It would appear that Mel has given me free reign to tackle one of her ‘ePostcard’-type blogs, how foolish of her! Mwahaha. Cue cringey Marketeer’s blog post title and paragraph upon paragraph of opinion, hyperbole and conjecture about Phuket and the Phi Phi Islands. Maybe a little of what we have actually been doing as well, if the mood takes. Let’s go…
Way back when in good ‘ol Blighty, we booked the first few weeks worth of transport and ‘stuff’ with a view to hitting the ground running once the travelling larky was underway. These bookings took us to Moscow, on overnight flights to Bangkok, 18 hour coach journeys, Full Moon Parties and Scuba Diving. Phuket marked end of the line. No more plans, taking every day as it comes from here on in. God help us!
So, as newly qualified Open Water Divers we left the shores of Koh Tao behind us, aboard the Lomprayah Catermeran back to Donsak on mainland Thailand. At this point, folks heading West tend to go one of two ways, either to Krabi or the slightly further journey round to Phuket. We’d heard mixed things about our destination*, but having pre-booked we were powering on determined to make the best of whatever we found upon our arrival.
Six hours of fairly uneventful motorway travel later and we were crossing the bridge onto Phuket Island. First impressions? Thailand’s answer to Portsmouth.
Now, folks who know me know how fond I am of Pompey, despite its numerous flaws, so this first impression isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Whilst Phuket is substantially the larger of the two, there are many parallels, including the topography of both areas, their industrial outskirts, seafaring heritages and multicultural societies. There is even a main town and separate beach-side resort, although I will admit I’m probably stretching the comparison by equating Patong Beach to Southsea.
We’d heard nothing good about Patong however (unlike my beloved Southsea!), so having spent an expensive few days beach-side in Koh Tao we decided to go for the most budget of budget short stays at Win Backpacker Hostel in Phuket Old Town. Getting there proved to be easier said than done – the time that had elapsed since booking our coach was apparently long enough for Lomprayah to relocate their bus station from alongside our hostel to the other side of town. Cue an unexpected cab (taxis in Phuket are crazy expensive) who took his inflated fare and tried to charge us over double, until he clocked the traffic officer handing out tickets a couple of cars back. Timing!
Really it was all up from this point, and despite the slightly rough edges Old Town did a good job of endearing itself to us. We only had a very short amount of time to spend exploring, and really the couple of days before our ferry to Koh Phi Phi were probably about all that was required. During this time we had some really great eats, and some interesting trips, summarised in handy bullet-point form below:
- The Cook
After several weeks of Asian cuisine, we were starting to get a hankering for something a little more Western, but feeling the guilt about turning out backs on the local food. Cue ‘The Cook’, a Mel FourSquare find who serve up Thai-Italian fusion. Our considerable intrigue was very well rewarded on our first night with a Green Curry Pizza and Tom Yam Spaghetti. It might not sound like a match made in heaven, but the Thai spices combined with the rich Italian dishes complimented each other well.
Day Two in Phuket, and deciding against the 3-in-1 coffee packets in the hostel we went on the hunt for a tasty ‘proper’ coffee, along with a little summin’ summin’ to fuel us for the walk up Monkey Hill (see below). A couple of streets North and running parallel with our street was Thalang Road, home to an eclectic range of shops, hotels and eateries. It was here we were lucky to stumble across Pavalee Bake Bar, a charming little bakery comfy sofas, speedy WiFi, gorgeous coffee and just as tasty food.
I indulged my caffeine addiction, with a side of delicious Eggs Benedict (the brilliantly creamy Hollandaise sauce was made fresh to order), whilst Mel tucked into a sizeable Bacon Sandwich. Just as we were planning to make tracks the heavens opened, as they tend to do with little warning in Asia this time of year… so we made the easy decision to stay a little longer! During this time we got chatting to the really friendly owner, who couldn’t do enough to make us feel welcome and told us all about his time working in London nr. Waterloo, his hometown in Northern Thailand and how he recently moved to Phuket to run the café with his partner and friend. We discovered that in addition to the sauces, absolutely everything is homemade, with the assortment of bread and cakes baked early that morning in-store. This much was evident through the taste, and if you’re ever in the area we couldn’t recommend stopping in at Pavalee enough.
- Monkey Hill
Monkeys are pesky little blighters. Or, more specifically, Macaques are pesky little blighters! Slap bang in the middle of Phuket Old Town there is a hill that (if you’re cheap like us and don’t want to pay through the nose for transport), you can take a leisurely stroll up to a small area of forest that is absolutely chock full of Monkeys roaming the streets. It’s a fair old walk, but once you reach a couple of km from the main road, you’ll find yourself greeted by hordes of cheeky Macaques who are all very keen to come and relieve you of your valuables!
Despite their reputation we were un-swayed, and a couple of hundred metres from a clearing we made a point of stopping to consolidate our water bottles and leave them in (what I thought was) a very secure side-pocket. Oh, more fool me. Within not more than 30 seconds of being within view I’d been clocked, frisked and mugged. Thankfully Mel was quick to come to my aid… and capture it on video.
- Rasta Café Phuket
We made a couple of visits to this quirky Café/Bar, which sports a Caribbean theme that contrasts bizarrely with the old traditional buildings opposite. Nonetheless, you really can’t go wrong with a chilled house band, sport on the TVs (Muay Thai and Premier League when we visited – one of the best things about going out in Thailand is the timings nicely coincide with the 3pm kickoffs… Mel might disagree), and a pool table with a full compliment of balls.On our second visit we managed to bump into a blast from my past in form of Gunn, who I last saw at Reading Festival 2010, and his girlfriend Rhona (I say bump… it was a masterclass in last-minute organisation), for a couple of drinks and a bite to eat. They’d both undoubtably kick our asses in a boxing ring, so we kept the ‘sport’ decidedly in our wheelhouse and went for a couple of games of pool instead!
- Naka Market
The second night market of our trip to date, and arguably the more successful. The market is split into food and clothing sections, and it was clear that a lot of day trips from Patong run with here as the last stop, as the latter were chock full of Westerners haggling for knock-off clobber. Knowing we’d pay over the odds for anything here, we decided to spend our time and well-earned Baht in the food section, which was a cacophony of smells, colours and tastes.
Upon reflection, there was probably a lot more to do in Phuket than we initially gave it credit for. A couple of days is definitely enough to see everything if you have your own means of transport, or aren’t bothered about extortionate taxi fares. Feeling the pinch after the cost of Scuba, we kept ourselves limited to just the bits we really wanted to do, but money no object it would also have been cool to take a look at Wat Chalong, Phuket Big Buddah and to stay long enough for the Sunday Night Market on Thalang Road.
Nonetheless, missing Koh Tao we could hear the sea calling us again, and were itching to get moving to the Phi Phi Islands. So, ignoring the advice of a cabbie who told us the ferry is always cheaper at the pier than online (certainly not in Phuket, at least), we booked our tickets and set sail.
Phi Phi Islands
After the hustle and bustle of Phuket… what a wonderful contrast! The Phi Phi Islands consist of Koh Phi Phi Don, the biggest and busiest island, in the North, and Koh Phi Phi Lee in the south, which is largely uninhabitable save for the few locals who seem to have made an old cave home. Phi Phi Lee is notable for Maya Bay, as featured in the Leonardo DiCaprio film ‘The Beach’, whilst Phi Phi Don has rebuilt itself after the 2004 Tsunami as an idyllic maze of traffic-free streets, lined with bars, restaurants, stalls and dive schools. In essence, Phi Phi was everything we had hoped Koh Phangan would be!
A measure of how much we liked the islands is the fact that we almost instantly extended our stay there. From that point on, to quote Frank Turner, nights became days, as we explored a number of bars, pool and
beer bucket pong tables. The extension of our time on Phi Phi also meant we were lucky enough to run (almost literally) into Brent and Kristina, of Koh Tao Scuba Diving fame, and enjoyed a few civilised 2-4-1 buckets at the rooftop Banana Bar. Sadly they declined our offer of an Aussies vs. Brits pool tournament, so we’ll just have to count that as a (furthest) away win!
If I had one negative thing to say about Phi Phi, it would be the way in which their water sports dealt me another debilitating injury! In order to moan about that, I should probably start from the top…
During our second day on the island we spent some time tootling around in a canoe, leaving the beach and paddling our way towards the nearest headland for an hour or so. This served to once more whet our appetite for water sports, and by day three just about enough people had attempted to sell us a boat trip that we finally relented and signed up for a half-day jaunt aboard a traditional longtail boat (read – wooden tub with exposed diesel engine plonked on the stern and connected to a rather wayward propeller). We went for the sunset option, which meant we left Phi Phi Don at about 2pm, with a view to witnessing the sun set over the coast of Phi Phi Lee and heading back in time for dinner.
To be fair, the trip was pretty good value for money. First stop not long after leaving port was Monkey Bay, where we were able to delight at more Macaques stealing from, and generally terrorising, unsuspecting tourists. Thankfully I was not the prime target this time around. Instead, they decided to go for a girl on our boat who had taken a specific interest in the smallest Monkey on the beach, but sadly had a nack of screaming and running every time any of the others got near her. The Macaques thought this was great fun. She did not. Queue a perpetual cycle of screaming and chasing.
All of the boat’s occupants successfully retrieved from the primates, and after precariously chugging across some choppy ocean, we swung past Shipwreck Cove (now seemingly home to a group of locals precariously perched on a number of ramshackle bamboo platforms), before heading to our second stop. It was here that we had the choice of alighting for an additional fee (which would double the cost of the trip), to scramble over the rocks for a view of Maya Bay, as featured in ‘The Beach’, or alternatively spend half an hour snorkelling. Being the budget conscious travellers we are, we opted for the latter, and saw lots of fish who were having a great time nibbling at the underside of the moored boats. Those who did make the trek assured us that it was worth the money. Perhaps I’ll just watch the film first.
Our third, and what would turn out to be penultimate stop, was to snorkel in a shallow bay that was absolutely chock full of tropical fish and coral. There’s not much more to say about that really, best just to let the pictures speak for themselves.
It was climbing back onto the boat after this stop that I gained my second travelling battle scar. Re-entry was via a wobbly, rusty metal ladder that was slung over the side of the boat. With the approaching storm causing our little tub to pitch and roll in the more exposed bay, this was already a perilous exercise. Being the gentleman that I am, I waited for all of my fellow passengers, and my girlfriend, to make their way back onboard before bringing up the rear. Unfortunately, each of them had kindly deposited water on the bare metal rungs making them more slippery than usual. This, combined with the roll of the boat and corresponding sideways jolt of the unattached ladder caused my foot to slide sideways down the rung, jamming the perpendicular metal pole between two of my toes and splitting open the funny webbed bit that baddies sometimes like to slice in the movies to torture their poor innocent victims.
Tl;dr – I got a gash on my foot. In fairness, the paragraph of creative writing above and my elaborate bandagery pictured are really over-playing it. Nonetheless, Mel and the Thai chap on the boat were very helpful (in between laughter and mockery, at least).
We proceeded to head further around the coast to what would be our final brief stop, this time in a gorgeous sandy bay, with beautiful still water that I could no longer sample. After this stop our captain decided that the storm had approached just close enough, and the clouds certainly weren’t about to afford us a sunset of any kind, so we about-turned and made our very, very wet return trip to Phi Phi Don.
With a couple of weeks having passed, I am now dry and my wounds have been tended to, so can look back fondly upon all the Phi Phi Islands have to offer. To reiterate what I said above, Phi Phi really was to us everything Koh Phangan should have been. It had the perfect mix of chilled vibe, beaches and bars, friendly locals and reasonable prices, and if you ever find yourself trying to decide between the two, I’d recommend Phi Phi in a heartbeat.
*Frustratingly, we’d heard much better things about Krabi. We did get there eventually, kind of, but more on that another time.