Gonzalo Gil Lavedra, a tour operator and an Argentinian with extensive travel experience in Peru and the Netherlands, finds the physical and cultural highlights of Phuket and Southern Thailand as compelling as anything he's experienced around the world.
Lavedra says that since moving to Phuket in 2013, to become the Phuket branch manager of Khiri Travel Thailand, a tour operator, the Greater Phuket area has captured his heart and imagination. "It's the quiet, unheralded attractions and people away from mass tourism that make me glad to have found a new home in the South," he says.
His take on Phuket is different. Here he recommends 25 great Phuket things – people, books, experiences, old town insights, and places to eat – that, he says, "should be shared with people who appreciate quiet discoveries" when they travel.
Five people who have shaped (or are shaping) Phuket
Kaw Simbee is a huge character (reportedly 90kg but only 1.5m tall) from the late 19th century. He brought rubber plantations to South Thailand as well as establishing an empire of trade with Krabi, Takua Pa, Ranong, Georgetown in Penang, and even Singapore. He strikes me as a patriot and a role model for Chinese-Thai leaders who have followed in his footsteps.
Phuket heroines, Lady Chan and Lady Mook who led a resistance against the Burmese invasion in the late 18th century. They are the island's greatest folk heroes and revered to this day. People still flock to their monument in the centre of the island to leave garlands and pay respect.
Luang Pho Chaem, the abbot at Wat Chalong played a big role in stopping the Ang Yee rebellion in 1876. Chinese coolies were working in terrible conditions and under the spell of their own triads. The situation exploded with massive looting and killing. The abbot helped reconcile all sides. For his efforts he was given the title of Phra Kru Wisit Wongsacharn by King Chulalongkorn (King Rama V).
In the modern age, two people have impressed me.
Khun Wiwan Bumrungwong owner of the restaurant, Kopitiam by Wilai, in Phuket town. She is bringing back food from old recipes passed on by her grand mother. These are dishes unique in taste and flavour reflecting the interaction of Chinese and Thai influences that give Phuket its own character. Her restaurant is located on Thalang Road in Phuket town.
Khun Nong, the owner of I 46 a small coffee shop located in a long and beautiful row of Chinese shop houses on Krabi Road in the old quarter of Phuket town. His aim is to show people how a local family lives and to have a chance to see the unique style of these houses from the inside while enjoying some tea – ceylon or coffee - kopi.
Five great nature experiences in or around Phuket
The Gibbon Rehabilitation Centre at the Khao Phra Taeo forest reserve rehabilitates gibbons that have been used as photo props for tourists. Here they are gradually re-educated in nature's way and released back into the forest. This is one of the most successful projects in the world with many rehabilitations over the last 20 years.
Hiking in the Khao Phra Taeo forest park in the island's last surviving rain forest can be a magical experience. The forest here is home to hornbills, macaques, assorted snakes and the rare white palm, thought to be unique to the Phuket area.
Hire a long tail boat and take a trip to the island of Koh Yao Noi from the small local pier at Bang Rong on the northeast of Phuket. The whole magical vista of Phang Nga Bay opens up, with its towering limestone outcrops rising straight from the sea.
Walk on the enchanting long and empty beach at Thai Muang just one hour north of Phuket in Phangnga province. People always ask for long deserted beaches. This one fits the bill perfectly. It is a protected area. Sea turtles come here to lay their eggs from December to February.
Take a guided tour from Phuket to Khao Sok to experience the oldest rain forest in Thailand. The highlight of the trip is Cheow Lan Lake with its towering peaks, peaceful green waters and quaint raft houses. All of this at just a few hours' drive north of Phuket.
Five inspirational books about Southern Thailand
Without a doubt the most compelling book of South Thailand is A History of Phuket and the Surrounding Region by Colin Mackay. Published in 2013, it is beautifully produced with a treasure trove of wonderful black and white pictures.
And who could fail to be seduced by the wonderful images in Andaman Style – Art & Design in Peninsular Siam, by Ping Amranand. The author's point of view is mostly architectural – historical and modern – showing how the rich legacy of design from the ancient Srivijaya kingdom to the present day unites the whole south.
Two books by naturalist Thom Henley should be mentioned: Waterfalls and Gibbon Calls (about the wonderfully diverse flora and fauna of Khao Sok National Park) and Courage of the Sea: Last Stand of the Moken (co-authored with Geo and Jok Klathalay) about the wisdom and vanishing lifestyle of the Moken sea nomads, some of whom still visit Thai Muang beach.
Matahari: Impressions of the Siamese-Malayan Jungle by H.O. Morganthaler was published in 1923. It is a fascinating diary by a Swiss-German ore prospector roaming the jungles of the peninsula helped by his trusted guide Tuan. It was a different world then.
Five great experiences in Phuket town
Visit the fresh market in Rassada Road at 7am in the morning when it is bustling with action. The sights, people and smells are sure to surprise even the most well-seasoned traveller.
Browse through the amulet market in the small soi just opposite the Shrine of Serene Light (Thai Saeng Jao Tham) in Phangnga Road in Phuket town. At the market, amulets can be "rented" either for luck or protection. Located above a small klong, the market is one of the hidden gems in town.
The Shrine of the Serene Light is itself a pleasure. It is one of the oldest shrines in the city and is the place to ask the Chinese gods what will happen to you in the future.
In Thalang Road in Phuket town, buy some medicine at the Nguan Choon Tong Herb Shop (look for the sign, "Oldest Herbs Shop"), the oldest herbal pharmacy in town. They have been creating potions and remedies for over 70 years. Just tell them what you need and they will prepare a custom-made medicine or tea based entirely on natural products. The shop is living history.
Enjoy a cup of kopi - or black coffee, at the family-run tea and coffee house I 46 (yes, a strange name) in Krabi Road. This is the best chance to see a Chinese shop row house from the inside, and to have a chat with the ever-accommodating proprietor, Khun Nong. He will gladly tell you about the adventures of his great grandfather who came to Phuket in the mid 19th century and made his way as a tin banker. The family still lives in the same house after all these years.
Five great places to eat that most visitors miss
The Arun Roti shop at the beautiful Thalang Road in the centre of Phuket town is one of the best places on the island to try some chicken roti. Those with a sweet tooth should try roti with banana and sugar.
Boorat Dim Sum on Chao Fa Road opposite Dao Rung School is the oldest place for this Southern Thai Chinese-influenced delicacy. It is situated behind the Rassada Market. Come early as they open at 5 am. By 9 am the shop is mostly sold out.
Ang Sea Food. When you walk into the local evening seafood restaurant you are welcomed by the sounds and smells of food sizzling in the wok. The prices and atmosphere are agreeable and nearly all the patrons are Thai. The tom yam seafood is very popular. It's open from 5pm on Phuket Road near the Bang Niew Chinese temple.
Bang Pae Seafood. Imagine sitting in front of a mangrove forest in Phuket with a view of the ocean and a backdrop of casuarina trees. That is the setting of Bang Pae Seafood on the northeast of the island off the road that leads to Bang Rong pier. The local seafood salads are unique to this area.
The Raya restaurant in New Deebuk Road is a classic in the old town of Phuket. As you step in to the restaurant you feel transported to a bygone era. The decor has not changed in the last 60 or so years and the recipes are a living example of the best traditional Southern Thai food. Not to be missed is the moo hong (tender pork in pepper sauce) and the amazing crab curry.
Loving southern Thailand is an engagement, a state of mind. The longer I live here, the more joy I get in making local discoveries that quietly celebrate the heritage of Phuket and the south.