Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Recap: Starting 2011 in Thailand

Once again, apologies for taking so long to post this entry. I wrote most of it many weeks ago. I'll post it as I originally wrote it, even though nearly two months have passed since doing so...

First off, a very happy new year to everyone as we kick off 2011. This is the start of the second decade of the century/millennium, and it’s so hard to believe the last ten years have gone by so quickly!

This is actually my third “new year” celebration since moving to Kuala Lumpur, and curiously, none of those celebrations have occurred (for me) in KL. In 2009, I was in Penang; in 2010, I went back to Denver for the holidays, and this year, I spent six days in Phuket, Thailand. This was my first trip back there since March 2009, so it’s been awhile. I met my friend Dendy from Jakarta, along with one of his friends, who lives in Penang, and his friends, who are all also from KL, so there wound up being six of us for the New Year’s festivities.

Currently, I’m sitting in the rather crowded Phuket International Airport waiting for my flight back to KL. I’m flying this time on Qatar Airways, one of the only six 5-star airlines in the world. It was actually cheaper to fly here on Qatar than on budget AirAsia, and half the price of Malaysia Airlines, so it was a no-brainer. To make things better, I was told at check-in that I was being upgraded to business class. That surely has to bode well for the new year, right? It’s a harbinger of great things to come!

We were torn between Hong Kong and Phuket as a vacation destination, but ultimately chose Phuket because we figured it would be a lot more fun for the New Year celebrations. I think we made the right choice! We stayed in Patong, the most happening beach town on the island, and of our five nights in Phuket, we went out clubbing and bar-hopping on four of them. At some of the clubs, the action doesn’t really even get started until after midnight. It was a blast.

Unquestionably the highlights of the trip were the actual night of New Year’s Eve itself and, after the effects of that night’s excesses subsided, the day trip that three of us took a couple of days later.

One thing about New Year’s in Patong: There is absolutely no shortage of fireworks. They don’t even bother waiting until midnight.. from about 10:00 p.m., and continuing for well over four hours, the fireworks never stopped, peaking from about 11:30 to 12:30. Patong Bay is a large, crescent-shaped bay, and all along the beach, fireworks were being launched in varying scales. Fireworks safety is all but nonexistent in Thailand, so although there were plenty of “professional” shows, there were even more small-scale launches of skyrockets and firework bombs. Add to this the awesome spectacle of hundreds upon hundreds of Thai sky lanterns being released over the sea, seen here, and the sky was lit up for hours.

For our countdown, we all went up to the third-floor open-air garden terrace at our guest house with a few bottles of liquor, two bottles of Moet & Chandon Champagne, snacks, and mixers. From that vantage point, we could see about half the night sky, including the sky over Patong Bay, so we could see the constellation of sky lanterns as they were being set free with the wishes and hopes of their owners. It was truly a wonderful spectacle.

From there, we hit the street with thousands of other revelers and stayed out until after 3 a.m. ringing in the new year. Truly a very fun night, and it only took me until about 6 p.m. the following day to fully recover! What can I say, I’m not as young as I used to be.

Much of the other time was spent shopping, wandering, and eating… typical holiday stuff. Sadly, though Patong is one of the most upmarket areas in Phuket, and about the most expensive place in Thailand, the food is largely uninspiring. My guide book calls the dining scene in Patong “dire,” and brands the many caf├ęs and restaurants that dot the beach road and nearby environs as “disastrous.” For the most part, I agree with this assessment. Patong is no food-lovers’ paradise, although good food CAN be found, like this place (pictured) where you can select your own fish, “oyters,” and fresh veggies, but it’s startlingly overpriced (triple the price of similar fare in Bangkok is common). Even the more pedestrian food is much more expensive than either Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur. Chalk it up to tourism, I guess, plus this is the absolute peak season in Phuket, anyway. As an example though, mouthwateringly good Pad Thai (the best I’ve ever had) is available from street vendors in Bangkok for 30 baht (about US$1); decidedly average Pad Thai usually goes for 80-120 baht in Patong (as much as 190 baht in “nice” restaurants, which is obscene). But we did manage to score some good food, and found one place on the main road, part of a place called the PS Hotel, that had dishes that were quite decent. Their tom kah gai, a chicken coconut soup that is among my favorite Thai dishes, was brilliant, if slightly expensive at 80 baht. Honestly, by US standards, none of this is remotely bank-breaking, but by the standards of the rest of Thailand, Patong is breathtakingly expensive.

On the second day of the fresh new year, three of us took a package tour to Raya Island, also known as Racha Yai. For peak season, we got what I think was a pretty good deal of 1,200 baht each (US$40) for a so-called full-day tour.. Though we were supposed to be picked up around 8 a.m., the minibus didn’t arrive until 9, and we certainly didn’t get an hour tacked on to the end of the trip; it was simply cut short, which is a bit rubbishy in my opinion. But regardless, the trip was great, and Raya Island didn’t disappoint at all. Take a look at these pictures…they haven’t been manipulated or edited (except for some cropping here and there). This is really how the place looked. The main anchorage is called Patok Bay, and it’s simply gorgeous. The water is literally crystal clear, the sand is like fine sugar, and apart from the flotilla of boats disgorging day-trippers like us, and all the people bobbing around in the bay, it’s truly like a postcard.

We all swam for an hour in the pristine waters, then got back on the boat to go to another part of the island for some snorkeling. The water there wasn’t nearly as clear, but there were loads of colorful tropical fish – butterflyfishes, tangs, wrasses, Moorish idols, and loads of green chromises and yellow tigerfish. It was great! We hung out there snorkeling for nearly an hour, enjoyed some fresh fruit, then got back on the boat to return to Patok Bay, where we walked inland about 700-800 meters for a buffet lunch that was really pretty good. We stuffed ourselves, then just the three of us wandered the northern tip of the island and found a stunning, stunning place called Siam Bay that was the total opposite of Patok Bay. This bay was much shallower, so boats have no chance of coming in, and the water appears white and pale blue for much further out, until the depth increases and gives a richer blue-green tint to the clear waters. It was completely pristine, and with nearly no one around, felt like a bit of paradise. Unfortunately, we had only about 40 minutes to enjoy Siam Bay since we weren’t given an extra hour to make up for the tour operator’s tardiness, so we had to find our way back to Patok Bay at 3 p.m. for the half-hour speedboat trip back to Ao Chalong Bay on Phuket. As you can see from the photos, it was just an amazing island… I even saw a huge sea eagle there (captive, but still most impressive). For anyone traveling to Phuket and wondering what sort of day trip to take that’s not too far from “base camp,” I definitely recommend Raya Island. The Similan Islands are even more spectacular, but are considerably further, requiring a 90-minute bus ride, followed by a 90-minute speedboat trip. This one is 20 minutes on the bus and 30 minutes on the boat – very manageable.

And that was my trip to Phuket!

The surprise upgrade to business class on Qatar Airways was brilliant... vintage Champagne, amazing lie-flat seats, total comfort. I only regret that it was such a short flight! I could have easily handled a few more hours of luxury.

Next up on the blog... spending Chinese New Year (about a month later) in Penang, another birthday (groan!), and getting the news that I'm going to have to move to a new condo!