Monday, March 06, 2006

Solo backpacking on Phuket Island 21-25 Feb. 06















Phuket Trip 21-25 Feb 06 (5d/4n)

Phuket is the largest island in Thailand (540 sq. km) with a population of about 280,000 (compare with Penang Island 293 sq.km. population 1.3 million).

Day 1 Tue 21 Feb
Departed KLIA by AirAsia at 12.45pm and arrived Phuket, local time 1.00pm. The flight was actually one hour fifteen minutes but Phuket time zone is one hour earlier than K.L.

The first thing which I did was to pick up the free tourist maps at the Phuket International Airport. Not very useful, as I found out later for directions, but they do highlight the popular areas to visit.

Took about an hour to reach Karon Plaza where I stayed at the Pineapple Guest House, run by an English man Steve and his Thai wife Lek. I was backpacking solo so opted to stay as cheaply (and as comfortably) as I could.

The weather was very hot, temp. above 35 deg.C, it hadn't been raining for several days.

Walked along the streets & beach of Karon which is located between the famous Patong area and Kata beach. Things here are certainly not cheap. Even a 1L. bottled mineral water at the local provision shop costs 18 baht. There are many eateries, all catering for tourists, on average 200 baht for set lunch/dinner. Ala carte prices are similar to K.L. Bkt. Bintang's. A sea food dish is at least 180 baht. Local "Chang" beer is 35 baht for a small bottle, the only thing "cheap".

The cost of living in Phuket is inflated because of the large presence of foreigners (mostly Germans, Swiss, Swedes), they formed more than 95% of the tourists. I noticed a small number of Japanese and met only 2 couples of Malaysians.

Found a few shops where local Thais eat, "chap fang" and noodles cost 60 baht (road-side stalls charge 40 baht). The Thais seemed to eat very little, didn't notice any obese Thais. The noodles they put in a bowl was so meagre that I had to order another round (reminds me of my Cambodia trip). Lipton tea (the only kind they serve) was 20 baht. I think the Thais, like the Kelantanese Malays, consume too much sugar. A popular snack is pancake like our roti canai (but smaller) with extra fillings of bananas or desiccated coconut, done with margarine and topped up with condensed milk AND sugar (price 25 baht).

After lunch, I rented a Honda motorbike to begin my tour. Only an intrepid traveller would venture on a motorbike because the roads are narrow and winds up and down steep gradients because Phuket is an hilly island. The crash helmet I was given was a cheap plastic contraption, like those yellow ones worn by our construction workers. Most locals don't seem to wear crash helmets and it is common to see 3 or 4 on a motorbike. However, thank goodness, the car drivers don't drive as fast as they do in K.L. Even then I witnessed two accidents involving motorbikes and cars on consecutive days, fortunately, no fatalities.

For a solo backpacker to tour Phuket, renting a motorbike is the cheapest option, only 150 baht a day. Transport here is even more expensive than in Bangkok because a cartel (as told by Steve) runs the tuk-tuks and tourist mini-buses and vans. The prices are fixed and exorbitant. I asked a tuk-tuk driver how much to get to Phuket town, about 18km. from Karon, and the reply was 400 baht, no negotiation.

Visited the famous Patong Beach, the "happening place" which is crowded with tourists and jammed with traffic. I did some research and purposely avoided staying here because the place is so noisy. The streets fronting the beach are packed with souvenir shops and small eateries. My choice to stay at Karon was a wise one.

Day 2 Wed 22 Feb
After breakfast, I continued my motorbike tour to Phuket town. This is just a typical Thai town, not very different from Hadyai or Songkla, only a bigger town with more streets.

From Phuket town I headed for the Marine Biological Center Aquarium at the end of Sakdidet Road, Makham Bay, Panwa Cape (extreme south-east region of Phuket). Entrance fee was 100 baht. Typical marine aquarium, I think ours at Berjaya Times Square is far bigger and more interesting.

Next stop to Kata Noi & Kata Main Beach. The resorts here are classy, certainly 4 & 5-stars. However, the beach here is much the same as that at Karon, but much cleaner than our beaches at Langkawi & Redang.

Returned to Karon Plaza and visited the Sunrise Scuba Diving shop. I had wanted to make a day trip to dive at the King Cruiser wreck, Shark Point and Koh Doc Mai. My plan went awry because the dive operators did not accept credit cards, only cash. Later I found out that all the shops, except the 4 & 5-star hotels, refuse to accept credit cards. This put me in a quandary as I only have enough US currency for accommodation & transport. Fortunately, I could still exchange Malaysian ringgit for Thai Baht to pay for food.

So I had to scale down to snorkelling and canoeing for the next couple of days.

Day 3 Thur 23 Feb
Paid 1000 baht for a full day snorkelling trip at Khai islands (inclusive of 2-way transfer by van, bottled mineral water, lunch, snorkelling gear, speed-boat fare & tour-guide).

At 8.10am the van came to pick up passengers, finally arrived at Sinsangrat pier at 9.15am. There were twenty of us with passengers from two other vans. The party was mainly Swiss people with another young Malay couple. We selected and checked out the snorkelling equipment. The gear that was stated in the brochure were mask, snorkel and life-jacket, and sure enough we were asked to pay 100 baht for the use of fins. I thought this was a rip-off and refused to pay. So I snorkelled without fins, it wasn't so bad if you were a fairly good swimmer.

The first island we stopped at was Khai Nui, arriving there about 10am. It was only a small island without a beach so the boat anchored off-shore. There was a nice healthy coral reef, predominantly table and staghorn corals (Acropora genus) and many small fishes, mostly butterfly, angel, damsel, fusiliers, sweetlips and wrasses.

An hour later we departed for Khai Nai Island and landed on the beach. There was scanty vegetation here and if you required shade you had to fork out another 100 baht for a deck-chair and umbrella. The corals near the beach were broken (I suspected by the boat anchors) and you had to swim further out to sea to observe any living corals and fishes. The beach was clean with fine white sand. Not a good place for snorkelling, swimming and relaxing was about all you could enjoy.

At 1.20pm we were taken to Yao Yai island for lunch. The restaurant was a wooden building up on a small hill, quite quaint and rustic. The food (4 different dishes: fresh fish, chicken curry, mixed vegetables, tom-yam soap with prawns) was tasty and just sufficient for the people at my table. When we were about to leave I noticed that on the next table there was plenty of food left. I sat at the wrong table.

The next stop was at Khai Nok island, arriving there at about 3.10pm. This island was even worse for snorkelling than Khai Nai and the water was silty. The only good thing was the clean beach but the sand was too hot to walk bare-feet. I didn't want to pay 100 baht for the deck-chair so spent my time walking around the island snapping photos and had a swim until the sky grew dark and threatening at about 4pm.

The boatman and guide quickly rounded us up before the storm broke. On the way back the rain poured down and the sea became choppy. It lasted only about half an hour much to the relief of those soaking wet and cold. I couldn't help feeling smug because I kept warm and dry; due to previous experience on speed-boats I had come prepared with a disposable poncho.

Reached the pier at 5.15pm. Another disappointment was that we were not given enough time to have a shower with only one bathroom. So most of us got back to the vans with only a change of clothes, our bodies caked with salt. Somehow I felt that 1000 baht was not quite well spent.

Day 4 Fri 24 Feb
A full day canoeing trip to Panak, Hong and James Bond Island cost 1600 baht.

I was the first to be picked up by the minibus at 8.15am. The rest of the passengers in the van were ladies. Another 2 vans came later, the sixteen of us together were escorted to the double-decker boat at the Ao Po Jetty at 9.15am. We headed first for James Bond Island and the boat cruise was calm with beautiful weather and a cool sea breeze. As we approached the group of islands the scenery was enchanting. On the way we had buffet lunch on the upper deck. The lower deck was where the inflated canoes were kept, the kitchen and crew room. The food was well-cooked and tasty, again just barely sufficient for the guests, the only thing left plentiful were the cut pineapples.

We landed at the small jetty on James Bond Island at about 12.30pm and embarked for a walking tour. The interesting rock formation and the view from the low hill provided many memories to treasure. However, the natural ambience of nature's charm was spoilt by the presence of numerous souvenir shops on the only bay. You could cover the small island in half an hour but that would not do justice to the beautiful scenery. It was at times like these that I wished I could fly over the hill tops and dived down to the emerald waters.

We spent just about an hour before we embarked again to Panak and Hong Island. The two islands are situated near to each other. Of the two, Hong Island is bigger and more interesting with its numerous caves. Actually Hong Island is not a single island but made up of numerous limestone formations standing like pinnacles scattered about.

We boarded our canoes, some accommodating three, others four persons. Our canoes went around the islands and into the caves. The tide has to be right otherwise the entrances and exits could not be penetrated. As it was we came when the tide was rather low so the waters were shallow. There was only one canoeist to a canoe and he doubled as a guide. The rest were just lazy passengers soaking up the view. At times the canoeist had to push the canoe because the water was just too shallow (or we were too heavy!)

It was pitch dark inside the cave, the torchlight given one to a canoe was low in power and was only sufficient to light up the canoe in front. The smell was unmistakable guano (bat droppings) but it was too dark to see any bats. The passages through the caves were short and soon we were out and continued our tours around the islands.

Our last place to visit was Naka Island at 3.25pm, another small island with a clean sandy beach though the water was not as clear as I expected. At least there was more vegetation on this island and you could take a nap under the trees. It was time to relax and watch the girls go by in their bikinis.

Less than an hour later and we went on board for the trip back to the jetty which we arrived at about 5pm. It was a calm and uneventful journey. I sat on the front deck and wistfully said goodbye to the beautiful sea and islands.

I enjoyed this trip better than the snorkelling yesterday. The tours around the islands and the caves gave ample opportunities for a shutterbug like me to record his memories for posterity.

Day 5 Sat 25 Feb

Just when I seemed to have arrived it was time to leave. Took my time waking up, no need to rush for breakfast this morning. Leisurely packed my things ready to be picked up by Steve in his car for the airport at 11.15am. I wondered whether there was still time for a traditional Thai massage so at 9.00am I went looking for one which in my opinion gave a better service. Traditional Thai massage parlours were found on every street at Karon, often 2 or even three of them not very far apart. The rate of 200 baht per hour seemed to be fixed. I found the massage parlour with uniformed staff, at least they looked quite professional, but it would open for business at 10am. It was cutting too close to my departure time and I still had to pack my wet stuff hanging out to dry in the bathroom so I decided to go without the massage.

Arrived at the airport at 12.15pm and found a huge crowd waiting to enter the departure hall. The congestion was caused by the security clearance with only one X-ray machine at the door. Steve gave me a tip to enter through the arrival gate instead. Sure enough there was no crowd, I quickly cleared security, took the lift to the floor above which was the departure hall and beat the crowd to the AirAsia counter.

Happily clutching my boarding pass I proceeded to pass through the departure gate but I was politely refused entry because I hadn't paid my departure tax. The counter was conveniently placed next to the gate and also an ATM machine with a queue of customers who, like me, had apparently forgotten this farewell tax and ran out of Thai baht. As for me, the 200 baht for the massage went to pay for the tax. So all ended well for me.

One final note: for those senior citizens who are above 55 years, the cheapest and most comfortable transport to the KLIA is by the KLIA Transit Rail because of senior citizens discount. You pay only RM20 instead of RM35 by using the KLIA Express Rail, the latter does not offer any discounts to senior citizens. Though the Transit Rail makes 3 stops - Bandar Tasik Selatan, Putrajaya & Cyberjaya and Salak Tinggi - the journey only takes 8 extra minutes.

The KLIA Transit ticket counter at KLIA is found on the floor below the domestic departure level. There is an escalator leading directly to it with a prominent sign-board at the passage-way towards the domestic departure hall.

Breakdown of Expenses
4 nights stay at guest-house : RM140
2-way Airport transfer (special rate by Steve) : RM100 (Minibus rate RM20 one way)
1 day motorbike rental RM 15
2 day trips, excursions RM260
Aquarium entrance fees RM 10
Airport departure tax RM 20
Return KLIA Transit fare (senior citizen discount) RM 40
Food & miscellaneous (bottled water, petrol, etc) RM285 (can be reduced by eating roadside "chap fang" & noodles)

Total RM870

RM - Malaysian Ringgit, RM3.8 = USD1.0

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