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SHOPPING & SEA AT PATONG.

It may sound like Pat Pong, Bangkok's go- go district, but it is the cooler side of Phuket

ON Alazy Sunday my wife and I decided to take the family to Phuket. For me, to decide is to get someone to act. I asked my daughter, who was at h er computer -- her usual hangout when awake -- to research accommodation on the Internet. Soon she showed me gorgeous resorts on beaches against majestic hills, with inviting swimming pools and cosy rooms. To help us select one, my wife and I called on our travel agent.

" For a quiet beach holiday," she said, " choose a resort in Karon: they all have private beaches." I imagined lying in a hammock between coconut palms, cool wind on my face, a cooler drink in my hand, waves crashing a few feet away.

" But if you want action," she continued, " Patong town has great shopping, night life and the beach is just across the road." Before I could say " no," my wife said, " Patong!" " But I want to be at the beach," I protested.

" Don't worry," my wife told the travel agent, " he knows how to cross the road."

LURE OF THE BEACH

So I booked a three- day package at Novotel in Patong ( about Rs. 3,400 per person per night).

We landed in Phuket on a warm Friday afternoon. Ambling to the immigration hall I found four queues, each 50 people long. But we first needed visas and I reached that counter last, the other Indians being more fleetfooted.

But like the tortoise in the famous fable, I won. After processing our visas and seeing no one behind us, the immigration officer led us to an unoccupied counter and stamped our passports. Avoiding the baleful looks of 500 fellow tourists, we slunk away quickly.

A 50km took us through floating paddy fields, thick forests and quaint towns before we climbed over a hill into Patong.

The van groaned up a steep incline and deposited us at the Novotel lobby -- an airy, open structure. Walking past three swimming pools at different levels, we reached our side- by- side rooms. From spacious balconies, we could see the ocean stretch to the horizon, and behind us, the resort's small structures dotting the hill.

After a nap, we walked down to the beach ( my wife was right -- I crossed the road easily) and stood barefoot in the sand.

Waves washed over our ankles to climb the beach and tugged at us on the way back; an orange sun plunged towards the ocean, the sea breeze C* . Enough! We had important work to do. At a nearby travel agent, we rented a car for a day and booked ourselves on an island cruise for Sunday.

MAIN STREET ACTION

Patong's topography is uncomplicated.

A kilometre east of the beach, a right turn takes you into the main street, which shortly turns right again to hit the beach and you are soon back where you started. Small shops selling antiques and fake T- shirts, Singapore- style malls, colourful pubs, massage parlours and different restaurants line the rectangular path on both sides, except where the uncooperative ocean makes it impossible.

After one reconnaissance, I drove around again urging everyone to select a restaurant. As my wife and daughter identified several delightful shopping destinations, they missed all the restaurants; my son had nodded off. We selected a restaurant on the next circuit but I couldn't get parking.

Finally, after four dizzy perambulations, we ate.

It was raining when we woke up the next day. So we simply lounged about in the room playing cards, a pleasure strangely reserved for holidays away from home. When the rain stopped, we drove through the squishy island to visit Wat Chalong, a beautiful Buddhist temple in a sprawling campus and climbed the nearby Nakkerd Hill to admire the Big Buddha, a mammoth statue visible for miles. Completing the religious tour, we stopped at a small Nepali temple with numerous Hindu deities in varied poses, ideal for praying to the idol of one's choice.

By evening, as a drizzle set in again, I asked the concierge about the next day's forecast. " Perhaps sunny," he said. As my face brightened, he added, " Or heavy rain." He was wrong: the next day dawned cloudy but without rain.

We had an early breakfast ( excellent and, more important, free) and were at the lobby at 8 a. m. when the travel agent called me. " Very sorry, Mr Langappa.

The tour company has cancelled the tour. Sea velly choppy." All dressed and no sea to see! I begged her to find a less conservative tour operator. She called me back shortly: " A car will pick you up in 5 minutes. The boat will leave the Phuket dock at 9."

COMMUNICATION GAP

Ten kilometres on the road and the driver stopped to make a call from his cell, raising his voice and gesticulating with his hands. I couldn't stop him, so called the travel agent.

When she answered, he stopped talking. " Mr Langappa, I'm speaking to your driver!" she said. " He has lost his way." In a bizarre conversation, I communicated through her with the man sitting a foot from me. Finally he put us in another taxi, which took us to the port with just enough time to rent flippers ( which we never used) and board the boat.

As we rode the rough waters for the next two hours, we were tossed up and down and, for variety, left and right. Water splashed on us with a frequency sufficient to aggravate but not to predict: each wave was a fresh shock. One lady was sea- sick. As the tour guide calmly gave her a barf bag, I noticed with alarm that he had hundreds in stock. I now appreciated the sagacity of the original tour operator.

Suddenly we were in calm waters surrounded by cliffs that rose into the sky. Diving into the cool water with snorkelling equipment ( provided by the tour operator), I gazed with wonder at the kaleidoscopic coral. Hundreds of fish swam under my nose; some hit my visor and turning away, annoyed.

The boat then took us around the cliff where hundreds of monkeys -- on the beach, in the shallow water and in the trees hanging low -- greeted us with whoops of joy. We stood in the water and threw bananas at them. I couldn't help wondering which species was playing with which.

We then made a short trip without turbulence to Phi Phi Island, where we were given lunch and let loose on the beach- front shops for an hour. The next journey made the morning's choppy experience seem like a snooze on the couch. The boat seemed to alternatively stand on its hind legs and plunge underwater.

Since we had just had lunch, many barf bags were deployed.

After an hour, we reached the hockey field- sized Khai Island, tottered up the beach, sank gratefully into beach chairs ( Rs.

50 each to rent) and waited for the island to stop wobbling.

Later at the resort, we relaxed by the pool and had an excellent dinner in the restaurant.

On the flight to Singapore, I reflected happily on the holiday. I resolved to return, perhaps in November when the sea was tranquil. I tried to imagine convincing my wife to stay on the beach, away from the shopping, but my imagination couldn't stretch that far.

-- The writer is a senior executive in Singapore who doubles as writer

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Publication:Mail Today (New Delhi, India)
Geographic Code:9THAI
Date:Aug 30, 2009
Words:1266
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