It’s a bit of a marketing cliché, if a charming one, to call Phuket “The Pearl of the Andaman”. But the moniker shows how everyone associates this lush and lovely island with its warm southern seas and soft, sandy beaches. These are what made it a tourist Mecca after all.
But there’s more to Phuket than sand, scuba and spas. The island covers 575 square-kilometres (70% of which is jungle-clad and mountainous), and the eastern coast boasts more mangroves than beach mats. There are rewarding days to be spent hiking in the hills, swimming in waterfalls and discovering a very different, but equally delightful Phuket. So let’s leave the beaches and head for the hills.
Khao Phra Thaeo Wildlife Park in the northern Thalang area is a good place to start – the park covers 57 square kilometres – the largest evergreen rainforest in Phuket. There are various treks but the most popular is the 8 km trail from Bang Pae to Ton Sai. Along the way, look for birds such as the Asian Fairy-bluebird or Red-Billed Malkoha. If you’re lucky, you may glimpse larger animals. There are wild boar, barking dear, and monkeys in the forest as well as a small, if shy, population of Malay Sun Bears.
The animals hide among dense foliage and flee at unexpected noises, so keep your eyes peeled. Hiring an experienced guide at the Ton Sai waterfall gives you a better chance of seeing something special. Even without boars and bears, the flora is spectacular, with ancient towering trees and groves of bamboo and ferns. You may encounter the rare White Backed Palm (kerriodoxa elegans), which is native to the island and first discovered here in 1929.
Be warned though, Khao Phra Thaeo is a humid rainforest and trekking can be tough. So take insect-repellent and water and make sure you’re wearing sturdy footwear.
For more of Phuket’s wildlife, visit the “Gibbon Rehabilitation Project” at Bang Pae. This NGO rehabilitates white-handed gibbons, aiming to return them to the jungle where they can survive on their own. Most animals here were captured when young and became pets or tourist attractions only to be abandoned by unscrupulous owners when they reached maturity and were less docile. Many visitors sponsor a gibbon which helps pay for the long and expensive rehabilitation process.
After seeing the gibbons, relax at the Bang Pae waterfall which is the largest in Phuket and offers wonderful bathing in cool waters. It’s a gorgeous picnic spot so keep it so by taking any rubbish back home.
Just as important as rainforest is to Phuket’s eco-systems are the mangroves on the east coast. These sustain not only rare animals and plants but also families who’ve made a living here fishing and farming for centuries. Even today, in the Muslim village of Bang Rong over 80 per cent of the residents rely on the mangroves in some way. This is increasing as visitors seek more traditional, and sustainable tourism experiences.
With its chatty locals and informative museum, Bang Rong is the perfect place to learn about life in the mangroves. There’s a charming floating restaurant called Chum Chon where you can enjoy local food and cooling breezes. But to explore, follow the wooden walkway that takes you deep into the mangroves, or rent a kayak and paddle around. This quiet mode of transport means you see more of the wildlife. The most famous residents are the noisy Crab-Eating Macaques. They often jump in the water for a cooling dip. Don’t stray too near for they can be fierce and territorial.
It’s so tranquil in the mangroves that many people stay overnight. The best-known home stay is Maneerat Goat Farm where you can milk a goat and learn about the life-style of the area’s Muslim families.
Once you’ve got the exploring bug, there’s much more to see on Phuket as well as other off-shore islands. The mangroves and mountains are a far cry from Phuket’s lovely beaches, but few people regret seeing more of the province. It’s a tropical wonderland and a treasure island of adventure. So if you’ve a few spare days, head for the hills and make some memories.