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August 29, 2006

Two Weeks in Thailand

Kata BeachOr Phuket to be more precise. Mine and Rachel's holiday was a little bit last–minute, and we'd probably do things differently next time, but the island was great. The beaches were pretty much how you'd imagine a desert island to look, albeit with people on!

Having said that, for some inexplicable reason, August is "low season" in Thailand, presumably because of the threat of monsoons. But while the monsoons were spectacularly wet, they only really hit on a couple of days and certainly didn't spoil our time there. The temperature was (as far as I know) never less than 30c – even at night – and while the tides were quite strong, the more sheltered Eastern side of the island was relatively docile.

Streets in Patong, PhuketPhuket's a place forever changed by tourism, and it's hard to tell when visiting whether this change has been for the better or worse. The economy is completely dominated by the presence of tourists – it's very difficult to find a shop that appears to be geared towards locals, and when you do, you realise that the food they sell is designed for the hotels and restaurants. Main streets in the town have been blighted by Westernisation – neon signs, an endless competition to make your premises seem bigger and more exciting than the identical outlet next door. Restaurants, shops, taxi ranks and bars are a place of fight–to–the–death competition, where someone will happily spend hours trying to convince you to come inside. To their credit, the Thais are very resilient in this respect, and maintain a permanent smile despite the general futility of their efforts (especially when the level of tourists is low).

Much of the country has been improved economically by the move of high–tech businesses into the country who attempt to take advantage of low wages in order to manufacture high–cost goods such as computer chips. But two factors are undermining this: one is the presently turbulent politics of the country and the other is the fact that as wages rise (thanks to said high–tech industry), Thailand suddenly becomes less attractive to potential investors.

Phuket doesn't appear to have seen much of this investment from big business. Instead, the island's towns are dominated by small–scale businesses scratching out a living on tourism, and tourism alone. Phuket has little else to offer (not a bad thing for tourists, but not so good for the islanders).

Wat Chalong, the main Buddhist temple on PhuketThings might be starting to change though. Tesco has an enormous outlet on the island, and a new shopping centre in Phuket town is as impressive as any in Britain. But it's coming at the expense of the genuine Thailand. There's little Asian architecture to be seen in any of these new developments, and they too seem to be geared to the tourist rather than the local.

What would be fantastic would be to see more Thai entrepreneurs on Phuket, creating home–grown big business that recognises the history of the country. At the moment, it's simply not happening.

Phi Phi Don IslandAway from the economy, Phuket's a great place to visit: small enough to get around easily, but not so small as to become tiresome (I'm talking about you, the Isle of Wight). Having said that, we were disappointed at our lack of mobility. Having booked a package holiday, we were stuck in a large and mostly adequate hotel (the Peach Hill hotel on Kata Beach), but really wanted to get away for longer than a day–trip. A day–trip to Phi Phi Don island was great, but we could easily have spent a weekend there rather than the two hours that we were allowed before the ferry returned to pick us up.

The food was often quite Westernised, although virtually every restaurant had an extensive Thai menu. One thing I'd say is that price doesn't guarantee quality. Some of the best meals we had were also the cheapest, while one of the most expensive in the most ornate restaurant gave me really bad food poisoning!

The Thai's spoken English is nothing short of astounding for a place which isn't especially affluent. It makes the holiday very easy, and there's none of the language snobbery that you might find in Western Europe. The people are incredibly helpful, and you'll find yourself in a perpetual bind about how much to tip – they'll be ecstatic with an amount that would be beyond derisory in the UK.

Just one example of the wildlife that youPhuket's definately a place for travellers rather than families, as if you don't have mobility then you're going to kick yourself for missing out on the unknown treasures just around the corner. The Thai mainland, for instance, eluded us, even though we heard it was even more beautiful than Phuket. If you're travelling through Asia, then I heartily recommend a stop on one of Phuket's beaches. But be warned the possibility of getting tourist–guilt. The island has changed so much since tourists started visiting that you wonder if the Thais ought to be as welcoming as they are.

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