Thursday, July 14, 2011


I'd like to say it all began in 1984 with "One Night in Bangkok," but in reality, I started dreaming of visiting Thailand years later, while I was studying journalism at the University of Florida. My friends and I used to go to a little restaurant close to campus where the bartender always served us colorful (and powerful) cocktails, although we all were underage. I promised him I'd visit his country one day, with Bangkok being my sole intended destination. It took me some 20 years, but better late than never, right?

I wouldn't have given Phuket a second thought if all of my friends who've visited Thailand hadn't advised me not to miss it. Not only is the island province the primary Thai destination for frequent travellers, but the 2000 Leonardo DiCaprio film The Beach was filmed nearby on Koi Phi Phi Island, to where I'll be day-tripping tomorrow. I'm glad I listened because I ended up turning what was intended to be a two-day stopover into a five-day one.

It's nowhere near as bustling as Bangkok, but the area around Paradise Complex is teeming with nightlife: bars, street vendors, seafood restaurants and beautiful ladies feeling up passersby and offering them cheap Thai massages (and probably more). During the day, there's plenty of gorgeous scenery to take in -- mountains or sea, you choose -- as well as the not-so-obvious activities that don't necessarily make it onto every visitor's itinerary. In Phuket, as everywhere, it's the little things that make for truly memorable moments. For those planning to visit -- and if you're Australian, chances are you will be eventually -- here are some recommendations.

Get into drag. Now that's a suggestion I never dreamt I'd make, but I've also never seen a drag show better than the two nightly revues at Kiss in the Paradise Complex. They begin at 11.45pm and 1.45am, with the drag queens kicking things off by hoofing it up on the walkway outside of the bar, which, come to think of it, is a pretty genius ploy to drum up business. So are those free shots of tequila that the cocktail waiters pass around between shows.

Talk to a Thai local -- which is actually easier said than done. I sort of knew what I was getting into when I got on my Bangkok Airways flight from Suvarnabhumi Airport and the plane was full of Westerners, but I wasn't quite prepared for the overload of European tourists. And many of the people who live in Phuket actually come from Asian countries outside of Thailand. I spent my first hour in Phuket talking in Spanish to a couple from Spain, and on Patong Beach, it seemed like every time I turned around, I was having a conversation with yet another Aussie (in English, of course). Curiously, though, after four days in Phuket, I still have yet to hear an American accent.

Get a manicure and a pedicure. It's a nice way to break up a hot afternoon. I got mine along the beach, and it only set me back 500 Baht, or about $16. And while you're at it, why not throw in a Thai massage? There's a little bit of pain involved, but it hurts so good.

Order a Tiger. Not the big cat (though that Spanish couple did tell me about a place an hour outside of Bangkok where you can spend quality time with them), the beer. According to Wikipedia, it's brewed in Singapore (where I'm headed this weekend), but it seems to top every drink menu in Phuket. It's a lot cheaper to get drunk on Tigers here than downing schooners in Melbourne. A bottle costs anywhere from 60 Baht along the beach to 100 Baht in the bars of the Paradise Complex ($2 to $3.30), so it's hard to stop at just one.

Get wet. July is the middle of rainy reason in Phuket, so since you probably won't be spending much time riding the sea waves, getting caught in an afternoon monsoon might be the next best thing.

Consider booking a room without a beach view. I paid 700 Baht ($23) a night for my accommodation at SM Resort. The woman at the front desk could have been nicer, but service with a smile isn't a must when the room comes with a computer and a printer (the Wi-Fi connection is free, as it is in most of the hotels here) and a stunning view of the low clouds hovering over the trees on a mountain several hundred meters away. Excuse me while my jaw drops as I have another look.

Take a motorbike taxi. Cabs in Phuket are actually mini-trucks with bench seating in the back (200 Baht, or about $6.60, to and from anywhere in Phuket). But if you really want to hitch a truly picturesque ride, get on back of one of the motorbike taxis and take in the scenery while zipping through the streets of Phuket en el aire libre. You'll also save 50 Baht, or $1.60. Don't forget to ask for a helmet.

Look out for the cockroaches! Since you'll probably be walking around in sandals or flip flops, beware of those creepy crawly things that stalk the scene at night. They're bigger than I've seen them anywhere else, and taller, too. I had to take a closer look to make sure they weren't stomping around in heels!

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