Phuket & Richelieu Rock: Animalistic Isles

Phuket & Richelieu Rock: Animalistic Isles

I wasn’t all that into Phuket, to be honest. In fairness, I hadn’t expected to be anyway. As Thailand’s largest island, Phuket is so large that it really feels as much like the mainland as Bangkok did. The incessant noise and traffic in the Patong area, where I’d chosen to stay (but wouldn’t have in retrospect) provided another parallel, just without the same chaotic charm. Whereas BKK teemed with local life and wide-eyed travelers alike, Patong is a tourist hotspot, packed to the gills with ripe and reddened beachgoing Europeans, geriatric redlight provocateurs, and more touts than you could begin to count.

I’d come to Phuket for a reason, though – it would act as my intermediary transportation gateway to quiet beach town Khao Lak, which would in turn act as the gateway to the largely undeveloped Khura Buri region (pictured below), in turn again the oceanic gateway to Mu Ko Surin National Park – which conceals the smallest and most spectacular of these tropical Russian nesting dolls, a truly spectacular and very remote oceanic dive site known as Richelieu Rock. Discovered by famous French naval explorer and diving pioneer Jacques Cousteau (who would be later channeled by Bill Murray as Steve Zissou), Richelieu is a legendary dive site that enticed me with such fervor as to lure me into the noise of Phuket – where I’ll resume my narrative for now. 

So, Phuket was never in itself high atop my to-do list, but I penciled in a few itinerary days to extract from it whatever sweet seaside nectar I could muster; I was determined to make the most of my brief time there. 
Trouble in Tiger Paradise
The first plan I devised was to visit Tiger Kingdom, a controversial tourist attraction that necessitated a lot of preliminary research to understand the extent of its ethical implications. To be honest, I’m a little torn about the experience. Sans any sugarcoating, Tiger Kingdom is a small captive space that houses a relatively small number of tigers of varying sizes for what amounts to the sole purpose of posing for photos with tourists. Think of a small zoo with staff photographers and attentive trainers assisting a bunch of white people posing for photos. At the very least, it’s a bit kitschy, and at worst, it’s a bit troubling. 
The internet is rampant with rumors about these tigers being drugged for docility’s sake. At first blush, that’d be enough to nix any plans to visit right then and there – but having dug deeper, these claims have been thoroughly debunked by former staff and volunteers, to a degree that I deemed satisfactory [READ ABOUT IT HERE]. It seems these rumors were just that, born of conjecture and subsequently spread and magnified by the internet’s inherent double-edged virility. Make no mistake, there do exist similar businesses that do indeed employ such practices, some of which have been exposed and consequently shuttered locally in Thailand. Keep in mind, too, that many businesses continue to thrive despite rampant animal cruelty, like the wildly popular elephant trekking operations throughout Southeast Asia that are, in virtually ALL cases, unacceptably inhumane. But the aforementioned claims didn’t ring true in this case, and in the absence of any smoking gun like those present in the elephant trade, my decision wasn’t black and white.
My research led me to the initial conclusion that the biggest potential transgression at play was the mere captivity of these animals, and I initially likened this to zoos of all kinds, really. Evidence suggested the cats were trained for docility using humane methodologies – certainly no evidence of egregious abuse or mistreatment – and in conjunction with my content dismissal of any drugging concerns, I thought the experience worth a visit so I might judge for myself, my conscience clean from having done the extent of homework I could realistically expect to, without any obvious grave conclusions. [This blogger’s testimony helped, as well]
What I found left me with mixed emotions. Yes, being in the midst of a spectacular, muscled killing machine like this one was an awe-inspiring and humbling experience. But it’s for exactly that reason that it just felt a little off – my evolutionary alarms were blaring with a chorus of “you should not be walking away from this alive”. Not to say that I was afraid – indeed, the operation seemed very clean and professional, the animals docile (though alert), and the trainers seemed very much prepared, professional, and experienced to the extent that I had no remote fear of dismemberment – it was more a feeling that massive tigers and grinning tourists aren’t necessarily intended by nature to commingle in confined spaces without messy incident. Additionally, the place itself, while squeaky clean, didn’t exactly provide an ample natural habitat in which these tigers could roam – and to that extent I think they’re done a disservice.
All in all, it was a good experience because it brought me to really consciously consider my actions, weigh the impact of my tourism dollars and patronage, and follow my gut. In that regard, I don’t regret going, because I felt well-informed and well prepared to sit atop that 50/50 fence and draw my own conclusions. Ultimately, given the decision again, I don’t think I’d go – and I think that was an important conclusion to come to, as well. It was a good reminder that we need to be open about being wrong or changing our minds, and that lessons can be learned along the way in travel and in life. I didn’t see anything that made me feel outrageously gross – and I got to rub the belly of one of earth’s greatest predators and snap a fantastic photo, while learning a little along the way – but I don’t think anyone would argue these animals are living their best and happiest lives. So that’s the standard I’ll seek in future interactions with animal life along my travels. That said – it really is some photo, huh?
Old Town Charm, New Town Cuisine
I mentioned earlier that I regretted my choice to stay in the uber-touristic Patong, but the one highlight was their packed night market, teeming with vendors hawking their street food fare. I went nuts here, procuring tastes of thai tea, spicy fried chicken, spicy Issan sausage, pad thai, pork skewers, freshly-caught fish, and coconut ice cream. Well worth the subsequent stomach ache! Other than that… meh. Patong didn’t offer me much.

My day trip to Phuket’s historic Old Town, on the other hand, was a charming way to spend an afternoon. Reaching this destination by way of Thailand’s famously hectic open-air pickup-trucks-cum-buses called Songthaews was a worthwhile experience in itself, and the Old Town itself was perfectly lovely, if quiet. Lined with colorful Portuguese and Chinese-influenced architecture, dotted with colorful street art, and punctuated often with trendy cafes and locals restaurants, this district was a feast for the eyes and tastebuds alike. I’ll let my photos do the talking.

And that’s a wrap for Phuket! Told you it was a brief stay. Fine by me, because that meant it was time to make my way north to Khao Lak, home to Wicked Diving Thailand, the nautical shepherds and underwater wizards who would introduce me to…
Richelieu Rock: Marine Life Paradise
I’d be exploring a gorgeous Thai National Park aboard yet another 3-day liveaboard boat with the nice folks from Wicked, navigating our way around the Surin Islands and culminating in our exploration of this world-class oceanic pinnacle renown for its vivid marine life. Collectively, we were 16 eager divers, 4 instructors, and 5 local boat staff, representing the US, Canada, Switzerland, Germany, Mexico, England, Israel, Denmark, France, and Thailand.

I’m really developing a taste for these trips – go figure, as they’re not exactly inexpensive – but they sure are fun. All there is to do is wake up for the sunrise, eat big, lovingly prepared meals (mostly local Thai fare in this case), nap, read books, and lots and lots of scuba diving in beautiful remote locations. All in the complete absence of wifi or cell signal and in the presence of a diverse group of travelers and adventurers. The life!

Of course the one photo I capture was our most Western meal

The dive sites – and the surrounding islands above them – were all absolutely beautiful, but the undisputed highlight was Richelieu – by far the best single dive site I’ve had the pleasure of visiting so far. A rocky pinnacle deep in the middle of the Andaman sea, this spot is absolutely bursting with lush purple coral, and seemingly teeming with more life than even the busiest streets of Tokyo or New York. After submerging into the deep blue, you’re swallowed whole by unfathomable schools of countless fish – tens of thousands at least. 

You’re quickly reminded that you’re a mere visitor amongst the area’s more permanent residents: MASSIVE moray eels, cuttlefish, trevally, tremendous tuna, barracuda, bizarre nudibranch, lion fish, octopus, rare pipefish, squid, and a litany of microscopic life beyond our detection or comprehension – certainly beyond mine, at least. The whole area is absolutely exploding in color, in life, and in motion – you watch an entire ecosystem thriving in front of your very eyes, preserved by the protection of the national park and warm tropical waters.

To be honest, most of my underwater photos turned out a bit disappointing, so I’ll let this gorgeous video convey the message: this place is incredible.

An ode to Thailand
Just like that – it’s time to leave Thailand. For now, anyway – I owe this incredible country another visit in the rainy season to see its spiritual Northern core, a return I’m very excited for even many months in advance. But that’ll be a while, and my how I’ll miss this place. I’ll miss the locals, their broad smiles, and their simpler way of life. I’ll miss the glowing nighttime bastion 7-Eleven stores, purveyors of everything any human could possibly desire. I’ll miss its food perhaps most, exploding with flavor and spice and assuring me that my masochistic affinity for capsaicin is indeed shared somewhere in this world. I’ll even miss Thailand’s pristine turquoise water beaches, its islands and islanders. I’ll yearn too for Bangkok and its chaos, its loud urban oyster begging for the prying hands of the more daring and willing souls amongst us.

Thailand was my introduction to the exotic east, a chapter in this story that I’m eager to continue in Cambodia’s Siem Reap with a special guest co-adventurer – a friend I met a few years back in the jungles and ruins of Peru. We have some spectacular plans in place that should yield some spectacular memories and photo ops alike as we channel our best inner amalgamations of Indiana Jones and Lara Croft, and I can’t wait to see what Thailand’s neighboring nation holds in store for us. That’ll be next week’s episode – don’t forget to set your DVRs!

4 thoughts on “Phuket & Richelieu Rock: Animalistic Isles

  1. Great update and sound like it was well worth the stop at least for the diving experience and the food. Having read your blog, I now have to drive to Blue Ridge, Ga which to say the least is not even exciting. Looking forward to the continuing adventures and obviously the spectacular photography along the way. Love you always -Dad

  2. Oooh…. who are you meeting up with in Cambodia?! XD

    And yes, people are definitely reading your blog.. I am following all along the way. As I said, your blog literally gives me the smiles and feels. You are amazing and so inspiring. Love reading your perspective on things and learning some things too (ie. the Tiger zoo info).

    Safe travels to Cambodia!

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