All the more reason, then, to get out and about in search of your own private paradise.
Surprisingly, one of the airport-based operators offered us a deal as good as any, delivering a slightly shop-worn jeep to our resort at Patong on the west coast. We returned it to the airport before flying out, saving the cost of the hour-long taxi ride.
Patong, the most glitzy resort town, suffers a little these days from a sleazy reputation. In truth, nobody need ever be confronted by hostess bars after dark until they go looking for such diversions . . . but most visitors do like to see for themselves.
Our accommodation at the Blue Marine Resort on the northern edge of town was a comfortable distance from the nightlife: not too far, not too close.
Within the last year, the Patong esplanade has been garishly re-landscaped with rows of newly-planted palms, giant white Pluto dogs and plaques inscribed “Patong Beach”. Pastel-hued tsunami evacuation notices seek to minimise any repetition of the Boxing Day 2004 disaster in which at least 300 people died around this area.
Route 4233 leads us south from Patong around the coast and, apart from some hairy overtaking, driving conditions are fine and parking is usually open slather.
Toes dabble in tropical waters at Karon, the most northerly of the three best-known beaches; time out for a savoury bite at a beachfront café at Kata Noi, down the road. There’s a fine roadside lookout on a ridge hallway to Nai Han Beach and a popular viewing point at Laem Phromthep, a promontory at the southern tip of Phuket.
Pull up at Hat Rawai for a seafood picnic lunch under the waterfront casuarinas, not far from the community of Chao Le or Sea Gypsies. Dozens of wooden longboats sit idle, waiting to take tourists on excursion to the many forested islands just offshore.
Even more excursion boats, large as well as small, come and go from the huge pier at Ao Chalong, closer to Phuket town. Wat Chalong, the island’s biggest and best-known Buddhist temple, stands nearby.
Whilst a car is hardly necessary to visit Phuket town, being independent avoids the hassle of saying “no” to taxi drivers who want to detour via gemstone showrooms. (Then again, it’s an experience to tour one of these slick establishments, just once). Parts of the town preserve much of the original character of a 19th-century trading community, with some of the ornate Sino-Portuguese shophouses now being restored.
On the corner of Thanon Phuket and Thanon Phang-nga, the imposing Standard Chartered Bank building, complete with clock tower, epitomises the grand old days when Chinese, European, Arab and Indian traders came to deal in tin and rubber.
At Nong Jote, an old-fashioned Chinese coffee house in Thanon Yaowalat, Phuket town, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea soccer club flags hang from the rafters, behind the three Chinese household gods. Nearby in Thanon Talang a century-old herbalist, Nguan Choon Tong, still does business.
In Soi Romance, a lane running off Thanon Talang, the restored shophouse at No 12 has been reborn as the House of the Beautiful Images, a café, bakery and photo gallery supporting a local charity which assists HIV-positive mothers and their children. The gallery remains modest but the downstairs courtyard makes a refreshingly cool place to chill out, in every sense.
Locals often drive up to the park on the summit of Khao Rang or Rang Hill, northwest of Phuket town, to picnic and take in the views of forest foliage, blue sea and city sprawl.
In the northern part of Phuket a royal wildlife reserve repays a visit if you’ve brought your walking shoes.
There’s also a gibbon rehabilitation centre and plantations producing rubber, cashews and coconuts.
At Wat Phra Thong, a Buddha statue appears half buried below the temple and legend relates that 18th-century Burmese invaders failed repeatedly to excavate it.
A car is handy at night, too – don’t miss Phuket Fantasea, the spectacular Thai cultural theme park at Kamala with its Kingdom of the Elephants performance, capturing the colours and pageantry of Thai dance and costume. Massed elephants perform on stage, against a backdrop replicating the temples of Angkor Wat.
Chinese shrines stage street processions between the fifth and 11th of the month.
The tradition is said to have begun in 1825 when a travelling Chinese opera troupe impressed immigrant tin miners in the fever-ridden Kathu district by recovering from illness after adhering to a strict vegetarian diet (www.phuketvegetarian.com).