Finding the Heart of Phuket Island, Thailand

Each time I force myself to open my eyes, another traumatising scene is witnessed; a woman vomits into her own hands, a teenage girl lays across the floor crying in helplessness, my boyfriend Allyn, who began this journey with me so strong and supportive is now collapsed against my side. It’s like I’m in a trailer for a bad backpacker movie. I can hear that deep voiced movie guy narrating over a series of short snappy dramatic scenes, before finishing with the shocking yet anticipated question… "who will survive?’

The setting to this terrible film is predictably in Thailand, a traveller trap for the most of it but a country that still attracts a classier crowd to its heavenly islands. Alas this is where I find myself, somewhere between paradise and hell on board a super speed boat that is violently hurtling through the Andaman Sea.

james bond island

phang nga bay caves

phang nga bay

Two bumpy driven hours after leaving the comfort of our luxury resort along Puke-et, sorry Phuket’s west coastline, we crossed into Phang Nga, reaching the Baan Nam Kem pier. A rushed breakfast and 6am cup of tea was forced down before we perched inside the boat. Leaving the bay, our stern Russian guide offered up sick bags to the group who each declined in confidence, or confusion; Allyn and I the former. Our lack of judgement was equal to that of the tacky tourism strategies we’d witnessed so far on our trip. “Come see tigers?” our private taxi driver had asked us on our venture out into Phuket, shoving a laminated A3 leaflet into our hands that displayed the worst of what the island had to offer. Drugged up big cats, snake charming shows and poorly ridden elephants were thrust in our face from the moment we left the resort. It was like Thailand was trying to target the naïve 18 year old with little cash and little common sense, rather than the curious respectable travellers who crave unexplored landscapes and natural wildlife encounters.

Instead we crossed off the ethical must dos paying just £40 for 8 hours of chauffeuring.  Starting the day with a wander through Phuket’s colourful Old Town, here felt like Havana with just a twist of Thai. After picking out elephant printed trousers and a quick fresh smoothie, we came across the Shrine of Serene Light. Finally, a moment of peace from the heaving streets. Its location; mysteriously hidden down a narrow alleyway parallel to Thalong Road.

old phuket town thalong road

shrine of serene light phuket old town

Our short spiritual journey of Phuket continued to Wat Chalong, the island’s most famous and largest temple. “Here is the Thailand I remember” I sighed. Dripping in gold, quiet and tranquil. And then I tapped a tourist on the shoulder to tell them not to turn their back and take a selfie with the Buddha.

wat chalong phuket

always be kind

wat chalong phuket

From the Grand Pagoda terrace, you can spot the Giant Buddha in the distance, a 45 metre tall landmark that sits with presence atop the Nakkerd Hills. Its impressive stature is met with views of equal ‘wow’; a 360 degree panorama of Phuket.

big buddha phuket

With an eyeful of landscapes we headed to Karon View Point for more, spotting our secluded home at Thavorn Beach Village that sits between the first looping bay of the west coast. Despite their focus on unethical tourism, Phuket is in fact built on a map of secluded beaches, Jurassic cliffs and majestic islands. Much of which you’d have to simply self discover. But without the confidence-cum-recklessness to hire a moped, we stuck to a pre-planned itinerary, ending at Promthep Cape for a cloudy yet glorious sunset framed by unswaying palms.

karon viewpoint phuket

promthep cape sunset

Finding the Heart of Phuket Island, Thailand

This was the one and only full day of sunshine during our 10 day holiday. Like my current situation as spewing cargo on a speed boat, it hadn’t been the smoothest of rides. I’d imagined tanning on our private beach, gramming photos of Pina Coladas drunk from the swim-up bar and at least a slightly more glamorous stance on deck. You know, where I’d be looking out to the horizon through big sunglasses, my white shirt fluttering in the breeze. I’m pretty sure said white shirt is stained with sick somewhere at the bottom of this boat…

Instead we were faced with drizzle. It dampened our clothes, dampened the cushioned beach cabanas and on one occasion dampened our spirits. No one comes to a tropical island for tropical storms am-I-right?!

phang nga bay

phang nga bay canoe

Rather than involuntarily get wet we took control, chucking on our swimsuits and snorkels to discover Thailand’s sea life. Stumbling out across the slippery rocks of Thavorn’s private beach into Nakalay Bay was a saving grace. (Apart from that moment when my snorkel snapped as I stretched it over my head. If you want to see a man in true distress, spend hours fixing his snorkel on a rain soaked cabana, sacrificing Nike shoe laces to do so, stumble into the ocean holding onto every last piece of optimism that you’ll make the most of a cloudy day… and then hear a snap of your mask and show your partner the fatality.)

Thavorn Beach Village Resort at Kamala Beach, Phuket

Thousands of shimmering flickers, coloured stripes and rippling frills popped out among us. We revisited porcupine fish and shoals of Moorish Idol, creating our own cast of marine characters. On our last swim, a flash of electric blue reflected onto the surface. It’s creators, a set of young cuttlefish, skated through corals and rocks, dodging fast moving families of butterfly fish and the spikes of deadly sea urchins.

snorkelling surin islands thailand

snorkelling gopro hero 4 thailand

snorkelling surin islands gopro

Our reliance on the fascinating world that happened beyond the waves, come rain or shine, is what got us into our unfortunate situation. We’d decided to face the long ride to what Google insisted was Thailand’s best spot for snorkelling. Promises of clear waters peppered with colour and even a run-in with a sea turtle convinced us. It wasn’t our first experience of a speed boat after all, we had no reason to expect the a-puke-alypse that lay ahead.

Just a few days earlier we’d used a rainy day to rise before the sun on a tour of Phang Nga Bay. I’d expected selfie sticks and sunhats decorating every rock but instead our early departure granted isolation among the surreal lagoons. We ticked off the famous ‘James Bond island’ from the Thai tourist list before stumbling through caves by torchlight to discover hidden jungles.

canoe mangroves phuket

monkeys thailand phuket

phang nga bay photography

phang nga bay caves

james bond island

We ate traditional curries from a local restaurant and spotted monkeys showing off among the mangroves. We canoed through thick forests to a remote fishing village on Koh Panyi, populated by a community of Muslims who learn in a school on stilts, play football on a floating pitch and pray by islands that seem to drip into the ocean. It was fascinating. Grey monotonous skies melted into the sea, only differentiated by a thin layer of mist and the few ripples that interrupted a mirror of islands.

phang nga bay

koh panyi village

koh panyi village

koh panyi village

koh panyi village school

koh panyi village cats

With this remarkable experience under our belt, you can see why we didn’t imagine the chaos that would ensue on our next trip out into the ocean. Which brings me here, unable to feel my hands and without control of my arms and my head that is rolling against the side of the boat as it thuds with the waves. Over the next hour - which sometimes feels like days, sometimes like seconds - I am treated like patient zero. A fellow tourist, one of a few who are resistant to the condition, massages oils into my limbs whilst occasionally hanging sick bags from my ears like a horse feeding from a bag.

Our bad movie comes to an end as we reach the shore. We survive unharmed, a predictable ending but nonetheless relieving for its two main characters who exhausted, weak and pale, collapse onto the sands. Allyn and I lay there, occasionally gaining just enough energy to squeeze each other’s hands, whilst the rest of the group explore some other village, some other island.

koh panyi village

thailand big buddha photography

My head spins more as I recount this than it did in that moment. For then all I could feel was sheer joy at being motionless. For the first time in my travelling life I took no photos. I didn’t ‘gram or caption my view. I just sat and observed, gazing at the towering rocks that cornered us into a bay of turquoise waters and soft, oh so soft, sand. If I was going to feel like this anywhere in the world, it might as well be in paradise.

Uncomfortable tourism, sullen clouds and even a spout of uncontrollable vomiting might be thrust upon you in Phuket. Like most of us, this Thai island puts up a hard, confident exterior, distracting with artificial embellishments. But under it all, under the chaos, is a heart of natural beauty.

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4 Comments

  1. 14th April 2018 / 10:36 am

    I’m visiting Phuket this summer, so your post has definitely given me some inspiration in terms of things to see and do! (Koh Panyi is now firmly on my list) Also, this has to be one of the most beautiful travel pieces I’ve read – your writing is something very special, Eppie!

    • 18th April 2018 / 1:16 pm

      Oh goodie! I’m going to write more about the top places to see too so stay tuned 🙂 Thanks so much for your lovely comment x

  2. 13th April 2018 / 9:34 am

    Eppie, your writing in this post is exquisite. You had me feel like I was there with you. I’m going to be honest with you, Phuket is one of the parts of Thailand that during my five weeks there I avoided. We drove through and I wasn’t a fan. However, Koh Panyi sounds worlds away from my memories of Phuket. I definitely agree that Thailand is filled with natural beauty, but with increasing tourism it’s probably a bit more challenging to spot!

    • 18th April 2018 / 1:16 pm

      Thanks lovely. Yes I agree, you have to find the gems – it’s hard work but worth it xx

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