Sunday, February 03, 2008

Destination : Phuket

Life's full of little surprises & treats. Phuket was one such surprise. Let me tell you outright, I hate Beaches..well ..umm..at least until some time back. I hate the concept of lying on your back in sweltering conditions, smeared in sun screen, checking your tan (not that I need one) & taking an occasional dip. Coming to the dip, I hated the sting of the brackish sea water & the sand that sticks to you after. Couple these with not knowing to swim (I learnt not so in the distant past to swim), which limits you to the scary neck deep waters and run back to the beach. The only inviting part of the beach was lying under a sun umbrella, sipping chilled beer and admiring the scantily clad :-)

My new project took me to Malaysia (Truly Asia) in the latter part of 2007. Malaysia is a wonderful place for tourists - especially if you happen to be a shopaholic and food junkie. Some of the must-do KL attractions are within walking distance of where I worked or stayed. Yet, the urban jungle sprawl failed to interest me. Almost 1 mundane month passed barring the excitement of running a new project. Some of the events of the project did not happen as expected and visa was one. This meant that I travel out of Malaysia and return to the country for an extension.

People who’ve had prior experience suggested Bangkok & Singapore. Bangkok for its night life and Singapore for whatever. Singapore was ruled out due to exorbitant hotel costs. Bangkok was the next best option. Not until, after some painstaking search, Phuket worked out to be the cheapest and something more interesting than Bangkok. I had to leave on Tuesday, 4th Dec 07 after lunch to Phuket and come back the following day in the evening. The whole itinerary left me with less than 1 day to spend in Phuket. I was also joined by Ravi & Mukul (a late entrant into the itinerary). So, it was 3 men sharing the hotel room for a night. What a way to enjoy Phuket!!!

Inspired by “James Bond & Kaho Naa Pyaar Hai “, I was keen on doing the Island tour (James Bond Island, Phi Phi Island). All research led me to a day long package, nothing less. I had an evening and half-day to spend in Phuket. Crestfallen, I decided to go there and find out locally. The day arrived and we left for the airport straight from the office, in our smart casuals, to Phuket, with an overnighter. I decided to take a window seat , something out of the norm for me, for 2 reasons – short flight of 1 hour & I wanted to catch a glimpse of the colourful atoll (if any) enroute. Unfortunately, I didn’t sight any atoll and it was time to land the aircraft. Past immigrations & customs, boarded a Taxi to the hotel. It was a 45 minute journey to the Patong Beach (famous water-front in Phuket). Thailand was no different to India – dirty, unplanned, tuk-tuks(auto rickshaws) & chaotic. Felt like home :-)

The Leelawadee hotel turned out to be a glorified Dasaprakash. Having booked into a luxurious room (with 2 more men folk), we had a nice view of Patong beach from the balcony(look carefully..somewhere behind the line of trees and buildings there). While we were waiting for check-in, I ran through the tour brochures and lo behold, it was my lucky day. There was only 1 brochure left and that was the only one catering to a half day package. The package included a hotel pick-up & drop, speed boat ride to 3 islands near-by, snorkeling (equipment provided) & fish feeding. Based on the timings, we would miss our return flight, if we return to our hotel & then head to the airport. So we called up the agent, through hotel concierge, and they were willing to safe keep our luggage and provide a shower & a taxi direct to airport from there. So, all settled & we booked for the next day package.

Shower, change into comfortable beach wear and hit the road. Patong beach recovering from the 2004 Tsunami that ravaged the island, was teeming with foreigners. It wasn’t unusual to see 60 year white male walking holding hands of an 18 year local girl. One travel guide suggested, Ignore It! After lots of walking around, trying to be lured by “Massage Sir” cat-calls, we settled into a pub. Thirsty travellers! While Mukul & I downed a few beers, Ravi with his Sprite, attracted the attention & wrath :-) of the Pub owner. Close to mid-night, we stepped out of the bar and prevented a Thai restaurant from closing down for the night, so that we could grab a bite. The food was amazing – spicy, aromatic & yummy & custom made for the vegetarians!

Next morning the pick-up was at 7 and while we were at the breakfast, the van arrived. So, we were all set for snorkelling. Having never done it before, or being prepared for it, it was something to look forward to. When we arrived at the pier, we were served coffee & tea, while waiting for our boat. The boat was to depart at 9 am and return to pier at 1 pm. We left our baggage at the office and rented flippers (not included in the package, for THB 100). Once we had the entire group assembled, the entourage left for our first island sharp at 9. On board we were treated to water & juice. We were also given our snorkels & life jacket. Our first stop was “Kai Nai” Island. The sea was rough and the speed boat nerve-racking. It was very bumpy and we had to hold onto anything available, so that we weren’t tossed around. The boat rattled every time it hit a wave and I was contemplating on wearing the life jacket, lest the boat break into pieces. Once the confidence improved, we moved to the deck of the boat, to catch the crispy fresh air and the rivulets of sea water.

We reached our first island and once the boat was moored, we were told we have 30 minutes to explore the corals and the amazing aquatic life they support. The sea was 2-3 meters in depth and not being a strong swimmer nor having prior snorkelling experience, decided to put on the life jacket. The first few attempts to snorkel were a disaster. Everytime I tried to breath through the pipe, my mouth and nose was filled was water. I had to pull myself out of the water gasping for air. I also did not have the flippers on me. Then I slowly got adjusted to breathing through the pipe, yet, was conscious of it. This didn’t help me to take long swim. Time to return to the boat for our next destination. Ravi who had stayed back on the boat, had captured some good shots (to show & brag back home ! ). Mukul joined in a while after his first snorkeling stint as well. We started discussing our experience and the beautiful fishes we managed to catch. Mukul who had mastered the art of snorkeling by then, gave me some tips - only time will tell how useful they are and that’s not far away.

We reached our second destination – “Kai Nor” Island. 2 little girls, part of our group, fell sea sick and we were asked if it was alright to spend more time in this island and skip the third one. The group was fine and all settled. This also gave us more time to explore this island, instead of rushing from one place to another. Worked out well for our snorkelling training. We choose our own spot in the beach, left our stuff and headed to the waters, with Ravi opting to stay back. The beach was shallow and abundant with corals. This gave me the confidence to swim and explore. With flippers on this time & tips from Mukul, I was able to hold longer underwater – flippers helped me with spending minimal effort in floatation. Once I learnt the technique, I was able to explore into the depths of the ocean, without much fear or life-jacket. The world underneath was mind boggling. Fishes came in all colours and sizes, some adapting to the changing colours of the corals – camouflage. School of glittering fishes swam with us, only to be interrupted by some food or bread thrown at them. There were fishes that got close to us to explore, the way we were exploring them. It was a new experience and exhilarating. The corals were all around the island. When tired, I get back to the beach, have a cold drink & fresh fruits offered by the tour company and head back to the waters in search of more diverse life. A good deal of 2 hours was spent in the waters, watching the marine life. Its an experience never to be forgotten. As the sun grew stronger, the island was getting crowded with day trippers and it was time for us to head back to the pier.

At the pier, we showered, boarded the waiting Taxi to the airport with our belongings. The much needed break was short-lived. As I waited at Phuket Airport, sipping a Thai Mango juice, awaiting the flight to KL, I was satisfied that I have a new hobby and lots of memories to cherish.