I will always be a 5 year-old about Christmas – this one was, admittedly, the most diverse from the usual traditions. Since we knew Christmas would be nothing like that we know at home, we had a unorthodox celebration, including a chana masala and dal for Christmas dinner…
Phuket & Phi Phi Island
Travels began straight after the party, leaving Korat on a midnight bus to the airport, and ultimately getting into Phuket at 7.30 Christmas morning. Christmas day was spent on the back of a motorbike exploring the island, the first stop after dumping our stuff at the hostel being the Big Buddha. It’s a whopping 45 metres high and is made of marble, and can be seen from most of the southern half of Phuket. Smaller, life-sized Buddha statues are also visible inside the giant, as well as tributes people can purchase and offer to the monument. There is still a fair bit of construction to go, but it really is a remarkable piece of architecture at a viewpoint that apparently boasts the best sunset of the island. Sadly the harsh reality of tourism surrounds this place; just down the road was a viewpoint overlooking the forests where people could pay to feed a baby elephant. It was pretty jarring to see such a lovely, playful little creature tied up by a chain that was shorter that three foot in length, and whatsmore, that people don’t see an issue with that.
Moving back up the island, we saw what is considered to be the most beautiful and most important temple on the island, Wat Chalong. It really was stunning – all of the framework contains variously sized mosaic tiles and the whole framework shimmers when the light hits it. The temple is dedicated to two monks who led citizens in a fight against the Chinese rebellion and helped the injured using herbal medicines in the 19th century. Inside are more golden statues of Buddha, all in different forms and postures, mainly to represent the different days of the week.
The international hub that is Phuket Town is also worth a venture. Unlike the tourism on the coast, the collaboration of cultures in the town has a colourful vibrancy about it. The roads provide not only the popular street vendors that are most common back in Korat, but fancy-looking burger joints, various cuisine experiences and juice bars.
Phuket sports some of the most diverse cuisines I’ve seen since being in Thailand – we ended a most incredibly un-Christmassy day with an Indian and a game of dinosaur themed mini golf.
In truth, Phuket itself doesn’t really seem to offer much. I felt after Christmas day’s exploration, walking on Karon beach and witnessing the debauchery of Patong beach I’d seen everything I wanted to. Patong at night becomes a little like the infamous Khao San Road, with go-go bars and “ping pong show” leaflets being constantly thrusted in your face. It’s not uncommon here to see women ofall ages promiscuously dancing on the tops of tables in offensively neon lights. The adjective “godless” comes to mind. On the actual beach of Patong is a lot more chilled out though, where people were letting off Chinese lanterns and escaping the masses on the tourist strip. A huge installation just off the coast marked the 10th anniversary of the tsunami – it’s crazy to think that it happened a decade ago, especially when you can see how much the island has managed to recuperate since.
Sights just off Phuket that are definitely worth seeing are James Bond island and Koh Phi Phi. James Bond Island is a perfect day trip (and is named so from featuring in the film Man With a Golden Gun.) Contrarily I wish I could have spent more time in Phi Phi – some of the most stunning beaches and views surround the island. We had a peak at Maya Bay, where The Beach was filmed – it’s sheltered by three huge cliffs and was the first time I’d seen something so closely resembling the typical faraway shoreline you find on a postcard.
Koh Pha Ngan
What was supposed to be a six or seven hour journey from Phuket to Pha Ngan quickly became a fairly expensive eleven hours. There is a cheap way (where it’s notorious people’s stuff can go missing) and an expensive way (thus faster, safer and more convenient) to make the crossing – regardless of which one you take, be prepared to still spend the best part of a day waiting for various modes of transport. We arrived at our hostel after a very expensive song tiao (shared taxi/bus) and were welcomed by the positively crazy owner, Sonia. We were staying in the north west of the island, which is directly opposite to where the renowned half-moon parties happen. My experience of Pha Ngan can best be described as a little vegan hippy paradise, where you can easily avoid the overbearing party scene and choose to have a really laid-back couple of days. I haven’t been so excited by the choice of food since coming to Thailand, with various places offering a mixture of veggie and non-veg dishes, satisfying both the herbivores and carnivores in our group (and the only brown rice to be seen in Thailand so far!). As it happens, we ended up eating in the same restaurant that was right next door to the hostel three times throughout our stay, because the food was just that good. I’m already missing the veggie goodness! I managed to squeeze a yoga session in after a busy bike trip around the island and a quick visit to the beach – many retreats are affordable (if not free, like my Hatha yoga class was). We spent one of the nights at a Pirate Party, held in the west, with a nice house and techno combo playing out to a beach bar and makeshift beach dancefloor. These parties happen only once a month and (from the good authority of people I spoke to) have a much better vibe than the full moon parties.
In all honesty Koh Samui felt a little anti climatic after the super chilled out stay at Pha Ngan. We stayed on a hostel just off the main strip, where most restaurants, bars and beaches were easy to access. I think living in Thailand for a couple of months now has made me gain a locals-like grudge against Western tourists – Samui is most definitely a prime example of a lad’s holiday spot. People my own age had clearly gone for the nightlife (NYE in particular) as the streets were almost dead in the daytime, and crawling with people come midnight. For me, New Year’s Eve was special because of the people I was with, dancing in the sea and hugging on the beach and watching fireworks set off from all across the shoreline – whilst surrounding us were aggressive drunks throwing champagne over each other and generally acting like animals. Across the beach front were fire dancers and jugglers, as well as dancers on top of the beach bars. It was pretty surreal, to say the least!
The island itself is quite picturesque, and like Phuket and Pha Ngan to discover the less-beaten track, you need to get hold of a motorbike or scooter for a day or two. The public transport is limited and quite expensive, so for 200 baht a bike we could choose what to do with the day. The daytime of New Year’s Eve was spent trekking through the forests and jungles of the inland, moving south towards Hin Yai & Hin Ta (Grandmother & Grandfather) Rocks, where we imagined a little more to the name than what we saw…
Perhaps my favourite experience of Samui was an unexpected trek up an 80m waterfall, called Na Muang. I’m not sure it actually is 80 metres, but the trek next to involved a rope and a lot of hoisting yourself up some rocks. It was a prime example of Thailand’s health and safety… or the adventurous lack of it… It was challenging and I could definitely feel the hike in my legs that evening, but the views were definitely rewarding. Overall, I had an ace time and would love to spend a little more time in the flowerchild Pha Ngan, but wouldn’t go rushing back to see its messy brothers Samui or Phuket.