January 23, 2019
After Port Blair, India, we sailed the Indian Ocean two days before reaching Phuket, Thailand. During those couple of days at sea I fought the sloth that had overtaken me by going to the ship’s gym for an hour of rousing treadmill work and yoga. My vow to stay away from the desert table, however, met with limited success: I contented myself with one small sweet instead of two regular size slabs of fat and sugar. Thank heavens I have no interest in wine, which is poured with a liberal hand at dinner.
(Yes, in fact, I indulged so much the first couple of months I have put on some weight. But I’ll worry about shedding it once I got home. I’m on vacation, after all, no?)
The ship arrived in Phuket late on Jan 22, and since we would only be there for one day, our land excursion started at 8:30 the following morning. The island of Phuket (population about 400,000, which swells to more than a million during tourist season) and another 32 smaller islands form the largest province in Thailand. The area was among those hit when the tsunami struck in 2004, killing more than 5,000 in Thailand and two hundred thousand more throughout the Asian region.
The land excursion I chose took us to Phang Nga National Park area and Pan Yi Island, where we had lunch at a Muslim fishing village built on stilts. Other passengers opted to visit the Phi Phi Islands, another national park, to enjoy beaches, coral reef and three-thousand-year-old rock carvings.
With the ship docked in the southeast side of Phuket Island the coach took us northward to the top of the island and off the mainland to the Phang Nga National Park, famous for its limestone cliffs plunging straight down to the sea.
On the way we stopped to visit the Suwan Khuha Buddhist cave temple, a holy place where monkeys and dogs roam freely. There I witnessed a silent altercation between a small monkey perched stubbornly on a boulder and a dog, ears pricked, tail on alert, staring it down.
The temple houses an immense reclining golden Buddha. Ancient Buddha images and prehistoric artifacts have been excavated from inside the cave but the existing statuary dates to the mid-nineteenth century.
After a lovely, peaceful wander around the cave (and spending much time admiring the tiny monkeys) we got back on the bus and drove to Phang Nga Bay where, clad in unwieldy orange life jackets, we climbed inside a traditional Thai long-tailed boat. The boat was deep but we all managed to get into it with varying degrees of inelegance.
It was worth the long drive. Ahead of us lay some of the most glorious scenery on Earth. As the longboat skimmed the surface of smooth, mossy green water, we saw mangroves and caves. But the sight of sheer limestone karsts thrusting dramatically from the sea took my breath away. The sea breeze came as a blessed respite after the sweltering 35 degrees Celsius and steamy humidity we’d sweated through on land.
The ear-shattering drone of the huge engine attached to the back of the boat (handled by a gorgeous young hunk of a guy) did mar the experience somewhat. So, with fingers stuck in my ears to deaden the noise, I gazed slack-jawed as we circled the island of Koh Tapu, aka James Bond Island, where the climactic scene of Man with the Golden Gun was filmed.
It took about an hour to reach Pan Yi Island where the Sea Gypsy Village is situated before we had to haul ourselves out of the longboat. (Somehow climbing up is always harder than falling into something, isn’t it?) At one time the residents of Sea Gypsy Village made their living exclusively from fishing. Today the bulk of their income comes from tourism.
By then it was lunchtime. From the pier we’d walked along a long, covered corridor, lined on either side with stalls selling all manner of goods.
We had a nice meal, buffet-style, (Pad Thai noodles, anyone?) at tables overlooking the bay. I ate fast so I could do a little shopping. However, the shopping was a disappointment. Except for those selling foodstuffs, the goods on offer were all much the same, mostly inexpensive jewelry featuring peals (said to be genuine local pearls), T-shirts and other cheap clothing. Women wearing the hijab managed every one of the shops, which made me wonder whether the men were out fishing for local pearls to make more jewelry.
In spite of the paucity of quality goods, intrepid shopper that I am, I found a small glass ornament I liked. The shopkeeper assured me her husband had made it—but I’m not convinced.
At one o’clock we returned to the longboat, returned to the waiting bus and got back to the ship around suppertime.
Next stop: Port Kelang, Malaysia.