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PHUKET - HOLIDAY PEARL OF THE SOUTH

Surveying the two Kata beachesPhuket (pronounced Poo-ket') is Thailand's largest island in the Indian Ocean, about the size of Singapore. The keynote is serenity, fun and relaxation along a string of 13 powder-fine beaches that are scattered in granite coves down the 30-mile west coast. 

The island's name derives from a Malay word meaning 'mountain'. Phuket is only a maximum 13 miles wide, but several peaks top 1,500 feet. Every palm-fringed beach offers a beautiful backdrop vista of wooded hills.


When English adventurers explored the region in the 17th century, Phuket was inhabited partly by 'sea gypsies' who lived off shellfish and moved along from one bay to another to give the seafood stocks time to re-establish.

Meanwhile, the more settled farming communities were principally Muslims of Malaysian origin, while Thais came in somewhat larger numbers as Siamese power spread south from the 13th century. An economic boost in the 17th century came from the discovery of rich tin mines which later attracted a flow of Chinese labourers. Today's population is 30% Chinese, who mostly have moved up the economic ladder. 

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Scheduled buses, and minibuses called songtaew, give regular connections between resorts and sightseeing highlights. 

For more ambitious island touring consider hiring a car or jeep. Be wary of motor-bike rental, which is the biggest single cause of visitor admission to local hospitals.

Although Phuket's population is relatively small 180,000 people in 225 sq miles there is interest in seeing different cultures first-hand. 

In contrast to the mainland which is 95% Buddhist and 4% Muslim, Phuket is 65% Buddhist and 30% Muslim. There are 28 temples, 29 mosques and 4 churches. 

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Even in the 17th or 18th centuries, Phuket was already a prosperous island. Besides tin, other precious goods were traded, including ivory, pearls, gem-stones, and ambergris for the perfume industry. From China came demand for the most costly of all foodstuffs: edible birds' nests that gourmets require for soup.

From 1903 rubber plantations were developed, worked mainly by Muslim smallholders who interplant with pineapple during the seven-year period when the trees are growing to maturity.

During the past 30 years, a decline in the value of tin and rubber is balanced by the new industry of tourism.

A sightseeing boat approaches the limestone outcrops of Phang Nga BayThe island's most developed beach is Patong, where many leading hotels are located. The 2-mile crescent is equipped with every watersport facility. Powered boats take snorkellers or scuba-divers to off-shore islands. 

The turquoise water is warm and inviting. On the beaches, refreshment service comes round with constant offers of cold beer or fresh pineapple, along with designer T-shirts and other memorabilia. Middle-aged ladies propose an on-the-spot beach massage of the innocent variety; or a beach manicure.

Facing the shoreline, and in The Strip called Soi Bangla which leads up from the beach, is a wide choice of shops and night-spots. 

Lively bars and open-air restaurants offer a full range of Thai and international cuisines. Best buy is seafood, with a particularly good selection of fish restaurants along Soi Bangla. 

Evenings are mainly pitched around the after-dark district off Soi Bangla. Music blares forth from the beer bars. A single male may not stay lonely for long, but there are plenty of holiday couples who just enjoy a drink and the fun of people-watching.

Patong is a good base for exploring the island and for taking all-day cruises to favourite excursion destinations. The hilly countryside is full of photo opportunities: waterfalls, lush vegetation, flamboyant trees, village houses on stilts, paddy fields. In palm groves, trained monkeys harvest the coconuts.

Latex from the ruber tree turns solid, and is then put through a mangle to convert into a sheetGo early morning, and you'll see rubber tappers at work, cutting slantwise into the bark so that milk-white latex oozes into a cup. Later the tappers return to pour the product into trays, to be air-dried into sheets of raw rubber and processed through mangles.

Three miles south of Patong is the somewhat quieter Karon Beach, with a long stretch of white sands where the jungle meets the sea. A headland separates the main beach of Karon Yai from Karon Noi (Relax Bay).

Resort hotels are spread along the Karon Yai coastline, which is backed by some simple Thai-style eating places and bars for social life. Look for fishermen casting circular nets into the surf in traditional style. There is good snorkelling around the coral reef.

South of Karon, the next hideaway is Kata Beach a good base for snorkelling en route to Pu Island, within reach of a good swimmer. 

It's a two-section beach, translating as Big and Little Kata. Shaped like a crescent moon, Big Kata Bay (Ao Kata Yai) is occupied mostly by bungalows and a low-profile Club Med, though the Club doesn't own the beach. Kata Noi, the smaller bay to the south, is backed by steep green hills.

Most of the island's sights can be seen, with occasional detours, along the routes to alternative beaches. Rated as one of Phuket's prettiest beaches, Nai Han is worth a trip. After a swim in the lagoon, many visitors continue to the nearby Phrom Thep cape at the island's southern tip for a spectacular sunset. 

At the northern tip of the island, the Sarasin Bridge connects Phuket to mainland Asia. Don't waste time on the east coast, where offshore tin dredging has ruined the shoreline. 

The island capital is worth a trip for shopping and to see Thai life in a town of 50,000 with many temples and mosques. The Chinese element is strongest in Phuket Town, originally settled by Chinese immigrants who came from the Malacca area of Malaysia. Older buildings show a faded Sino-Portuguese style that settlers brought with them. 

In the central market you'll catch the full flavour, variety and smell of Thai food. Shopkeepers are open to bargaining for the standard tourist items. Prices can be lower than Patong's, but less competitive than Bangkok's. 

Many handicrafts come from other areas of Thailand. Phuket's own specialities include giftware made of seashells, lead-free pewter from local tin, nielloware (silver inlaid with a black alloy) and cultured pearls farmed in Japanese style.

Virtually every month sees religious or secular festivals around the island, with each ethnic community adding its special colour. Visitors are welcome to participate. 

Wat Chalong Admission to mosques and temples is open to all who wear respectful dress and remove shoes. If you're not visiting the mind-blowing temples of Bangkok, Wat Chalong is worth seeing for its elaborate architecture.

Beautiful boat trips can be arranged from the beach resorts to other islands, which are prolific in this corner of the Andaman Sea. The most popular trips are to the Phi Phi Islands and to Phang Nga Bay.

Located 46 miles northeast of Phuket, Phang Nga Bay is a scenic wonder of limestone cliffs and islands, protected as a National Park. This weirdly beautiful bay is familiar to filmgoers as a setting for the James Bond movie, The Man with the Golden Gun.

Green limestone outcrops, honeycombed with caves and aquatic grottoes, soar a precipitous 1,000 feet high from the turquoise waters. Few of the islands are inhabited. Boats cruise through a series of canals and low caverns that gleam with stalactites. 

Check out these other Thailand features:

BANGKOK - Visit the capital "City of Angels'

CHIANG MAI - North to "Rose of the North"  

THAI CUISINE- Try that spicy food

THAI ENTERTAINMENT  - Sample the night-time scene

SHOPPING IN THAILAND - The enjoyable search for good quality trditional handicrafts

TRIPS OUT OF BANGKOK - Looking at the rich variety of excursion possibilities from the capital.


"Books to read - click on cover pictures" or click on the links below

The Rough Guide to Thailand's Beaches and Islands - so much to do, besides lolling around on the beach or haunting the bars.

Phuket Insight Pocket Guide - The best itineraries around the island, as selected by Insight's local correspondents.

Essential Phuket (AA Essential S.) - Focuses on the 'top ten' island highlights, for those who mainly want to concentrate on the beaches.

Phuket and Phi Phi (In a Snap Travel Guides)  - written for those who are staying only perhaps a week in Phuket, but just want guidance on the best trips to make away from the beaches.


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