Phuket's tsunami-stricken coastline is bouncing back

Monsoon season offers fairly reasonable holidays to Israeli tourists.

anat loewenstein 224 (photo credit: Judy Siegel-Itzkovich)
anat loewenstein 224
(photo credit: Judy Siegel-Itzkovich)
Rising oil costs, a shortage of rice and higher food prices have resulted in fewer tourists traveling to Thailand as the once-so-attractive destination loses its much-touted "value-for-money" selling point. From the beginning of the year, the number of Israeli tourists traveling to Thailand has dropped by about 20 percent as a result of higher costs - flights, hotels, food and entertainment. According to Thailand's Tourism Authority, 120,661 Israelis visited the country in 2007. This is, however, significantly more than the number in 2003, when only 62,463 Israelis traveled to Thailand. But the country, devastated by a tsunami on December 26, 2004, is doing all it can to bounce back, and tourism is slowly returning to its pre-tsunami levels, especially in the off-season. While fewer tourists may be flying to Thailand in the high season (November to April), visitors to the country during the low season (May to October) can still find fantastic high-end treats, as hotel prices are halved. Many travelers might be deterred by the rare monsoon rains, but a trip to Thailand last month in low-season confirmed that the wet season can be a great time to visit (especially if you want to avoid crowds of tourists) - if you don't mind the very occasional rainfall amid many warm days with sunny skies. For an hour and sometimes more, the monsoon rain comes down in torrents. Then it tapers to a drizzle, and the winds ease to a fresh breeze. Finally it stops, and the sun finds its way through a hole in the clouds, revealing the beauty of tropical green vegetation around the island of Phuket, located in the south of Thailand. Traveling in and around the area of Phuket, there are two basic types of holidays you can choose: the laid-back variety or the fun-seeking kind. You can laze on the beach, eat fish and chips, watch bar-girls perform anatomically-defying tricks and down cocktails at a few bhats a throw. Alternatively, you can indulge in exquisite Thai food in exotic restaurants, have suits made by skillful tailors at bargain prices, and go on day-trips that lead you to a magical wonderland of serenity, peace and beauty. The tourist industry in Thailand is catering more and more to the latter experience for the well-off tourist, with five-star service fused with a sense of comfort and privacy. Along the tsunami-stricken coastlines in the Phuket area, paradise resorts have been rebuilt, and the tourist industry is making a valiant comeback. In Thailand, people really do smile all the time as advertised, and the welcome the locals give you in Phuket is as warm and generous as ever, helping to rebuild confidence in the safety and beauty of the area. Khao Lak is a resort beach located 80 kilometers north of Phuket International Airport in the Phang Nga Province, and was one of the areas of Thailand hardest hit by the tsunami. It partly destroyed a number of hotels in the area and took many lives, including those of foreign tourists. The final death toll was over 4,000, with unofficial estimates topping 10,000, due to the lack of accurate data. A visual reminder of the atrocity of the natural disaster is a police boat, which was patrolling the waters at the time of the tsunami and still sits marooned about three kilometers into the jungle as a monument to the sea's power. The resilient people of Khao Lak and surrounding areas have made every effort to put the horror of the tsunami behind them. Looking at the pristine coastline of Khao Lak today, more than three years later, it is hard to imagine the devastation and chaos, the unimaginable horror and terror that the 2004 tsunami left in its wake. Still, the aftermath of the tsunami is still quite palpable in the area, and tsunami rescue signs pop up every few hundreds of meters on the sides of the roads, directing you to the nearest evacuation points in case a tsunami hits again. Another sign of the times is the lack of masses of tourists visiting Thailand and these once popular areas. Visitors from abroad have only recently started to come back to these popular coastal sites dotted by nearby rubber and palm plantations. Speaking at the annual Thailand Travel Mart 2008 fair at the beginning of June in Bangkok, Phornsiri Manoharn, the head of Thailand's Tourism Authority, said that only next year is the number of tourists expected to return to the level reached before the tsunami. "We are projecting 15.7 million international visitor arrivals in 2008, or a six percent rise from the figure in 2007," Manoharn told a press conference. Khao Lak features many trails winding through the ancient rainforest, where hidden waterfalls and swimming holes wait to be discovered. Elephant trekking is one wonderful way to see the area. Another great way of exploring the nature reserves is through the guided tours of the Khao Sak National Forest, revealing a unique array of Thai wildlife - including rare birds, reptiles and mammals as well as exotic plants. Getting to Khao Lak from Phuket, one should not miss Phang Nga Bay for sea-kayaking adventures in and out of the caves that are under the huge limestone cliffs that rise sheer out of the bay. Some caves are deep in the center of limestone karsts (huge mounds formed an estimated 260 million years ago), and can only be entered at low tide. As flashlights shine on sparkling walls, you paddle silently towards the inner lagoon inhabited by hornbills, sea eagles, fruit bats, and monkeys. One of the highlights is a starlight trip with John Gray's SeaCanoe, which commences at midday, and ends in a truly spiritual experience. Gray, an American who founded SeaCanoe in 1989, is an environmentalist who prides himself in discovering lost worlds among the towering karst islands of Phang Nga Bay reachable only through caves and tunnels at low tide. After an hour's boat ride to the weirdly shaped, karst islands, you paddle around the islands in inflatable canoes and squeeze through tunnels into a forgotten world of jade lagoons in the middle of the uninhabited islands. The island that is the most famous has been dubbed "James Bond Island" because it was featured in the 1974 movie, The Man with the Golden Gun, boosting tourism in a relatively unknown part of the country. Waiting for the sunset back on the boat, you learn how to prepare your own Loy Krathong, which are floats made from a section of a banana-tree trunk decorated with elaborately-folded banana leaves, orchid flowers, candles and incense sticks marking a Thai water festival celebration that takes place once a year in November across Thailand. After dark, following a Thai seafood sunset dinner, a "mystical experience" rounds up the trip - you make a wish and release your own candle-lit krathong from a canoe while you paddle through a sea of fireflies in a cave. The act of floating a krathong is symbolic for releasing all anger and defilements, to start life anew on a better foot, and Thais believe it creates good luck. For the less adventurous and those who just want to recline on comfortable cushions on the deck of a traditional junk-rigged schooner to enjoy the spectacular limestone scenery and beautiful islands that rise up from the Andaman Sea, you can take a similar trip on the June Bahtra. The wooden boat boasting striking red sails recalls a bygone age of pirates and smugglers. Gracefully gliding across the water for a couple of hours, the vessel makes a stop in the open sea for a secluded swim between limestone rocks. Keen swimmers can reach a deserted white beach from the docking point just like Leonardo DiCaprio in the movie, The Beach, which was filmed on the Phi Phi Islands near Phuket. The end of this sea journey might take you back to Phuket from where you started or to the newly opened Six Senses Hideaway Resort on the island of Koh Yao Noi, situated midway between Phuket and Krabi, among the awe-inspiring pinnacles of Phang Nga. Arriving at the picturesque island, which can also be reached by a 15-minutes helicopter service from Phuket International Airport or by boat from Phuket mainland, you are greeted by your own personal butler, who takes you to your 150 sq. m. private pool villa. Upon entering the villa's bamboo gates offering breathtaking views of the Phang Nga Bay in the midst of natural vegetation and tropical landscaping, you cannot but be seduced by the contented idleness of the resort. This is certainly a place for a soul-calming experience - the perfect end of a once-in-a-lifetime holiday in Thailand. The Six Senses Hideaway Resort is very expensive. Prices start at $3,200 a night in high season. But coming to the resort as this guest did in low or rainy season - we had very short episodes of rain - might make it an affordable experience for wealthy Israelis, as prices drop to $1,400 a night. Elsewhere, however, prices are much more reasonable. There is no doubt that Thailand has lost its value-for-money travel appeal for some, but those who are not scared of the wet season can still enjoy relatively cheap vacations at a time when travel around the world is becoming a luxury. The writer was a guest of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) and Royal Jordanian Airlines, which operates 14 weekly flights from Ben-Gurion Airport to Bangkok via Amman.