It was a smooth 4 hour flight from Manila (NAIA Terminal 3) to Phuket, Thailand. The airline have just opened flights to Phuket so we were less than 50 passengers onboard Cebu Pacific flight 5J 937. That means there was no long queue to the toilet, more leg room, a passenger can even take up one whole row to himself, and a bigger chance to snatch a prize in their in-flight game. I got a green toiletry bag. (“,)
We arrived at Bukit, Jungceylon, the Pearl of the Andaman, at 11:35 in the night, an hour behind Philippine time. We went through immigration in a breeze but getting to Phuket Town was not, and it cost us 550 baht (down from an initial 700 baht offer) on a privately-owned, unmetered taxi.
Phuket International Airport is about 30 minutes drive to the laid-back Phuket Town and about the same to the well-known party place Patong Beach. They do have a public bus to and from the airport that costs 90 baht but it runs from 0630 to 2000 hours to town and 0920 to 1950 hours from town. I am skeptic though with the schedule because when we were going home, the last bus to town was 1830 hours. Better yet, do check www.airportbusphuket.com or call 076-232-371/086-470-6675.
So if you are planning on a trip to here and would most likely plan on taking the late night flight for a cheaper airfare, you might want to do the math again. You might have the funds but I know you wouldn’t want to spend big just upon arrival right? Unless of course you travel with a bigger group or you meet other travelers going to the same direction and equally share the amount. On a positive note though, even if you get ripped off precious dollars that fast, the car takes you to town or Patong faster than the bus.
The driver was trying to break into a conversation with us saying we were the only passengers he had since he set on the road, saying he has 2 children (don’t say kids, he’d be baffled). While he has a day job, he also works a few hours in the evening as a cab driver to get extra income. He tried to tell us more but his limited English made the 3 of us keep wondering what each has to say or ask. It was our first hint that while Phuket has attracted a lot of tourists for quite some time now, the folks still lag behind in communicating in English. Except I think when you talk about something where money is involved. The basics, Math and English combined perfectly in doing business: “Where you go? Want taxi? Oh bus finished, only taxi! Want motorbike?” At times like this, PATIENCE is the key. I guess if I were in their shoes, I’d be learning those basics as well.
We reached Phuket Town in less than half an hour as there was no traffic (of course) but went in circles trying to get to Phuket Backpacker Hostel. The street to where the hostel is was blocked and the traffic guy directed our driver to take another route. Had we known that it was only a few meters walk from the barricade, we should have just walked and spared another 15 minutes.
The hostel was dark when we arrived with few candles by the reception. We were told there was an electrical problem and they’re already fixing it. After check-in formalities, we were led to the room by a young, good vibes staff, Art, who kept on apologizing for the inconvenience. He spoke very good English that we almost reconsidered our earlier impression. We later learned that he started learning English at the age of 2. His mom would put him in front of the computer not to play games but to learn English, believing this would give him an edge in the future. Smart mom huh!
As soon as we put down our bags, we went out searching for food at 1:30 in the morning. My! We were so starved! The town was quiet and the street lamps created a quaint environment of the old Sino-Portuguese style buildings lining up the streets. I must say you feel safe walking the streets here even at an ungodly hour. Even the two bars we chanced upon were subdued.
Finally after 20 minutes, we found an open restaurant. We didn’t care whether it was clean or they served good food. We were dying to eat. Thank God, it was a real treat! It was just hard to communicate what you want to order. So when I ordered for some pork dimsum or dumplings or siomai or however it’s called, I was pointing at the picture on one of the tarpaulins hanging outside. I was stunned when they brought me a whole tray in different kinds, colors, shapes and flavors. Good thing I saw these customers seated on a table near us were being served the same and they started to take a pick. Ahh, so that’s how it is done. Happily, everything I picked was awesomely delightful except for the dipped fried dumplings. And the tom yam? Ahh, so yummy, but spicy enough to give me runny nose. They say I can always request “my pet” (meaning not spicy or less). But I guess tom yam is best served spicy. On my first Thai food experience, I give them 4 stars for being AFFORDable and BURPfect!
Unfortunately, the name of the restaurant is scribbled in Thai, but if my memory serves me well– from Phuket Backpacker on Ranong Road we headed towards the Fountain Roundabout, turned left and walked straight to Yaowaraj Road. The restaurant is on the far end. In case you find it, don’t miss their iced coffee. It was strong brewed coffee with carnation evaporated milk and ice cubes! I tried a few others somewhere during the course of the trip but theirs is the best!
Phuket Backpacker is just next to the market. Surprisingly, no foul smell ever bothered us. As we walked back to the hostel, the market was already busy. There were people, probably farmers and dealers, busy unloading their goods off D-max pick-up trucks. We were, “Wow! Really? That’s cool!” We just wished our farmers back home also get that much support from the government instead of being exploited by some nasty politicians to enrich themselves. Phew!
We only had a day to spend in Phuket as we had to travel the next day to Bangkok to catch an early morning flight to Hanoi, Vietnam the day after. So we decided come daylight to just tour around the Old Phuket Town and visit the Big Buddha atop the hill and save the beach and other attractions on our return.
We set out with no clear direction, no maps, just our cameras and sheer guts. We’re already within the neighborhood of the old town so getting lost shouldn’t be an issue. Plus, Phuket Backpacker is just opposite Thai Airways Company, housed in one of those antiquated buildings in the old town.
History has it that the Old Phuket Town was founded by Hokkien Chinese immigrants in the 19th century following new opportunities in tin mining on the island. It became a business hub for Indian, Malay, Arab and European traders who exchanged goods for tin and rubber products. The architectural design of the structures found here is a smooth blend of Chinese characters, traditional Thai art patterns, European classic, Roman era style and Indian art.
At present, the neatly knitted structures were turned into charming souvenir shops, art galleries, inns, restaurants and other business-related establishments, while sticking to its original look.
From Ranong Road we went towards the direction of Yaowarat Road. Easily noticeable here are the large, finely decorated window panes on the upper floors. I’ve learned that this design is a European influence, while the dragon character is very Chinese usually portrayed on the ground floor—the two large windows are the dragon’s eyes while the smaller ones above them represent the eyebrows and the door is the mouth.
We turned towards Krabi Road where we passed by the Thaihua Museum and Kulthida Kindergarten School. On Thalang Road, we chanced upon a beautifully spruced up old place among the rows of buildings which looked like a mini-museum. Turned out, it was a tourist information center. The lady there was very accommodating. She gave us a well-laid out brochure of Phuket Town, just what we needed for reference. And “When you do the Thai greeting…,” she said, “…do it with a smile,” and she graciously did before we said our goodbyes.
A pink colored building caught our attention which directed us to the narrow road of Soi Rommanee. I love this place. It has a sweet, fun charm which I didn’t feel in other areas of the old town. I just wished I had my travel girl friends with me that moment. I’m sure they’ll love it here too. I here giggles and cameras clicking. You bet. This street is the most photographed of the lot.
We moved next to Phang-nga Road which houses the Phrom Thep Press Center, the Charter Bank Old Building, the On-On Hotel and whoala, a hole in the wall led us to a temple. The location is barely noticeable. No wonder only 5 of us were there. Clearly off the beaten path! This is why we preferred to explore the town on foot. I later learned that it is a Taoist temple called Saeng-Tham Shrine (Shrine of Serene Light) and true enough, it is easily missed by many!
Touring the old town doesn’t necessarily require a guide as the buildings are nicely knitted together. Whichever route you prefer to start from (which is usually where your hotel is located), you will be able to experience the Sino-Portuguese charm of the town. If you want to dig deeper into the town’s history, drop by the Tourist Information Center or the Thaihua Museum (open daily from 0900-1700 on weekdays). You can always find local guides, tuktuk drivers and motorbike drivers all over town should you really need one. They are all very eager to offer their services. There is a sample fare matrix in the government brochure, but as per experience, rates almost always depend on how good you are at negotiating. As I’ve said, there’s a lot to choose from.
Our afternoon was spent in the market place. It is here where you get a good sense of the local people’s lives. A real drama so to speak–colorful and true! Vegetables abound and so are fruits and ready-to-eat food stalls too! Everyone’s busy. A busy place, but not chaotic. It’s clean and orderly.
Turning Niko off for a minute, I just stood on one side and observed. The locals here are down-to-earth, no frills. They love to eat, not just food but good, healthy, colorful and creatively made food. Seeing how they prepare food ensures a fun, affordable and safe food tripping spree. By the time we finished at the market, it was late for sunset by the Big Buddha. So we saved it for later.
That evening, my brother’s good friend, ate Sylvia Munar, who is working in one of the exclusive resorts here, managed to get off work early to meet us. After dinner in town, she brought us to the crazy party place, Patong Beach. No we didn’t go swimming. We instead strolled along the red light district of Patong… just for experience. I am not really a party-goer so to be there is a bit of a shocker. Looking at people’s expressions, even those working in the clubs, you get mixed emotions. Quite an experience I must admit.
We settled at Red Hot Club for some good music. The place was jam-packed and it always is said Ate Sylvia, because many love their type of music and their bands. Here we met two Filipino vocalists who had amazing voices—Nene from Cagayan de Oro and Sajid from Bulacan. As always, the Filipino hospitality is there. We had so much fun, even singing Jon Bon Jovi songs at the top of our voices. The fun spirit here is down-right opposite the other bar we went to. The singers may have “D” voice, but lacked character. You could even see the difference in crowd. We left Red Hot just before closing time with a huge crowd clamoring for more.
Two hours later, we were snoozing on the bus on a 14-hour journey to Bangkok. Thank God the bus was not full.
(September 25, 2013)