We first became aware of Phuket (please pronounce it foo-kette) during the Viet Nam War. This island beach resort at the very southern end of Thailand was an R&R spot for weary soldiers looking for a respite from jungle horrors. The Thai are good hosts and an accommodating people and even in the late 1980’s when we took a group of our students there for their own version of R&R from the big cities of Asia, there were signs of the drugs, sex and rock and roll still clearly evident. We took the kids to a beautiful beach and we spent the day cavorting in the water and para-sailing. When I look back on it now, I sometimes wonder “what were we thinking?”, but I have only great memories and I think they do, too.
Of course Phuket has changed a lot since then, but the beautiful beaches and parasailers are still there. About 300,000 folks live there entertaining the 1.3 million visitors that come annually. Cheap non-stop flights from bargain airlines, have made this an easy place for chilly Europeans to get to.
Our tour took us to a National Park at Phang Nga Bay, a two hour bus ride just across the bridge back to the Thai mainland. Only a handful of fishermen lived in the area until 1974 when Sean Connery strode out amidst the rock formations in The Man with the Golden Gun. One unique formation is called James Bond Island in his honor. The film was a PR agent’s dream and as people began to flock to the area, the Thai quickly designated it as a national park to protect this beautiful place. Although these rock formations looked unique to us, our guide said there are similar areas in Viet Nam and China. The lime stone was laid when all of southeastern Asia was under the ocean and the soft stone erodes in such picturesque ways.
Today the water is quite shallow and best navigated by shallow draft boats. We saw the same sort of craft they use in Bangkok to navigate the canals, powered by car engines mounted on long shafts extending twenty feet behind the boat. They are smokey and noisy and the drivers love revving them as they dart around the rock formations. The waves also erode from the underneath and tourists rent kayaks with drivers to take them inside the sea caves where they enjoy the noxious guano fumes from the seabirds who live in the caves.
Our tour stopped at a Muslim village where the men who conduct the tours live in stilted homes over the water. Their wives make handicrafts to sell to the likes of us and their children help sell them when they aren’t attending the school in the middle of town. The locus of the town was a huge restaurant where the freshly caught fish was prepared and served. Locally sourced to the max!
The Thai are Buddhist for the most part and their temples are gaudy and magnificent. We toured one that wasn’t very gaudy, because it was inside a cave complex. The Reclining Buddha glowed golden. Vendors outside sold cobs of corn and bananas as well as the usual tourist knickknacks. The bananas and corn were for the monkeys who lived in the cave. The cheeky little fellows have a blessed life living with the Buddha. We were feeling pretty blessed ourselves.