Part Three - Karon Beach & Centara Villas
So, with 3 nights between The Junk and The Greta 2 day trip to Phi Phi, I went looking for a resort on/near a beach in west central Phuket, where the Greta dive op would pick us up to take us to the marina near Kata. If I knew then what I know now, I would have run back to Nai Yang Beach – it was the least crowded beach we saw in Phuket, even if it would have meant having to pay a driver to get us to Kata to get to the Greta.
There are resorts for all budgets and all tastes in touristy Phuket – everything from luxe five star spreads to bare basics backpacker guesthouses. We were looking for something quiet and not ridiculously posh, on or near water, and close enough to a town so we could walk in for Thai massage, a bit of shopping and dinners. After looking at Kata and Karon beaches as the most convenient in terms of location, we settled on a resort that advertised itself as out-of-the way oceanview bungalows, in a lush jungle setting.
Karon Centara Villas (it’s confusing, because there is another Centara Resort in Karon, set back from the beach) is perched on a steep hill at the north end of Karon Beach. Access from the main road is well-marked – just before the crest.
Although Karon Beach itself left something to be desired, the resort was lovely. We booked two bungalows – one for ourselves and one for the kids. The bungalows are connected by a labyrinthine narrow road frequented by people/luggage moving carts, as well as winding paths that create a short cut up to the main lobby area. Each bungalow has its own private deck with lounge chairs and a brolly. The bungalows are nicely decorated in a modern Thai style, and have funky (in a good way) large bathrooms with walk in shower, sunroofs and a live freshwater fish in a glass aquarium.
The views were arguable – no doubt some units can see the ocean, but many (like ours) had so much jungle growing up around them that it occluded the view. For honeymooners – the more luxe villas with private plunge pools looked very romantic.
It was a bit of a hoof up to the lobby area where the main restaurant is located (a good way to earn the fantastic breakfast buffet and take in the lovely view), and down to the pools. The pools are quite small and set charmingly into the jungle – the upper pool (just up from the lower pool) was closed while we there in preparation for the upcoming "festive" New Years Gala dinner, but the main pool always had chaises available when we cruised by. Below the main pool there is a spa facility – we did not partake, so I can’t comment except to say that the advertised prices looked pretty spendy (although quite a bit less expensive than spas in North America). You can get a very nice one hour massage in town for 300 Baht (about $10 – the going rate everywhere we went), but I am sure the spa in the resort would be a wonderful, serene experience, whereas at some of the tacky come-on Thai massage storefronts in town? Not so much.
From the pool there is a walkway (about 5 minutes) along a ridge and then down a hill that spills out onto the very northern end of Karon Beach. At that end, there are also a couple of Thai beach restaurants. We ate at Kai several times (lunch) and really enjoyed the great food, friendly service, laid back atmosphere, and modest bill. A generous lunch for five, including bottled water, beer and fruit shakes (fruit pulverized with ice) was less than $30.
Karon Beach is a long white sand crescent – I would guesstimate something close to a couple of miles. It is a good walk early in the morning, before the throngs in thongs descended upon it. Beach chaises, which are rented out for the day for something like $3, sprawl as far as the eye can see. All those tourists attract many vendors – food & beverage, tours to other beaches of Phuket (via longtail boats), parasailing, yada yada, so once midday sets in, the place is chock-a-block full of sun-seeking humanity.
Karon town is not particularly charming, and added injury is that, despite innumerable hotels & guesthouses, eateries, convenience stores, massage places, and schlocky tourist markets, there is not one bookstore in the place. The nearest is in Kata town, about a 10 minute cab ride away. We did find some good restaurants and, after much perusing, a really good massage place. Many area resorts and hotels have restaurants on-site, but unless you want to spend the big bucks, going to the local eateries is the ticket. The best restaurants we found were Kai, on the north end of the beach, and a few on the main drag (along the beach, more towards the southern end of town). There, I can recommend a row of five or six restaurants, all attached, featuring mortified fresh fish on ice at each entry. Just point to which of your friends you fancy, and it will be delivered to your table in some yummy Thai offering. Again, dinner very budget-friendly – never more than $40 or so for a family of five, all in. Our favoured massage place is on the same street – just a few blocks north of the eateries, with a pink and white storefront. I also have to mention Andaman Coffee, a storefront on the main road along the water, close to the north end of town. They serve up excellent espresso drinks.
Two Day Dive Trip to Phi Phi on the Greta
One of the nice thing about the dive ops we used (and many seem to offer the same service) is that they have a driver pick you up at your hotel in Phuket (in the west coast tourist areas) and take you to the boat, and then, on your return, deliver you to your hotel again.
Duly fetched by the crew of the Greta, we and our gear were driven in the back of an open truck to Kata harbour to board the Greta. The place was insane – it is the main launching point of many Phuket day boats, and the swarms of divers, crews and other travelers create a whirl of activity. Shuttle buses scoot passengers down the long wharf to the boats. Bags, which are transported separately in the backs of pickups, amazingly seem to end up on the right boat (except for the dive bag of our freelance DM, Yu, who had to borrow gear for the trip when her bag got chucked onto the wrong boat). It would be a good thing to make sure your bag(s) made it before your boat departs.
The Greta is a solid vessel, comfortable for long day trips. It has a large closed cabin in the bow on the main deck where meals are served (meals are included). The food was good, and ample. The food is prepared before boarding, and then reheated to serve.
There are some cubbies for divers to put their dry stuff, and several power outlets for recharging batteries between dives.
The (covered) dive deck was a bit squishy, even though we had a very light load (no doubt due to the fact we were diving over New Year’s). Two narrow aisles with tanks in the center island is the set up – there is a bar on which to hang wetsuits. Some of the crowding was no doubt caused by ours and others’ luggage that we had to schlep with us as we were not returning to Centara Villas after the trip – we were instead going to spend one night in Phuket town before being driven back up to Phuket Airport for flight to Bangkok the next morning. It would have been better if there was a luggage storage facility off the boat somewhere or other, so we could have just brought the dive gear in mesh bags and a small overnight kit onto the boat. I am sure many folks find themselves in the same predicament.
On the top deck (forward) there is a large covered area with seating and an open aft area is carpeted with judo mats on which to flake out and warm in the sun after a dive. And bring your own towel - there are none supplied on board.
Nitrox is available on the Greta, at extra cost.
Rental equipment is pretty sketchy – we were renting regs for two of our kids, and BC’s for three. All of the regs were nasty – moldy mouthpieces, and one of them leaked like a sieve at the coupling between hose and reg. We did our best to clean them up with some Dettol, and swapped out one of our pony regs for the leaky rental second stage, and made the best of it. After this experience, we are committed to making sure all of the kids have their own regs for future trips.
The dive staff and crew were helpful and safety conscious and delivered good briefings. Our assigned Divemaster Yu, a firecracker of a girl, showed us some great diving. When I requested a ghost pipefish she laughed and said – “they’re everywhere!” and proceeded to find several over the next two days for us to gander.
Hoo boy! Are you kidding me? This underwater pinnacle out in the middle of nowhere on the 40 km or so run to the Phi Phi islands is one badass anemone garden – hundreds if not thousands of the things, all competing for a piece of prime real estate. With all those anemones come all those adorable flitting anemone fish – many varieties were noted here. As well, a huge population of lionfish, lots of swirling schools of sweepers and baitfish, some crazy sea stars – it was all good, although viz was very sploogey at depth (interestingly was much improved above 30 feet). There was a fair amount of current on this site, including significant surge in the shallows. As one could predict during peak season, there were many divers on the site at the same time, all delivered and picked up by live boats, which made for some interesting moments ;^) I seriously would not have been all that surprised to see a whaleshark blow through on our dive – there was that much stuff in the water for them.
I could dive these islands forever. Truly, incredibly beautiful – sheer cliffs above water continue deep under the surface on some sites. Gorgeous sea fans, soft corals, nudis, gazillions of fish and several leopard sharks had us all smiling for the duration.
Since it was New Year’s Eve, we agreed to scratch planned dive #4 (night dive) so that the crew and other divers could get the party started sooner, and instead negotiated 2 long dives. The visibility here was much better than that of Anemone Reef.
As we came up out of our last dive of the day (and the year), a red giant sun hesitated for a moment on the horizon before dropping into the crimson sea.
The Greta does not have overnight accommodations on board. Instead, we were taken ashore at Phi Phi Island on a longtail boat (a high speed version of the large traditional Thai canoe-styled craft) and were put up at the Bayview Resort on Ton Sai Bay. We brought an overnight kit with us and left the rest of our stuff on the boat (incuding my camera, as it was lightly raining and I did not want to douse it, so sadly I have no pix other than of the word variety to describe our magical night on the island to you). The longtail ride was a bit of an adventure. Having no running lights (there was no discernible light on the thing at all), on a pitch black rainy night, we were almost bisected by another longtail careening at us from 9 o’clock. That could have hurt…
Our accommodations on Phi Phi were standalone bungalows up on a hillside, which were comfortable, although modest. The breakfast buffet at the resort was uninspired, but adequate.
When we arrived at the hotel, true to form, it was in the throes of its gala New Year’s Eve party, replete with slumping, peaked-too-soon revelers, bad music and cheap bubbly. We gave that scene a quick dodge, and wandered down the beach to find a better adventure, which we found at a casual reggae/Thai beach bar. Fortunately the aforementioned rain shower was fleeting, and the sky had cleared to unveil a star spangled night. Mats and those big triangle cushions that are all the rage in Asia were strewn about in the sand, so we found ourselves a spot and settled in for the evening. Over beers and spicy noodles we watched as agile and poetic young Thai men strutted their hot stuff to their favourite tunes. Twirling sticks with ends alight and fiery gas-dipped balls on leashes and the boys who handled them all spun so quickly that they were but a sparking blur. The musicality and the athleticism of these kids was mind-blowing.
Phi Phi was hit very hard by the tsunamis in 2004 (as were Karon Beach, Kata Beach, Patong Beach and other low-lying areas on the west coast of Thailand). Although the final number of Phi Phi fatalities remains unknown, there is no doubt that they number in the thousands. The dead include many of the local Thai villagers and relocated Thai workers on the island, and many tourists. When you see the main inhabited island (Phi Phi Don), it is easy to understand why so many perished. The island is very mountainous, and so almost all of the population (resorts, villages, merchants) were/are again located on the sandy isthmus that joins two massive limestone formations. When the tsunamis came, they came from both sides of the island, funneled into the bays to form huge waves that washed entirely over the isthmus with great force, sweeping away people and buildings and trees. If you watch this video, it will help you to understand the enormity of the disaster there.
It is amazing that just three years later, Phi Phi has been patched up, and the people have returned. Unfortunately, despite proclamations that Phi Phi would be rebuilt with some planning and forethought, it looks like there is not much control on re-development, and that is a shame.
I’m not the world’s most spiritual person (I’ve only had a couple of close encounters ;^) but there was something in the air that night on Phi Phi.
It is a Thai tradition that paper lanterns (like small cylindrical hot air balloons) are sent up into the sky on special occasions. You can buy them for a few bucks from vendors. As we reclined on the beach we watched as many small groups of people gathered together at the water’s edge, lit the wax ring, waited for the air inside the lantern to warm enough to create lift, and then relinquished it to the heavens. The lanterns took flight, pushed up and away by gentle off-shore breezes, forming ever-shifting constellations in the night sky. It was breathtaking. I had the feeling that there were people there, people who had returned to a place where they lost someone, to let someone go. It might have been my over-active imagination, but I could sense such release in those lanterns.
We launched one too, standing with our kids on the beach – we let the thing go a titch too soon, and it struggled for a bit as it swept out, floating just above the water for a while, before finally lifting itself to great heights.
Dive 4 - Phi Phi Li Island
January 1, bright and early, after the so-so resort buffet breakfast, we were once again whisked aboard a longtail out to where the Greta was anchored in the bay. We dove another bit of the Phi Phi islands, a pretty site – flat bottomed with big bommie boulders and several leopard sharks lounging on the sand. I poked along with camera, following the family, and as I came around a corner near the end of the dive, P2 came flying back at me, giving the universal shark salute and holding up 9 fingers. They had seen a swarm of reef sharks blow through, whilst their mama was zoomed in on a nudibranch, but, alas, the sharks where long gone by the time I hoofed it over there.
This site looks a lot like Anemone Reef in features and creatures (and is located only a couple of hundred meters away). A small part of this reef peaks up out of the water, belying the large reef structure below. This site is a beautiful series of underwater pinnacles that are paved with stuff - neat stuff, especially pink and purple and orange and yellow soft corals and massive sea fans and anemones out yer yinyang. Despite the promising name, we did not see any sharks, but still, a fantastic site.
Our last dive in Thailand was on this pretty, sheer wall of a dive. The steep-sided limestone islet soars above the water and drops into the abyss below it. The wall is macro-city, tons of little nudis and shrimps and white-eyed morays tucked into crevices and and the ever-perplexing (to find and photograph) ghost pipe fish cleverly camouflaging itself in a crinoid’s feathery fronds. Fairly heavy surge at the surface kept us rocking for the duration.