Thailand’s many playgrounds each have their own distinctive personality.
Usually, but not always, there is a beach, white sand and palm trees by day, boisterous bars by night. Phuket may be king of that combo, the world leader.
Phuket is a big island, THE big island Thailand destination: the same size as Ibiza (with which it might be most accurately compared), one and a half times the size of the Dingle peninsula or half the size of county Longford or one third the size of County Kildare. It is connected by bridge to the mainland, Achill-like, which means it probably no longer counts as an island at all.
The Patong Beach area retains some of the 1960s Vietnamised reputation as a no-holds-barred boystown that more properly belongs in Pattaya (somebody told me there are 44,000 girls on the take in Pattaya).
To understand Phuket, go to the bottom of the peninsula, and see where you can see both sunrise and sunset over the azure ocean.
There you understand the difference. This is not Phi Phi or Pattaya or Chiang Mai.
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It can get crowded, but not that crowded, there are daily escapes in every direction.
If you get a day on Naka Noi Island off Phuket, the private island of the Exotissimo group, you will never forget it.
It is here we came to relax, feed on prawns, serenaded by guitarist Medic Gauvo, his multilingual repertoire and his daughter, and alternating splash and sunbed like the confused working travel aficionados that we were.
The excursion follows a pattern, a boat trip through Phang Nga Bay, tall limestone buttes standing stark from the water and tourists trekking through the prickly pear cactus along the stony beach path on the steep shored Khao Phing Kan to see where the Scarmanga’s island scenes in the 1974 James Bond film Man with The Golden Gun was shot.
While the energy crisis Bond film was the most forgettable of the series, the locations are not. The cliffs, caves and scrubland on the flat tops of the tall rocks are as distinctively Asian as you will get.
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There is one attraction worth leaving the beach for. You hear before you see, as you approach the gibbon rehabilitation centre in the balmy tropical forest around Bang Pae waterfal.
Some of the gibbons have come from street and bar shows in the resorts.
Helen Thompson from Inverness was among the volunteers there. “You see these gibbons on the beaches, in the bars, in the streets. Tourists pay 100 baht to have their picture taken with the gibbon.
“Most people think this is fun, the animals are pets and are treated well. They are wrong. All of them are wild animals. They were born in the wild. The families have been poached in order to take the young babies away from the mother.
“For the first two years of their lives gibbons are very dependent on their mother and travel around with their arms draped around the mother’s neck. The poachers shoot the mother. This is how they are caught.
“Normally the whole family will be killed to get that one baby. Only one in three babies survive long enough to make it to the streets. So up to ten gibbons will have died to get that one baby.”
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To holiday in Phuket you need a survival plan of your own. The first question is whether you want noisy or quiet. There is no shortage of options for those who want to make the right call.
We passed in to Cape Panwa Hotel on the toe of the peninsula that cuts Chalong Bay from the Bay of Phuket on the quiet south eastern side of the island. Here is hide-and-chic Thailand. A labyrinth of wooden decks connects the rooms, the beach is quiet and exclusive and reached by an eccentric cable car.
You can still hear the water through your suite window high over sea level, keeping its distance and awaiting your return.
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Eoghan Corry flew to Phuket with Etihad Airlines, who fly double daily from Dublin to Abu Dhabi and onwards to 90 international destinations, including Phuket daily and Bangkok three times daily. See www.etihad.com or your local travel agent.
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