Phuket: an island of sun, sea, sand and sex. We jetted off to Thailand for a week after our contracts finished at the end of June; for a week of rest and relaxation, to get out of the big city and oppressive skyscrapers of Hong Kong, and to just chill out for a bit after a rather stressful six months.
Thailand is the popular travelling centre of south-east Asia, it has a well deserved reputation for being easy to get around, a possibly less deserved reputation for being a cheap place to spend a holiday, but is a country full of culture, beaches, and anything else you might need or desire while having a break.
We flew into Phuket, and headed to our hostel a few minutes from the beach in the main town of Patong, and here’s some of the things we got up to in our four days there.
Experience a Thai massage
Wherever you walk in Patong, you are sure to come across a massage parlour. They’re easy to spot, since all the masseuses sit outside in their uniforms to try to drum up trade (though a lot of them were just on their phones the whole time). We’d been told to remember that if their clothes are on, it’s a massage parlour, and if they were half-naked, it was instead a ‘massage’ parlour.
After entering the massage parlour, our feet were washed and we were asked to change into some loose trousers before lying down on our front and the massage beginning. Our massages were done on a raised platform behind some curtains (not as dodgy as it sounds!) but my first problem was that I was too big to fit on the platform, so had to do away with the pillow and lie on the platform so my feet weren’t half out into the room!
Lying on our fronts, the masseuse then proceeded to lean and press on our bodies, sometimes softly and sometimes very hard. At times, I was having trouble deciding which part of her body the masseuse was using to press on me, be it palm, forearm or even at times her feet!
Hearing my spine crack within two minutes of starting seemed ominous, but after that it did get a little more relaxing (if quite literally breath-taking depending on where they pressed), before we rolled over and they did the same kind of thing to our legs. We were pushed into very strange positions, rolled around, and at one time pulled up into the air, an occasion which did its best to remove all relaxation from the moment, before having our heads vigorously attacked by prying fingers.
In the end, the massage felt less like a massage and more like a trip to the physio!
Elephants are a symbol of Thailand, and given the opportunity we wanted to experience them up close. Although Helen got up close and fed one in India, I couldn’t even recall seeing one at a zoo.
A 15-minute drive out from the main centre of Patong was Camp Chang Kalim, offering the chance to ride, feed and have pictures with elephants. When we arrived, all the adult elephants were out trekking already, but we were given the opportunity to feed and have a picture with a baby elephant. There were a few other families and couples there, and the family went to feed baby Dollar some bananas and have a photo with his trunk wrapped around their necks.
We waited for the adults to return before taking a seat on their back and having a little walk with one up the hill to look out over the Andaman Sea. The ride was, shall we say, bumpy. Up close to the elephants, I’d never realised before that their rough backs were covered in hair; their skin seemed to absorb the heat as it was very hot on my bare feet on the elephant’s back. After 10 minutes walking up the hill, we had a rest and the guide hopped off to eat his lunch on a rock. We’d paid for a half hour ride, but 10 minutes of it seemed to be the guide just having his lunch! We had a lovely view over the sea, and swapped some photos with the other tourists, before having another 10 minute ride back down to ‘camp’.
While waiting for the tuk tuk to take us back to Patong, we decided we would actually like to get up close with the baby elephant and paid to have our photo taken with Dollar ourselves. His trunk was really powerful and he’d obviously been trained to wrap it round our necks and pose for photos. This did however, usually involve breathing out lots of hot air into our faces whilst finding his perfect spot!
Thai Cooking Course
On our first night in Patong we went by chance to Pum’s restaurant, which looked homely from the outside and was good value compared to other restaurants we’d seen around. We liked the food so much that we found that not only is Pum’s a restaurant, but they also give cooking lessons teaching how to cook their meals too.
On the second night, we returned, and for only a little bit more than the cost of the meal the day before, we had the opportunity to cook two meals of our own and take home a recipe book. We had a little chat with Pum herself about traditional Thai cooking, and the four different condiments you should be given in Thai restaurants (salty, sour, spicy and sweet) before entering the kitchen and having one of the chefs go through our dishes with us and help us make them.
In truth, the actual cooking wasn’t much more than putting their pre-chopped ingredients into a pan and stirring, but for only a little bit more than the price of one meal, making two meals was still quite fun. I made a green curry and a noodle soup, Helen made some spicy chicken and a coconut soup. All very delicious.
Phi Phi Islands
The next day, we’d booked to go on a tour to see some beautiful islands. The most beautiful islands I’d ever seen were the San Blas Islands in Panama in 2010 and I was eager to see how these would compare, as they have often been considered some of the most beautiful in Thailand, if not the world. [We bought tickets for the tour through our hostel, and the deal we got was less than half the price quoted by some agencies. The mark up some agencies have to take advantage of tourists is absolutely staggering!]
We were picked up at 7.30 and driven for an hour to a dock, where we met the rest of our group and then went in a speedboat for another hour to visit first the location of the film The Beach with Leonardo di Caprio [I’d never seen it, but have read the book]. Set in a natural lagoon, Koh Phi Phi Leh is apparently a stunning must-see beach, but it seems that twenty other tour groups had had the same idea, as it was absolutely rammed, probably dangerously so. I dare say the beach was actually beautiful, as it seemed like it should be, but there must have been thousands of people on it, and probably at least 50 boats waiting to collect them again in the bay, so much so that you couldn’t really get a feel for how it would look without all the people on it. I guess you’ll have to watch the film to find out!
Next we sped round the corner to see ‘monkey beach’, where monkeys come down from the trees and you can feed them nuts. It was high tide when we arrived, so we didn’t actually get out of the boat, but people who had brought nuts with them fed the monkeys and we all took photos. Only three other tour boats here, so must have thinned out a bit since The Beach beach.
After 10 minutes with the monkeys, we sped on once more and had the opportunity to do some snorkelling in the very clear water. There was good visibility, a little coral and lots of (the same) fish to see. The water was even a lovely temperature (even for me!).
After a stop for lunch, we headed to one more island for more snorkelling and sunbathing. At this island, we were watching some fish when one little nipper swam up and bit me on the ankle; Helen watched it happen and almost struggled to get out of the water in time to take her snorkel off to laugh properly! This final island seemed to be a holding pen running down the clock for the guides as it was only 10 minutes away from Phuket; there were many more fish here than at the first snorkelling spot, but as it was snorkelling from the beach they were much harder to see until the last second when they came from nowhere into your face.
Ping Pong Shows
The seedier side of Thailand. After the sun goes down, take a walk down Bang-la Road, the main street to the beach, and you are surrounded on both sides by open fronted bars with poles on the bars for dancing girls, and harangued by people from all sides with cries of “Ping pong show?” and “Ping pong? Ping pong?”. The guys on the street all have cards promoting the different kinds of ‘shows’ you can see in their club – all sex shows involving girls producing different items from their ladies-excuse-me -, and proudly offer ‘see for free, you don’t like you don’t stay’ as they get commission if they get you through the door regardless of if you stay or not.
Branded as free to get in, you have to buy outrageously expensive drinks inside. We were offered the bargain deal of 900 baht a drink (about £18), but bartered down to a still ridiculous but slightly more respectable 250 baht (£5).
Upon entering the club, the first thing you notice is obviously the half naked girls parading around, most looking horrendously bored standing next to a pole ‘dancing’; the second thing you notice is the groups of tourists who’ve also been interested and hooked in, trying to look as if it’s no big deal for them to be there and generally trying to avoid eye contact with everyone in the place. We joined the second group and took our seats, patiently waiting for the show to begin.
Different girls danced on stage for a song at a time, before one took her top off and started painting pictures with florescent paint on her chest. She then came down and walked around the audience offering us the opportunity to add to her artistic creation – we politely declined.
After a few more songs and a few more half naked girls, an older lady came out with a sign saying no photos and no phones – the show was about to begin. What followed was more freak show than anything sexual: different girls produced different items from inside them, whilst the audience looked on sometimes bemused, often wincing, and most of the time wondering what on earth we were watching and why we thought it was a good idea to go in there in the first place.
Amongst the items produced were several ping pong balls, razor blades, streamers, candles and whistles; cigarettes were somehow ‘smoked’, darts were projected bursting balloons, and then came animals: a goldfish, a small little turtle, even a small bird. It was truly bizarre.