Post-Tsunami Phuket

The Thai isle makes a name for itself

By: Norman Sklarewitz

Cruises across Southeast Asia feature a variety of fascinating ports, but Hong Kong and Singapore have long been the “stars.” Until a year ago, the little Thailand island of Phuket was one of those lesser-known destinations then came the devastating tsunami.

Suddenly, Phuket was everywhere in the news, depicted as one of the areas worst hit by the tidal wave. Scenes of damaged beachfront resorts and businesses were shown over and over again. While some waterfront communities were indeed destroyed, overall the island of Phuket suffered the least amount of damage and casualties in Thailand.

What happened after the tsunami, according to Thai tourism officials, was ironic. Few of the major resorts on Phuket Island were seriously damaged. Power was quickly restored, and the Phuket International Airport reopened in little more than an hour. As a result, the international media set up camp in Phuket and transmitted reports and images via satellite.

While the media relayed the terrible destruction suffered in Indonesia, Sir Lanka or along outlying Thai islands, the reports came from Phuket. Not surprisingly, audiences got the erroneous impression that Phuket, too, suffered terrible loses.

In the months since the natural disaster, Phuket has rebuilt, and today cruise passengers will not see even a hint of damage left by the tsunami. Instead, they will discover Phuket to be a charming destination. On its west Andaman Sea coast is a series of white sand beaches, fronted by a nonstop row of resorts, some among the most luxurious in Southeast Asia. The interior is mostly hilly, hence the name given to the island by the early Malayans, Bukit, which means mountain.

Facilities at the port of Phuket are a far cry from those in places like Hong Kong or Singapore. Without a cruise terminal, passengers disembark directly onto the pier and to their shore excursion by bus or taxi.

The island boasts an excellent road network that provides easy and comfortable access to numerous venues. Travel times are short because the island, at most, is 13 miles wide and 30 miles long with an area of 210 square miles. As they zip along, visitors will pass rubber plantations where, in the pre-dawn hours, tappers move from tree to tree draining little cups of sticky sap that will become rubber.

Without question, ships from Star Cruises Asia are the most active in terms of Phuket calls. The SuperStar Virgo visits Phuket every Tuesday on its five-night Straits of Malacca itinerary almost year-round. The SuperStar Gemini begins its Phuket calls with overnight stays each Wednesday starting this month and continuing until April of next year.

Silversea’s Silver Shadow will call at Phuket on Dec. 4 on its 14-day Indian Ocean Explorer itinerary, Dubai to Singapore. Then in late 2006, Silversea will return with three Phuket visits during a Mumbai-Singapore sailing and two Singapore to Singapore itineraries.

Radisson’s Seven Seas Voyager will call at Phuket in March during the Singapore-Dubai segment of its World Cruise. As a parting treat for passengers, Radisson arranges for masseuses to be on hand 2-4 p.m. to provide a complimentary 15-minute Thai massage before returning to the ship.

Despite its reputation as a beach destination known for scuba diving and other watersports, the island offers cruise passengers a variety of sights and experiences. Shore excursions take visitors to the Way Chalong, a colorful compound of Buddhist temples and monastery buildings.

Other popular shore options include a visit to Kata Thani Beach Resort for a folkloric show of traditional Thai music, dancing and martial arts; or a stop in Phuket Town itself, where examples of early Sino-Portuguese architecture remain.

Cruise passengers can also enjoy a visit to a working rubber plantation, a cashew nut factory, a pearl factory and showroom and even elephant rides.

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