Hello for the last time from Thailand. I am currently on the well known resort island of Phuket, but have spent next to no time here in the last 2 full days as I've been busy exploring some of the other beautiful islands in the surrounding Andaman Sea. I arrived here on Saturday evening after a gruelling 12 hour bus journey from Bangkok. I was very relieved to have picked up my Indian Visa the day before as I was fearful a delay might prevent my brief sightseeing trip down the Malay Peninsula, but with my passport returned I was able to board the government bus to Phuket at 7.30am on Saturday morning. The bus passed fairly bland scenery, but fortunately I got seated next to 2 nice Thai nurses named Hwan and Aui who did their best to chat to me in English. They were from Hat Yai in Southern Thailand, but were visiting Hwan's dad in Phuket on their way back from a graduation shopping trip in Bangkok. Their English was very bad and I felt guilty for talking to them at times as I could see they were having to think so hard. But I found out a lot about Thai youth culture, and it wasn't quite what I was expecting. Certainly in Bangkok most young people lead very westernised lives, but these girls were much more traditional. Aui said she only listens to Thai music, and in her spare time she goes to Thai dancing classes - but she does not like dancing in disco's. Its her 23rd birthday this weekend and to celebrate she'll be going to give alms to the monks in the morning (apparently a birthday tradtion for her), and in the evening will be having a quiet restaurant meal with her friends. Both girls were also keen lovers of the Thai King, whose picture is absolutely everywhere in Thailand - including in everybody's house. Every day at 8am and 6pm the Thai national anthem is played in his honour and everybody pauses to acknowledge him (something that caught me out in a Bangkok skytrain station). There really is a genuine affection amongst the country's entire population for the man who has been on the throne for the last 60 years. The girls came in handy when we stopped for lunch at a government bus service station. Absolutely everything was written in Thai and few of the workers spoke English. Hwan actually bought me a butter pancake style dish as she was keen for me to try it - they were both very proud of Thai cuisine. I arranged to meet up with them last night to go for a meal, but they never turned up at the agreed time of 7pm and I didn't have their mobile phone numbers. However, long after I'd gone to bed I got a phone call from reception to say I had some visitors! It was 12.30am and the 2 girls had come to get their picture taken with me! They had brought an English speaking male friend along and he explained that they did not have a motorbike till late at night, so they had no way of travelling down to meet me. They felt very guilty for getting me out of bed, and they literally took some photo's and left within 2 minutes! I felt like a commodity!
I have been staying in a nice and good value hotel in Phuket Town, which is somewhere very few tourists stay as its not on the coast. When I arrived on Saturday night I was forced to get a motorbike taxi to my hotel as all the car taxis wanted customers going to the resort towns. With a heavy bag on my back, weaving through the evening traffic was a bit scary but we made it! Phuket Town is the functional hub of the island and I've found it to be quite a friendly little city. There are lots of retail parks about, including some factory outlets which appear to have been plucked straight from the UK. Tesco's and Boots are also everywhere, which is something common to most Thai towns. I wouldn't be surprised if Tesco's, or Tesco Lotus as its known here, is Thailand's biggest supermarket as I've seen so many of them.
I've only been able to see Phuket Town as I've passed through it though, as my 2 excursions have taken up all my time here. My first excursion allowed me to fulfill a childhood dream and travel to a destination I've wanted to visit for as long as I could remember. I took a day trip day trip to explore Phang Nga Bay, which is where the James Bond movie "The Man With The Golden Gun" was filmed in 1974. Ever since seeing the film as a young lad I'd had a desire to visit the location, which is Thailand's equivalent of Halong Bay. Although it was much smaller than Halong Bay, the huge limestone karst islands were still spectacular, and with the sun out I got a chance to view some karst islands in good light, instead of the drab and overcast conditions we had in North Vietnam. The boat took about 1.5 hours to reach the island now known as "James Bond Island", and the place was teeming with tourists. The instantly recognisable karst stump provided a backdrop to where James Bond and the villain Scaramanga began their shootout near the end of the film. The beach in front of the stump was awash with tourists taking pictures, as well as lots of hawkers, but I was still impressed by the place. The island was a lot smaller than the film suggests, but all around it were large karst mountains jutting high above the sea. We passed more of these islands on the way to our lunch stop at a picturesque Muslim fishing village. After seemingly spending an eternity there (the guides wanted us to buy souvenirs) we journeyed back through the bay and stopped for a brief swim at an isolated island close to the Phuket Coast. The Andaman Sea there was the warmest sea I've ever swam in, and I didn't even get the slightest cold shock after I jumped in off the boat. It was like a hot bath. After this it was back to Phuket, and back in the minivan for the 45 minute drive back to my hotel. I felt a bit disappointed by the tour at the end of the day as we didn't really seem to visit many places. The leaflet advertised visits to 2 other karst islands, yet we never went to them, and our guide said the leaflet simply meant "you will see them". I wasn't in the best of company all day either, as the vast majority of the boat's passengers were French retirees. The only people I could talk to were a young Indian couple who were on holiday with their mums. They were quite a funny family to observe. The couple were clearly high flyers in India, and they had lived in America. They dressed like westerners and they spoke like westerners, but yet they were travelling with their mother's who appeared to very traditional and very grumpy! It really was a picture of cultural difference between the generations.
On the minivan ride back we passed by a shipwreck from the 2004 tsunami here. The wave swept through both sides of Phuket devastating large swathes of the island. Even though it was just 5 years ago there is very little sign it ever happened here. The resorts are now mostly developed back to the level they were at before, and some have even developed further. The planning authorities made a mistake when they lifted development restrictions after the disaster. Prior to it there had been a conscious effort not to overdevelop here, but once those restrictions were lifted construction went into overdrive and there is no sign now that it will be halted in the near future. It would have been nice if they had used the disaster to start afresh and create more sustainable resorts, but that wasn't the priority.
Today I went on the second of my excursions, and I really splashed out for this one - a speedboat trip to the Phi Phi Islands. Ko Phi Phi is seen as the jewel in the crown of all the Thai islands, and it became known worldwide after the Hollywood movie "The Beach" was filmed there in 2000. Our speedboat, again full of French tourists, left Phuket marina at 9.30am this morning, taking just over 1 hour to reach Bamboo Island, one of the 6 Phi Phi islands. It was little more than a large rock with a beach, but we had the opportunity to do some snorkelling, and I saw lots of pretty coloured clownfish. The snorkelling was even better at our next stop, which was at the best preserved coral reef in the area. There were so many fish in and amongst us snorkellers, and I don't know how I didn't hit any as they all came so close. Compared to the Great Barrier Reef though, the reef system itself was nowhere near as impressive. We couldn't get as close to it, but even so the coral had no real colour to it. I did catch sight of a lionfish though, which is probably the most interesting fish I've ever seen in the wild, and there were also plenty of purple giant clams to observe.
Our boat then sped on to Ko Phi Phi Don - the largest of the island chain and the only island outside of the national park - hence it is now full of hotels. This was another place devastated by the tsunami but the beach we visited had developed nicely, and the restaurant we ate at was pretty good. In the midday sun I started to overheat sat on the beach waiting for everyone else to finish eating. I think temperatures got to around 35C today and I was glad to get back into the shade of our boat. Our next stop was a brief photo opportunity at "Monkey Beach" on the south side of Ko Phi Phi Don, before we made the short island hop across to Ko Phi Phi Leh, which is the star attraction here. Much like the islands in Phang Nga Bay, Phi Phi Leh has huge limestone cliffs rising straight out of the ocean. It really was a spectacular sight. We had a trip up a cove and did some more swimming, before we were taken round to Maya Bay itself, which was where The Beach was mainly filmed. The actual beach there was a bit spoilt by all the tourists, with nearly every available inch on the shoreline taken up by a speedboat. I could still see why the Hollywood producers picked the location though. The colour of the sand was a beautiful white, and the sea, like all the sea in the area, was wonderfully blue, and even green in places. And all around were towering limestone cliffs which provided a stunning backdrop. We were only permitted half an hour there, which was about right, before we began our journey back to Phuket. On route back we made another stop for snorkelling at Koh Khai Island, which was basically a large sand island with a bar on it. Swimming here was probably my last proper acquaintance with the sea on my round the world trip. I don't really feel much affinity for beach resorts, but even so I've been impressed by some of the paradise style beach scenery I've seen on my journey. From Praia Lopez Mendes in Brazil, to The Whitsundays in Australia, and now Ko Phi Phi in Thailand, I've seen some of the world's best beaches. And I've discovered that I really like snorkelling - something I could never see myself getting into before! Its a great alternative to sitting still sunbathing - which is something I simply don't have the patience to do.
So now I'm back in Phuket Town. I just took another motorbike taxi to the bus station and have purchased my bus ticket for tomorrow morning - I really wish you didn't have to buy them in person as its such a faff! I am taking the bus 7.5 hours to the city of Hat Yai, from where I'm hoping to get a private minivan 3.5 hours across the Malaysian border to Penang. From the advice on the internet and from what the hotel staff here say there are plenty of minivan companies that will take my to Penang, but as I can't book anything I'm a tad apprehensive. I don't really want to be stuck in Hat Yai for a night as it is somewhere the foreign office advise against travelling to! Southern Thailand has in recent years suffered some acts of terrorism at the hands of Muslim seperatists who don't want to be part of Buddhist Thailand. It does seem like things have calmed down though and other tourists, as well as tour guides and locals, have told me Hat Yai is fine. Aui and Hwan, who are from Hat Yai, where both amazed when I told them their city was on the UK foreign office's danger zone list! Anyway, if I make it I'll update in a couple of days from Malaysia!