Searching for Phuket’s Hidden Treasures

Longboats in Phang Nga Bay Phuket Thailand- photo by Noreen Kompanik.jpg
Longboats in Phang Nga Bay, Phuket Thailand. Noreen Kompanik photos

A Family Trip to Phuket, Thailand

By Noreen Kompanik
GoNOMAD Senior Writer

After almost 20 hours of airport and flight time from the U.S., we arrived in Phuket, exhausted but so excited that we were finally there.

COVID had put a kibosh on our previous attempt to visit Thailand, but this time, my husband, son, daughter-in-law and I made that longtime plan a reality.

After checking into the Marriott Phuket Beach Club and taking a day to get some rest and adjust to the time difference, we were more than ready to begin our exploration of this incredibly picturesque land we ultimately labeled “our Pandora.”

Longboat on the shore of Lo Samah Bay- photo by Noreen Kompanik.jpg
Longboat on the shore of Lo Samah Bay. Noreen Kompanik photos

Location of Phuket

Phuket is Thailand’s largest island surrounded by the multi-hued azure and cerulean waters of the Andaman Sea. It’s renowned as one of the world’s best beach destinations with fine, white pearly sand, swaying coconut palms, dazzling waters and vibrant small towns.

It’s also a top destination for snorkeling and diving. But perhaps its most priceless precious gem is its people – warm, welcoming, gracious, giving and content with the life they lead in their picture-postcard paradise.

Between our amazing concierge, a Phuket native, and other locals we met during our two-and-a-half week stay, we were able to not only explore the must-do Phuket attractions that every traveler should see, but, also, the hidden treasures that make this area stand out as one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever visited on the planet.

When to Visit Phuket

Our vacation took place in February, and it’s important to keep in mind that monsoon season runs from May to October, so the timing of a trip is crucial.

Though we loved the occasional afternoon showers blanketing the jungle with a soothing downpour, it would be difficult to deal with a continuous rainy season that makes swimming dangerous and impedes enjoying the beauty of the island. For when the sun shines here, it’s a tropical haven.

Popular Phuket Sites

First time visitors will definitely want to see some of its most popular sites and not just the Phuket beaches. But thankfully, these can also be combined with other attractions in a tour package or working with the locals to ‘build your own’ itinerary.

Because we were in Phuket for more than two weeks, we had the opportunity to see the most popular attractions like the Big Buddha, a massive 148-foot white marble statue whose official name is Ming Mongkol Buddha and Wat Chalong, Phuket’s most famous temple that still remains a center of Buddhist worship.

James Bond Island (Khao Tapoo) is another renowned site not far from Phuket, so-named for its role in the James Bond movie “The Man With the Golden Gun.” The rocky pinnacle made of limestone is part of the newly established Ao Phang Nga Marine National Park.

Beauty Off the Beaten Path in and Around Phuket

One of the most exciting parts of travel for us is the element of surprise. That moment when we see something that is so incredible and so amazing, like the beaches of Phuket, we’re almost at a loss for words.

It was through these experiences that our eyes were opened to a world we’d never dreamed of. After all, seeing a photo in a magazine can’t even come close to experiencing it with all your senses.

The author's son at Elephant Care Park- photo by Noreen Kompanik.jpg
The author’s son at Elephant Care Park.

Up Close and Personal with Asian Elephants

The author's daughter-in-law at Elephant Care Park-photo by Noreen Kompanik.jpg
The author’s daughter-in-law at Elephant Care Park

A hundred years ago, there were about 300,000 wild elephants in Thailand. Today their numbers have dwindled to an estimated 3,500 domestic and fewer than 1,500 elephants in the wild.

While in Thailand, we wanted to spend time learning more about these gentle Asian giants.

Our concierge recommended Elephant Care Park, a place near and dear to her heart because of their conservation mission. “There are others” she said “but this one is the real deal.”

Logging with Elephants

In Thailand, elephants worked for years in the logging industry. In 1989, deforestation caused devastating flooding across the country resulting in a government ban on logging.

Though this was a good environmental and humane decision, it posed challenges to elephant owners unable to afford the upkeep of their elephants.

More Humane Elephant Treatment

This, in addition to a push for more humane elephant treatment (such as discouraging humans riding them for entertainment and forced circus performances), led to many of these beautiful behemoths being abandoned or even abused.

Elephant Care Phuket now have 30 elephants and a baby. And oh, are they loved.

If not just by the caretakers but the tourists/travelers who come to spend time preparing food, feeding, mud bathing and scrubbing and showering the elephants and learning how we all can be a part of saving these incredibly intelligent and loving creatures.

Floating Panyee Island-a Muslim community- photo by Michael Kompanik.jpg
Floating Panyee Island-a Muslim community. Michael Kompanik photo

Discovering Floating Panyee Island

Though the majority of Thailand is Buddhist, there is a growing Muslim population in the Phuket area and they just happen to have their own floating island.

The fishing village known as Koh Panyee within the Phang Nga Province can be accessed only by boat. This village was built on stilts by Malay fishermen. The population consists of about 1,685 people descending from two seafaring Muslim families.

In the late 20th century, the community found it difficult to subsist solely on the fishing industry. An enterprising postman proposed inviting tourists to the unique village. As a result, in addition to a Muslim school and an impressive mosque, the island sports seafood restaurants and a market full of vendors selling local good and souvenirs.

And to our biggest surprise, a new pitch was built on the island supporting Panyee FC, one of the most successful youth soccer clubs in Thailand. We guessed if you can play on a floating island, you can play anywhere.

Inside the Palu Caves in Ao Phang Nga National Park- photo by Michael Kompanik.jpg
Inside the Palu Caves in Ao Phang Nga National Park- photo by Michael Kompanik.jpg

Canoeing the Talu Caves

Thailand’s version of the gondola is the longboat. A large number of these colorful vessels are located in Phuket, and are one of the most efficient ways to get travelers from island to island.

The longboat is a type of watercraft native to Southeast Asia which uses a common automotive engine as a readily available and maintainable powerplant. The propeller sits at the end of a long 10-foot shaft trailing behind the boat. With their lightweight long canoe hull, longboats can reach up to 90 feet, and sport a canopy to protect riders from the heat of the sun or heavy rains.

Our kayak entering the Palu Caves- photo by Michael Kompanik.jpg
Our kayak entering the Palu Caves- photo by Michael Kompanik.jpg

We hopped onto our longboat in the Phuket marina and headed with our driver to a landing on Kasong Pier in Phang Nga Bay. Here we transferred to a kayak/canoe with a guide to take us into a world we could have never imagined – the stunningly beautiful and surreal Palu Caves.

Every visitor should see James Bond Island at least once-photo by Noreen Kompanik.jpg
Every visitor should see James Bond Island at least once-photo by Noreen Kompanik.jpg

The islands of Phang Nga Bay which lie within Ao Phang Nga National Park are a protected area home to diverse land and sea animals as well as lush plant life. Known for their beautiful beaches, rocky cliffs, and sea caves, the best way to explore the bay is with experienced local guides who take you to pristine places that most visitors don’t see or have never heard of.

For one hour, our guide who could speak a little English and had an entertaining dry sense of humor, introduced us to some of the most spectacular sea caverns we have ever seen.

Around each bend lay another surprise, more sea grottos formed by wind and wave, other worldly rock formations, emerald-green waters due to all the tropical flora of the islands, and stunning landscapes framed by limestone cliffs.

This is when we all muttered “oh my gosh, this is Pandora…for real.” It was almost that indescribable.

Wat Suwan Kuha (Monkey Cave)

Even friends of ours who live in Northern Thailand and had been to Phuket numerous times had never heard of Wat Suwan Kuha. This temple cave located in Phang Nga Town is approximately 60 feet wide and over 120 feet long, and contains various Buddha statues of different sizes.

Reclining Buddha inside Wat Suwan Kuha cave- photo by Michael Kompanik.jpg
Reclining Buddha inside Wat Suwan Kuha cave- photo by Michael Kompanik.jpg

The largest is known as the reclining golden Buddha that’s around 45 feet in length. The cave discovered at the end of the 19th century also contains other Buddha statues, images, and religious memorabilia. Entrance to the cave is through an elaborate faded gate that opens at the foot of a cliff into the massive cavern with impressively tall vaulted ceilings.

The Na Takuathung family, founder of the first shrine ever to be built in this cave, also happens to have their final resting place here. A large Chedi (round structures that contain relics) actually holds the family’s bones.

Women should be aware that since this is considered a Buddhist holy temple, shoulders and legs must be covered in reverence. However, if you forget to bring a wrap, the temple has these available before entering.

Monkeys among the cliffs of Wat Suwan Kuha- photo by Noreen Kompanik.jpg
Monkeys among the cliffs of Wat Suwan Kuha- photo by Noreen Kompanik.jpg

Though there are not monkeys located inside the multi-leveled temple and cavern, Wat Suwan Kuha got its nickname for the numerous Macaque monkeys located among the limestone rocks and cliffs on the exterior of the temple.

Here they wait for visitors to feed them bananas, nuts or other delights. But be careful not to get too close, as there are warning signs posted that they do bite.

Phi Phi Islands

One of our last adventures before leaving Phuket was another absolute memorable day trip to the Phi Phi Islands.

The hour-long journey by speedboat took us to popular places like Maya Bay, the spectacular filming location of ‘The Beach’ starring Leonardo DiCaprio. This along with its spectacular natural beauty put Maya Bay on the map.

For a while, the bay was overrun with tourists, and though it is still a highly sought-after destination, we were happy to know that no boats are currently allowed to enter the bay.

Visitors cannot go into the water past their knees in order to protect the regeneration of the bay’s coral reef. The area has just reopened after three years of closure while undergoing this impressive eco-project.

Snorkeling the crystal-clear waters of Lo Samah Bay- photo by Michael Kompanik.jpg
Snorkeling the crystal-clear waters of Lo Samah Bay- photo by Michael Kompanik.jpg

Snorkeling at Lo Samah Bay

One of the most unexpected surprises of our visit to the Phi Phi Islands was without a doubt our snorkeling adventure in breathtaking Lo Samah Bay, just a short boat ride from Maya Bay.

Located on the eastern side of island’s southern tip, the bay has a small inlet in the center, along with a tiny beach at the back of a small canyon on its northern part. This fairly secluded locale is renowned for its snorkeling and diving.

With crystalline multi-hued waters surrounded by massive limestone cliffs, the bay is much deeper than it looks, up to 40-feet in some places. Here, we encountered several types of tropical fish, colorful coral reefs, and to our surprise two baby reef sharks. Night-diving here is also extremely popular.

Crystalline waters of Lo Samah Bay-photo by Noreen Kompanik.jpg
Crystalline waters of Lo Samah Bay-photo by Noreen Kompanik.jpg

Leaving Phuket

As we headed home by plane from Phuket and the sun began to set beyond the horizon, we all felt a sense of sadness that our long-awaited Thailand adventure was coming to an end. But we were thankful we’d found a place that brought us so much surprise, delight and endearing memories…our own special Pandora.

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