A well-developed airport plays host to airlines from Europe, North-East and South-East Asia from where thousands of tourists head straight for the
blissful beaches. The only Thai island enjoying a
provincial status, Phuket derives much
of its former glory and enormous wealth
from tin production, which dates back
over 500 years.
Today, the tin supplies
have dwindled but tourism is on the
rise. The island's surrounding waters
contain colourful marine life, and the
town is notable for its old European
style architecture. Sightseers can dwell
for hours on its lovely sea-shores,
limestone cliffs and forested hillsides.
Apart from the pristine beaches, home
to all the extraordinary hotels listed in this section,
Phuket does boast a number of natural and
Khao Rang is a small hill maintained as a
public park with spectacular views of the entire
island. At the Phuket Orchid Garden and Thai Village, cultural performances show the Thai way of life with folk dances, Thai boxing, the unique aspects of Phuket and South Thailand, a handicraft centre, and orchid farm and elephant show. There is even a lovely butterfly garden and aquarium. At the end of Cape Phanwa, the Marine
Biological Research Centre carries out marine research and boasts a sea aquarium with a wide variety of different fish species, marine animals and beautiful shells.
From November to February gigantic sea turtles struggle ashore to lay their eggs there. A phone call to the National Park Division, Royal Forestry Department (5790529, 5794842) can help set up accommodation in the park, though one of the Great Hotels listed in this section is located right within it. Yet another forested area is the Khao Phra Thaeo Wildlife Park, where innumerable birds, wild boars and monkeys enliven the botanical beauty cooled by cascading waterfalls.
Between September and October everywear, (the exact date varies according to the lunar calendar) Phuket marks the Vegetarian Festival which originated among immigrant workers in the 19th century and is one of the major events of Phuket's year. Residents of Chinese ancestry go on a ten-day vegetarian diet accompanied by ceremonies at local Chinese temples as well as parades that feature quite remarkable feats by ascetic believers.
The delights continue offshore where small islets offer excellent snorkelling, scuba diving and fishing. There are at least three pearl farms on some of the outlying islands. The island of Siray, four kilometres south-east of Phuket, is noted for a monastic community, and the home of the Chao Le, "Sea Gypsies". Several tours take in the islands of Phang-Nga, where beautiful scenery nestles among mountains which rise up around the town as if they were the town wall. Most of the area is mountainous with very little basin area. Phang-Nga covers 4,171 square kilometres, 57 per cent of which is mangrove and evergreen forest.
Gaining in popularity is the mainland province of Krabi, reachable by boat from Phuket or directly by road from Bangkok, 814 kilometres to the north. Five kilometres before the township area, the highway runs parallel to the Krabi River with stunning scenery as the two cut through resplendent hill ranges. Krabi is dotted with astounding mountains, hills, plains and more than 30 small islands off the coast. The still pristine jungles include white mangrove and mangrove forests. A few cultural sidelights are located near the cultural capital, such as the Tiger Cave Monastery, or Wat Tham Seua, an old retreat set in a natural amphitheatre of caves and gigantic trees.
Named after a rock formation which resembles a tiger paw, south-western Thailand's most important forest temple was established by a venerable monk who used grisly pictures of internal organs to emphasize the transitory nature of life. Another
interesting attraction is Su San Noi, a famous shoreline collection of fossilized seashells at Laem Pho, 19 kilometres west of Krabi. The site is composed of limestone slabs flecked with thousands of oyster shells that date back to some 75 million years. The "cemetery" is one of three of its kind, the other two being in the United States and Japan.
About 45 kilometres west of Krabi, reachable both from there and Phuket, are the two enchanting Phi Phi Islands ó Phi Phi Lae and Phi Phi Don. Diving is the main attraction at Phi Phi Don, the larger of the two, graced by white sandy beaches, high cliffs and hills covered by lush greenery. Phi Phi Lae consists almost totally of sheer limestone cliffs rising out of the sea. Its turquoise inlets offer swimming pleasure like nowhere else. Though the islands' population still lives in huts, they are visited by more than 250,000 visitors a year.
Phuket can also be used as a staging post for excursions into the rest of South Thailand where most of the country's Islamic community lives, providing for a unique and harmonious mixture of two religions. In Satun, one of the smallest provinces, 80 per cent of the population is Thai Muslim. The province's Ko Tarutao, the former territory of pirates about which many books have been written, is a delightful national marine park with extraordinary scuba-diving spots. Not far from Phuket is one of South Thailand's most famous seaside resort town of HatYai, a junction of Malaysian and Singaporean tourists. Its shopping opportunities are legendary.