No bogan paradise: surprising Phuket

Phuket is capable of being all things to all people
Phuket is capable of being all things to all people 

Simon O'Brien finds a different island to the bogan paradise he expected.

As the boat's engine fell silent and we stared in awe at the huge, tree-covered mountains surrounding us, I could imagine a prehistoric bird taking to the sky from one of the cliff-tops, flapping its giant leathery wings and renting the air with a screech.

This place was otherworldly, it was beautiful and it was ancient.

Banyan Tree, Phuket.
Banyan Tree, Phuket. 

Despite my expectations, I was having the time of my life.

I was in Phang Nga Bay, a marine national park between Thailand and the island of Phuket, where I was holidaying.

To be honest, I'd been very reluctant to travel to Phuket. The name had always conjured images of hordes of drunken, fake-tanned Australians embarrassing their country while taking in Patong's famous nightlife and purchasing loads of fake shoes and purses.

Laguna Phuket
Laguna Phuket 

But that narrow perception proved very wrong.

The island is capable of being all things to all people, meeting a tourist's need for excitement, adventure and fun one moment, and the finer things – such as culture, history, dining and relaxation – the next.

The Phang Nga Bay tour was a highlight of my stay in Phuket and it was a perfect example of the adventure on offer.

After joining the tour organised through the resort where I was staying, I soon found myself on a beautiful speed-boat cutting through the emerald water and racing north-east across the ocean.

Countless specks started to appear on the horizon and I couldn't help but rush to the bow, thrilled as the wind and occasional spray of salty water provided relief from the hot sun, and those specks in the distance became enormous limestone mountains spearing up out of the water.

In time the mountains surrounded us, tree-covered and craggy.

They were countless and seemed to go on forever, with those others in the far distance just smoky shapes.

In time we stopped at one of the mountain's small beaches and stepped off the back of the boat into the shallow water.

Then, with small torches strapped to our heads and our backs bowed to avoid hitting the roof, we were led through a low tunnel that glistened with stalactites and wove deep into the heart of the mountain.

Minutes later it suddenly ended and placed us in the centre of the island, effectively a crater that was about 100 metres across and walled-in by dramatic cliffs that rose high above us before opening up to blue sky.

It was incredible.

Afterwards, we headed to an island that has become famous for its near-starring role in the 1974 Bond film, The Man with the Golden Gun.

The main feature at Ko Tapu, now more commonly known as "James Bond Island", is a large cylindrical limestone structure that juts out of the water just offshore.

It's definitely a sight to behold, but there's also more than enough amusement to be found watching young female tourists earnestly draping themselves across boulders in what they appear to hope is Bond-girl fashion, while their male offsiders perform photographer duty.

Also on the schedule for our day-long outing was a kayak tour around some of Phang Nga Bay's islands.

Working from a permanent pontoon, we were placed in kayaks and paddled out into the ocean.

I would have been more than happy to paddle myself, but I was told the ocean currents could easily sweep you out to somewhere near Malaysia, and it was best to leave it to the professionals. I followed the advice.

The benefit was, it forced me to sit back and let the moment sink in. Sitting in the middle of the ocean in a kayak as you glide up next to one mountain after another that towers straight up above leaves you simply humbled by nature's enormity and beauty.

We were also paddled in and out of mountain caves that had openings so low you were forced to lie right back so you fit under.

It was great fun and left many of us smiling foolishly.

A sudden downpour that forced us to paddle into caves and under outcrops in a bid to stay dry only added to the sense of adventure.

We later headed back to the resort to enjoy some of Phuket's other offerings, including two of my favourite pastimes – sloth and gluttony.

My luxurious accommodation was perfect for this.

Banyan Tree is a high-end, adults-only resort perfectly designed for quiet relaxation and romance.

It's impossible to have a bad time when you can eat a stunning Thai meal at Banyan Tree's restaurant Safron before jumping on one of the supplied bicycles and casually pedalling back to your luxurious villa. (Or jump aboard a golf buggy if you would prefer.)

And at the end of the night, when the Thai heat still hangs in the air, I can highly recommend stepping out of your villa bedroom and quite literally into your personal pool – a tin of Singha beer in hand, of course.

During my holiday, I was lucky enough to also stay at Angsana Laguna Phuket, another hotel in the grouped collection of resorts known as Laguna Phuket, which stretches Bang Tao Bay on Phuket's west coast.

Angsana Laguna Phuket is perfectly designed for families, and happy parents can be seen sipping cocktails at the poolside restaurant while watching their children swim in the long pool that snakes through the grounds.

One morning on my way to breakfast I even saw a baby elephant casually wandering through the resort with a handler while stunned children happily gathered around.

The gentle elephant, which I was told visits every day, was happy to give kisses and pose for photos.

And so my holiday continued to be a merry mixture of relaxation and adventure.

At times I was exploring Patong's streets, getting to know its frenetic nightlife, while at others I was wandering through its charming old town, marvelling at its mix of European and Thai architecture. Climbing the steps of a tall Buddhist temple was offset by getting a massage at Banyan Tree Spa. I tried the much-loved (and maligned, depending who you ask) durian fruit for the first time (it tastes like old fetta cheese if you ask me), then ate incredible meals at top restaurants.

I even bought some fake shoes.

On the last day of my week in Phuket I took part in a cooking class at Reun Thai restaurant. As a breeze drifted in from the nearby lagoon to cool the hot day, I dreamily followed the chef's instructions, adding the spices and ingredients until I had four delicious dishes. They were much like Phuket itself – a wonderful variety of flavours mixed together to make something amazing.

I sat down and feasted. Then I served myself up some humble pie.

The writer travelled a guest of Laguna Phuket

Fast facts

Getting there

Singapore Airlines has a fare to Phuket for about $895 low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne, including tax. Fly non-stop to Singapore (about 8hr) and then non-stop to Phuket (1hr 45min on SilkAir). See singaporeair.com.

 

Staying there

Rooms at Angsana Laguna Phuket start from $189

See http://www.angsana.com/en/phuket/

Rooms at Banyan Tree start from $542

See http://www.banyantree.com/en/phuket/

Activities

The Phang Nga Bay four-in-one full-day tour: Adults – $117, children (3-12) $71

The Reun Thai cooking class $55

Banyan Tree Spa treatments start from $108

Summer Family Fun Festival:

Each year Laguna Phuket hosts a family fun festival with special events aimed at families and children. In 2013, related events will go from June to August. Special discounts, such as "children dine for free at Laguna Phuket hotels", will go from mid-March until the end of October.

See http://www.lagunaphuket.com/events/family-festival/ for details.

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