Phuket is an island in the Andaman Sea, part of the Indian Ocean. It is apparently Thailand’s largest island, as well. (If you would like a visual reference, our map under the Road Trip page has been updated!) When we arrived in Phuket, we had very little idea of what to do, other than sit on the beach and get a Thai massage (but not simultaneously). We knew there would be lots of water activities available, and decided to wait until we got there to choose our adventure. On Friday night, before we left for dinner, I asked our favorite front desk clerk at our hotel for suggestions on things to do and excursions to take for the next day. Several tours were recommended, but he advocated for one tour in particular because they had already arranged a group rate for their hotel guests for the next day. The group was large enough that the discount was a little more than half off the published rate. Even if it was a racket, the cost was low enough that we felt fine about it- around $68 USD for both of us, including lunch and as much bottled water as we wanted. We didn’t think we could get a better deal from any of the other agencies selling tours, and half the point of choosing that hotel was to let them arrange the excursions and take the pressure off of us. So we booked an Island Kayaking excursion to James Bond Island! I will openly admit that half of the appeal was kayaking and the other half, perhaps slightly more than half, was the James Bond link (for Micah anyway).
Day 2 in Phuket started bright and early for our adventure. We had an early pick up, around 7:45am, so that gave us a good excuse to leave Pleasure Island… I mean Bangla Road… the night before. We set our alarm for way earlier than anyone should have to get up on vacation and headed downstairs. The good news is that our hotel provided a complimentary hot breakfast. The really good news for me is that they had pancakes! And bacon! Pancakes are my favorite weekend breakfast and our hotel in KL does not have them. Ever. Yes, I could make them myself. But with free breakfast at the hotel, it’s just easier and nicer to have someone else make breakfast and then clean up. The downside is never getting to choose what’s for breakfast. Bacon is another thing our hotel does not have since they feature a halal menu. Don’t judge me, but I am indifferent to bacon. It’s less that I don’t like it at all and more that I don’t enjoy it enough to bother eating it. Micah, however, likes bacon the way that I like pancakes. So we both were thrilled with our breakfast treats and could have happily continued eating pancakes and bacon for the rest of the day.
The group from our hotel included a really nice couple from Canada that we made friends with and 9 other tourists from China. We all loaded into a van to go to the marina, around an hour across the island. On board the boat there were other tourists from India, Pakistan, Lebanon, Russia, Italy, and probably other places as well. It was like a mini UN! I would guess there were about 30 people, all told. At the marina, there were probably 15 boats each going to various destinations. It was amazing to see the organization involved, to get that many people from buses and vans, into a relatively small marina area on the island, and then sorted into the various boats. In the line of boats pictured here, the passengers came onto the dock and then across all of the boats to the outside-most boat. They loaded that one first, and then started on the next one in. As that second boat was loading, the first one cast off and headed out. They had all the boats loaded and underway in around 30 minutes.
The weather wasn’t picture perfect, by any means: it was overcast and it rained periodically. But I love being on the water. Any time on a boat is a good time, in my opinion. I was personally OK with not having a sunny day. I am the kind of person who does not get a tan, ever. I burn. I have to wear a high SPF, and if it were sunny I probably would have gotten burned anyway. So having a little cover from the sun was just fine for me! From the marina, it was about an hour cruise out to the first island and we really enjoyed the ride. We saw many islands along the way, some of them the tour guide pointed out by name. They all looked basically the same: hills covered with jungle sloping down to cliffs on the ocean. All were really beautiful.
There were 4 stops, on 3 different islands, each for about 45-minutes. The guide let us know that at the first two stops we would have a guide to paddle us around in the kayak. At first we were really bummed that we wouldn’t be doing the actual kayaking ourselves, but we realized quickly that we would get to see and do a lot more with an experienced guide paddling. We went through caves and lagoons, some with really narrow openings and low ceilings. It was really pretty and something different that we wouldn’t have gotten to see if we had been paddling ourselves. There were 15 or so kayaks just from our boat, plus three or four other boats with at least that many kayaks at each stop. Trying to navigate around and through the crowds would have been very tricky.
Here are some of our favorite pictures from these two stops. (I’m breaking them into segments because we took so many pictures. More pictures, from the whole weekend, are on Flickr, accessible here or from the side bar to the right.)
Before the second stop the tour guide said the paddle guides would be going back to Phuket after this stop, so we could tip them if we thought they did a good job. We haven’t really tipped anyone in KL because service charges are included in restaurant bills, typically around 10% of the bill, and it was the same in Thailand. 10% is less than we would normally tip in the US, but tipping culture is just different over here. You only tip if someone performs a service for you, like paddling your kayak around the islands, so we didn’t really know how much would be appropriate. Micah and I thought 300 baht, a little more than $9 USD, felt about right based on the cost of other things we had purchased. We asked around and others were planning to tip quite a bit less, less than 100 baht. We revised our plans and decided we felt OK with 200 baht, about $6 USD. It was still a lot, but we felt really uncomfortable tipping less. When Micah put the bills into the guide’s hands, his whole face lit up. I think he felt like he hit the jackpot! Yes, we were the sucker American tourists who spent too much. Oh well. $6 USD doesn’t feel like a large tip by our standards at all, even though it clearly was by theirs. We talked about it a lot afterwards and we still aren’t sure what the solution is: tip according to your own cultural standards or tip according to the local cultural standards. The decision making factor for us was the cost of a beer, a tip that could buy about two beers seemed appropriate to us.
The third stop was James Bond Island! Actually, the third stop was Khao Phing Kan, the island that surrounds James Bond Island. It’s the island that serves as the bad guy’s lair in Man With the Golden Gun, a Roger Moore-era Bond flick. Our tour boat anchored a ways off shore and a longboat came to take us to the island. The island has as many tacky tourist trap shops as could fit the length of the beach. It also had a lot of really beautiful rock formations and caves. We only had about 40 minutes to explore the island and wait our turn to take pictures. (This was actually really civilized. You could wait in a small line to take a picture with the island in the background, without other tourists crowding in. You took the picture for the people in front of you, the people behind you took your picture. I have no idea how this convention evolved, but I like it!) In truth, we could have used about 10 or 15 minutes more to have time to appreciate the beauty and take it all in. Beyond that, I don’t know what we would have done with any extra time. It wasn’t a very big place.
Our last stop was to the “monkey area,” it’s a beach on the other side of one of the first two islands we explored. At this stop, we were allowed to paddle our own kayaks to the beach and swim a little. We only had 30 or 40 minutes, so not much time at all. At each of the first two stops, the guide started his instructions with, “Is everybody having fun? Is everybody happy?” When we all inevitably cheered, he would say, “Well if you are happy enough you can jump off the boat.” The first time we understood this the way you’d tell someone who was annoying you to go jump in a lake, it seemed like an odd thing to say to a tour group. The second time he said it, Micah went over and said, “Are you serious? Can we really jump off the boat?” The guide unclipped the cable on the rail and Micah jumped in! It looked like a lot of fun, but one of us had to keep the camera dry. Before the last stop when he offered to let us jump, I took him up on it. It was really fun! The water was bathtub warm and extremely salty.
We collected our kayak and paddled to the beach to see the monkeys. There was one monkey sitting on the beach, apparently waiting for our tour guide. The guide was about 15 feet from shore when he started yelling, “Monkey! Monkey! Monkey! Banana? Banana?” The monkey apparently knew this drill because he ran over towards the guide and hopped into his kayak before the guide had even landed it. The monkey sat in the boat patiently eating his bananas and letting us take pictures of him for a few minutes.
While we were swimming and playing in the water, we witnessed a really special event. The Pakistani gentleman on our tour and Micah had chatted several times on the boat. He came over towards us on the beach, wearing a life jacket and he splashed around a little bit. Then he stood up, walked to the shore and took off the life jacket. He came back into the water and swam around again for a few minutes before putting the life jacket back on. At this point, it was time for us to head back to the tour boat. After we had all done our best to dry off and change into our dry-ish clothes, the man sought Micah out and said, “That was my first time to swim.” He was so happy and so proud of swimming; it was really extraordinary to be a part of- both to witness it and to have him tell us specifically. He was probably about 60 years old, how brave of him to try it! His wife on shore must have been really nervous, I know I would have been if I were in her position. It was a very special moment.
Coming Up: Beach day and how (not) to bargain.