My alarm went off and I sprung out of bed. That’s right. I set my alarm while on vacation. It’s absurd, but necessary as we were required to meet our taxi in the front lobby at 5:30am. Yes, up at 5:30am on vacation. Completely ridiculous, but would turn out to be worth every lost minute of sleep.
I told Barbara I’d meet her out front at 5:29am. As it turns out, it was actually 5:30am, but nonetheless, I was on time. We climbed into the taxi van and I carefully unwrapped the leftover piece of pizza from the previous night that I’d saved for breakfast. We rode in the taxi for an hour. The traffic was surprisingly heavy for so early in the morning. (I would soon learn that traffic is always heavy in Phuket). We arrived to the pier and drove all the way out to the end where we were met by our vessel for the day, and our cheerful and welcoming crew.
All aboard! We climbed to the top and found a seat on the side bench seat. A “light” breakfast was laid out on the table in front of us. Philippe, our lead guide for the day went over rules for safety, protection/preservation of the environment, and then detailed all our options for breakfast before going over our itinerary for the day. Philippe is French, but has spent the last 10 years in Thailand. His English is impeccable, and I appreciated his thoroughness.
We floated through the Andaman Sea with purpose, to our first stop at Panak Island. As the distance between the boat and pier grew, the sun made its slow rise over karst rocks in the distance.
The islands ahead of us became larger and larger, until soon we had arrived at Panak Island. We loaded into our canoes, where Makayla and I met our personal guide for the day, Sak [sok]. Sak is currently in training to perform Phillipe’s duties, and unlike many of the other guides, speaks adequate English.
He rowed us ashore where, as a group, we entered a cave. When the tide is up, the cave is not accessible, but because it was early in the morning we were able to enter. The other benefit to leaving at 5:30am is that many other tours don’t start until later, allowing us to enjoy a more intimate tour.
We carefully walked through the cave. Our guides made sure to provide light for us, and carefully led us through, doing their best to protect us from falling or hitting our heads on the rock above. I had no idea where we were going. I simply expected a cave tour, but as we walked further through the shallow water, I noticed we were nearing daylight. Suddenly the cave opened up to a hidden lagoon. As we walked toward the middle, we could look straight up to the top and see sunlight through the opening. Surrounding us on the karst rock was thick vegetation. The ground was sandy and still wet from the receded tide. It was so unexpected and beautiful, I couldn’t hold back tears. It was a secret and secluded paradise. In the middle were several mangrove trees, which we learned were doing their best to survive despite the harm humans are causing by hanging on the roots. Sadly, Philippe explained, the number of trees has decreased significantly over the last few years. Each time he comes, he finds another root that has broken off. His love for nature and preserving its beauty was heartwarming.
For one minute we stood in the middle of this beautiful place in complete silence. We heard a toucan far above us, identified only by his sound and the shiny white of his beak amongst the trees. We also heard monkeys, but they were much more shy and didn’t have much to say to us. Philippe took us over to the edge where the sand became muddy. Here he showed us several walking fish. He explained these fish have made adaptations that have allowed them to live for a very long time. They have the ability to swim, or to remain on land for up to 2 hours by storing water in their cheeks. We watched them move about, drawing close to water to fill up, and then continuing to walk across the mud looking like chipmunks. We found one female walking fish near a small puddle of water. We learned because the water is cloudy, it means she has eggs there. Can you find her?
Philippe also explained to us how this beautiful sea cave was made. During the ice age this landscape was covered with sheets of ice. As the ice sheets moved across, it eroded the overlying soil and bedrock, exposing fresh limestone. Sea caves are developed as the limestone begins to break down, creating cracks. As the cracks become larger, a drainage system develops, which further breaks down the rock and creates sinkholes. Eventually the bottom will drop out, creating a cave. He explained the reef is still on the top, and when shells are found on the sand, they have fallen off the top of the karst rock. I was so glad this tour was so far not only beautiful, but quite educational. Our lesson was interrupted by another tour emerging from the cave, so we took that as our cue to leave.
Back through the cave we went, and hopped into our canoe with Sak who rowed us back to the big boat. We would ride for another 30 or so minutes before arriving at Hong Island. Considered one of the most beautiful of the islands, Sak canoed us around it for about 40 minutes, while we took in the beautiful scenery. Fisherman in their longboats were tied up to ropes, holding them in place while they attempted to catch whatever it was they were looking for. Prawns and jellyfish are the most commonly fished in this area.
We floated close to the karst rock, covered with open oyster shells making it too sharp to reach out and touch. However, I wouldn’t want to touch it anyway as there were also multiple small green crabs, some of which were crawling up the rock using their legs and one claw, while they held a fish twice their size in the other claw.
Sak guided us into another beautiful lagoon where, like at Panak island, we saw more stalactites and stalagmites. The area again was quiet and secluded, and the sun shined brightly through the top. Sak had a little fun with us afterward, and instead of going straight back to the boat, rowed us through a narrow, but gorgeous passageway.
When we got to the boat, we were instructed on what to expect next at James Bond Island. The official name of the island is Khao Phing Kan, but because The Man With the Golden Gun was filmed there in 1974, it assumed the name of James Bond Island. As it was nearing mid-day, Philippe anticipated there would be other tours there. He was right. When we pulled up, the longboat that he planned to use for transfer to the island was not there, so we loaded back up in our canoes and our guides took us to shore. There were many people milling around, but it wasn’t so busy that we weren’t able to get some really great photos.
Our guides followed us around, giving us all the tips on the best places to take photos, and the best ideas on how to take them. Having them there was not only helpful, but they were extremely entertaining as well!
Soon it was time to leave, and as the island was getting progressively more littered with tourists, I was ready to go! Not to mention, I was starting to get a bit hungry, and the chef had been down on the lower deck cooking our lunch that would be ready on our return to the boat.
We enjoyed many traditional Thai foods, some with Indian influence. They had a cooler full of juice, water and soda for us to drink from, and as it became hotter throughout the day, I made many trips to that cooler! We ate on the boat as we headed back to Panak Island where we would spend time on the beach, swimming in the Andaman Sea and enjoying some canoeing of our own, if we wished. Once done with lunch, Makayla and Barbara went to the front of the boat to get some sun. I was tired from the early morning and took a little nap on the bench seat in the breezy shade, a decision I would come to appreciate when it became apparent that Barbara and Makayla had gotten a little too much sun.
We anchored just off the beach of Panak Island, and Sak rowed us to shore.
I had brought my GoPro with my new dome so I could take over/under split shots. To my surprise, when I got in the water I realized it was likely not clear enough for good shots. I took a few anyway. We’ll see how they turn out. Practice makes perfect, and previous experience has indicated I don’t know what I’m doing when it comes to GoPro-ing – so practice I did. I’ll be taking free lessons from anyone who wants to provide them! Despite my GoPro inefficiencies, I did enjoy swimming in the water. It was quite hot outside – into the 90’s, so the cool water felt amazing on my skin (once I took the complete plunge). It was very relaxing. Everyone on the tour was doing their own thing. Some of the guides were playing “Chase” in the canoes with some young Danish brothers. Another guy was experimenting with his brand new drone. Barbara and I went for a little canoe ride ourselves. I relaxed supine at one end of the boat, soaking up the warm Thailand sun, while she got a workout rowing me around.
We spent about an hour on the beach, and then Philippe called us back. We all boarded the boat and rinsed off the sand. Back to the pier we went, stopping once to observe a longboat who was fishing for jellyfish. There is a driver and a “lookout,” for lack of a better term. The person in the front of the boat will alert the driver when they see a jellyfish. The driver slows while the other person grabs either a net or a fork to capture the jellyfish. They then throw the jellyfish into the middle of the boat. The entire floor of the boat was filled with about 100 purplish-pink jellyfish. He lifted one up with his hands to show us, and the jellyfish was about the size of a watermelon, if not a little bigger. While the driver didn’t speak English, he communicated with Philippe, who’s Thai seemed to be just as good as his English. He told Philippe he’d already caught approximately 400 jellyfish that morning and was back out again for more. The fishermen receive 6 TBH ($0.17) per jellyfish. So far that was about $70 for half a day’s worth of work.
One thing that has become especially apparent here in Thailand, is how we, as Americans, are spoiled little brats. You don’t know how good you have it until you visit a country like this. See the living conditions. See how laborious people are working to make in half a day what some of us make in 2 hours of “work”. We all need to check ourselves.
As we continued on to the pier, I kept my eyes peeled for jellyfish, and there were several. They appeared as little off-white blobs floating at the top of the water. Had I known how prevalent they were, I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed the swimming as much.
When we got to the pier, we piled into the taxi for our hour long ride back to Grand Mercure Resort. We were tired, and as usual, the taxi made us all motion sick. When we got back to the hotel, I was in the mood for a massage. I contacted the hotel spa, Ryn Spa, and asked if they could get me in for a massage and reflexology. She told me I could come right away – so I did. Of course I knew the hotel was going to be more expensive than on the street, but I was looking for relaxation and pampering. I was able to get both services (2 hours of massage) for $100. It also included a rose petal foot bath, a welcome juice with a eucalyptus and orange peel infused washcloth to wipe my hands, and a post-massage hot tea. That washcloth was amazing. I couldn’t stop smelling it and I think it spent more time on my face than on my hands.
After my amazing treatment (and simultaneous nap), I returned to the room to get ready for the evening. We had planned to meet early to grab some food before attending the Simon Cabaret, but Barbara fell victim to an amazing nap. While she got ready for the evening, Makayla and I went to find some dinner. We entered into the streets of Patong in search of food. Nearly everything was the same, but we wanted to compare prices and take note of busy restaurants that would indicate good food. Makayla suffers from the same problem I do. When faced with too many options, it’s nearly impossible to make a decision. I finally decided the next place we walked by that wasn’t Indian food, would be where we dined. We crossed the street – an adventure in and of itself – thinking there would be more options on the other side. We walked and walked and walked, and where there had been a restaurant in every other building, there were suddenly no restaurants at all. Meanwhile, we were being hounded by taxi drivers and massage therapists all trying to offer their services. Finally, we decided to cross back over to the other side of the street and check out food from a street vendor. Nervous about the potential aftermath, I had to check the box. When in Thailand…
We came upon a street vendor just around the corner from our hotel. His food looked well organized, and appealing to the eye. Although looks can be deceiving, we decided to give it a shot.
We asked the man what each of the meats were, to which he responded, “chicken!” Yes, all of it was chicken. He even had a little plastic chicken hanging in the corner to prove it was chicken. I don’t believe it was chicken. I don’t really want to know what it was, but I ate it, and I survived without any gastrointestinal distress. I consider that a huge win.
As my mind wandered, I was disgusted at the thought of what I could’ve just eaten. Nonetheless: box checked, belly full, money saved. We went back to the hotel and met Barbara in the lobby. While we could take a taxi to the Simon Cabaret, we opted to walk. It was still hot outside, but the walk was tolerable. We only had to cross the street once, which was a relief. There are no stop signs or lights, and no crosswalks. If you want to cross the street, you simply have to go. I had read before this trip that one must start walking and continue moving forward at the same speed without slowing or stopping. Drivers will expect you to keep moving, and if you stop to avoid them, they could already be driving around where they expected you to be, and you could be hit. We saw this first hand when we noticed a woman lying on the ground next to a tuk tuk who had just been hit. While we didn’t see exactly how it happened, it was apparent she was hurt as she tried to get up and fell back down to the pavement. Not willing to get involved in Thai trauma in the middle of a busy Patong street, I hushed the trauma nurse inside me and continued on.
We arrived to the Simon Cabaret just before showtime. I had read up on this show. It is a typical cabaret style show, however, all the women in the show are actually men, or “ladyboys” as they are referred to here. I had seen pictures online, and it’s hard to imagine some of these women could be men. The same was true in person. Some of these ladyboys were more attractive than most actual women. It was slightly depressing, but at the same time fascinating. I found myself throughout the show trying to look for evidence that they were actually men, because I simply couldn’t believe it. The giveaway, I found, was the size of their feet. Aside from that, you’d never know if you met them out on the street.
In 2011 I attended the Moulin Rouge in Paris, France. I was expecting the same quality show, and was seriously disappointed. With the exception of one act, they lip-synched every song. And when I say lip-synched, I mean they kind of mouthed some of the words when they felt like it. There were a few actual men in the show who looked like the male cheerleaders at my high school powder-puff game. Horrible dancers, and most of the performers as a whole looked like they would rather be somewhere else – anywhere else. The only saving grace was the one act I mentioned previously, where the ladyboy actually sang. While Barbara and Makayla disagree, I was watching very closely. I noticed right before she began her performance, she actually turned the microphone on. Because her pitch was so exact, I debated whether or not she was singing or lip-synching like the others, but everything she did matched the song exactly. Given my musical background, I consider myself a pretty good judge of these things, and while I can’t be 100% sure, I’m 95% sure she actually performed the song and nailed it. The other saving grace was the performance by 3 ladyboys of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies.” The ladyboy Beyonce was seriously impressive with her dance moves.
The show only lasted an hour, thankfully. We weren’t allowed to take pictures, but take my word for it when I tell you it was quite a sight. While slightly disappointed, I was still glad to have experienced it. We went back to the hotel and rested up for the next day.
Still exhausted from all the go, go, go, we decided to have an easy breezy morning. We grabbed breakfast and then went down to the street to score a cheap massage. We passed by several shops, assessing their prices and massage facility. We couldn’t help but be amused by the clear display of “No Sex” on the storefront doors. We ended up finding a little spot off the beaten path that offered a one hour full-body traditional Thai massage for 250 TBH ($7.81). How can you beat that? The three of us laid there together while our therapists sat on us, bent our bodies into pretzels, and dug elbows and knees into our muscles. Mine and Makayla’s therapists were chatting back and forth, much like you lady readers have experienced in a nail salon. I didn’t mind. Suddenly I heard a man’s voice. I was really confused as I’d only seen ladies when we entered. I figured perhaps the man must own the joint, and maybe just arrived for the morning. When our massages were done, I realized Barbara’s therapist was actually a ladyboy. Her makeup was on point! Following our massage, Barbara and I decided we’d get some reflexology on top of it. We were looking at another spa’s price menu, which had reflexology for 300 TBH. Having just spent less than that for a full body massage, we weren’t willing to spend 300. Talk about penny pinchers! It’s so cheap, but still, no sense in paying more than necessary. When the lady realized we were going to leave, she offered the reflexology and a head, neck and shoulder massage for 300 TBH ($9.38). Deal! So we sat and enjoyed another 2 services.
We then spent the rest of the day relaxing by the pool. I worked on this blog a bit. Makayla had met some nice girls from Norway who had recommended a restaurant for dinner. When dusk came around, we walked about 15 minutes into the center of Patong to No. 6. Restaurant. They have two locations: one in the center of Patong, and one up on the hill, which offers a beautiful view of Patong. We hopped in their complimentary tuk-tuk shuttle, and made the scary ride up to the top of the hill. Quite unnerving was the sign on the back window apologizing for causing fright when going up the hill, but they must drive very fast in order to make it up the steep incline. Needless to say, we held on for dear life so we wouldn’t fall out of the back of the tuk-tuk while he speedily drove up the hill and around the winding curves.
Finally we arrived, and the view was quite nice. It was just sunset, and while the sun was not visible from where we were, it was still a pretty sight to see. We each ordered an entree and shared the three like tapas. I enjoyed some passion fruit juice, and we all ordered bottled water. It has been difficult to stay hydrated between the heat, walking, and inaccessibility to restrooms most of the time when out and about. The dinner was very nice, but as night fell and the lights came on, there were a number of bugs joining us at our table. Barbara, while smelling of sweet perfume, was apparently also appealing to the mosquitos and started getting bit. We left the restaurant and took the tuk-tuk back down to the city.
When we returned to the city, we decided to take a stroll down Bangla Road. This truly is the Vegas of Patong. Lights and clubs and loud music abound; men and women approaching you from all directions inviting you to view a Ping Pong Show or Sexy Show. We stopped in a little bar and had a Chang – one of Thailand’s beers. While I don’t really like beer, I thought I should give it a try. I also prefer to drink from a just opened bottle, rather than an open cocktail glass when I’m traveling. One beer was enough for us and we made our way back to the hotel.
With one more day in Patong, we had time to enjoy some sight seeing, while also relaxing a bit. We were in no hurry to get around that morning. We enjoyed another breakfast buffet, and eventually met up in the lobby to grab a taxi to the Big Buddha. The Big Buddha sits on top of the Nakkerd Hills and has an amazing view of Phuket and the Andaman Sea. He is, in fact, rather big. In front of the Buddha are several wishing trees. Rather than colorful ribbons, as observed in Chinatown in Singapore, these wishing trees were made of copper leaves. They were beautiful as they glistened under the sun next to the shiny white of the Buddha.
He has been under construction for 13 years, and is still under construction presently. He sits at nearly 150 feet tall, on a pedestal atop a staircase. It is constructed of reinforced concrete, and Burmese white jade marble. Continued construction and maintenance is funded by donations alone. Around the perimeter are several other statues, and beautiful 360° views.
We paid our taxi driver for the day a mere $43 – divided by the 3 of us. He waited patiently for us outside the Big Buddha entrance, and once we piled back into his taxi van, he willingly took us to Tiger Kingdom where he again would wait for us to later take us back to the hotel.
Tiger Kingdom was in the running for the #1 thing I was excited to do on this trip! Tigers have long been one of my favorite animals (second to my precious pups, of course). I am enamored by the way they magnificently stride across the ground. So much power within them, yet appearing calm and tame from afar. I won’t lie! I was a little nervous to be around them, but I convinced myself it was safe by reminding myself that if the tigers were mauling people, this place wouldn’t be in business.
Many people have heard the tigers are sedated, and that’s why they’re so calm. I was hesitant to come to Tiger Kingdom because of the same concerns. Is it humane to keep a wild animal in captivity? Are they well cared for? Are they actually sedated? After reading many reviews, several from those with the same concerns, I felt confident I should go, and that I would likely regret it if I didn’t.
We paid for “Take 2,” which gave us access to a large and small tiger. We saw the small tigers first. There was a pen with about 4 or 5 young tigers, around 2 years old. They were lying around, which some would perceive as sedation. I ask you this, how many of you have lazy housecats that sleep all day? While they are wild animals, they have sill been domesticated. It is typical for a cat to sleep during the day – especially when its 90°+ degrees outside. I was relieved to find many of the tigers would walk around, some even came around to see what we were up to. The guides lightly bumped a stick off their neck to discourage them from coming too close to us. They would walk away and find another shady place to lie down. We were given specific safety rules on how to approach the tiger. Come from behind, and pet firmly. If you pet lightly, it might tickle like an insect, and they could bat at you. If you come from the front, they might think you want to play with them. They acted like typical cats to me… just bigger and much more elegant. One of them laid on his side and rolled around while playing with and chewing on a little stick. I couldn’t get enough of them. I rubbed their bellies firmly, tiger hair coming up between my fingers. It was one of the most exhilarating things I’ve ever done.
After enjoying our time with the “small” tigers, we went to the pen with the big tigers. While I was feeling more comfortable around them, it was suddenly more daunting when I saw the difference in size. Nonetheless, they were just as calm and tolerant of we obnoxious humans. By the end of the visit, I was lying my head on the tiger, soaking up every last second with these amazing creatures.
In retrospect, I found that I was slightly conflicted about it. I did feel they were being treated very humanely. They looked well fed and healthy. When you enter the pen, there is a sign displayed that urges tourists to report any concern of maltreatment and to demand a refund in that event. I appreciated that they were making the tigers’ safety a priority. My concern is regarding captivity. Many of us grew up attending zoos, where we ooooh’d and ahhhhh’d at the amazing animals we would never see in our lifetimes outside of a zoo. As we’ve grown older, perhaps some of us look at zoos like jails for these animals. I would prefer a tiger be in it’s natural habitat, but my concerns are more at ease in knowing that tigers are endangered, and at least they are safe in this environment. This was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done. Few things in my life will top canoodling with tigers! Genuine happiness, right here!
When we returned to the hotel, we each enjoyed some free time. I spent some time at the pool and working on my blog. We all reconvened at 5:15pm to catch our taxi to Kamala Beach where we would enjoy FantaSea – “the ultimate Thai cultural amusement park.” Indeed it was! Upon entering, there were fountains and lights and statues and koi fish ponds.
Everything was extremely colorful and inviting. There were men and women with their homemade crafts on display for purchase. There were several exhibits, dance performances and even elephant rides!
We didn’t ride the elephants, but we let them kiss us with their trunks. Such amazing animals! When we weren’t exploring the park, we were enjoying a buffet dinner at the Golden Kinnaree Buffet Restaurant. The place was huge. It can accommodate 4000 seated guests.
Soon it was time for the show to start. The show is inside the Palace of the Elephants – a gorgeous theatre with an unbelievable set.
They don’t allow any photography, and even make you deposit your phone before entering the auditorium, so unfortunately, I don’t have any photos to share. It was surprisingly amazing, however. I was expecting more of a circus-like show, but it wasn’t that at all. It was actually a performance with a story.
It starts with the an ancient kingdom where the Thai people celebrated great wealth and prosperity. The Prince and his magic elephant were to rule the kingdom, but unfortunately, the Thai people became greedy, and selfish in their desires, and the inherent goodness of the Thai people was lost. The Prince and his elephant were turned to stone until the Thai people could unite again.
The show was great and incorporated illusion, aerial acrobatics, dance, pyrotechnics, animal performances and many other things. It was full of culture and I was so glad we took the time to check it out. (My opinion of this show has changed slightly since I originally wrote this – see upcoming Chiang Mai post).
The show didn’t start until 9pm, so it was quite late by the time we returned to our hotel. We had an early day coming, with plans to leave our hotel by 7:15am. We had to get to Rassada Pier on the other side of Phuket to catch our ferry to Krabi. While I like to stay busy and make the most of my time while traveling, I have been completely overstimulated in Phuket. I don’t regret daily adventure, but I did try a real Red Bull and my body laughed in the bulls’ faces. Hoping Krabi offers a relaxing retreat!