There is a world of difference between what you get when you Google Phuket and what you get when you go there. The airport is in the North, and we were staying in Kata, in the South so we got a colourful and expensive taxi drive down through the island. With each decrepit poverty-laden town we passed through I started to get more and more sceptical about my Phuket research (which consisted of Googling Phuket and looking at the pretty images).
Our (admittedly very cheap) hotel had looked great in the pictures though, so I was excited to see the landscape change as we arrived. Only it didn't. We drove through Kata and up a very steep hill passed an abandoned crumbling football stadium and arrived at reception. To be fair to the hotel, it was perfectly nice, and very close to Karon Beach (although it somewhat led you to believe it was on Karon beach).
On our first full day we asked the guy on the desk would we be better off turning left or right at the end of the road to have a look around. Left led to Kata, right to Karon. He said much better to go to Karon. Lots to see there. I guess there was stuff to see. Tattoo parlours and shops selling knitted beachwear are stuff. We gave up after a while and went back, deciding to try Kata instead that night. There's infinitely more to see in Kata so we decided that the guy in the hotel probably had some friends selling stuff that he wanted to steer us towards. There is absolutely no other reason he would say Karon over Kata. This, we decided later, was the first of many mistrustful incidents we would encounter. It felt like you always had to have your guard up. Everyone was trying to scam you at any opportunity. You think you can trust your hotel, but two of them told us to go to Karon.
Kata is okay. It's quite similar to towns in Bali, though compared with Ubud it's not as pretty. I would say it's like Ubud but without any of the colour, greenery or temples. Unfortunately if you took all those out of Ubud you wouldn't be left with much. Every third shop is a 'massage parlour' with 5 suspiciously beautiful women sitting outside beckoning you in. Maybe it's because we were in low season, but these were always empty. In fact everything was empty. This was even stranger in the bars. Kata had no shortage of bars but we eventually noticed that they only seemed to have one beautiful barmaid, and maybe 3-5 of her beautiful friends, all of who shout "hello, come inside!" at you from the street (some with deep voices). We were not naive enough to think 'wow these people are friendly'. Kata, as towns in Phuket go, doesn't seem to be particularly seedy, but even there we walked down a street exclusively dedicated to prostitute bars. I felt quite sad when I got home that night, because everyone laughs about this and makes light of it but the reality must be pretty unpleasant for all the girls involved.
On a lighter note there was an absolutely fantastic dinosaur themed bar with dinosaur mini golf. I'd never played mini golf before and resisted, saying to Dan that if we played mini golf in the Dino bar we were becoming the loud middle-aged Australian tourists who come to Phuket purely to lie on the beach and play mini golf. He told me to lighten up. It was fun and the amount of effort that went into the theme was amazing. I've honestly never seen a themed pub/event/anything done as well as Dino Mini Golf.
The next day we went on Captain Mark's Big Boat Tour around Phang Nga Bay and I got to see where all the Google images come from. Phang Nga Bay is spectacularly beautiful. I started to warm to Thailand as soon as we left the pier. Our tour was only 6 people, 2 other young couples. The first stop was Lawa island where we were allowed to splash around in the crystal clear sea. Our tour was clever because it always timed its arrival before or after the giant tour boats. One arrived as we were leaving and about 50 people disembarked.
We took little canoes under very low caves (one girl emerged with a bleeding head) and sailed around the inner opening. My favourite part was the Mangrove Forest, accessible only through a cave. I felt very adventurous trudging through foot-high water. The last bit was Boomerang Hong (our tour operator claims to have discovered this island, though obviously other people have discovered it since as it was mobbed). We had to paddle our own canoe here, which everyone seemed to think was great for some reason.
That night we met some of our fellow tour groups for a drink. We first chose the Hollywood Bar because it had pretty fairy lights and was playing Dire Straits. Nowhere offensive has ever played the Dire Straits. It was only after about half an hour we realised that we were the only customers, other than the usual pretty barmaid and her 3 pretty friends. They seemed very confused when we tried to pay for our drinks and leave. If you aren't safe in a Dire Straits environment I don't know what to think.
Next we went to the Art Bar, which our new friends assured us had no prostitutes as they'd eaten there yesterday. It was run by a lovely guy and his tattoo artist wife (everything in Phuket is a something slash tattoo parlour: Tourist info/tattoo parlour, zoo/tattoo parlour, go-karting/tattoo parlour, fire station/tattoo parlour). And their utterly awful child. He was about 3 and made his presence known when I came out of the toilet. He was just standing outside the door, staring at me. I said hello and asked his name and he ran away screaming. A few minutes later, he ran up to our table and started throwing ornaments and arranging them, usually grabbing my leg in the process. Okay, haha, we laughed. We helped him arrange them, then waved bye. But he was going nowhere. He pushed himself up onto my knee and kept giving me ornaments. When I took them he'd grab them back. Eventually Dan picked him up and tried to put him down on the other side of the table, whereupon he locked his little chubby legs around the table and started screaming. His dad came over and asked if he was annoying us. Not at all! Because we're super polite. He gave up in the end and decided to run away scream-crying for the rest of the evening. I think I'd prefer the prostitutes.
Our last full day in Phuket did not go as planned. Our tour friends told us to rent mopeds and ride around the south of the island. I was not enamoured with this idea so we looked up alternatives and saw that longtail boats can take you there too. We walked to Kata beach to enquire, but sadly they only run in high season. I caved and agreed to the moped. After agreeing to pay 250 Baht (100 Baht higher than we'd been told, but no one haggles), the man asked for a passport as deposit. We were pretty unhappy to hand over a passport but made our peace with it as the day was wearing on at this stage, and trudged back to our room. We thought we'd be clever and give him my Australian one, because at least I have a spare if anything went wrong. He rifled through it and handed it back. No stamp. If I crash the bike I could leave the country. His logic was sound (though their system has an air of a threat about it) but at this point it was 3pm and it gets dark at 6 so we gave up. We sat on the beach in a huff for the rest of the day.
The following day we had to get a boat to Ko Yao Yai, but there was no reason to go too early so we decided to give the moped another shot in the morning. We dragged our suitcases into the hall and asked for help bringing them to reception. I sat outside the room with the door open waiting, when 2 of the staff arrived, following closely by a maid. She asked if she could start cleaning the room, while the 2 men fussed over the bags. I said yes, she went in, and emerged about a minute later (2 men still fussing) and said 'Where is the other silver spoon?' I stared at her blankly, having no idea what she was talking about. She showed me a set of 2 cups and 1 spoon. 'It's missing?' I asked. 'Yes, 2 silver spoons. Where is it?' Obviously I had absolutely no idea where it was and she took on a rather antagonistic air. Eventually I asked if she was accusing me of stealing it and she said yes. Nothing happened regarding the spoon but when I thought about it later there was only one of two reasons that incident happened, and neither is nice. Either she thought a teaspoon is something worth stealing, and that I might actually have done so. This indicates she puts a pretty high worth on a teaspoon, and that she'd get in a lot of trouble if it went missing. The second possibility is that she stole it, hence why she waited until there were 'witnesses' and ran out almost immediately to accuse me. In both scenarios she thinks a teaspoon is worth stealing, and that's rather depressing.
We finally managed to rent our moped, and crashed it into a ditch after ten minutes. We hauled it out and examined it for scratches, but it was in such a state to begin with that we couldn't really tell. I was keen to just give the damn thing back (we'd already stopped to take a picture and not been able to restart it until we rolled down a hill) but Dan wanted to persevere. After that our troubles were minimal so we rode around the South, taking in the miserable sites of baby monkeys chained up for photos, and the nicer sights of Rawai beach.
Everyone told us the only way to travel in Phuket is by moped. Taxis rip you off, as do tuk tuks and it's far too hot to walk everywhere (and if you were like us, there wasn't really anywhere within walking distance). So in this case, everyone was right. With your own transport you can wander anywhere you like, and stop anywhere you like. It's kind of terrifying but once you've figured it out and had your first crash it's not so bad. I would have happily spent another couple of days in Phuket with a moped.
Phuket has some beautiful parts, and unfortunately we only started discovering them on our last morning. More importantly, it has access to a lot of other very spectacular scenery. It grew on me as time went on, and the moped was fun. Compared to Bali, none of the towns are as pretty as Ubud, but Bali didn't have anything quite as beautiful as Phang Nga Bay. It's an interesting place. And as such, I leave you with 2 'interesting' images.
Aaand two nice ones. Because I hate to end on a negative.