From Bangkok to Phuket
My taxi doesn't turn up, so I find myself undertaking a manic 45 minute tuk tuk ride, all the way out to Bangkok Airport, my suitcase lashed to the front. The driver cackles all the way like the Laughing Policeman: 'English football, velly velly good'.
Phuket is both a province is and the largest island of Thailand, sitting in the Andaman Sea. It's joined to the mainland by a bridge at the northern tip. There's a large Chinese influence, so the island and Phuket City, especially, is sprinkled with Chinese shrines and restaurants around the City. In the Old Town here, Thalang Road is lined with colourful nineteenth-century shophouses and Sino-Portuguese buildings.
Phuket is also home to some magnificent beaches and that's why I've come. I'm getting the bus south to Karon and Kata, beyond, the liveliest (and seediest strip ) at Patong.
Sadly, the weather is not being cooperative. To say it's raining is a slight understatement. So the beaches have become irrelevant. And in the hinterland, the jungle is dripping and not inviting. It seems sensible to take to the water.
Phang Nga Bay
A speedboat journey to Phang Nga Bay. There are 42 islands here, creating some spectacular karsts scenery. First stop of the day, Wat Suwan Khuha, is also known as the Monkey Cave, because of the cheeky primates living in the temple complex and making the most of the offerings to the huge reclining Buddha here.
Next, a longtail boat to the stilt Floating Village that is Panyee Island, We're free to wander the gangplanks and watch the fishermen at work, if we can see through the downpour. It's safer to retreat to the restaurant and wait for lunch. local fishermen, the island has been inhabited since the 18th century. Explore the village, taking in local life, before having lunch at a restaurant in the village.
Next up, Talu Cave, where we're supposed to to canoe and swim as well as admiring the stalactites and stalagmites. But us tourists are grabbing all the plastic we can find in an effort to stay dry and warm and are not keen to get in the water. The peaks of the karst formations are majestic, but atmospherically grey and forbidding, rather than beautiful today.
The day’s main attraction is Khao Phing Kan, or James Bond Island. This is where they filmed the 1974 James Bond movie, The Man with the Golden Gun. It's a soaring peak of an island, with an adjacent (about 40 metres) 20 metre pillar islet, Ko Ta Pu. It's just clear enough for us to agree that it is indeed picturesque.
Phi Phi Islands
Nothing daunted, I'm off east across the sea again, This time it's a snorkelling trip on a (very bumpy) speed boat, across the Malacca Strait, to see the fabled limestone scenery of the Phi Phi Islands, Here, I'm a little luckier with the weather.
There are six islands, but only two really count, the others are uninhabited limestone islets. Ko Phi Phi Don is the largest and most populated island of the group It was first populated by Malay fishermen, although coconut plantations followed. then troursim because of the gorgeous beaches, most notably Maya, which they've had to close to recover form over tourism.
The second island proper, Ko Phi Phi Le is probably more famous as it's where they filmed The Beach. The resultant fame has had a mixed reception. There have been claims that the island has been degraded by tourists - (and even by the film crew 'enhancing' the set). But it has brought in revenue. Here, we also visit the "Viking Cave", where there is a thriving industry harvesting edible bird's nests.
Our guide recites her stuff like a walking tape recorder, without pausing for breath. She has a red hat and hair dyed to match. And I'm eyeing up my fellow passengers. There are three Indian guys who don't eat lunch and don't swim. I'm not sure why they've come. And there's a guy from the British Embassy. I can't decide if he's with his girlfriend or his mother. We snorkel on a reef and feed the fish bananas.
Pole Dancing in Patong
The rain is relentless ( I wish I had known Phuket has an eight month wet season). and there is flooding, especially in Patong. Motor cycles zooming down the main street send a rippling wash into the shops and bars. Some of the punters are sitting on stools a foot underwater. There’s nothing to do except hang about and talk to the working girls. Every night I visit The Phuket Bar. They're bored too. They dance or sit and smooch each other or doze. A young lad sits sheepishly watching. Every so often one of the girls disappears quietly into the back 'for dinner', dragging along the odd client who apprehensively wanders after them, into the gloom. They teach me how to pole dance in between. It's not my forte. In need of amusement, I flirt with Gunther an unprepossessing German, who has little to recommend him. He asks me out to dinner, arranging to meet the next night. And then he stands me up.
Staying on Phuket
My hotel isn't as relaxing as I had hoped either. The signs in the dining room say 'Happy New Year - 1995'. There are giant cockroaches and mosquitoes dwelling in the bathroom. The mosquitoes here have extremely sharp proboscises. Perhaps, it's all the wet weather. Maybe that's why the hotel is so quiet. but there must be people staying here. There are shoes lined up outside all the doors.
Just one more trip to the shops to stock up on 'designer' tops and jeans. Now, onto Cambodia.