Ostensibly this blog is about Phuket, Thailand’s largest island and a major tourist destination; that is where we have spent the last five days since leaving the paradise that is Koh Lipe. But realistically this blog will be a story in two parts: (I) the incredible Phang Nga Bay and (II) Phuket’s lackluster public transportation and death trap of roads.
Phang Nga Bay is nestled in the Strait of Malacca between Phuket and the mainland of the Malay Peninsula; much of it is now protected as the Ao Phang Nga National Park. It is peppered with the most amazing limestone islands jutting out from the green sea and an extensive cave system perfect for kayaking through, and that is exactly what we did! Well, technically Nui kayaked for us…
After quickly realizing that there is no way to explore this national park without an organized tour, Dom and I read many reviews on Viator before booking our adventure. I had the highest expectations and excitement going into our full-day sea cave tour, and it did not disappoint! I could describe the tour in words, but pictures definitely do it more justice. So I’m just going to stop writing now. (If you were looking forward to Part II, fear not! It commences after the boatload of pictures that follow.) (Get it? Boatload…)
So yeah, as you can see, our day exploring Phang Nga Bay was pretty amazing. Just for this Phuket is absolutely worth a visit.
Okay, so here’s the thing. Phuket is rather large with most tourists either staying in the bustling commercialized Patong Beach or the more cultural inland Phuket Old Town. Given we just had our magical beach time in Koh Lipe and didn’t feel the need to pay more to stay in Old Town, we opted for an airbnb set in the middle, figuring we could hop on the bus to get to either in 20 minutes. This turned out to be kinda possible…
After hibernating in our air-conditioned airbnb the first day in Phuket and then our day at sea, we finally forced ourselves out into the heat on day three. To avoid paying the annoyingly pricey grab fees to get back from both Old Town and Patong Beach (the bus only runs between 9am and 5pm…), we decided to make a full day of it.
After waiting across from the gas station per our airbnb host’s instructions (let’s be clear–there was no bus stop), we flagged the
bus converted pick-up truck down and proceeded to run full throttle after it in the middle of the street when it failed to stop. We hopped on at the stoplight and made it to Old Town!
Old Town was…fine. There was one pretty street with colored facades and lots of shops, but I don’t feel like we missed out by not staying there. The highlight was definitely eating at Kopiatam by Wilai, where I had my first Hokkien Mee and fell in love (think french onion soup with noodles and an egg!).
We then got on our second bus to Patong Beach. We had to wait 30 minutes for the bus, but it did eventually take us there (although while chugging up an extremely steep hill I wasn’t quite sure we’d actually make it). During the hour-long drive across the island, I had a front-row seat to the insanely dangerous roads of Phuket. There are so many motor bikes that weave in and out of lanes (honestly it doesn’t even feel like they have lanes here), most of their drivers without helmets! After this drive I turned to Dom, insisting that Thailand had to have one of the highest road fatalities rate. Turns out that’s not an exaggeration. According to the WHO, Thailand has the second highest road fatality rate in the world.
Regardless, we did make it to Patong Beach alive! And once again, it was totally lovely but just couldn’t compete with Koh Lipe. The beach itself was pretty large and filled with visitors. We wandered along its length while enjoying the sunset before having that classic Thai dinner: Burger King. It was my first time eating Burger King’s veggie burger and it honestly was rather decent.
Our last full day in Phuket we once again utilized the extremely limited bus options to visit Big Buddha which, as it sounds like, is a giant statue of Buddha seated atop a hill built in 2004. While not the most direct way to get to Big Buddha, we took the bus back to Old Town before hopping on a different bus which let us off seven kilometers down the hill from the attraction. A taxi driver then convinced us we wouldn’t want to walk up the hill in the heat so we caved and paid for a ride up (he was right; that hill in the heat would have been brutal).
The Big Buddha was alright. I feel a bit uncomfortable near large religious displays of any type, and this visit confirmed that Buddhism is not immune to my gut reaction. Obviously the structure itself is quite impressive, and I was amused to learn that there is a Wednesday Night Buddha in addition to a Wednesday Buddha (it seemed no other days of the week get this extra Buddha for the post meridian hours). I also found it a bit off-putting that one of the first posters you see in the display area details how Steve Jobs was Buddhist… Regardless, the views from atop were beautiful and the breeze much appreciated.
As the buses had stopped running when we left Big Buddha we couldn’t even pretend to get public transportation back to our airbnb, so we finally succumbed to bartering for a taxi back. Honestly, Phuket needs to up their public transportation and road safety game. Everything we read in advance of our visit here suggested tourists should just rent a motor bike to explore the island…but in what world would I feel comfortable driving on these roads?! If there were more buses, we would have explored the island a great deal more and contributed more to the local economy. Dom found this article claiming building of a Phuket Light Rail will begin in 2020…I’m hopeful this will happen, but I’m not holding my breath.
Phuket was worth it for Phang Nga Bay, but other than that the island isn’t high on my list. We are now sitting at a small cafe opposite the train station in Surat Thani awaiting our overnight train to Bangkok! I have much higher hopes for the next few days 🙂