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.
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.
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!
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.
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!