Phuket Old Town – The cultural gem of Phuket

What to see in Phuket Old Town, Thailand

Phuket.
Jewel of the Andaman sea.
A world-famous playground of white sand beaches, blue skies, and crystal clear water. Resplendent with every modern amenity a tourist could desire.
Welcoming over 20 million visitors per annum Phuket is well and truly on the tourist trail.
But how many of these visitors make it to Phuket Town?
Judging by our recent visit, I’m going to say not many. And let me tell you, they are missing out.
Missing out on the best food.

Braised Pork and Crab Curry at One Chun Restaurant
Braised Pork and Crab Curry at One Chun Restaurant

Missing out on the best architecture.

Baan Chinpracha Phuket Town
Baan Chinpracha

Missing out on the real Phuket.

Phuket Old Town was built on the riches of the tin mining boom. Beautiful Sino-Portuguese buildings house chic coffee shops, boutique stores and excellent restaurants. The mining industry also attracted a large population of Chinese immigrants whose influence is evident. Shop houses and intricate shrines add to the splendour of the town.

Despite being the provincial capital of an island slap bang in the heart of Touristville, Phuket Town is remarkably laid back. A beautiful place to amble around and marvel and the stunning colonial mansions and elegant temples hidden around every corner.
And when it’s time to refuel an extensive array of dining options await. Everything from food carts to opulent restaurants serving 5 star cuisine from around the world. Mostly at very reasonable prices.

On Sunday the main street, Thalang Road, hosts a night market. Closed to traffic this usually sleepy street suddenly becomes a hub of activity. Stalls offering food, beverages, clothing and all sorts of Knick-knacks throng with tourists who materialise out of nowhere to create a cacophony of noise and bustle. Fortunately this burst of life soon subsides, and long before midnight the peace and tranquillity of Phuket Town is restored.

Once adequately nourished by the culture, heritage and remarkable food that old town has to offer don your comfortable shoes and take a trek up Monkey Hill for some great views of the city, and some interesting company…..

And if you still have the urge to dip your toes in the Andaman you can reach some of the most beautiful beaches that Phuket has to offer for just 40 baht from the South Bus Station conveniently located at the edge of Old Town.

Monkey Hill – Phuket Town

Toh Sae Hill in Phuket Town also known as Monkey Hill

A short but steep walk from Phuket Old Town, Monkey Hill Viewpoint offers impressive views over the whole of town and out to sea. But it’s not the vista that draws people here. It’s the large troupe of cheeky macaques that are the star attraction.

From the Provincial Hall, Toh Sae Road climbs sharply. The road has plenty of shade and a couple of decent look out spots, as well as more than it’s fair share of sleeping dogs. (Just let them lie)

There’s a little Chinese shrine and a small shop about half way up. A good place to take a short break in the company of more dogs, now joined by goats and roosters.

The monkeys have commandeered a small exercise park about 1km up the hill and appear to enjoy using the cross trainer as a swing.

It’s said that several hundred macaques inhabit Monkey Hill and though I can’t vouch for that what I can say is they were certainly not in short supply during our visit.

Monkey Hill Phuket Town
Stacks of Macaques

I’d read some older articles that said that the monkeys were quite shy. Clearly constant human contact is having some impact on this. Though certainly not as boisterous as the muggers at Monkey Forest Ubud, they are far from shy, and will approach you even if you do not have food and think nothing of stealing your bottle of water. Little ******’s.

A little further up the hill just before you reach the TV & radio stations you will see the viewing platform. There’s little point progressing any further as this spot offers the best views available.

Monkey Hill Viewpoint
Monkey Hill Viewpoint

If you are visiting Phuket Town, we would certainly recommend a trip to Monkey Hill. Although the climb is steep, it’s a pleasant walk with plenty of opportunities to rest along the way. But be warned local dogs have already taken all the best spots to relax in.

Doi Mae Salong – The most beautiful Chinese village in Thailand

Santikhiri village, better known by it's former name Mae Salong

Nestled between tea plantations and rolling mountains 70km north of Chiang Rai, a stone’s throw from the Myanmar border, lies the beautiful village of Santikhiri, more commonly known as Doi Mae Salong.

Doi Mae Salong
Doi Mae Salong

Founded by Chinese settlers following the Chinese civil war, Mae Salong has retained much of its Chinese heritage. Yunnanese voices escape shop houses and red lanterns adorned with Chinese symbols illuminate the streets.

In fact there is little to remind you that you are still in Thailand other than the smiling faces and warm and friendly nature of the people.

Mae Salong has been called the Switzerland of Thailand and although I’m not sure I’d go that far, the splendour of the stepped tea plantations did remind me of the rice terraces in Ubud, Bali. Any comparison to Ubud is fine praise indeed.

Tea houses line the undulating streets. Many offering tea sampling with eye-popping views of the plantations.

Coffee Doi Mae Salong
High Tea

The best view in town however requires a little more effort. Accessed via a flight of 700 steps reaching skyward from Wat Santikhiri temple, Phra Boramathat Chedi is an impressive monument in its own right. However that’s not the primary reason to make this pilgrimage. The breath-taking panorama of Mae Salong and the surrounding mountains are what make the heart punishing climb worthwhile.

Back at ground level a small but interesting market marks the centre of town. Distinct from markets to be found elsewhere in Thailand, it has an unusual mix of Chinese and Thai products as well as decorative items made by the Akha, a local hill tribe, who can be seen around the market wearing their traditional attire.

If you’re thinking Mae Salong sounds pretty nice so far, just wait until you sit down to eat! The food is reason enough in itself to visit. A mouth-watering fusion of Yunnanese and Thai flavours, that result in a taste sensation that far outweighs the sum of its parts.

So, in summary, Mae Salong is an exceptionally picturesque village which boasts sensational surrounding scenery, and sublime food. But despite this it appears to be well off the tourist-trail and is almost completely farang-free by nightfall.

And I’m not surprised! Having spent almost 4 months in Thailand including a week in its more famous neighbour, Chiang Rai, we would have known nothing about Mae Salong had it not been for fabulous YouTube vlog by super-foodie Mark Wiens at Migrationology.com a recommendation we are truly grateful for.

White Temple – Wat Rong Khun, Chiang Rai

Chiang Rai's number one attractions The White Temple, Wat Rung Khun

The White Temple, Wat Rong Khun, is unlike any other temple in Chiang Rai and probably in the whole of Thailand. Built by

Chalermchai Kositpipat, a local artist from Chiang Rai, it is more an art installation than a traditional temple.

Wat Rong Khun The White Temple
Wat Rong Khun The White Temple

The entrance fee into the temple grounds is 50 baht. Once inside, the main temple is reached via a bridge which crosses the sea of suffering, where grasping hands reach up in desperation from below.

Sea of Suffering - Wat Rong Khun
Sea of Suffering

The intricately carved temple is strikingly beautiful. The pure white façade brought alive by light and shadow in the midday sun.

Inside the temple colourful artwork contrasts sharply with the exterior. Swirling clouds and demonic faces juxtapose pop culture imagery including Neo from the Matrix, Bumble-Bee from the Transformers and the scary tricycle riding doll from the Saw movies.

The stylistic clash of old and new continues in the temple grounds, where the pretty manicured gardens are home to a semi buried Predator and the decapitated heads of movie characters hang from trees, alongside Buddhist shrines.

Wat Rong Khun Gardens
Temple Gardens
Predator - Wat Rong Khun
Predator
Head Tree - Wat Rong Khun
Head Tree
Wat Rong Khun Gardens
Wat Rong Khun Gardens

Even the toilets had gargoyle guardians.

Wat Rong Khun Gargoyles
HIs and Hers Gargoyles

Getting to the White Temple

You can take a non air-conditioned bus from the old bus station in Chiang Rai, for 20 baht. Leg room not included.

Songthaews are also available on a private hire basis from the bus station. We found the cheaper option was to flag down a taxi. Reluctant to use his meter the driver agreed a still very reasonable 150 baht fare.

A word of warning. Our driver tried to take us to the wrong temple. Make sure you’re heading for Wat Rong Khun, not Wat Rong Suea Ten. The latter being the blue temple, despite our drivers initial insistence to the contrary.

When your visit is over skip the lurking tuk-tuk and taxi drivers directly in front of the temple and walk to the main road where you can flag down a songthaew, for a 20 baht return journey.

Even if you’ve explored all of the traditional temples in Chiang Rai and are feeling “templed-out” you should make the effort to put this one on your list. Its only 15 KM from town and is different enough from the others to make it worthy of your time.

 

Kata Beach Phuket in Rainy Season

Kata Beach Phuket - The danger of snapshot reviews

We arrived in Kata Beach on the 1st October. We were aware we were visiting Phuket during the rainy season and were happy to take our chances with the weather. A reasonable trade-off for a quieter resort, and cheap accommodation we thought.

Kata Beach sounded very much like our kind of place. A good choice of restaurants, and somewhere to get a drink, but unlikely to attract the party crowd, particularly in off-season.

We had also read that it hosted one of the best beaches in Phuket.

Our room, at Phuket Kata Resort, was an absolute bargain at 600 baht per night. Hardly luxury accommodation, but a large clean room, with 2 showers???, for that price, who can complain?

Well OK. I’ll give it a shot. The bed was rock hard and the traditional wooden doors made a right racket when anyone on the block entered or left their room.

Also there was no net curtain on our window. As we were at ground level, we could have the curtains open exposing ourselves to the entire complex, or have the curtain closed, in effect condemning ourselves to a windowless room. We chose the latter.

On our first day we won the weather lottery and headed down to the beach. A little earlier in our travels we had visited Koh Samui which was fantastic. We had read that Kata Beach was as good if not better than anything Samui had to offer.

What the……………….

Kata Beach Phuket

To say we were disappointed was an understatement.

I actually felt quite angry.

We had walked onto an extremely narrow band of dirty sand crammed with pale bodies jostling for position, reminiscent of the seals at Pier 39 in San Francisco.Seals at Pier 39

What there was of a beach was being lapped by a foamy, oily brown sea. Apparently this is a regular occurrence in Kata at the end of the Monsoon Season, as reported in Phuket News.

Kata Beach Brown Sea

Hardly the stuff of postcards!

We chose to walk the length of the beach along the road shouldering it, as this was much cleaner.

It did not improve.

During the following week as well has returning to Kata Beach we also visited Karon beach, and Patong beach.

Both were better, but not much.

We were well-informed that the weather would be changeable, and the sea may be rough if we visited during rainy season. What we hadn’t read anywhere was that the beach disappears and the sea looks like an oil slick.

It’s fair to say had we only been in Phuket for 7 days, this post would be far from complimentary.

But, as it happens we were in Kata for almost 2 weeks.

And by the end of our stay things had changed dramatically.

Kata Beach

Kata Beach

The brown oiliness of the sea had almost cleared up.

As the rough sea had settled, a beautiful wide beach of soft golden sand had emerged.

And the tractors had been out clearing up the rubbish.

The majority of the beach was still red flagged due to strong tides, but considering how much the water had settled over the past 10 days, I suspect these will soon be gone, leaving the type of beach we had expected to see when we originally arrived in Kata.

I must admit, this experience has made me a little reluctant to make sweeping statements. Based on the first week, I would have been warning against visiting Phuket in the rainy season. Had I arrived a week later I would have been singing it’s praises.

And I guess that’s the problem with any review. It’s a snapshot of a single experience. To get a balanced perspective you have to do your homework.

Or experience it for yourself, of course.

Have you visited Phuket during the rainy season?

We’d love to hear what you thought of it.

Koh Samui – Paradise Island?

Chaweng, Bophut,Lamai and Bangrak

Arriving at Koh Samui

Koh Samui airport was unlike any airport I had seen before, privately owned by Bangkok Airways, it looked more like a holiday village than an airport. With open arrival halls covered with thatched roofs, the atmosphere of a tropical getaway was already in the making.

First stop – Lamai Beach

Our first stop in Samui was at the Spa Garden in Lamai, some 15 kilometres south of the main resort of Chaweng. We were pre-warned that travel was costly on Samui, and getting there cost us 700baht by taxi, a journey that would have cost no more than 150 baht in Bangkok.

Despite the driver claiming to know where he was going it soon became clear this was not the case, fortunately we were armed with google-maps and were soon checking in at our hotel.

The rooms at the Spa Garden were large, and clean, and the bed was large and comfortable, strangely there we no clothes hangers in the room, but these were available on request???

We were on the ground floor and our room was furnished with a patio door, which was something of a security concern as this could be lifted off its latch even when locked, and opened. The resort did however have a security guard, and laptop size safes in the room, so we were not overly concerned. The only real problem with the room was that the walls were paper thin, you could hear the occupants of the next room talking as clearly as if they were in your room. The hotel grounds were well manicured, and the pool area was inviting. Annoyingly the entire pool area was devoid of shade, rendering it useless unless your goal was to receive 3rd degree burns. In fairness there were 2 umbrellas, unfortunately both of these were broken, so basically there were 2 canvas covered posts.

The life in Lamai, along with the beach were both a kilometre down a narrow road from where we were staying. The road we were on was primarily devoted to motorcycle repairs and old refrigeration equipment.

We found Lamai “proper” to be a pleasant resort, hosting a reasonable mix of Thai, and international shops and restaurants, and as it transpired, we were either very lucky with our choices, or Lamai is where you should head if you’re looking for great food, notable mentions, Brown Sugar, for authentic Thai food, and El Dorado for excellent Mediterranean food.

Lamai Beach Koh Samui

The resort is built up around a single road, Had Lamai Road, which runs parallel to the beautiful beach. Though the sand is grittier here than in neighbouring Chaweng the beach was much cleaner, quieter, and certainly towards the southern end, much, much prettier. The resort concludes with the Hin-Ya and Hin-Ya Grandfather, and Grandmother stones, famous for their genital representations. The “male” stone was obvious, but I’m still unsure which of the stones was supposed to represent the female bits. And before you point and laugh, my wife was with me so that’s no reflection on me.

Grandfather Stone

Every Sunday night the northern end of Had Lamai Road is occupied by a night market. A bustle of stalls selling tourist trinkets, and authentic Thai street food, surrounding a central stage, which, on our visit, hosted a Rolling Stones tribute act for those who hate the Rolling Stones.

We found Lamai to be a good base, and transport wasn’t as expensive as we first feared. Decked out pick-up trucks acting as mini buses (Songtaews) circle the island and will transport you between the main resorts for around 100 baht per journey, and despite the numerous blogs we had read saying this didn’t happen, we found taxi drivers do negotiate on Samui, just not the ones at the airport.

Heading north – Bophut

After 5 days in Lamai we moved north to the Samui Bamboo Garden Bungalows in Bophut, though this turned out to be a temporary situation. It’s fair to say that we have become accustomed to a certain amount of luxury, and it transpired that this was a step too far. I’m sure many would find the bungalows cute, and quaint, and would relish the experience. We found them way too small, and without anywhere secure to store our valuables, wholly inadequate for our needs. The next morning, after being kept awake the majority of the night by an impromptu music festival that had set up directly behind the bungalows, we checked out.

DSCF0613

I don’t want to be to hard on this place. The owner, and the staff were lovely, and graciously refunded our unused nights when we checked out. The place wasn’t bad we had just learnt a lesson. Osprey packs do not maketh the traveller.

This is where we go off the rails a little. Instead of a slight upgrade we check into the Bandara Spa, a beautiful 5 star resort. It’s kinda like we crashed and rebooted to our most recent backup. This definitely did not fit within our travellers budget, but that said, I’m glad we did it. We are old dogs, and its going to take time to learn new tricks, we were smashing the budget, but we were starting to enjoy ourselves, something we hadn’t realised that we weren’t really doing up to this point.

The Bandara Spa was just what the doctor ordered. A big room, a comfortable bed, power shower with consistent water temperature a lovely pool area (well, actually 3 lovely pool areas), plenty of sun-loungers with shade, and free beds on the beach, with towels.

A 5 minute walk took us into Fisherman’s Village, the main resort area of Bophut. It’s a beautiful area of old Chinese shop houses converted into bars and restaurants, many of them with tables on the seafront. It’s easy to fall in love with Fisherman’s village. If you’re looking for an authentic Thai experience, or looking after the pennies, its probably not for you, but as we sat at our seafront pew at the Happy Elephant drinking pineapple shakes, and picking at a Thai platter, we knew we had found our little piece of heaven. Fully fledged travellers we may not be, but happy we are.

Bophut Beach - Koh Samui

Outside of Fisherman’s Village there wasn’t much to Bophut. The main road that ran through the resort had a smattering of Thai restaurants, and shops, and a number of the larger resort hotels, as you head north towards the neighbouring resort of Mae Nam, a tiny resort with a decent beach, hosting the Lomprayah ferry pier for onward travel to Koh Phangan, and Koh Tao.

Back in Fisherman’s Village we found the food in the restaurants to be of a high standard, if a little pricer than back in Lamai. A couple of worthy mentions, Sabeinglae serves excellent Thai food, and we enjoyed the Mediterranean fare at Link, and Gusto’s.

After 4 nights in Bophut we were due to be catching the Lomprayah Ferry to Chumphon, with onward bus travel to Hua Hin at 8am the next morning. However in a moment of weakness, no doubt fuelled by Chang beer & Cocktails we decided we weren’t done with Samui just yet, and hastily made a booking at the Lanna Hotel in Neighbouring Bang Rak.

North, part 2  – Bangrak

Lanna was another, budget be damned choice, a beautiful hotel, possibly even nicer than the Bandara Spa. The rooms were huge and included a large seating area, and were impeccably clean. The only slight gripe was that despite having a smorgasbord of lighting and cooling options, non of the controls were anywhere near the bed, so on a night you had to navigate your way back to bed in the pitch dark.

The hotel throughout was well manicured, and the service was excellent, had the hotel been 300 meters closer to the beach it would have been perfect.

As a resort Bangrak is unexceptional. The beach is decent, like neighbouring Bophut the water is a little murky, but it shares the picturesque view across the narrow bay to Koh Phangan. There are a smattering of bars and restaurants at each side of the main road, but nothing stands out as a must see. A little way further east stands “Big Buddha” known locally as Wat Phra Yaia, a 12 meter tall Buddha seated atop a platform on a rocky island. Connected to the mainland by a causeway, big Buddha can be seen from several kilometres away. Around the base of the temple are a number of vendors selling amulets, snacks and t-shirts as well as other touristy wares. Don’t visit Big Buddha without following the main road a little further east to the Wat Plai Leam Temple. This is a really beautiful Temple complex, and all the better for the lack of notoriety. We almost had the place to ourselves.

Wat Plai Laem (2)Wat Plai Laem (3) Wat Plai Laem (4)Wat Plai Laem

We really enjoyed our time on Koh Samui, its a beautiful island, and despite the popularity its easy to escape the crowds. There are also plenty of activities available to those looking for excitement. For us it was an opportunity to us to relax and regroup, and maybe just start to realise what type of travellers we are going to be.