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Saturday, March 3, 2018

Thailand Travel Series: Kamala Beach, Phuket


Kamala Beach, Phuket 




Glowing lantern flies
Over sea velvet as night
Port of luxury

This is Part 4 of the Thailand and Cambodia Travel Series. Read Part 1 Here.

YOU HAVE NOT SEEN CHAOS until you touch down in Phuket International Airport on the lush tropical island of Phuket that is located on the southwest coast of Thailand, bordered by the Andaman and Gulf of Thailand. A mini version of the sleek Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, the peaceful upper levels of Phuket Airport have plenty of dining and shopping options available. However, when you descend to the pick-up curb, be prepared for a firestorm of honking buses, swerving cars, and on top of that, a mob of chauffeurs vying to pounce on the recently arrived.

We decided to splurge a bit for this part of our trip and were staying at Novotel on Kamala Beach. The Novotel is a chain hotel that you can find in many parts of Thailand but each hotel is very unique and has its own vibe to match the community. The Novotel near Suvarnabhumi Airport is designed to cater to travelers and is very sleek, modern, efficient style. The Novotel in Kamala Beach is more laid-back, built directly off a cliff with a windy road to get down to it, and has a luxurious, relaxation feel. We spotted another Novotel further down Phuket as well that was built for those craving more of the mountain terrain experience rather than the beach. It is a fabulous chain with top-notch customer service and we loved our stay there. We had inquired ahead about their shuttle prices and it wasn’t a good deal (Upper 1500 Baht), so we decided to find a taxi at the airport to drive us.

There were no shortage of those! The airport had great signs to point you to exit, where we were lined on either side by taxi, limousine, bus and other transportation options. Vendors advanced on all sides shouting, waving, encouraging us to go with them, and it was so overwhelming that we walked, stone-faced, all the way to the end of the curb and sat down on the benches there, as if we had already made reservations ahead of time. That proved to be the best move, because then the vendors turned their attention on everyone else embarking from the exit. We could then wander our way back from behind, look at the prices, and get a good idea of who we wanted to approach.

We had done some research ahead of time as to how much we could expect a ride from the airport to Kamala Beach to be, so we approached one taxi company rep and asked how much. He gave a number, and we countered with 750 Baht, which he said was ok, and then brought us over to the taxi stand to have a gruff-faced woman take down our information. I’ve heard you could probably get it down to 600 Baht for other areas in the northern part of the island. Expect to pay more to go further south or check into bus rates especially if you’re going to Phuket Town where the cheap airport bus services run (http://www.phuket.com/phuket-magazine/phuket-airport-bus.htm)/ and check if your hotel offers free airport shuttle pick up. We were then pointed to cross the street and line up with other travelers with their company. We were told the taxi number to watch for. When he pulled up pretty quickly in 10 minutes, we were on our way.

Each area of Phuket is different, depending on what kind of experience you’re looking for:

Snapshots of Phuket Districts:

Kamala Beach or Surin: this is the northern part of the island on the Andaman Sea and is a slower pace, beautiful beaches. Large resorts, more jungle, a bit more secluded. Expect higher prices.

Patang or Karon: this is in the central part of the island on the Andaman Sea, a good launch point if you’re planning to visit multiple parts of the island. This is the main tourist part where the party is – crowds sunbathing, shopping, getting massages, and at night, swarms of promoters for whatever kind of bar you’re looking to find. Drag queen performances, love motels, all sorts of shows and revelry like the notorious ‘ping pong shows’ – you can find it here. Expect cheaper prices.





Karon is a bit less crazy and has a more family-friendly Kata Beach further toward the south.

Nothing really to do with Karon - but check out these power lines! I don't think there's enough!

Phuket Town: This is more central inland and is the old town, more 19th century shop building style. Local feel, slower pace, good launch spot to the harbors for trips to Koh Phi Phi or other tourist excursions in the Gulf of Thailand.

Rawai: Similar to Phuket Town, Rawai is on the southern tip of Phuket and is where the major Rawaii Pier is. If you’re doing any sort of excursion further south, you can expect your bus will drop you off here to board. The other pier on Phuket we saw mentioned was “Chalong Pier” on the northeastern part of the island, but it didn’t seem as busy.

Rawai Pier, Thailand



There are other off-the-beaten track options as well, and if it is more the mountain wilderness experience you are looking for, consider adding on a couple days to visit Khao Lak-Lam Ru National Park in the neighboring northern province that can offer multiple excursions into the jungle where there *could* be a very rare chance of spotting a clouded leopard. Tigers, sadly, are also very rare – I would look into northern province wildlife sanctuaries that might still see them.



After our experience jungle trekking through Angkor Wat in Cambodia, we were ready to relax on the beach! Novotel was a good choice for us. As soon as we checked into our room, we spent the next few hours wandering around in awe of the oceanfront pools and sandy beach with a front-seat view of a tangerine setting sun over the bay. We loved the upscale ship quarters feel of the room, and there was an adorable black cat that dashed over to greet us and chill beside us on our patio lounge chairs. We saw the cat everywhere even in the lobby, and the front desk told us the hotel had adopted this little rascal “Midnight.” The continental breakfast dining room was a fabulous treat as well with a huge spread, Western fare mixed with traditional Thai dishes, and an omelet bar. The dining room also had various “themed” nights like Seafood, Italian, ect, if you joined them for dinner.






There is a rooftop bar that had a wonderful live singer serenading us with old-school hits like Michael Buble while we munched on happy hour priced-meals like  Tom Yum Goong (spicy shrimp soul), flatbread pizzas, and of course, Pad Thai – get it with chicken, shrimp, or without! I loved the Tom Kha Gai, a silky coconut chicken soup that was so flavorful with just a bit of kick. This fried pork and basil dish was also really good – Pad Krapow Moo Saap. And of course, their green curry was super yummy too. There is also this chicken and cashew dish which was spicy but with so much good crunch, loved it - Kai Med Ma Muang.  I swear we didn’t eat all of this one night – but we definitely sampled their menu more than once during our stay! You could order some of these for room service, too, which was quick and efficient. The drinks were great as well, best deal is the Chang, but they had some other happy hour specials too and creamy pina coladas, as well as a Halloween themed zombie drink. 



Sitting around our rooftop table and watching the sun dip below the ocean is pure healing for the soul. You really feel a sense of calm and wonder gazing out upon the jungle bay, and when the first of the stars came out, so did lanterns, floating up from neighboring resorts, to celebrate the upcoming Loy Krathong Festival (we were there late October/early November, but dates change annually since it is based on lunar new year). I think there was recently a Vegetarian Festival in the area around the time we were there, too. (https://www.thaizer.com/thailand-events-festivals/). For many of these festivals, you might want to aim to be in northernmost Chiang Mai, which has whole hosts of parades and goes all out. Here in Kamala Beach on Phuket - if you walked along the beach, vendors would emerge from the shadows and offer to sell you a lantern and help you light it and send it up and over the sea. I think it was around 80 baht? The part of me that is against littering of course had a frantic soul wrestling with all of this, but I can’t deny it was very beautiful to watch.  

The singer launched into a few more dreamy, classical hits, and by this time, since we’d had a couple drinks, we felt brave enough to go up and show off our dance moves to the rooftop crowd. One French couple joined us, and we ended up having a good time chatting with them after. They were going to head out to a party later in Patong and also planned to visit Koh Phi Phi on a group tour during their stay.

 It was a great international mix of nationalities at the hotel. We did spot one group of Americans from Texas hanging out in the pool, but many others were Russian, German, French, Chinese, Korean, and Indian. There were a lot of families staying at the hotel, too, I would say overall the hotel is kid friendly but the pool structure is more designed to attract college-somethings and up – not much room for cannonballs. It did however have a basketball net set up in the pool--as well as a pool bar!

The pool bar was one of our favorite spots. Sitting back in the cool waters and a balmy 80 degree day and sipping from coconuts, we were in full-on bliss mode. There were even “jet” pools (not hot tubs, but tiny pools with jets) that you could sit in just outside the pool for a more secluded experience, each one allowing maybe 2-3 people.

Then a huge thunderstorm rolled in like clockwork as they often did around 4 Pm in the afternoon. Everyone in the pool scattered, except for us and a couple others who savored the dramatic chaos sweeping across the wind-torn bay while purple lightning streaked on the horizon. We were baptized in the warm torrential downpour as the dark clouds enclosed us and the waves picked up on the shore. We heard the Americans cry about the safety of being in water while a lightning storm was going on, but we felt too mesmerized and liberated (tipsy) too care. That was one of my favorite moments of the trip, witnessing the raw, sheer beauty of the lightning storm dancing across the sea.




We did attempt to snorkel at Kamala Beach out around the tip of the bay, but sadly, we saw more plastic than we did fish. The water was calm and easy to swim in, but I’ve heard you do need to watch the currents here. We did see some others surfing as well down the beach – there were stalls to rent surf boards from and places to get a nice relaxing massage on the beach.






We bought the snorkel masks at a local shop in neighboring Kamala Town, just a 15-20 minute walk down the beach from our hotel. We figured we’d use them again so may as well, since we could buy them for cheap. A little bridge will bring you into the town, and there you can find tourist information stalls selling various excursions and transportation services. You can find anything there. I would highly recommend not wasting your time booking events through the resort or paying for supplies at their convenience stores, because you are definitely paying resort prices for that. Kamala Town had banks where we could withdraw funds/get exchange rates and a 7-11, which is the go-to for buying bottled water, sun screen, and cheap beer to keep your room stocked. We found a great information stall we purchased all our travel excursions from. They have brochures with a bunch of different tours available. The lady gave me one price, I told her two people were coming on the trip, and she discounted it even further. After we confirmed, she had us fill out a paper, called and booked it for us, and gave us an envelope complete with the tour company, time we would be picked up from our hotel, and the driver’s phone number.

Great place in Kamala Town to book tours at


So you find good deals there, and you don’t have to book too far ahead of time, maybe 1-2 days at the most given weather can change. Just keep in mind that you do get what you pay for. Sometimes going for the cheapest trip is going to be the worst experience because you will be loaded up with 40 others on a tour that doesn’t even give you down time to go to the bathroom before you’re hustled onto the next spot. So I would recommend forking out a bit extra for smaller groups, longer stays in locations. Make sure to ask how long you can expect to spend at each island or tourist stop. Snorkeling at Koh Phi Phi or visiting Phrang Nga Bay (James Bond Island) were two of the most popular trips. We were planning to visit Koh Phi Phi further in the trip so we chose the Phrang Nga Bay and a deep-sea fishing trip (which we’ll cover in the next blog post!).

There are also plenty of restaurants/food stalls in Kamala Town if your wallet needs a break from eating at the resort. You can find some of the best pad thai at these food stalls for maybe 80 baht.  






Look at that scaffolding!

:)



Research well ahead of time, know what you want to spend each day doing. And do keep in mind that trips could be canceled in case of inclement weather, so don’t book too far ahead of time! These stalls are great to purchase other services, too. We bought our ferry ticket to Railay Beach from here and they lined up the pick up service as well, which would have been double at the resort. If in doubt, just tell them you’re trying to get from Point A to Point B and see what deal they can find for you.  

Overall, we loved our stay at Novotel in Kamala Beach, it was a very good fit for us!


Upcoming Post: Ao Phrang Nga Bay and “James Bond” Island

Disclaimer: the above is depicted as fiction, not fact

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